Welcome back to Just Add Capes, where we examine what makes a Pokemon League champion memorable, with an analysis rooted in costume and character design. Previous entries in the series can be read here.
This third and final entry looks at the champions in the sixth, seventh, and eighth generations of mainline Pokemon titles, beginning with X and Y and ending with Sword and Shield. The header image is from GameCrate; all other images in the article are credited throughout.
As the franchise moved onto the Nintendo 3DS and Switch, expanding its stylistic toolkit in the process, the inspiration for champions continued to evolve as well, and many of the characters in this article bear witness to that progress.
Generation Six: Diantha (X and Y)
X and Y, the flagship titles of Pokemon’s sixth generation, are set in the Kalos region – an area heavily inspired by France – and explore the concepts of aesthetics and beauty. This informs almost every aspect of gameplay, characterization and design; the franchise’s first mainline three-dimensional entries, X and Y boast some of the loveliest environments of any Pokemon title, and for the first time allow the player to customize their appearance and wardrobe in a mainline title. (Certain areas are even unavailable unless one is ‘stylish’ enough.)
It seems fitting, then, that a region like Kalos would have a glamorous movie star as its champion – and not just any movie star, but the spitting image of one of the most iconic movie stars ever: Audrey Hepburn.
In addition to being the Kalos League champion, Diantha is one of the region’s most famous actresses, and shares more than just a physical resemble with Hepburn. As Brad O’Farrell of Polygon notes, Hepburn was a “café culture icon” and filmed numerous movies in Paris, including 1975’s Funny Face. Similarly, the player first meets Diantha in a café in Lumiose City, the games’ direct parallel to the French capital.
Most relevant for this column, Diantha’s outfit is heavily inspired by Hepburn’s most iconic outfit from her breakout role (and Oscar-winning turn) in the 1953 romantic comedy Roman Holiday. In the film, Hepburn plays a princess on a royal visit to Rome who quickly sneaks out and ends up exploring the city incognito with a journalist (Gregory Peck) as her companion. After ditching her entourage, Hepburn forgoes her regal attire and long hair for a pixie cut and a chic new look: a white button-down with rolled-up cuffs, a circle skirt, neck scarf, and sandals.
This is the closest we’ve gotten yet to a champion’s outfit approximating ‘real-world’ fashion, even if Hepburn’s own look is very much a costume. As we’ve seen, champions’ wardrobes in the Pokemon world are either predominantly based on fantasy tropes or removed from any particular real-life trend or style. Diantha’s romper is a remarkably modern and non-traditional choice for a champion, even if its long sleeves and flowing cape place it more in line with her predecessors’ costumes. Her jewelry and the gold stripes of her romper give the look an added formality that elevates the outfit beyond simple daywear, and the white booties are another fashionable and unexpected choice.
A more subtle reference to Hepburn’s outfit also exists in the choice of Diantha’s signature Pokemon, Gardevoir – more specifically, the mega-evolved version of Gardevoir in X and Y. Mega Gardevoir’s ‘skirt’ increases in volume and adds more pleats, further echoing Hepburn’s own skirt in Roman Holiday. (Diantha’s gold necklace, which enables Mega Evolution, is in the shape of Gardevoir, yet another inspired detail in an outfit full of them.)
Finally, there’s Diantha’s billowing white cape-coat. It’s a rather unusual choice given the sleekness and simple lines of the rest of her outfit, but it does provide contrasting silhouettes and textures, giving the overall look a high-fashion edge. Furthermore, when seen in-game, the cape and pixie cut turn her into a literal fairy – appropriate, as Generation Six introduced Fairy-type Pokemon (and gave many previous Pokemon Fairy types, including Gardevoir).
Much like Cynthia’s all-black ensemble in Generation Four, Diantha has a primarily monochromatic look designed to pull focus whenever she’s on screen in the lush three-dimensional environments of Kalos. Diantha’s white-and-gold outfit, with its angelic undertones, places her in direct contrast to the red-and-black ensemble of X and Y’s villain, the sharply-dressed Lysandre, who seeks to destroy the world and create a more beautiful one in its place. As O’Farrell observes, the abstract themes of ‘beauty’ and ‘evolution’ underlying the story and gameplay of X and Y are “presented a little more sinisterly in the game itself.”
