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Ashley Eckstein Talks Ahsoka Tano's Vital Importance And 11 Years Of Her Universe Fashion - Exclusive Interview

Ashley Eckstein's name rings out pretty loudly in the world of fandom. For followers of "Star Wars," she's known as the voice of Ahsoka Tano, a character originated in the "Clone Wars" animated series who's become an iconic part of the canon and gone on to appear in live action on "The Mandalorian." Eckstein's work in the voice acting field has also had her portraying characters from the Marvel, DC, and "She-Ra" universes, among other famous franchises. And for those who follow the geek fashion space, she's the founder of Her Universe, a couture brand that started out creating stylish clothing for the female fan, but which has since expanded to cover the spectrum of gender identity.

Having hit its eleventh birthday, Her Universe is an established presence in fan fashion, and one of its centerpiece events is its annual show at San Diego Comic-Con. Of course, like just about every group activity, that centerpiece convention has had to go virtual over the past couple of years due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, thanks to Eckstein's perseverance and the spirited community of designers who fuel Her Universe's yearly event, the parade of geek couture designs has also been able to go online, with a recent installment taking place July 23, 2021, as part of Comic-Con@Home.

We caught up with Eckstein on the eve of the show to talk about the past, present, and future of geek fashion, what it means to be a part of "Team Tano," and which sci-fi/fantasy franchise she wants to tackle next.

Bringing the Her Universe Fashion Show to fans virtually

What are you excited about with Her Universe at Comic-con this year?

So, for Comic-con@Home this year, we are bringing back the Her Universe fashion show. This is our seventh Her Universe fashion show. You know, I like to say "annual" because it is a yearly event, but we did pause last year because of COVID, so we were thrilled to bring it back this year, and we actually made the decision to do the show virtual before we even knew that Comic-Con was going to be at home as well. We just figured, to ensure the health and safety of everyone competing, this was the safest way that we knew how we could do the show. So we're very, very excited to bring it back. And we also have a brand new Her Universe collection that we're launching in honor of Comic-Con@Home. We've been launching it all week.

What are the challenges, specifically, of producing a virtual fashion show? Is there anything you've discovered as you've been working through it that has surprised you or that's been a really cool aspect of this that you weren't anticipating?

There have definitely been pros and cons. First of all, I have to say all the credit goes to our incredible community that this show is even happening this year. Our community came together last year, and surprised me and the Her Universe team with a unity quilt. And they were so bummed that a show wasn't happening that designers over the past six shows made a square inspired by their couture design, and then they sewed it together to make one quilt to celebrate the fashion show. And it was such a beautiful thing that we said, "We have to bring the show back. You know, we have to find a way."

And so when we started exploring what the show could look like virtually, we realized it was possible. You know, a lot of it relied on the designers, because the designers had to create a virtual runway in their space. They had to obviously film a lot on their own video, diaries and interviews. But when we opened up for submissions, we had an overwhelming response from designers.

And I think the positive to it is that it made the show accessible to people unlike ever before. When we did the show in person there's a rule that you have to be able to go to San Diego Comic-Con. Like, you have to travel there. You have to put yourself up. That's quite expensive. And some designers just couldn't do that. And so now, as long as they could afford to make their couture design, anyone could enter.

So it opened it up to a lot more designers. It also opens it up to a lot more people to watch the show because in the ballroom, where we typically host our show, only 2000 people can fit. Now, as many people as they want can watch the show. And the one thing that was really important to us is that the audience at home still gets to choose the audience winner.

Her Universe and the evolution of geek couture

Her Universe has been around for a while now. As you mentioned, this is a show that you've done annually. What changes have you seen in the geek fashion space that have stood out to you over the past few years?

Well, first and foremost from day one of founding Her Universe, my goal was to say that this world that we love, these properties that we love — "Star Wars," Marvel, "Doctor Who," all of them — these stories are for everyone. They're not just for men and boys. They're not just for women and girls. They're for everyone. And you can't put a gender on that. And so that was my goal from day one, especially with a name like Her Universe. People may think that we're just for her, but the reason we were just for her was to try to make it a more inclusive space, to make women and girls feel more comfortable to step into the spotlight and say, "Hi, I'm a girl, and I like 'Star Wars.'" Over time, we were able to do that.

