How Her Universe Fashion Show Evolved for [email protected]

In the wake of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many fan events had to change with the times, and Ashley Eckstein’s Her Universe Fashion Show is no exception. When Comic-Con International in San Diego moved online in 2020, launching its first ever virtual [email protected] show, Eckstein and the Her Universe Fashion Show took a step back to wait out the storm. However, when [email protected] returns this weekend for its second virtual outing, the Her Universe Fashion Show will lie dormant no longer. This year, the Her Universe Fashion Show is moving online as well.

Speaking to CBR, Eckstein broke down the challenges and benefits of moving an event like the Her Universe Fashion Show into a virtual space. She recalled how the Her Universe Fashion Show community inspired her to attempt a virtual event in a moment that brought her to tears. She previewed some of the looks she will debut at the show, including a new Star Wars piece, as well as those that the finalists created. She also broke down the judging process, addressed whether or not she would ever return to voice fan-favorite Clone Wars character Ahsoka Tano in another Lucasfilm Animation project and more.

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CBR: How did the virtual component of this year’s Her Universe Fashion Show change the way you approached it?

Ashley Eckstein: Yeah, I mean, we definitely had to rethink the show a bit, and how to bring what everyone has come to love about the Her Universe Fashion Show and pivot to make it virtual. There’s definitely pros and cons to that. The con, from the standpoint of nothing can ever replace the electricity and the excitement in the room and hearing the roar of the crowd when a design hits the runway. That is something that cannot be replicated. However, the pro to it is making the show accessible to so many more people this year, and we’re so excited about that. Now, instead of having a capacity of 2000 people in a ballroom, and unfortunately no more than 2000 people could witness the show, and no more than 2000 people could vote on an audience winner. Now, we’re gonna have so many more people that are able to watch the show. We’re gonna have so many more people who are able to vote on an audience winner.

Also, we were able to have so many more people eligible to compete in the show this year. In past shows, when it’s live and in person, a designer can only compete if they’re able to come to San Diego Comic-Con, which is incredibly difficult for some people. That involves traveling and, in some cases, across country and it’s very expensive. You know, not everyone can do that! Now, as long as they were able to make their couture design at home, anyone could submit for the Her Universe Fashion Show. Anyone could compete. So there were so many positives to doing the show virtually this year.

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Every year, the Her Universe Fashion Show has a theme. What can you tell me about this year’s “Community” theme? How did you settle on that one?

The theme for this year’s show was actually really easy, because the show would not even be happening this year if it were not for our Her Universe Fashion Show community. You know, last year, when we had to pause the show, when the date of what would have been the 2020 Her Universe Fashion Show, when the date came and went, I found myself questioning whether anyone would miss it. I sat at home, thinking, “Wow, does anyone really miss it? Are we the only ones? Is this the end of the show? Is it ever going to come back? Will people care?” And to my surprise, I got literally a surprise package on my doorstep one day. It was the most beautiful gift I’ve ever received in my life. It was a unity quilt that was made by several of the past designers over the past six shows, and each designer made a square that was inspired by their couture design. They sewed together a quilt and presented it to me and the Her Universe team.

Since they didn’t have a show to work on, they came together as a community to still do something together and celebrate geek fashion and celebrate what the Her Universe Fashion Show is really about, which is community. Even though it’s a competition, it’s really more about a community, this beautiful community of designers that have come together, and you talk to designers year after year. That’s what they really win, by being a part of the show. They win being a part of this community, which is just the most beautiful thing that’s now seven years strong.

So because of this quilt, once they presented us with this quilt, which I was sobbing — like literally sobbing, happy tears, when I opened up this this box — we came together as a Her Universe team and said, we have to bring the show back next year. We have to find a way. So the show this year is really a dedication to our community.

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You’ve used your platform to address inclusivity, empowerment and mental health awareness. How does this year’s show contribute to those ideas?

This show and this community contributes to it, because I really am an eternal optimist. I was really raised to believe that, as long as you work hard and have persistence and truly never give up, that your dreams are possible. That is the attitude and the mindset that we try to foster, through positivity and empowerment and support, that you can do anything that you put your mind to.

I’m very, very proud; I would say one of the things I’m most proud of with Her Universe is that we’ve been able to take something like the Her Universe Fashion Show, that — in many cases — would be very competitive, would be potentially a negative environment, would potentially be a catty environment or a backstabbing environment, and it’s actually the opposite. We have so many lifelong friendships that have started because of this community. We have support groups. I mean, literally, there’s multiple Facebook groups, because of the Her Universe Fashion Show community of designers that have come together after the show — during and after the show. Actually, before, during and after the show, where they come together to support each other.