Given that the player only meets her twice in-game before battling her at the Pokemon League, it’s crucial that Diantha stand out as a powerful and influential figure, and her character design more than accomplishes that task. X and Y boast a plethora of characters demanding attention, and even if Diantha isn’t present throughout the game, her outfit ensures she leaves a lasting impression.
Rating: Five out of five capes.
Generation Seven: Professor Kukui (Sun and Moon)
Sun and Moon technically don’t have a league champion — instead, the player battles four elite trainers to become the Alola region’s first-ever titleholder. Before claiming the title, however, one last challenge awaits: a battle against Alola’s resident Pokemon expert, Professor Kukui.
Kukui being a pseudo-champion isn’t that far of a stretch. Like Blue, Cynthia and Diantha before him, Kukui has a well-rounded team of various types, and, like Blue, he has the final evolution of a starter Pokemon that the player didn’t choose at the start of your adventure. Furthermore, Kukui, more than any other Pokemon professor, is quietly obsessed with battling, to the extent that he has a wrestler alter-ego, the Masked Royal.
Beyond all of this, there’s another, perhaps unintentional nod to a scrapped battle meant to take place between the player and Professor Oak, back in Generation One.
Buried in the code of Red, Blue and Yellow is Trainer data for Professor Oak, and he can be battled via a glitch. Oak’s high-leveled, diverse team suggests that he was intended as one of the game’s final opponents – if not the final opponent rather than his grandson, Blue; he and Blue even use some of the same Pokemon.
A battle against Oak to become champion would’ve made a fitting conclusion to the first generation’s storyline; as Kotaku’s Patricia Hernandez argues, “I can’t think of a better way to end Red and Blue. Fighting against your rival is definitely cathartic, but defeating Oak—the man who sent you on the adventure to begin with—is a whole other level of cool.”
Regardless of whether Kukui’s battle was intended as homage to the Oak fight, Kukui is an appealing enough character on his own that he makes a fitting final challenge.
Rating: Three out of five capes.
Generation Seven: Hau (Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon)
Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, perhaps the most divisive expanded editions of a Pokemon game to date, added a large amount of content expected of previous expanded titles like Yellow and Platinum, but also made significant and controversial changes to Sun and Moon’s storyline. One notable alteration was changing the player’s final challenger to the game’s main rival, the perpetually friendly Hau.
This marks the first time since Generation One that the last battle before becoming league champion is against the player’s rival, but it’s a markedly different fight than the one against Blue. Blue was incredibly arrogant, whereas Hau demonstrates how the series’ rivals have become increasingly (and perhaps exhaustingly) affable over time. As with Trace in Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee, this sort of battle isn’t as narratively satisfying as a fight against a more unsympathetic rival.
Rating: One out of five capes.
Generation Eight: Leon (Sword and Shield)
When Leon’s outfit as Galar League champion was first unveiled in June of 2019, the outcry online was almost immediate. Why did its elements clash so much? Who thought a baseball cap, chequered cape, and striped uniform would look good together?
As more details about Galar came to light, his costume began to make sense. The U.K.-inspired region’s emphasis on football and sport explained his shirt, shorts and leggings, as well as the athletic outfits donned by most Gym Leaders. However, Leon’s costume reflects not only the world of Sword and Shield but, for the first time in the Pokemon series, everyday outfits you’d find in real life.
Outside of the game, Leon’s look is the most modern look we’ve ever seen on a champion. While the player only wears their uniform specifically when battling in a Gym, Leon wears his all the time, suggesting it’s something he chooses, and prefers, to wear. His outfit is a confluence of several fashion trends that reached their heights in the late 2010s, including athleisure, sneakerhead culture, and an emphasis on luxury streetwear. These trends influence the expanded customizable wardrobe options for players as well; players can buy a wider array of clothing — including sweatshirts, distressed clothing, tracksuits, and ‘designer denim’ – than ever before, and these options are more in line with current fashion trends than previous titles.
At the same time, Leon’s outfit also serves as a commentary on tropes I’ve explored throughout this series. At their core, Sword and Shield are about challenging commonly-accepted narratives, whether centuries-old legends or present-day beliefs — including how one understands the Pokemon franchise itself. These games are the first in the main series with a Western art director (English graphic designer James Turner), and their director, Shigeru Ohmori, previously directed Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire and Sun & Moon, which also provided distinct takes on series staples. Perhaps as a result of Turner and Ohmori’s guiding presence, many elements of Sword and Shield ask the player to reconsider their assumptions about the series. Leon’s champion outfit is one such example; his uniform, like the sports apparel of many Galarian Gym Leaders, calls attention to the fact that many other prominent trainers in the Pokemon franchise are rarely present in-game beyond their role as a Gym Leader or champion.
