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INTERVIEW: Ashley Eckstein Explains How Hot Topic Acquisition Affects Her Universe

by  in Movie News Comment
INTERVIEW: Ashley Eckstein Explains How Hot Topic Acquisition Affects Her Universe

Her Universe is one of the few companies where women can find geek fashion created just for them. It’s helped fill the gap that existed because of companies believing women aren’t interested in genres like science fiction and fantasy, and wouldn’t buy apparel inspired by them. The industry has changed a lot since Her Universe was founded by actress Ashley Eckstein (best known as the voice of Ahsoka Tano in both “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” and “Star Wars Rbels”) entered it in 2009, becoming a competitive place with more options appearing each year.

It was in this environment in late October that fans heard the news that Hot Topic is acquiring Her Universe. Hot Topic has expanded its own pop culture-inspired fashion over the years, and the two had frequently collaborated in the past. This will make Her Universe officially part of Hot Topic’s family of brands, resulting in a number of changes already announced that have fans expressing both excitement and concern.

CBR spoke with Eckstein to find out more about what this means for Her Universe, and what she’d say to fans worried about the acquisition.

CBR: How did the acquisition come about and how long has it been in the works?

Ashley Eckstein: I was not intending on selling Her Universe. We were a small fish in a big pond, and in order to keep up with everyone I just had to keep my head down, keep plugging along, keep working, and do our own thing. Out of the blue one day I got a call from Cindy Levitt, the SVP [of merchandise and marketing] from Hot Topic, and she so casually said, “Hey, I just have a question for you. Would you be open to us buying Her Universe?” That was not the question I was expecting.

It definitely was a surprise, but I have to tell you if there was ever anyone I would sell to, it would be Hot Topic because in many ways we were already working together as partners. We did the first kind of fashion collection with them, we did the first Her Universe geek couture fashion show at Comic-Con [International in San Diego] with Hot Topic. They were already such a big partner of ours so when I took a step back and looked at what was going on in the industry and really what Her Universe needed to continue to be able to grow, I was so excited because it really was an amazing opportunity and the perfect fit. That was actually about a year ago now. We had very loose conversations through the new year, but it really didn’t become serious until late spring of 2016.

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You’ll still be running Her Universe and said you’ll be able to focus more on the creative side and community now. Can you expand on what your role is going to be and what you’d like to focus on?

I’m still going to be running Her Universe day to day just like I have been from day one. But my role from the beginning always has been to focus on the creative, the marketing, the community. As the company grew, we were growing so fast. I’ve had the most incredible team at Her Universe, but we haven’t had a huge team. I think that’s been the surprising thing to fans is they thought there were a ton of people and it’s really just been a wonderful but small team. As we grew that meant the workload increased for everyone, including myself, and a lot of the business side fell on my plate. There really wasn’t anything that I wasn’t touching between contracts to budgeting.

Unfortunately, that was taking away from the community building and a lot of the creative and marketing. With this new opportunity, I will still be overseeing everything with the business but we’re going to have the infrastructure and support of Hot Topic on a lot of that where it’s going to free up my time to focus more on designs, creative, marketing, and community building. The biggest thing that is not changing and what’s most important to me is that Her Universe is a community first and foremost. Our mission statement from the beginning is that Her Universe would be a safe place for fangirls, and now I also just say fans in general, to step into the spotlight and be celebrated. I don’t care if you ever buy a single thing from us. What’s most important to me is that fans feel safe, feel empowered, and celebrated in our community. I will now have more time to do videos, create events, and really travel the nation to meet fans.

Now you’ll be offering some men’s fashion, which raised a lot of questions from fans. Can you talk a bit about the gap you hope to fill in this area?

This was a question I got a lot of and to be honest I was a bit surprised because the reason that I want to do men’s fashion is truly because of the fans. One of the most commonly asked questions that I get multiple times a week is from guys and even from women for their husbands, boyfriends, brothers, or dad…

Sometimes people ask us, “Where do you get your ideas?” and I say, “Well, it’s just the fans.” We’re on social media, we’re out at events, and we’re just listening and asking, “What do the fans want?”

I’ve always said that I don’t want to go into an arena or a category that is a crowded space and is already being done and done well. I think when you take a step back and you look at what’s being done, men’s T-shirts are being done. They’re being done well and there’s a ton of them. But men’s fashion isn’t really being done…I think there’s very limited men’s fashion out there… I’m just looking to do what’s not being done.

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You’re going to be expanding into a lot of other areas with plus sizes, fashion categories and activewear. Hot Topic has access to a lot of licenses as well. What can people expect to see in these categories and what are you excited about exploring?

