With Comic-Con kicking off this weekend, we decided to talk with Ashley Eckstein about her upcoming Her Universe geek couture fashion show, which is premiering virtually this year on Friday, July 23.
Fans of the animated Star Wars series The Clone Wars will recognize Eckstein as the voice of Ahsoka Tano, the popular apprentice of Anakin Skywalker last seen battling Darth Maul and fighting her way through Order 66. Eckstein has also lent her voice to TV shows such as She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Avengers Assemble, DC Super Hero Girls, and many more.
Jeff Ames: For those who don’t know, can you give us a rundown of Her Universe?
Ashley Eckstein: Yeah, so the Her Universe Fashion Show is an annual event at San Diego Comic-Con. I say annual with an asterisk because there was a pause last year with COVID. But this is actually the seventh Her Universe Fashion Show, and it’s actually a competition show and it is kind of like Project Runway meets geek fashion. So, I actually call it “geek couture,” and we have 25 designers who compete with their geek couture designs for two winning spots. We have a judge’s winner and an audience winner, and the two winners win the opportunity to design a collection with Her Universe to be sold at Hot Topic. So, the collection that they get to design is actually a ready-to-wear collection and we announce every year what the property is inspired by. We’ve had Star Wars collections or Marvel collections, and we’re excited to share on the fashion show Friday night what the winners will get to design for.
So, as you said, last year was canceled due to COVID and you assumed the Her Universe Fashion Show was done, right?
Well, you know, I think we all found ourselves in kind of a moment of questioning last year where we found ourselves at home on our couches questioning what our path was forward. You know, what was important, what wasn’t, what was essential, what wasn’t? I don’t know about you, but I found myself questioning everything. And when the date of what would have been the Her Universe Fashion Show came and went, I definitely asked myself, “Would anyone miss the show?” Is anyone gonna want it to come back or is this the moment where it just kind of fades into the sunset because our show had garnered such a following at Comic-Con, it was one of the biggest events to kick-off and open up Comic-Con on Thursday night. To go from being such a big event to nothing, you know, it was understandable because everyone’s health and safety came first. At the same time, it was definitely a moment of questioning of whether this was ever going to come back.
So, in the middle of that, I received a surprise package on my doorstep and it was the most beautiful gift I’ve ever received. It was a unity quilt where all the designers from the past six shows came together and made a square for a quilt that was inspired by their couture design. And they sewed together this quilt and they presented it to me and the Her Universe team, and they said, “Since we didn’t have a fashion show, we still wanted to come together and do something!” I was sobbing, just sobbing the most beautiful, happy tears because I couldn’t believe it — everything I’d ever dreamed of for the show came true.
Her Universe is more than a fashion brand. Her Universe to me is a community. That comes first. Receiving the quilt from the designers proved that we were on the right track and that Her Universe is a community for fans first and foremost. Once we received that quilt, we said, “Okay, we gotta find a way to bring the show back. It’s got to happen.”
I can safely say it’s because of our fans and our community that the show is happening.
What are some of the challenges or benefits of going virtual with the show?
There’s definitely pros and cons. I think, as we’ve discovered that over the past year and a half of COVID and working from home, there’s been some things that were definitely kind of a bummer; and then there’s been some beautiful things that have happened that — honestly, I feel we’re going to adopt these changes moving forward. And that’s definitely the case with our show.
I mean, starting with the cons, there are those moments where you’re going to be watching a virtual show and you’re going to say, I really miss the roar of the ballroom of everyone just cheering and clapping and yelling, because our event is so electric in person. You can’t even describe it unless you’re in a ballroom full of 2,000 people just cheering at the top of their lungs when a Darth Vader couture dress hits the runway.
However, the pros — and I would definitely say the pros in this case definitely outweigh the cons, because more people get to experience it. As I mentioned when we do it in person, only 2,000 people can be in the ballroom. So now way more than 2,000 people can actually watch our show. Also, the show’s interactive now. The audience at home gets to vote for the audience winner. So, as soon as the show ends on Friday night, voting will open and remain open until 11:59 p.m. PST on Sunday evening, July 25.
Finally, more designers could actually submit to our show this year because some designers — even though they’re capable of making a deep couture design — couldn’t afford to go to San Diego Comic-Con; and now, as long as they could make their geek couture design, they could do it from home and compete from home. You’ll see in the show, the runway is virtual and they’re all different it’s whatever the designer could make up in their own space. So, it’s really a beautiful show and I hope, moving forward, you know, going into 2022 and beyond, I hope we’ll have a hybrid of both. I certainly hope they bring the show back in person because nothing will replace that, but then I hope we’ll keep some sort of virtual element so the audience at home can also participate.