As well, Sword and Shield’s emphasis on completing the Gym Challenge for most of the game’s runtime, rather than placing a ten-year-old child in charge of saving the entire world from an evil organization, distills the series to its core essentials. (This has proven somewhat controversial, but Pokemon has always struggled with finding a balance between its core battle mechanics and fans’ desire for the more complex narratives one would find in, say, a Final Fantasy title.)
As with his uniform, the cape Leon wears is purely functional; its sole purpose is to promote his many, many sponsors. (NPCs even occasionally make fun of Leon’s cape and its advertisements.) Despite their more streamlined narrative, Sword and Shield complicate the now-standard Gym gauntlet by requiring an endorsement before players can begin the road to becoming Champion. It’s an additional aspect that further asks players to question their understanding of how money and economics have operated in previous games.
In addition, Leon’s baseball cap, with its crown-like design, calls back to the games’ British inspiration and provides a clever payoff when he tosses his cap to the ground after losing the title of champion. Even five years ago, the notion of a champion wearing a baseball cap would’ve been unthinkable, but Sword and Shield’s embrace of modern-day fashion and streetwear help normalize this break with tradition.
It’s somewhat of a surprise, then, that his other outfit in the game is markedly more traditional – but, at the same time, extremely subversive and impactful.
After being defeated as champion, Leon reappears as the final opponent in Galar’s Battle Tower. Here, his outfit closely resembles centuries-old British and French clothing whilst incorporating modern elements — his baseball cap and trousers — at the same time. The silhouette and details of his jacket strongly resemble uniforms worn by members of the French army in the Napoleonic era.
At the same time, Leon’s cravat evokes early twentieth-century gentleman’s court dress from England. The lapels, cravat clasp and gilded cuffs on Leon’s jacket, as well as his black riding boots, lend the outfit an additional regal and aristocratic air.
Furthermore, the deep red velvet colour of Leon’s coat, and his black baseball cap, nod to the famous red uniforms and black headgear worn by the Queen’s Guard.
It’s an outfit full of meaning and symbolism; here, Leon is reclaiming centuries-old fashion tropes usually associated with white royalty, aristocracy and military, and it’s declarative without anyone saying a word.
Rating: Five out of five capes.
What Can We Expect from Future Champions?
As we’ve seen throughout these articles, the role of Pokemon League champion in mainline Pokemon games has expanded and evolved with each new generation – and the style of these characters has continuously grown over the past decades. From the fairly standard outfits of Blue and Steven to the more grandiose costumes of Wallace and Iris to the more contemporary fashion of Diantha and Leon, the Pokemon franchise has slowly incorporated modern-day style into its own world, which remains rooted in cartoon, fantasy, and sci-fi conceits.
However, this emphasis on fantasy and sci-fi tropes in character designs has mostly prevented the franchise from drawing upon concepts associated with actual high fashion – and, perhaps reflecting this, the fashion industry in turn hasn’t collaborated as much with the series as it has with, for instance, a franchise like Final Fantasy. (We haven’t seen, for example, Diantha selling handbags for Louis Vuitton, Steven modelling Prada in magazines, or high-end designers like Vivienne Westwood and Roen making in-game outfits for Pokemon characters.)
A rare exception is the collaboration between Pokémon Go and French luxury brand Longchamp to celebrate 2020 Fall Paris Fashion Week; in addition to a Longchamp-designed backpack being available in-game, the same backpack — as well as other Pikachu-themed bags and accessories — are being sold in stores.
The Longchamp x Pokémon collection could mark a new development in the franchise’s understanding of fashion trends. While a character fully decked-out in designer clothing simultaneously available in stores might be a stretch, future champions and other characters may continue the trend set by Diantha and Leon, incorporating real-world designs and fashion references into their outfits. While it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a champion in a tank top and distressed jeans, the series will hopefully continue to recognize emerging trends while staying true to its longstanding aesthetics.
And, of course, there will always be capes.