With the onset of the SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild of America strikes, Comic-Con’s schedule of Hollywood-heavy panels have all but disappeared. But the mainstays of the convention — the collectible booths, the fan organizations, the card gaming areas, the artists alley — will continue to be draws for attendees.
The Her Universe Fashion Show is among the convention staples, drawing in more than 2,000 people each year to the event. Actor Ashley Eckstein — who announced before the designers and models walked the runway Thursday that the event had received a SAG-AFTRA exemption — has built the brand into one of the industry’s most unique and successful fandom fashion companies. The winners of this year’s fashion show, designers Rachel Petterson and Raeven K., were announced, and they will get design contracts with Hot Topic as part of the deal. It’s a testament to the power that the brand and its intellectual property deals (including with Disney, Marvel, “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” Studio Ghibli and more) have in the fashion world.
Eckstein is known for her portrayal of the former Jedi Padawan Ahsoka Tano in multiple animated “Star Wars” series, and she has become a fan favorite over the years. Eckstein shed tears after receiving a standing ovation from the crowd Thursday night. Because of the actors’ strike, she wasn’t sure if the event would even happen as late as last week.
In the weeks before the event, she chatted with The Times about “Ahsoka,” the Disney+ show premiering Aug. 23, how Her Universe and the fashion show have expanded, and how protective she is of the feisty Force wielder she helped bring to life. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
So, nine years in, what’s the expansion been like for Her Universe, and in general, for the fan fashion industry?
It really is surreal to see how far Her Universe has come and the journey that we’ve been on. And I will say this, going back to the very beginning, my hope and my mission was that I wanted to break the stereotype that this world, that these sci-fi and fantasy properties were just for men and boys. They weren’t just for men and boys. They weren’t just for women and girls. These stories are for everyone, and you can’t put a gender on that. My goal was that we would just make everything equal. I never even wanted to make Her Universe and say, “Oh, well, this is just for women and girls and men and boys — you don’t have a part of it.” I never wanted that. Her Universe from the beginning was always two parts. It was a merchandise line, but more importantly it was a community.
In the beginning, we started out with just T-shirts, but as we started making dresses and cardigans and jackets and all of these really cool designs, so many fanboys were like, “Hey, wait a minute. What about me? We only have T-shirts.” That’s when we were able to launch our sub brand called Our Universe and make fashion collections for everyone.
What kinds of things do you still want to do?
I sold Her Universe at the end of 2016 [to Hot Topic], but I continued to run it for four years after that. In 2020, I was able to kind of hand over the day-to-day reins of the business to my incredible Her Universe team. I continue to design collections with Her Universe. I continue to host the fashion show. I’ve just transitioned into more of a spokesperson and founder role, and it’s one that I’m very proud of, but definitely am still a part of the brand.
What do you look for in a great design or designer?
So every fan is different, and the challenge has always been to create designs that speak to every type of fan. Some fans, like yourself, you want what I call subtle geekery.
Yes! I love that.
Just subtle hints in the design, and that’s how I am as well. I like that subtlety, but some fans like to wear it proud. They want a design that has the logo or the character plastered all over. It’s always been a challenge to try to create fashion collections that cater to every different type of fan, and that’s always been my goal to do that.
This year you have Michael James Scott, best known as the Genie on Broadway’s “Aladdin,” as the emcee of the fashion show at Comic-Con. There’s fashion, there’s performances, a little cosplay … What kind of planning goes into creating a fashion show?
Well, starting with Michael James Scott. One thing that I am just so excited about and for fans to see is that we’re childhood friends! Michael and I grew up in Orlando, Florida, together, and we went to high school together. We were in a theater magnet school, and so we were theater kids together.
Oh my goodness.
So we’ve known each other since I was a freshman in high school, and we’ve been in countless plays and done performances together. We were the kids in Orlando who dreamed of working for Disney and who dreamed of being on Broadway. So the fact that we get to co-host this show together all these years later, celebrating Disney and the fact that we get to come back, me as a Disney actress, Star Wars actress, [and] Michael as a Disney-on-Broadway star, and do this together, you’re going to see a chemistry on stage that’s just electric. We’re going to have so much fun.
