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Her Universe Founder Ashley Eckstein Talks Body Diversity, Partnering with Disney, and How Ravioli Helped Her Write a Book

You might know Ashley Eckstein as the voice of Ahsoka on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, but these days, she lends her voice to the company she founded: Her Universe, designers of quality apparel for geeky women. Last year, then-TMS editors Carolyn Cox and Sam Riedel tested Her Universe’s first line of activewear; this year, we sent Sam to New York Comic-Con to talk with Ashley about her forthcoming memoir, It’s Your Universe, and what’s next on her radar.

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Ashley Eckstein: I was so touched that you guys would actually test it out. That’s what I wanted. I want to hear real feedback. That was our first Marvel, right?

TMS: I think so. Was it your first activewear?

Yeah, because I remember you wore the Captain America? That was the first line. So. Yeah I mean obviously Kohls, we work closely with them and they do activewear already. I wanted to learn and we’re still learning. We’ve done two lines since and I’m very critical and nitpicky and I want to hear how can we improve.

I remember when we were doing that video. That was relatively early in my transition for me, so I was kind of nervous about wearing stuff that was that tight and—not revealing exactly, but like, “how explicit are we going to be here with the contouring?” But I felt a lot more comfortable in that than I was expecting. I think that sort of comfort for a diverse array of body types is one of the things that has become a selling point for Her Universe in general. Was that one of your intentions going in?

It was definitely one of my intentions going in. And it’s also one of my intentions with Her Universe in general for any of our lines. I’m actually a pretty modest dresser and modest person, and I tend to design for—if I don’t feel comfortable in it, I probably won’t design it because I wear a lot of our clothes, too. I don’t know; I just want everyone to feel comfortable. I don’t want it to be too revealing or too tight or too short—I want you to be able to wear it for all different events and all throughout the day. So it is something that I was conscious of and I wanted it to be something that you could truly work out in, you know, true performance wear and not something that was just for show.

So we’re constantly learning. I mean, not every piece is perfect; I’ll be the first to tell you that. We just got a Loki sports bra in that, I have to be honest, it looks really cool on, [but] I haven’t worked out in it yet. There’s there’s a lot of straps going on because it looks like Loki, so I’m still figuring out how functional it is. It looks I feel like if Loki—

Were to do any form of exercise?

Yes. It looks like something that like, a lady Loki would wear working out. Does that make sense? And that’s what we try to do with all of our clothes—it’s inspired by the character, and if this character were to design a fashion line with us, what would it look like? So we’ll see. We don’t always achieve the what I call the “unicorn design” that’s just perfect—perfect fit, perfect function, perfect design—but we always try.

I’m curious as to how you decide which properties and which franchises to go after. But I’m also curious as to how you choose what kinds of pieces to put in those lines—you mentioned that it’s very much informed by what would this character wear, what their sensibilities would be. Which of those comes first? You know—”we need to do something with a bunch of jackets, what can we look for for that” or is it the other way around? 

I would say it actually changes with every line. It depends on the character. You know, sometimes the character is more prone to a certain type of look. For example, Loki—everyone knows his cape. So I said we have to do a cape blazer. So sometimes the character and their costume very much dictate the look. Like the pleather jacket—you know, Loki is known for his leather. So it’s like, “well, we need to have a pleather jacket in there.” But sometimes it’s the fashion trends. Sometimes we’ll very much go on what’s on trend in fashion, and just put the fandom onto that. You know, like activewear—that was one thing that was on trend in the active world and then let’s add the fandom onto the popular silhouette. So I think it varies per collection. Which is exciting because it’s always something new.

But I do think one thing I try to focus on and pride ourselves on is the property comes first. So for example, with Wonder Woman, we worked with Jesse Thaxton, who won our fashion show at [San Diego] Comic-Con [2016], right? And she wanted to design something with the sword that goes down Wonder Woman’s back. And we didn’t necessarily have a tank top already designed that could have a sword down the back, but we said that’s the right thing to do for this property. So we designed a brand new tank top silhouette that have a sword on the back. We’ve never done anything like that before. So the character and the property—we always try to stay true [to it]. That comes first.