I’m super excited to expand the categories, several of which we’ve already dabbled in and several which have just been more of a dream of mine and I haven’t been able to do yet. I actually sat down with the buyers at Torrid the other day, and it’s been a dream of mine to do more work with Torrid. That was truly, for us, a bandwidth issue and just not having a big enough team to focus on plus size collections, because I think the biggest misconception is that people think you can just size up… That’s not the case. Plus sizes are a whole different fit spec, and often times, design. What’s important to me is that we create designs that are the most flattering and best fitting that we can. To do that properly, we really needed more support and infrastructure. Now we’re going to be able to do that.

Look for more designs and collections that we’re going to do with Torrid, but also on HerUniverse.com. We’re already going to be doing plus sizes with Disney Parks. That was probably the thing I was most excited about because I heard the fans’ request and I’ve wanted to do more plus sizes from day one. I just didn’t have the capabilities to do it.

Also, aside from men’s fashion, which was a top request, I’m excited to continue with activewear. We have a new line that’s coming to Kohl’s next year, so we’re already working on that and I’m so proud of it… I can’t quite say yet what it’s for, but I think fans are going to be happy with it. We’ll also be doing more activewear on our website and through Hot Topic. We’re talking to Disney about runDisney. There are all sorts of opportunities that I feel like were there, we just weren’t able to take advantage of all the opportunities coming our way.

For me, I think the only way to really sustain in the fashion industry is to continue to listen to what the fans want and continue to evolve. I have big dreams on my wishlist and with this acquisition I know we’re going to be able to do that.

Will there be any change in prices that fans should keep an eye out for?

The change in pricing always depends on the quality of the product. One thing I will say is we will not sacrifice quality. That was actually a big concern that I’ve seen from fans. They immediately assumed that our quality would decline and that is just not the case at all. Quality is so important to us and if anything you’re going to see our quality improve because our resources to make this product is going to improve. So our pricing is generally going to stay the same. We want to be that affordable retailer that can provide great quality but for a great price. Especially at Hot Topic, ThinkGeek and Kohl’s, generally look for our prices to stay the same. On HerUniverse.com, our prices are going to stay the same but I hope to be able to experiment as well and really offer some nicer quality items over time. But our mission of maintaining and being that affordable brand will continue.

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You’ll also now be offering designs in Europe. Where will European fans be able to find products?

Hot Topic is owned by Sycamore Partners, which is a private equity firm, and one of the other companies that they own is EMP, and they’re just in Europe. They’re mostly a catalogue company similar I would say to ThinkGeek and we’re moving forward [with them] I would say in the second half of 2017. We’re very excited to get our products over and distributed through EMP so we’ll definitely make an announcement once our products are officially available.

With Her Universe still being available at multiple retailers, I hope that we’ll see more collections like the Star Trek line just released with ThinkGeek. Will there be any changes to these lines created with other partners? Will Hot Topic have input into these collections?

No. Her Universe is still going to remain a standalone brand. We’re still going to have our core team, but we’re going to have just the infrastructure and support of a larger company to bring our vision to life. Hot Topic has a family of brands. There’s Torrid, BoxLunch and Lovesick, and they’re all very different brands. Her Universe is just going to be one of those brands.

Her Universe will continue to remain what the fans have grown to know and trust about us. In terms of our partnerships with other retailers, you’re still going to be able to expect the same thing that we’ve been doing and the Star Trek collection is such a good example of what we hope to continue to do in the future. In fact I have a call with ThinkGeek to discuss more collections for next year. I can assure the fans that Her Universe is not just going to become a Hot Topic brand.

You’ve been very open with fans answering their questions on social media like Twitter and doing a live Facebook Q&A. What would you say to fans still anxious about the acquisition or that might still have concerns?

I would just ask the fans for their trust. Her Universe has been my baby from day one. I care about Her Universe just like I care for a family member — to me, Her Universe isn’t just mine, it’s all of ours. We did this together. I said Her Universe from day one has been a group effort and I take that very seriously. I only would do this if I knew 100 percent that it was the right thing for the brand. This was not a decision that was made quickly or lightly. This took several months to actually become a reality so lots of thought, lots of questions, lots of analysis went into this. I know this is the right thing for the brand and I ask fans for their patience and trust. I will show them and I will prove to them that this is the right thing. I’m very happy and excited about this.

Why I say patience is because in a perfect world when we announced we would have had everything figured out and we would have had several collections that we could launch immediately, but that’s a perfect world. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. We’re pretty much starting fresh right now and so what we’re working on today is really not going to come out until July. We have a couple things up our sleeves like the new line at Kohl’s [and] the fashion show collection. We have those coming out in late spring, early summer and then look for truly the examples of what this new partnership will bring from July onward.

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