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SDCC 2019: Her Universe founder Ashley Eckstein talks fashion, inclusion and mental health

Daily News - 7/17/2019

Jul. 17--By Beatriz E. Valenzuela

For the last six years, yards and yards of tafeta, cotton and even terrycloth bedazzled and festooned with sequins, feathers and crystals have sashayed their way down the runway during the Her Universe Fashion Show at Comic-Con International. In that short amount of time. the geek couture fashion competition has turned out dozens of winners who were given the opportunity to design a fashion line for Hot Topic.

What the show also did, away from the lights of the runway and the cameras of the online and print press, was to launch the dreams of hundreds more.

"I'm completely honored and humbled," said Her Universe founder, Ashley Eckstein. "It's always surreal when designers come and tell me they completely changed the direction of their life. That they left the job they weren't happy in to pursue their desire for fashion or to be creative."

One such fashionista is Tony B. Kim, owner and founder of Hero Within. Kim's designs didn't win or place in Eckstein's fashion show. Kim never even submitted a design, but he says Eckstein and her vision of elevated nerdy fashion spoke to him.

"You can say she was a huge inspiration for me," Kim said. "Back in 2015, I remember going to her fashion panel and learning as much as I could from her. We have a personal relationship with it. We put it on our bodies. Everyone wakes up and makes a fashion choice. It's something personal and says something about you. Ashley had such a vision and she really opened the door for young designers to live their dreams."

Just one short year later, Kim was invited to join Eckstein on stage for that very same SDCC panel.

"I was sitting next to her and thinking, 'This is crazy! Literally a year ago I was in the audience!'" Kim said.

"It's always so exciting when you do those panels, and I love, love, love when I see them go off and make it happen," she said.

This year Eckstein hopes to continue inspiring young designers at the July 18 show in the Harbor ballroom at the Manchester Grand Hyatt hotel in San Diego where Her Universe, DreamWorks' "She-Ra and the Princesses of Power" and Cartoon Network's "Steven Universe" have teamed up to bring a whole new bumper crop of talented designers to Comic-Con to show the world the power of fashion, this year's theme.

"I grew up with She-Ra and I was inspired by the Princess of Power," she said. "We design an outfit like an armor you're putting on for the day to fight the daily battle of life and to remind you, you are powerful."

At the heart of affording everyone the ability to feel powerful, Eckstein said, is the overall idea of inclusion and community.

Both the DreamWorks and Cartoon Network shows have been praised for their inclusive themes acceptance and LGBTQ representation. And Hot Topic has long been a retailer that has supported inclusion, she said.

"Being inclusive has always been really important to me from day one," Eckstain said. "'She-Ra,' Cartoon Network and Hot Topic, we're all making that statement with this show this year."

"She-Ra and the Princesses of Power" is a presenting sponsor of this year's fashion show where 24 designers from across the country will compete for a chance to win the opportunity to design a line of clothing for Hot Topic. "Steven Universe" is a presenting sponsor for the Her Universe Junior Fashion Show for designers age 6 through 17. Last year's Junior Fashion Show winners created a Powerpuff Girls 20th anniversary capsule collection for BoxLunch.

For Eckstein, a big part of being inclusive also means including a conversation about mental health in the geek community, especially among women and young girls who often find themselves cyber-bullied.

"I even found myself the subject of some pretty bad cyber-bullying when I toured for my book, 'It's Your Universe,' and I had fans and girls come up to me and tell me about the bullying they were experiencing."

Hearing those stories and going through it first-hand, Eckstein decided to bring mental health out of the shadows and talk about it plainly through Her Universe.

"I thought, 'You know what, just like we broke a stereotype about female sci-fi fans, it's time to break the stereotype around mental health, to use it for good.' It's something that's very important for me in my own life. I want to be a voice for it."

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