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That’s what it’s about. It’s about coming together and knowing that, if you build your team of supporters, you build your inner circle of people that are there to lift you up, that truly anything is possible. That’s actually our motto. I say it in the show: Dream your world, be your world, flaunt your world. What that means is, it starts with a dream. You have to dream your world. What is it? You have to dream it and then you have to throw it out into the universe.

But then you have to be that world. You have to not only dream it but you have to be it. You have to work hard. Your dream is not just going to fall in your lap. You have to actually work hard to be it, and then you have to flaunt it. That’s the fashion part of it. For so long, especially as women, all we had was men’s boxy T-shirts and we kind of hid our fandom. Her Universe is a place where you should step into the spotlight and be celebrated. Flaunt your fandom; show how much you love it and why you love it. Just be proud of it! So that’s actually our motto is dream your world, be your world, flaunt your world and that’s what it’s all about.

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How do you foresee this experience impacting the way you’ll approach the Her Universe Fashion Show moving forward?

Well, I will tell you that it is absolutely our goal to bring the show back in person. The genesis of our show, the foundation of our show, is San Diego Comic-Con and, as San Diego looks to return in person, so do we. Nothing, as I said in the beginning, really replicates that feeling of hitting a runway in person and just hearing an entire ballroom of people erupt.

But after doing a virtual show, what I hope to continue is to be able to provide that virtual component, that at-home component, where everyone at home can watch it too and everyone at home can vote on the show as well and help contribute to the audience winner. So we’re gonna have to find a way, just like we were able to pivot and figure out a virtual show this year, we can pivot and figure out some sort of hybrid show hopefully for next year.

So it’s a constant work in progress, but I think that’s what everyone’s going to do, coming out of this pandemic. I think there’s so many amazing things that we figured out could be virtual. I think you’re going to continue to see a virtual component moving forward, even when we go back to in person.

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What can you preview about the two looks you’ll be debuting at the show on Friday?

I’ll go ahead and tease one look is inspired by so Ahsoka Tano and inspired by my favorite quote, where Ahsoka says, “This is a new day, a new beginning.” This quote is very personal to me. It also is very personal to Andrew MacLaine, the designer who made my looks this year. He’s made my looks for the past six years. So that’s all I’m gonna say as a preview, but it’s a very personal design. I think this quote resonates to everyone as well. I think, coming out of this pandemic, it is a new day, a new beginning for all of us. So I hope this look will resonate with everyone.

Then my second look is inspired by the property that the winning designers are going to get to design a collection with Her Universe for Hot Topic. So very excited about that look. We’ll be sharing sharing pictures and photos very soon.

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Tell me a little about the judging process and how you, personally, approach making those decisions.

[laughs] Well, luckily, I am not a judge, and that is by design, because if I was a judge, we would have 25 winners. That is the big joke among our Her Universe team and the Hot Topic team. They know me, and they purposely don’t make me a judge, because I just become so connected to all of the designers. I literally am their biggest cheerleader, especially because I will say a role that I take on is, when all of the designers submit to enter the fashion show every year, I read every single submission. Every single one. So if there’s 300 submissions, I read all 300 submissions. I get to know every single designer. I watched their videos. I read all their answers. I look over their social media sites to see what they’re about and what they’re passionate about. So I feel like I form a bond with each and every designer, and so there’s no way I could choose.

I also say it’s very important that we have a judges’ winner and an audience winner, because the judges, oftentimes, they’re really looking at construction. They’re really looking at the sewing and the techniques and how well was this garment constructed? Then the audience, sometimes, they’re not necessarily in the world of fashion. So they’re looking at showmanship and performance and the wow factor. So oftentimes, they’re two very different winners. So it’s important that we have two different winners and that all different aspects are being looked at. So it’s very exciting this year, and I’m excited to see who wins.

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What excites you the most about this year’s finalists?

Well, here’s what I’ll tell you. First of all, the bar is just raised year after a year. I think the more that the Her Universe Fashion Show gets out there, the more that people understand what geek couture actually is. It’s not cosplay. It’s geek-inspired couture fashion. There’s so much talent out there. So every year, the bar is just raised and to see what people come up with, it’s so mind blowing.