Your message has always been tailored to inclusivity, empowerment, and mental health awareness. Have you seen a positive change brought upon by your work?
Definitely. I mean, I founded Her Universe on an anti-bullying platform because so many women and girls were being bullied for just being a fan girl and being who they are, and that’s no way to live. So, to be honest, I created the merchandise as a means to end the bullying. I wouldn’t say that the bullying has stopped completely because it’s still definitely something that we all have to deal with today, but we’ve come so far.
My goal was to say these properties that we love so much like Star Wars and Marvel and Doctor Who and sci-fi and fantasy properties are not just for men and boys. They’re not just for women and girls. They’re for everyone. You can’t put a gender on these stories. To me, they’re stories of hope, they’re stories of good overcoming evil and they’re stories of heroism. You can’t put a gender on that.
I definitely feel that we’ve come a long way. When I started my goal was to walk into a Hot Topic store and see that it was at least 50/50, you know, 50% merchandise equal to women and girls and 50% merchandise equal to men, and that’s definitely the case today. I mean, you walk in and it’s such an inclusive store and there’s something for everyone. We’ve made huge strides when it comes to that. I kind of feel like we’re on the ground floor, again, building a foundation for mental health to help break the stigma surrounding mental health.
The reason I’m so passionate about it is because bullying falls under the bigger umbrella of mental health. I was viciously cyberbullied at one point a couple of years ago and once I experienced that, I said, “You know, I can’t imagine someone going through this without any support. It was over a lie. There was absolutely no truth to it whatsoever. Yet, I became victim to this kind of viral cyberbullying moment, and my voice was taken away and I couldn’t even defend myself; and I thought, you know, I’m going to regain my voice by being a voice for others. That was the pledge I made. That’s when we really started changing our messaging from anti-bullying to just the broader conversation surrounding mental health.
So, I teamed up with Nationwide Children’s Hospital — their leaders for children’s mental health in our nation — and I just said, “I’m a sponge, teach me. I want to be a voice for you. I want to be an advocate. But teach me everything you know.” I feel so fortunate that they’ve been teaching me about mental health and mental health awareness and being an advocate for mental health and also joining forces with them to break stigmas surrounding mental health. We still have a long way to go.
All roads for me really lead back to Ahsoka Tano. I wouldn’t have her universe, and I wouldn’t feel necessarily compelled to be a voice for mental health awareness and do all of these things if I wasn’t inspired by Ahsoka. I feel so fortunate to be the voice of Ahsoka, to have originated the character; and I so badly want to be a real-life version of Ahsoka. So, everything I do, I kind of put through the lens of “What would Ahsoka do?” I feel like she would be an advocate for helping people and she would definitely try and break stigmas. That’s really my mission.
Ahsoka has a line where she says, “In my life, when you find people who need your help, you help them, no matter what. I guess it’s just who I am.” I’ve taken that as my own personal motto and I try to be a real-life version of her by helping people.
Did you imagine this is where you would be with Her Universe when you first started it in 2010?
You know, I definitely blame my parents for this one. My parents encouraged me to dream as a young girl and to dream big. And so I’ve always been that way. I’ve always had big dreams, I’ve had a wild imagination. I definitely dreamed big with Her Universe. I wanted it to be this community. I wanted it to be inclusive and I wanted it to grow and do entertainment like a fashion show. I had those big dreams. However, never in my wildest dreams did I think Ahsoka and even Her Universe would affect people’s lives the way that it has and the way that it does from day to day. I am constantly humbled by literally the daily messages — and I am not exaggerating. I get at least one, if not a few messages a day from fans telling me how Ahsoka has literally changed their life or saved their life.
In Her Universe, the same, especially now, as we’re talking about the fashion show, there’s been designers in our show that were literally designing as a hobby. And because of the confidence that Her Universe Fashion Show gave them, they decided to turn it into a career or, you know, just the community that the fashion show has built. People reach out to me every day saying, “Thank you, because of the community of the Her Universe Fashion Show has changed my life. I now have lifelong friends that I never had before.” I’m constantly humbled by those stories. I do not take them for granted, nor did I ever expect that this would happen to the level that it’s happened.
That gives me the fuel that I need to continue to wake up every day with the mission to help people no matter what because that’s what makes me happy. Helping others makes me happy. It’s really not about any kind of self-accomplishment, either. I do it because I see that somebody’s life has changed by the work that we’re doing.