Is it difficult to trace both what’s on trend and what’s popular fandom-wise? That seems like a couple of balls that are really difficult to keep in the air at the same time.

Yes it is! And you know, sometimes they work well together and sometimes they don’t at all. So to me, since we’re a licensed company, the property and the character have to come first. I’m not going to force a trend on a property where it doesn’t make sense. So in a perfect world I think especially the more we venture into fashion, if the two make sense together, that’s great. For Leia, puffy vests are in style—well, it’s about time that we do the Leia Hoth puffy vest. When trends and the franchise can come together, great, but if it doesn’t, I’m not going to force it.

I want to touch on what you announced [Thursday]—I think you’d said that you were writing a book before, but that it’s going to be coming out through Disney Book Group. You mentioned that writing a book was something that you had said that you were never ever going to do. What was that final push that got you to do it?

Well, I just—I didn’t feel that I had it in me. Whenever I went to write something, I would start to write what I thought was going to maybe be even a chapter of a book, and it ended up being an essay. So I just thought, “Well hey, this is not a talent I have. I’m not cut out for it.” And so when I was talking with Disney, we were just brainstorming ideas. They asked me about my story and I said, “Well, I don’t feel that my story warrants a memoir or anything, but I’m so proud and grateful for what Disney taught me and what Disney inspired me to do, because I truly feel like without Disney, I wouldn’t be here. Disney taught me how to make my dreams come true. So if I can share my story, but at the same time share the advice and the inspiration behind my story and why I believed that any of this was possible thanks to Disney truthfully”—and this is coming from me. Disney did not come to me and ask me to write this; I asked Disney if I could do this. I’m so grateful for it. I said, “If you’ll let me write that book, then I would love to write that book. But I don’t feel like I can necessarily write the whole book.”

They said, “Oh no, don’t worry, we will find you the right author that can do this with you.”

They introduced me to Stacy Kravetz, and she’s written a couple of other books and inspirational books for girls. So we immediately started talking and sharing my story with her. What she was able to do for me—I realized this was the part that I just could never get past: the structure of the book. I didn’t understand how I could structure a book. So after several conversations she helped me build the structure of a book. But then I realized, I really wanted to be in my voice. And if I want this in my voice, I gotta write this. So when you have a deadline—I don’t like to let anybody down. If I give you my word and I commit to something, I will not let you down. And I’d already given my word! I realized I had no choice. Obviously I had the help from Stacey, I would write a chapter and send it to her. “How does this sound?” And I have an amazing editor at Disney that I worked with as well. So definitely a team, definitely a group effort. But those are my words, this is truly what I wrote, because I wanted it to be in my voice. I’m grateful for it. Without this experience, I would still be sitting here telling you I could never write a book. And now I’m actually like, “What are we going to do next? I believe I can do it!” I mean really, if you think you can’t do something, let this be a lesson: you can.

I do want to actually thank Oreos, though. And Chef Boyardee. I’m so embarrassed to admit that. And Lucky Charms. And Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I had a moment where I literally cried on my couch because I realized I had thousands upon thousands of words to write. And I didn’t know what to do. So after I cried a little bit, then I went to the grocery store and I reverted back to childhood. I got Chef Boyardee ravioli. Mint Oreos. Lucky Charms and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. And I locked myself in my apartment and literally wrote nonstop for five days straight. I mean, I ate more than just those things. But that’s basically what fueled me. So I would like to think Oreos for getting me through that tough time. [laughs]

That’s that’s a hell of a sugar rush to give you that boost through.

I don’t know if that’s the best lesson as I’m giving advice. Say “eat a bunch of Oreos and you can write a book.”

What lesson do you want the tweens and teens that are going to read this—if there’s one big takeaway that they get from this book, what do you want it to be?

