How Ashley Eckstein went from 'Star Wars' actress to geek fashion mogul

Key Points
  • Ashley Eckstein's geek fashion empire started with the search for a "Star Wars" T-shirt.
  • Nearly a decade later, Her Universe is a multimillion-dollar fashion empire.
  • Eckstein continues to search for that "unicorn design," the one that appeals to a wide range of fans.
Ashley Eckstein participates in Star Wars Weekend at Walt Disney World.
Gustavo Caballero | Getty Images

It all started with the search for a T-shirt.

In 2008, actress Ashley Eckstein had been cast as the voice of Ahsoka Tano in "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" and went looking for women's Star Wars clothing that she could wear to conventions and celebration events. But there was one problem — she couldn't find any.

"I wanted items that girls could wear every day, not a costume," Eckstein said. "This was something that you want to show off, your fandom in your daily life, whether it is at school or work or going and running errands on the weekends."

So, she decided to make her own. Nearly a decade later, Eckstein's company, Her Universe, is a multimillion-dollar fashion empire.

The fashion and lifestyle brand for fangirls sells a range of products from dresses and hoodies to jewelry and collectibles. Her Universe, which was acquired by privately held Hot Topic in October 2016, has expanded from selling Star Wars merchandise to offering licensed products from Disney, Marvel, the BBC, Studio Ghibli and the Syfy Channel.

Source: Her

"I wanted Star Wars clothes made for me and I honestly thought they existed," she said. "So, I went shopping one day and I came up empty handed. I scoured the internet and, once again, came up empty handed. So then I started doing my research because I know I'm not alone, and found out that half of all sci-fi and fantasy fans are women and girls and so I thought somebody has to do something about this."

Eckstein tried and failed twice to get a Star Wars license from Lucasfilm, despite touting her work on "The Clone Wars."

"Naively, I knew nothing about licensing, nothing about making merchandise, but I went to Lucasfilm," she said. "And they quickly told me, 'no', and they told me 'no' twice. So, I went away because I realized that I wasn't doing it the right way."

That's when Eckstein started her company and found a manufacturing partner. After that, she went back to Lucasfilm.

The third time around, Lucasfilm greenlit Eckstein for the license and she began selling her first line of female fan-centric T-shirts.

The initial goal was to steer clear of the color pink, said Eckstein. Her rationale was that the only shirts available to women at the time were pink and they needed a bit more variety in their geek wardrobe.

Since the brand's debut in 2010, Her Universe has expanded its range of products to include not only T-shirts but dresses, sweaters, activewear, leggings and outerwear. And, yes, some of those designs are pink.

Source: Her Universe

Of course, designing with fans in mind isn't always easy.

"Sometimes what we want as the hardcore fan is not what the mainstream wants," Eckstein said. "And to be successful in retail, you have to design products that will speak to everyone, the casual fan and the hardcore one. If you find that design, that does that, that's like the unicorn design."

Eckstein said that the brand had bottled lightning in 2015 when Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy wore one of Her Universe's designs during a "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" panel with director J.J. Abrams in Anaheim, California.

The design, a series of lightsabers curled and situated to spell out "Star Wars" quickly sold out online and continues to be a top-seller for the site.

Producer Kathleen Kennedy (L) and director J.J. Abrams speak onstage during Star Wars Celebration 2015 on April 16, 2015 in Anaheim, California.
Getty Images

At Star Wars Celebration Orlando in April this year, Kennedy wore another one of Her Universe's designs.

Eckstein said that the brand sold out of almost all its merchandise the during the convention this year, noting that she expects to see a boost in sales now that the Celebration collection is available online.

Many of the collection's pieces are designed by actual fans. Starting in 2014, Her Universe has hosted an annual fashion show at San Diego Comic-Con. The winning designers are brought on board to work with the Hot Topic team in creating a new collection.

The fan designers help to bring fresh ideas to the company and stay close to what fans want in their geek fashion. The winners of the 2015 fashion show, Leetal Platt and Kelly Cercone, helped design the looks in the "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" fashion line.

"You want to be inspired by your favorite character, you even want to look like your favorite character, but you don't want to wear a costume," Eckstein said.

That was the inspiration behind many of the looks that Platt and Cercone created for the collection, especially for pieces like the Captain Phasma jacket, Rey's hooded cardigan and Finn's jacket.

Source: Star Wars; Hot Topic

The Captain Phasma jacket, in particular, takes inspiration from the character but isn't an overtly "Star Wars" design. The red piping mimics the red stripe on Phasma's cape, while the stitching designs on the torso are indicative of the ribbing of the character's under armor. Not to mention, the shiny material is a play on Phasma's glinting silver armor.

Eckstein's company is competing in a growing market. Retail sales for licensed products grew to $251.7 billion in 2015, according to the 2016 International Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Association's Annual Global Licensing Industry Survey.

Apparel sales alone were a 15.1 percent slice of that total, coming in at $37.9 billion.

Eckstein said that fans can expect to see more fashion collections from Her Universe in the future because of the support the brand has gotten after it was acquired by Hot Topic last year. She said that she now has the resources to create more clothing lines and to expand her collections to the plus-sized community more easily.

"Her Universe was growing so much that it needed bigger parents, it need more infrastructure, it needed more support," Eckstein said.

The brand is already slated to release a Haunted Mansion line, an "Alice in Wonderland" line and a series of Star Wars-themed poodle skirts in the coming year.

Disclosure: The Syfy Channel is owned by CNBC's parent company NBC Universal.