On the day she launched Her Universe, Ashley Eckstein had no idea whether things were going to work out. She had created an entire company — an entire dream, for that matter — around a hunch and two statistics she’d heard: that 45% of all sci-fi and fantasy fans (at the time) were women and girls, and that women made up 85% of all consumer purchases.
Eckstein didn’t grow up with plans to be an entrepreneur. She was, and still is, an actress and self-identifying fangirl. In 2006, she landed the role of Ahsoka Tano in the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars. As she began making public appearances for Ahsoka at comic-con panels and events at Disney World, she went shopping for Star Wars clothes to wear.
She found nothing.
“Every single time, I ended up in the men’s and the boys’ sections,” she says. “I was told that girls would not buy Star Wars merchandise made for them, and that I should just be happy with the men’s size small.”
That was the catalyst for what would eventually become Her Universe, a company that has since grown to produce themed apparel for more than 15 different fandoms, offer plus-sized options for nearly every clothing item, and host a major annual fashion show at Comic-Con International: San Diego (SDCC).
Back in 2008, though, Eckstein didn’t know any of this. She started by approaching Lucasfilm, simply asking if she could make Star Wars merchandise for female fans. They told her no (twice), but not because they disagreed. “They’re not telling me no to my idea; they’re telling me no to how I’m going about it,” Eckstein says now, explaining that she didn’t have any idea how licensing or manufacturing worked.
At that point, Eckstein easily could have let the idea go. Instead, she decided to go all in: start a company, find a reputable manufacturing partner, and try again. Eckstein primarily credits her character, Ahsoka, for pushing her to start Her Universe. The character broke ground as the first leading, female Jedi in the Star Wars universe, which inspired her.
“I was so inspired by Ahsoka that I wanted to be a real life version of her,” Eckstein says. “I literally asked myself, I said, ‘What would Ahsoka do?’ and the answer was: Ahsoka would stand up for fangirls. Ahsoka, she would do this.”
So, Eckstein did. The next time she approached Lucasfilm, the company said yes.
In June 2010, Her Universe debuted to the fan community. Eckstein and her husband (who she refers to as her “equal since day one”) started with a team of less than five people, but had a first day of sales that “far exceeded expectations.”
“It was such an obvious thing,” says Kristi Siedow-Thompson, a 2018 Her Universe Fashion show winner. “[Ashley was] like, ‘Well I want a Star Wars T-shirt.’ But she actually had the follow-through to prove that it could be sold.”
However, Eckstein realized she wanted to do more with Her Universe than simply sell products. She had read many, many stories of women and girls who were bullied simply for liking Star Wars, which she says broke her heart.
“I thought, this is no way to live. I know being a fangirl is a part of you,” she says. “And, for me, Star Wars is a story of hope. It’s a story of good overcoming evil, and you can’t put a gender on that. … And my goal from day one was not to say that Star Wars is just for girls. It’s not just for boys, it’s not just for girls — Star Wars is for everyone. So that’s what I set out to do.”
To this day, the community aspect of the company is Eckstein’s priority. She designed Her Universe to be a safe place for fans. “I say, ‘Look, I don’t care if you ever buy a single piece of merchandise from us, but I hope you will come and join our community, join the conversation, and feel welcome and be celebrated,’” she says.
” Take the first step and throw your dreams out into the universe. “
— Ashley Eckstein
Eckstein also launched the Her Universe Fashion Show to give fellow fangirl designers a unique platform to showcase their talents. The annual competition gives female designers the opportunity to design clothes based on their favorite fandoms.
The fashion show was a dream Eckstein shared with Ed Labay, vice president and general merchandise manager at Hot Topic, who first met Eckstein around 2011 when he was buying women’s novelty T-shirts for Hot Topic.
At SDCC 2014, Eckstein made that dream happen and put together the first iteration of the Her Universe Fashion show. As Labay describes it, that first show was in a “small little meeting room” that held about 150 people — a mere fraction of the thousands who now attend the annual show. But, to Eckstein, the size of the crowd didn’t matter.
“To see Ashley’s face as she watched and supported these women walk their awesome designs in this tiny room down a runway in front of their peers …” Labay says, “she had tears in her eyes. It was great.”
Siedow-Thompson, whose Aliens-inspired “PWL Chic: Ripley in the Power Loader” outfit was the Audience Winner at last year’s show, says she made friends from around the world after participating in the annual event.
