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See The Latest In “Geek Couture,” From The Creator Of A Cosplay Empire

Actor and cosplay entrepreneur Ashley Eckstein couldn’t find suitable fangirl-themed apparel line–so she started her own, Her Universe. Next, she partnered with Hot Topic and Nerdist for a San Diego Comic-Con fashion show harnessing a burgeoning trend: “geekture”

Never underestimate a woman in search of the perfect outfit.

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When Ashley Eckstein–best known as the voice of Ahsoka Tano on the animated Netflix series Star Wars: The Clone Wars–couldn’t find suitable fangirl-themed clothes for women, she created her own fashion label, Her Universe.

Since 2010, Her Universe has forged a specialty market of clothing and accessories with such retailers as Hot Topic, ThinkGeek, Disney theme park stores, and a future line with Japan’s Studio Ghibli, doubling sales annually for the past three years. At last week’s San Diego Comic-Con, Eckstein upped her brand cache with a two-hour Her Universe Fashion Show that streamed on pop culture media platform Nerdist and may become an annual event. A kind of Project Runway for geeks, the production featured 36 designs chosen from 160 entrees in a spring contest. The two winners–a judges’ and audience pick–will each design a Her Universe collection to be sold through Hot Topic.

Ashley Eckstein signs a T-shirt for Star Wars Action News reporter Berent Lawton in the Her Universe booth in the Lucasfilm Pavilion at San Diego Comic-Con.Photo by Susan Karlin

The route to fashion started in sports. Eckstein, who is married to former St. Louis Cardinals baseball player David Eckstein, was frustrated by the dearth of female-oriented sports merchandise. She took note when fellow actor Alyssa Milano started own merchandise company for female sports fans. Around that time, she was cast in Clone Wars and wondered if she could attempt the same thing in the sci-fi world.

“I was a real fan-girl and wanted similar sci-fi merchandise for women,” she says. “But it didn’t really exist–despite the fact that nearly half of sci-fi fans are women, and nearly 80″ of consumer purchases are made by women. Since I had my foot in the door at Lucasfilm, I said, ‘Hey, I’m going to Comic-Con. Let me design some female merchandise and I’ll help promote it.’ They said, ‘No, you have to have a license for that kind of thing.’ ”

A model wearing a Wolverine-inspired number poses during intermission, while audience votes were tallied.Photo by Susan Karlin

That meant partnering with a company specializing in licensing, manufacturing, and delivering merchandise to market. She found one in The Araca Group, a bicoastal theatrical production and brand management firm. Together they returned to Lucasfilm, and an agreement was born.

A main component of the brand was creating a safe haven for fangirls. “Female fans were ignored for so long–either not accepted, bullied, or treated differently,” she says. “We want to create a supportive environment where their voices can be heard. Finally, a brand just for them.”

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Eckstein waged a grassroots campaign to build that community through social media–Facebook, Twitter, websites, blog posts, message boards–as well as a Her Universe booth, anti-bullying and fangirl empowerment panels, and personal appearances at comic and Star Wars conventions. Eventually, she added strategic partners like Hot Topic, Disney, Think Geek, and others, while her product line grew to incorporate properties from Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica and Warehouse 13, BBC’s Doctor Who, CBS Consumer Product’s Star Trek franchise, AMC’s The Walking Dead, Marvel, Transformers, and Nerdist.

(L-R) Jewelry designer Tarina Tarantino and Internet celebrity iJustine were among the judges.Photo by Susan Karlin

Along the way, Eckstein noticed a burgeoning trend at conventions. “Instead of cosplay, female fans were wearing costume-inspired fashion and using the convention halls as their runway,” she says. “Why not give them an actual runway and show?”

It took a year to coordinate the show. Entrants submitted their sketches in a Her Universe competition announced online in March. The finalists–introduced in short videos throughout the show–were notified in April, then had until the July 24 pageant to realize their creations.

“Whittling down the choices was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do,” says Eckstein. “You couldn’t tell which were done by professionals or amateurs. They were all so good.”

Check out the above gallery as well as this video for show highlights:

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.

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