But obviously, I don’t know the audience winner yet, because that’s going to be determined by the audience at home. That’s what’s so exciting about this year show is that the audience at home is going to vote. Everyone watching the show can vote this year and help determine the audience winner. So we won’t know the audience winner until next week.

But with the judges’ winner this year, I will say that it’s very — and I think you’re going to see this — it’s very important to understand that the difference between the Her Universe Fashion Show and, let’s say, you know, a cosplay contest at a convention is that this is fashion. So we look for designers to take whatever property that they love, but have a fashion interpretation. So that’s what we’re looking for.

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Ahsoka Tano in Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Ahsoka Tano has come to mean so much to so many people. What do you think it is about her that makes her resonate with so many fans?

This became very obvious to me in 2020, because in many ways, at first, it was — I’m not gonna lie — a little disappointing when the final season of Clone Wars happened during the pandemic, because we had a lot of big plans. We were going to have screenings and premieres all over the nation and go to different cities and get to meet fans from all over and all of that got cancelled because we were all at home in quarantine. But it soon became very obvious to me that everything happens for a reason, in terms of the timing of Clone Wars happening, the final season of Clone Wars happening when it did, because it was exactly when everyone needed it.

It was such a story of hope, and especially Ahsoka Tano means hope to everyone. The fact that she could survive Order 66, the fact that what she taught us while surviving Order 66 was just such a beautiful story that there’s always light, even in darkness. Even when we can’t see the light, it’s always there, that there’s always hope. Though that final season happened when we needed it most and what became very obvious to me is that after now — Clone Wars came out in 2008. So after, 13 years of Ahsoka stories, Ahsoka now lives in all of us.

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All of those moments where she’s inspired us and she’s given us hope, we take those moments with us in our hearts and in our souls and in our minds, as we go in our everyday life. We remember those moments when things happen to us. She inspires us to always have hope and to always look for the light. We used to have the hashtag #AhsokaLives and it literally just meant just that! That is Ahsoka lives! We were excited that she was still alive.

But now, I updated the hashtag to be #AhsokaLivesInAllOfUs because we carry Ahsoka’s spirit in each and every one of us and we all feel like we can be Ahsoka Tano. She’s really transcended gender. She’s transcended race. She is just this spirit that lives on in all of us, and it’s the spirit of hope that we can all feel like she’s with us and we can all be Ahsoka Tano.

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Clone Wars is over, but Lucasfilm animation is still going strong with projects like The Bad Batch. What are the odds we might see more Ahsoka Tano from you?

[laughs] Your guess is as good as mine! Here’s what I’ll say: of course, I always have hope that I’ll get to step into Ahsoka’s shoes again. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. But I never look at, “Oh, well, what’s next?” and “What am I going to do?” I really do look at how grateful I am for what I’ve had.

My current mindset with Ahsoka is just how grateful I am and what a gift it was that we got to finish Star Wars: The Clone Wars properly and got to do a final season. So of course I hope to step into her shoes again, but I’m really so, so grateful that I’ve had — you know, I’ve personally been doing Ahsoka’s voice since 2006, when we originated her. So I’ve had 15 years with this character, and I never thought I would say that. When I started her in 2006, I never thought I’d say that I’d be sitting here 15 years later talking about Ahsoka still. So I’m grateful for the past 15 years, and if I get the opportunity to step into her shoes again, I will just continue to be so, so grateful.

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It feels like there’s always a new nerd property in the works these days. Do you have anything exciting coming down the pipeline at Her Universe?

Yes! Yes, I will share. I do have something that is very, very personal for me. If there’s one thing I love, more than even Star Wars, it’s Alice in Wonderland. I’ve been a lifelong Alice in Wonderland fan, and she’s my favorite Disney character.

Last year, in the middle of the pandemic, I got one of the biggest surprises I’ve ever gotten. I got a call from Disney, and they asked if I would design a capsule collection for Disney for the 70th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland. And for me, that’s bucket list level. So very, very soon, look for a new collection that I got to design for Her Universe for Disney. It’s going to be coming out very soon and I’m very, very proud of it.

So stay tuned. It’s literally next month! [laughs] I don’t have images or anything to share just yet, but as soon as we do, I’m sure we can share them. But it really is a very, very special collection for me and fans are definitely gonna want to get it because it’ll be limited. So once it’s gone, it’s gone. But if you are an Alice in Wonderland fan, you are not going to want to miss this.

The 2021 Her Universe Fashion Show will debut Friday, July 23 at 2 pm ET/5 pm PT on YouTube during [email protected]

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