I mean, Her Universe is 11 years old, but back then the idea of a "Black Widow" movie or the idea of a "Wonder Woman" movie was just preposterous. The thought that the lead of a new "Star Wars" franchise would be a girl ... again, crazy. We've come so far since then. And so I feel like times have changed. Society's changed. I also think now, with more options for fangirls, it's commonplace to walk into a store and see 50/50, to see just as many things for women and girls as men and boys.

But a couple of years ago, we started the sub-brand called Our Universe because I always said I wouldn't make stuff for men and boys, or even unisex items, for anyone, unless I felt like certain fashion items weren't being done. And as we were releasing our fashion collections, a lot of the guys were saying, "Hey, I want that. And that doesn't exist." It didn't exist, from a fashion perspective. So we launched our sub-brand called Our Universe to really further the message that this world is for everyone. And I think that's what we're seeing today, whether it's she/her, he/him, or them/they. There's something for everyone. And we are very proud to continue to be inclusive and to be a safe space.

These conversations about inclusiveness are constantly ongoing in the fandom space. What role do you think that Her Universe specifically, but also geek couture industry generally, has to play in that, moving forward?

Well, I will say you're exactly right. Some of the same issues still exist. Are all things equal? No. Are certain spaces a bully-free zone? No. The issues and problems still exist. However, you could look at the bigger problem and get overwhelmed, or I like to look at what can be my role in helping make things a better place. I can only focus on what I can do. And for Her Universe and even specifically myself, we really believe in community and we believe in positivity and we believe in kindness. We try to foster a really positive, empowering, and supportive community. Are we the biggest community out there? Absolutely not. As a brand and even me personally, do we have the most followers out there in a world of social media? No, we don't. And that's because I believe if you're looking for drama, don't come. We're not about that. If there's negativity, we're going to delete the comments. If it's not empowering and supportive, we really have a no-tolerance zone.

I'm personally a big advocate for mental health. And I try my best and make a pledge to our community to make it a safe space, especially because we have a lot of kids that follow us and I feel an obligation to create a safe space. So, we do our best to keep it a drama-free zone. We do our best to endorse kindness as much as possible, because if there's one thing that Ahsoka Tano has taught me, it's the power of kindness. That actually one of the things that makes Ahsoka most powerful, is actually her kindness. And so that's what we try to foster. We try to foster a positive community that's fueled by kindness.

Ashley Eckstein on her geek fashion influences

Her Universe having, as you said, been around for 11 years, it's become kind of iconic in this geek fashion space. Who are the people who you look to, who are or were your icons when it comes to this type of design?

Well, when it comes to fashion, I'm constantly inspired by all the costume designers from these properties. I mean everything from "Star Wars" to the Marvel films, to ... what was I watching the other day? "Bridgerton," too. I mean all these properties, you look at the fashion and they're just stunning. So, we're definitely inspired by the amazing brains of these costume designers that come up with these incredible looks.

But, to me, I'm big on storytelling. I'm inspired by the characters themselves. I take the stories of these characters, the quotes of these characters, as well as the costumes, and kind of merge them into one and tell a story with fashion. To me, that's geek couture.

First and foremost, it's not cosplay. Cosplay is obviously a very important part of our culture and that's why we have the cosplay competitions and the masquerades. But our Her Universe fashion show is a geek couture fashion show. It's geek-inspired fashion. It could be everything from over the top statement fashion to more ready-to-wear. But to me, the fashion should tell the story of that character or that property and should be inspired by, but shouldn't be a replication of, a costume.

Ashley Eckstein on the importance of Ahsoka Tano

Obviously we had a big Ahsoka Tano moment with her showing up in live action on "The Mandalorian." How did you feel about that, and did you see any parts of this character that you had created and things that you had done manifesting in what Rosario Dawson did onscreen?

Well, first of all, I just celebrate anything with Ahsoka. You know, this character means so much to people and that's the part that I just hope anyone new that joins the team, that they realize, because it's never been just me that creates Ahsoka Tano. It's always been a giant team of people that bring Ahsoka to life. I call it Team Tano. Anyone that's new that joins team Tano, I just always encourage them to realize that this character means so much to people. Not only has this character changed lives, but she's saving lives. I can't even begin to tell you, and this is not an exaggeration. I get at least one message per day from people in my private messages, usually paragraphs long, telling me that Ahsoka Tano has changed or saved their life.

So the fact that this character gets to continue means so much to me, because I know how much she means to other people. This character is bigger than me. It's truly one of the greatest honors of my entire life that I got to originate this character.