The Her Universe Fashion show is a show, but it’s two parts. So we work very hard to craft a very entertaining show. But then it’s also a competition. There is a certain part that we very fiercely protect to keep it fair and to keep the core and the foundation of what we’ve built over the past eight previous shows — and coming into this year’s ninth annual show — and that is the competition with the 25 designers. We set the rules, we set the parameters, but then the rest is in the designers’ hands, and they’re working very hard to create their one-of-a-kind couture designs that are this year inspired by 100 years of Disney.
And it’s up to them to bring it to the runway at San Diego Comic-Con. We had, oh my goodness, almost 300 designers submit for our show this year for 20 spots. From there, we pick two winners, and those two winners get to design a Her Universe collection to be sold in stores. It’s a real professional opportunity. It’s one that they get paid for, and it’s one that they’re going to learn from.
Since you mentioned your career as a Disney actress, we know that most of this started due to you voicing a young Ahsoka Tano in Star Wars’ “The Clone Wars” and “Rebels.” With a Disney+ show spotlighting the character soon arriving, have you spoken to Rosario Dawson about Ahsoka’s origins and just how you feel the character would have matured?
I finally had the chance to meet Rosario Dawson this past year [and] to visit the set of “Ahsoka.” I wasn’t filming a cameo. That’s everyone’s first [response]. They’re like, “Oh, she was there! She was filming a cameo!” It was just a set visit. Hopefully, if there’s a Season 2 or a spinoff in some way, I’ll eventually get to do that.
[Rosario is] just lovely. She could not have been nicer. When we first saw each other, it was like we ran towards each other. It was almost a scene out of a movie and it almost felt like it was in slow motion. We just hugged. I looked at, obviously, how she was dressed as Ahsoka, and it was just so cool to see.
I didn’t have anything to do with the story or her preparation for the character. But what I did get to share with her that day is how important Ahsoka is to people and what she means to people, and how Ahsoka is changing lives and saving lives, and why I’m so passionate about the character and why I go to so many conventions and why I do so many events.
All I want for this character is for her to continue to be such a positive force in people’s lives. It’s definitely a bond that I’m very grateful that I’ve been able to create and share with Rosario. She definitely sees what Ahsoka means to people. It’s a relationship that I only hope gets stronger as the years go on, because we do have a bond now that’s really there for life.
What was your reaction to seeing her appearance on “The Mandalorian” even before the show was announced?
I think it was just exciting that Ahsoka’s story and her legacy was continuing. I can’t stress enough what Ahsoka means to people. There’s very few characters that transcend the screen like Ahsoka does. “Star Wars” characters like Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, Ahsoka has now, like those iconic characters, transcended the screen and is a part of people’s hearts and souls. That’s why I started the hashtag #Ahsokalivesinallofus, because she really does live in all of us now.
If you hadn’t been able to play Ahsoka, would you still have created Her Universe? Do you think that path was still laying ahead of you?
Oh my gosh no! Her Universe only happened because of Ahsoka. I had the idea because as the voice of Ahsoka, I wanted more “Star Wars” clothes made for me because I was going out and doing events, and I’ve been a lifelong “Star Wars” fan, but I guess I had accepted the fact that there was no “Star Wars” merchandise made for me. You got used to the fact that you had to go to the boys section.
It wasn’t until I really started paying attention that it inspired me to start Her Universe. I knew nothing about starting a company. I knew nothing about fashion design or licensing, but I was so inspired by Ahsoka. I asked myself, “What would Ahsoka do?” And my answer was that Ahsoka would stand up for fangirls, Ahsoka would do what was right, and Ahsoka would want to change the world and make it a more inclusive and safer space for fandom. So that’s why I did it. Without Ahsoka, I can’t say that I would have started Her Universe.