I mean the biggest lesson is truly, your dreams can come true. But there’s so many other lessons in how to get there in the book. Oh my goodness. You know. I think—and this is what I shared [Thursday]—I broke it down into steps, and that’s what I realized after looking back—sometimes things seem overwhelming. You see a dream and it just seems so overwhelming you don’t know where to start. So oftentimes you don’t. You just stop. And I hope I can prove that by breaking it down into steps and taking the advice and following the process—and again this is just my advice, this is just my opinion, I’m not saying that this is exactly what you should do, because everyone’s journey is different. But I hope that after reading it they realize that if you kind of take it one step at a time, that the impossible becomes possible. And that if you can dream it, you can do it.

It’s also going to be a very interactive book—that was actually one thing I didn’t say up there. I keep journals all the time. I don’t write in them like a diary. My journal looks like a map, like honestly a mess—if you opened it up you’d be like, “What is this?” But I’m constantly jotting down quotes or thoughts or ideas or lists. I make a lot of lists. So I kind of set the book up as like my journal, and so it’s going to be very interactive. So as the reader goes through it, I’m going to have prompts and I’m going to ask the reader to fill out the lists and do the prompts. I hope that it becomes a tool and an interactive piece that by the end of the book—I want the reader to know at the end of the book that the dreams that they wish can and do come true.

As we’re recording this, we can see the the Loki collection and the Sailor Moon behind you—is there your white whale that you’re still chasing? Do you want to do a collection of something, is there a burning desire—?

I will tell you there is an upcoming announcement that we’ll have soon where I’m getting to expand the brand in a way that is a dream come true, and it’s something we’ve been working hard on. I think for me … This is my dream come true, this is truly genuinely what I believe and feel. So many people think, “Oh, you’re being paid to say this.” No, this is a dream for me. This is what I’ve wanted my whole life. If I could work with Disney, for Disney, the rest of my life, I’d be so happy. The opportunity and the door with Disney opened up in a big way last year, and so we’re expanding in ways aside from just the book. But to me, it’s about the messaging. I’m so grateful for the inspiration that Disney gave me, and I am especially passionate about kids and tweens, because that’s the age where I feel like you can really change the course of someone’s life. So through this book and through other opportunities, I have the opportunity to speak to this newer generation. So I’m very excited about that.

I hope we can continue to to do more and grow more, especially in this fandom niche of the market, because Star Wars and Marvel [have] grown so much. Especially—when Ahsoka came out, I mean it was shocking. First of all, Star Wars was a boys’ property. But second of all, she was so inspirational, and she changed an entire generation of Star Wars fans. And now it’s so exciting to live in a time with Rey and Jyn and all of these—you know, Hera, Sabine, all these strong characters, so it’s an exciting time to be working with Star Wars and Marvel and Disney. And I have to say it’s not just Disney—it was a dream come true to be able to work with DC and Warner Brothers this year with Wonder Woman, we’ll be doing more with [her]. I feel like we’re just scratching the surface in fandom and with these amazing characters. So to be able to do more with them—not only fashion but whether it be publishing or even entertainment—I hope to do more, and continue to get these stories and these characters out there.

Sam Riedel is a former Contributor Coordinator and social media editor at The Mary Sue; for the purposes of anthropological inquiry, she’s all woman, baby. Her work has lately been published by Bitch Media, Vice, and The Establishment. Follow her on Twitter @SamusMcQueen for red hot pro wrestling takes and irregular selfies.

(images: Sam Riedel)

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Dan Van Winkle
Dan Van Winkle (he) is an editor and manager who has been working in digital media since 2013, first at now-defunct <em>Geekosystem</em> (RIP), and then at <em>The Mary Sue</em> starting in 2014, specializing in gaming, science, and technology. Outside of his professional experience, he has been active in video game modding and development as a hobby for many years. He lives in North Carolina with Lisa Brown (his wife) and Liz Lemon (their dog), both of whom are the best, and you will regret challenging him at <em>Smash Bros.</em>

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