Ashley Nell Tipton’s first retail job introduced her to a community of plus-size women underserved by the fashion industry. It was a sales role that morphed into that of an ersatz therapist, she says — she helped talk customers out of their insecurities and into clothes that made them feel confident. The experience would drive her to a career as a designer and spokesperson for a plus-size community that’s anything but niche: 67 percent of women in the U.S. are at least a size 14.
Ashley was just 7 when her grandmother taught her how to paint and sew, and she found comfort in designing as a means of expressing herself. “It felt so good to have control over something that I could create,” she says. By high school, she had already crafted her first collection. She recruited her friends as models, staged a photo shoot and uploaded the images to Tumblr for feedback.
Overnight, the images garnered thousands of likes. The comments were flooded with requests to buy the pieces. “I felt like I had something that I needed to run with,” Ashley says. The newfound confidence inspired her to pursue fashion design in college and consider applying for Project Runway, a celebrity-hosted TV series that has launched the careers of designers such as Christian Siriano. And, when her grandmother passed away that same year, in 2015, she thought to herself, I’m going to do this for her.
Ashley was not only chosen as a contestant on Project Runway; that year, she also became the first plus designer to win the competition. And, for the first time in the show’s 14-year history, its judges created space for Ashley to design the initial plus collection to see the runway at the Fashion Week finale. Project Runway finally gave plus fashion its overdue moment in the spotlight.
The positive response to Ashley’s triumph inspired the show’s further commitment to diverse representation. Before the premiere of Season 16, judge Heidi Klum told Entertainment Tonight, “I believe we should have done [it] already years and years and years ago.”
She asked the brand to increase their top size to a 32 (from a 24) as a condition of accepting the offer. They agreed.
After her win, Ashley says she was left wondering if she earned it because she was the best choice or because the show was trying to be inclusive. The opportunity, however, led to multiple offers from the likes of Disney, Torrid and Lane Bryant, and it helped to change her internal narrative. She won, Ashley says, because “I deserved to, because of talent and the collection that I created.”
Ultimately she started her formal design career with JCPenney, attracted by the chain’s reach in the U.S. “I wanted [plus] women to feel that they could go into any mall and find a department for them,” she says. She asked the brand to increase their top size to a 32 (from a 24) as a condition of accepting the offer. They agreed. Ashley’s influence helped bring a new customer base through JCPenney’s doors by shifting their approach to plus clothing — from comfort-only to style. “[The customers were] so excited to wear horizontal stripes or a bomber jacket with sequins,” she says.
In November 2017, Ashley launched her first solo collection, sold via her online store. Without ties to another brand, she was able to design for herself and outside of the “safe” confines of the JCPenney customer. Her collection launched with bodysuits and mesh — shapes and fabrics not traditionally seen in plus. “A lot of plus-size women use the excuse that there’s not enough fashion stuff for us in our size,” she says. “I want to put that excuse to rest.” Her customer, she says, is a woman who is unapologetic and “not afraid to dress up.”
Due in part to influencers like Ashley and other emerging designers in the space, plus is getting the attention it deserves. The average woman in the U.S. is, after all, a size 16–18. “We’re our own customers,” say Gabi Gregg and Nicolette Mason, plus fashion bloggers and founders of Premme. Similar to Ashley’s motivations, Premme was created out of a frustration with the lack of fashion options for plus women, and is a reaction to major brands that they say are treating plus as a trend. “This isn’t a trend for us,” they say. “This is who we are.”
Some still interpret the word “plus” as pejorative. The solution, they say, is not to drop familiar language but to change perceptions about it.
While Ashley is finding success in designing outside of traditional plus-size confines and helping to redefine the industry, she says the biggest challenges to overcome are language and attitudes. The 2016 #droptheplus movement argued that there should be no size distinction between plus and straight sizes, but Ashley disagrees. The plus shopper has different needs, and the fit and construction of plus garments require unique considerations.
It’s important to use the word “plus,” says Ashley’s manager, Andrew Bisaha, because it’s the term potential customers are using to search. “Ashley’s in the business of selling clothing,” he says, “and we have a website where we have to put a size on things.”
But some still interpret the word “plus” as pejorative. The solution, they say, is not to drop familiar language but to change perceptions about it. That’s why, as Ashley grows her personal brand online, she’s also throwing her energy into creating online videos.
With many brands still using size 10 models in plus ads, healthy body attitudes aren’t yet coming from the top. The plus community, she says, needs more than just great fashion, it needs a voice. Ashley hopes to use her influence to help women see themselves in a new light and then get them into great clothes. “I want people to feel like themselves and know who they are is perfect,” she says.
Photographs by Michelle Groskopf