Ashley Eckstein and I are meeting for breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien in New York City, and the place is packed. As I look for her, I notice she's texted me to say she’s already gotten us a table. Though I’ve never met her before, it doesn’t take much scanning of the room to identify her. She’s the only person wearing a Star Wars shirt.
Eckstein, a lifelong Star Wars fan, is the founder of HerUniverse, a geek clothing line that caters to women. A few years ago, she noticed that the marketplace offered little in the way of women's clothing designed for devotees of that galaxy so far, far away. Unless, of course, you were looking for a pink shirt that happened to have the movie logo on it. Eckstein also recalls that certain retailers tried to pass off garments that were clearly not designed for women. “I scoured online, and oftentimes, I found men and boys merchandise put in the girls section,” she tells me between bites of oatmeal with almond milk. (In case you were wondering, she calls herself a “vacon”: a vegan who likes bacon.)
Eckstein, 34, grew up in Orlando, FL, in the 1980s. She has loved George Lucas' sci-fi films for so long that she doesn't even remember life before them. In her earliest childhood memories, she says, “I would play Star Wars in my living room with my siblings. We had this orange-colored carpet, so we would pretend it was the desert in Tatooine.” (For the non-obsessed, that's Luke Skywalker’s sand heap of a home planet.) She always pretended to be the cute little blue-and-white droid R2-D2.
As Eckstein grew up, she never grew out of Star Wars. After high school, she decided to pursue a career as an actress and attended the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music for performance. At 19, she moved to Los Angeles where, in 2008, she landed a role as the voice of the heroine Ahsoka Tano in the animated spin-off movie Star Wars: The Clone Wars. She continues to voice the character for the series by the same name.
It was around this time that Eckstein discovered the black hole in the merchandise universe. Appalled by the lack of offerings for fangirls, she dug deeper into the matter and learned that at the time, 45% of all Star Wars devotees were female and that 80% of all consumer purchases in the United States were made by women. When she reached out to LucasFilm (the keeper of the Star Wars kingdom), the company revealed that it considers the core fan base to be an even 50-50 split between male and female. “I’m not a mathematician, but I was like, ‘These numbers aren’t adding up,’” she says. That was enough to convince Eckstein that there was an opportunity here. “If you make the stuff to wear, we’ll buy it.”
But getting a licensing agreement from LucasFilm was not as easy as she thought. “They told me no twice and said they only work with reputable companies,” she says. “I realized I wasn’t going about it the right way. So I went away for a while."
Eckstein, who has the drive and confidence of the most successful business leaders and none of their arrogance, lives her life by what she calls an "alphabet plan." “If I believe in something and I want to accomplish it, I say, ‘Okay, well here’s plan A. If plan A fails, I go to plan B," she says. "I was probably on plan G by the time I got HerUniverse up off the ground.”
Just before Christmas 2009, Eckstein partnered with the Araca Group, an entertainment and merchandising organization, and went back to LucasFilm with a more polished pitch. This time, she says, the company was supportive of her vision. “LucasFilm is really the first major franchise to step up and say, ‘Yes, we recognize we have female fans and we want to cater to them.’”
There was a catch, though. LucasFilm first gave Eckstein and her partners a license to sell only online. “At first I viewed it as very restricting, but it was the best thing they ever could have done for us,” she says. “They said, ‘Look, female merchandise hasn’t worked for us in the past. We believe in it, but you need to prove this fan base is there so that by the time you go to retail, you’ll be successful.' It forced us to go directly to the fans, go grassroots with it, and build a community.”
Eckstein used social media and the press she was getting for voicing Ahsoka to spread the word about HerUniverse. “The female fans were there, but they’d been ignored for so long," she says. "They weren't looking for the merchandise, because they didn't expect to have it.” The fans got the message — and responded rapturously. In 2010, when HerUniverse expanded from online to retail stores like Hot Topic, the collection sold out on the first day. Today, the site reaches over 200,000 customers per week. For 2015, HerUniverse projects wholesale receipts of just under $10 million. It expects to double that next year.
Beyond the booming business of it all, HerUniverse also has become a vibrant interactive haven for fangirls around the world. “In my research, I found out that, more importantly than girls wanting merchandise, girls were being bullied for liking Star Wars,” Eckstein says. She read blog post after blog post written by women who'd been the target of bullying or were speaking out against it. “They felt like they couldn’t be themselves. They were hiding a big part of who they were. So... I wanted HerUniverse to be a safe community where female fans could step into the spotlight and say, ‘Hi, I’m Ashley and I’m a Star Wars fan.’” In 2013, to shine a spotlight on these individuals, the site launched “Fangirl of the Day."
Eckstein never doubted that women would respond well to HerUniverse. What she didn't anticipate was garnering the support of men. “So many have come out and said, ‘Thank you. My daughter and I have bonded over Star Wars, and finally, she can be recognized.’” Even George Lucas — the man himself — has acknowledged Eckstein’s achievement. They met in passing in 2012, when Eckstein visited Skywalker Ranch for a business meeting. “He was aware of the line and said, ‘You’re doing some really great stuff.’ To get that compliment from George Lucas was, like, the ultimate,” she says.
Kathleen Kennedy, the president of LucasFilm and producer of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, has also given HerUniverse props: She wore the lightsaber logo tee on-stage at Star Wars Celebration last spring. “She paired it with a white blazer and some black slacks, and she just looked like the epitome of a fan, but powerful,” Eckstein says. “She’s kind of like the Kate Middleton of Star Wars, because everyone had to have that shirt after she wore it.”
HerUniverse now sells merchandise based on Marvel characters, Battlestar Galactica, and Doctor Who. The company also recently launched HerUniverse Press, which will publish books written by fans. And Eckstein is close to securing three new licenses to expand her geek clothing empire even further. “One of them I’m very excited about, but it’s not done yet, so I don’t want to jinx myself.”
As HerUniverse grows, Eckstein is committed to staying connected to the fans — including the youngest ones. She is friendly with Sarah Michelle Gellar, who voices a character on another spin-off series, Star Wars Rebels, and whose 6-year-old daughter, Charlotte, so adores Ahsoka that she named her imaginary friend after her. When the little girl was afraid to get a tooth pulled, Eckstein stepped in. “I called Sarah Michelle and recorded a message for Charlotte as Ahsoka, telling her to be strong and that the force was strong with her,” she says. It worked. Charlotte told her mother she was ready to face the dentist.
“This new generation of fangirls, they’re growing up in a different environment," Eckstein says, smiling. "It’s really exciting to see.”