“We talk to each other all the time,” she says. “We have this common bond of being geek girls who also are interested in fashion. … We support each other and we help one another and it’s all because of Ashley’s message and [because of] her.”
“The growth of Her Universe within the fandom community, and as a female empowerment brand, are a direct testament to Ashley’s influence, character, and drive.”
— Andrea Lewis, vice president of brand marketing at Hot Topic
Now, nearly a decade after the company’s launch, Eckstein still gets countless “letters, and stories, and tears, and hugs” from women and girls whose lives have been changed by Her Universe.
“It never stops being surreal,” she says. “I’m so grateful for every moment because it does happen often, where fans share their stories. And those are the moments that touch me the most because that is solely the reason I started Her Universe. It’s never been about the money. It’s never been about the notoriety or the recognition. It’s always been about the fans.”
According to Eckstein, the change in the narrative surrounding fangirls has been “night and day” since she started Her Universe. While she is happy about the progress she’s seen, she says there is still room to grow and continue the conversation.
“I think that the day when we’re no longer talking about the fact that we’re surprised that these female superheroes are doing well, when we’re no longer having to ask for more for fangirls …” she says. “I think the day that we stop having the conversation is the day when we’ve finally made it.”
“I think from afar you get this idea of this person who just seems like a Disney princess or someone who runs on magic … And she actually is that kind. She is that amazing of a person.”
— Kristi Siedow-Thompson, 2018 Her Universe Fashion Show Audience Winner
Despite the fact that her entire company revolves around making a space for women, Eckstein didn’t really think about the challenges or limitations of being a female entrepreneur when starting her company. Her parents, she explains, raised her to ignore gender limitations. So, she entered the business world — a traditionally male-dominated industry — with what she calls “Rapunzel-colored glasses.” She explores this idea in-depth as part of her memoir-slash-guidebook, It’s Your Universe, but the basic idea is that she didn’t know what she didn’t know.
As a result of her naivete, Eckstein didn’t doubt herself or worry about the barriers she would face as a female CEO. In fact, she says she wouldn’t go back in time to give herself any advice about starting Her Universe, because knowing the road ahead may have stopped her from trying.
“I’m grateful for my Rapunzel-colored glasses and for being naive, because it just forced me to bulldoze my way through like a bull in a china shop and just say ‘well, why not?’” she says.
“Ashley is sweet but passionate; fierce and yet gentle at the same time. She is both Light and Dark Side.”
— Ed Labay, vice president, general merchandise manager at Hot Topic
In 2016, Eckstein decided to sell Her Universe to Hot Topic. She refers to the sale as “a huge blessing,” because it gave her small company access to the expanded resources of a larger company: a larger fit team and licensing, production, and marketing departments.
She describes the sale as sending her baby off to college, but Eckstein is still very involved in Her Universe’s day-to-day operations (she even has a fantastic, Alice in Wonderland-themed office at Hot Topic).
Despite her impossibly busy schedule — running Her Universe, writing a book, working as a full-time actress, etc. — Eckstein still finds time to keep up-to-date with the latest movies, shows, and pop culture trends. Her recent obsession? Captain Marvel, which she’d seen twice within two weeks of its release.
In fact, Eckstein refuses to produce Her Universe products for a license unless she’s personally a fan. “I’m not going to do something if I can’t do it from a fan’s point of view,” she says. “In many ways, maybe we could have grown faster or into other categories. But we just couldn’t do it because we weren’t able to come at it from a fan’s point of view, and I didn’t feel that I could do the properties justice.”
Because she truly loves the fandoms featured in the Her Universe products, Eckstein finds herself wearing the clothes nearly every day. Recently, Eckstein was packing up her closet in preparation to move. Her mother, who was helping her, looked at Eckstein and asked, “Are all of your clothes Her Universe now?” Thinking about it, Eckstein responded, “Pretty much.”
“I founded Her Universe because I just wanted merchandise made for me, made for a female fan, that I could wear,” Eckstein says, reflecting on that moment with her mother. “And so now to have so much of it — and basically have my entire wardrobe be Her Universe — is surreal.”
This article was originally published in the Pop Insider’s Winter 2019 Issue No. 2, click here to read more!
Photos: Hot Topic