I was actually cast to be myself. That's actually how I got the role — they said, "We just want you to bring your own personality and your own voice and everything to the character." So I'd be lying if I didn't say that this character literally is my heart and soul, because I was allowed to bring that to the character. It's just very cool. It's very cool to see the character continue to live on. And the fact that I got to play a small role in that, it will just forever be one of the greatest honors of my entire life.

When was the moment you realized that Ahsoka was becoming that iconic within the "Star Wars" universe?

It happened in stages a little bit. The character gained popularity just among the hardcore fans, or I guess I should say she earned credibility, really after Season 3 of "Clone Wars," and then at the end of Season 5 of "Clone Wars," when the show was canceled and it ended on a cliffhanger, she took another step. People just went crazy saying, "I need to know what happens with Ahsoka Tano." And then, when she showed up on "Star Wars Rebels," this huge elation happened. That's why I started the hashtag #Ahsokalives. And it really meant just that: Ahsoka lives. And then, after "Rebels," and then when we go back to the final season of "Clone Wars," I feel like ... that was in the middle of COVID, and everyone was just kind of lost and questioning everything.

And I think everyone was clinging to some sort of hope. Leave it to Ahsoka Tano to come to us when we needed hope the most, when we needed light the most. And to me, that's what Ahsoka represents. In my opinion, Ahsoka represents hope and she represents light. She represents all that is good. Leave it to Ahsoka to appear in the middle of COVID when we need her most with new episodes and such an incredible story of hope. So then, I feel like she went up an even bigger notch, and then "The Mandalorian" happened, and it was hysteria.

Then, in the middle of all this, over this past year, I started a hashtag #Ahsokalivesinallofus, because I think now, at this point ... I mean, I hope she continues to live on in "Star Wars" for many, many years to come. That's my hope. But I think, at this point, Ahsoka now lives in everyone, a piece of her, in everyone's hearts and souls. And they take Ahsoka with them throughout the day and she guides them and their decisions. It's almost like Rey saying, "Be with me, be with me." And it's Ahsoka. It's that voice in your head saying, "Let the light guide you."

I can't ... I'm not exaggerating, I mean, at least one, if not, I would say five to ten in-depth messages a day, from people all over the world, telling me how much Ahsoka Tano means to them. And so, when people ask me, "Wow, why are you so passionate about your character? Why do you do so much for your character?" That's why. Because Ahsoka said in the final season of "Clone Wars," "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." And I so badly want to be a real-life version of Ahsoka. And the reason being is because of the fans and their response to her.

Ashley Eckstein's franchise future and the love of Disney that drove her

You've now had a voice in the "Star Wars" universe. You've voiced a character in the Marvel universe, and in the DC universe. Is there a franchise out there that you haven't touched yet that you really would love to be a part of at some point?

You know, it's so funny, because you say that, and then I'm like, "Oh yeah, that's pretty cool." It's not like I have a checklist, because I always feel so just humbled and grateful when I get to do these roles and work with these great people and these great studios. I will say, I'm a Disney girl. I was raised in Orlando, Florida. My dad was a Disney cast member. And so I was definitely raised Disney. So I've always had a dream to be a Disney princess. And to originate my own franchise would be something special. And if I had the opportunity to do it with Disney, it would be a dream come true. So I'm working on something. I hope I can follow up with you when I get the chance to talk more about it. But to kind of create my own franchise and my own character and story would just be incredible.

So then, what would you say was your favorite Disney animated film, or even just one that inspired you as a voice artist?

Well, the Disney princesses were my first inspiration as a voice actress and I'm a big believer in giving kids tangible opportunities to see their dream in real life. I was very fortunate that, growing up in Orlando, Florida, I had the chance to do that time and time again because Disney constantly makes the intangible tangible and makes the impossible possible.

And so, growing up in Orlando, it was actually my seventh birthday, and they were doing a test screening of "The Little Mermaid." And it wasn't even done yet. There were still storyboards and black and white sketches, but they wanted kids because they wanted a genuine reaction. And so, it was part of my birthday party, and a couple of friends and I got to go to this screening. And Michael Eisner was actually there in the back of the theater, like pacing back and forth. I think, at such a young age, to have exposure to the animation process in that way ... after that moment I was hooked. I was like, "Oh, this is how they do it? I want to do this one day. That's my dream." And so I feel very fortunate that I get to be doing that now for the Disney company.