Project Runway Winner Ashley Nell Tipton is Breaking Fashion Barriers

The Plus Size Focused Designer (and SD Local) is Putting Plus Size Fashion on the Map

Written By: Kai Oliver-Kurtin Project Runway Winner Ashley Nell Tipton
Photography By: Michael Wesley

The Expert: Ashley Nell Tipton
Credentials: Fashion Designer
Wardrobe Essential: Printed skirt or A-line dress

To say Ashley Nell Tipton is a force to be reckoned with is an understatement. Not only did she beat out 15 fellow fashion designers during a cutthroat season of Project Runway, she also showed the first plus size collection during New York Fashion Week in the TV show’s 14-season history. At 24 years old, she’s breaking barriers and shining a spotlight on frequently marginalized consumers within the fashion industry.

Part of a large Hispanic family, Tipton learned how to sew from her grandmother at 7 years old. Upon learning she was dyslexic at about the same time, Tipton turned to sewing as an outlet to express herself creatively. While enrolled in the ArtsTECH Academy at University City High School, she was introduced to fashion design and thought she might design theater costumes. She began sewing clothes for herself and her friends, and then created a full collection for her senior project. Designing this project collection gave Tipton affirmation that she had found her future career.

“There was so much passion in drawing a sketch, making the pattern, and then creating the whole garment, ” says Tipton. “I felt so much pride seeing the end result.”

She later earned a degree in design from Fashion Careers College in San Diego. Before the school shut down, Tipton had planned to return to study business. Since she wanted to stay in America’s Finest City, she wrote a business proposal and gave it to her uncle, who loaned her $5, 000 to start her own business instead. She was able to buy sewing machines, mannequins and other used equipment from the college and was working two jobs to support herself.

While in college in 2012, Tipton was accepted to show at Full Figured Fashion Week in New York. This was her first opportunity to get her name out within the plus size fashion industry. With a clothing line in production and sales for custom-ordered garments coming in, Tipton’s business was finally getting off the ground.

Being raised in the Encanto neighborhood of Southeast San Diego gave Tipton inspiration, seeing as she saw a lot of streetwear and people dressing on trend. It gave her an eye for a variety of different styles. However, she tries to be cognizant of the laidback style outside her bubble.

“It’s summer year-round here, but I try to design for people all over the world, ” says Tipton. “It may feel like summer for us, but it may be winter for someone else—and I have customers across the globe.”

Tipton has a very eclectic style as a designer, bringing together several different fashions to create a cohesive clothing line. Her inspiration board for a collection may include urban clothing, feminine clothing with sequins, rockabilly clothing from the 1950s, androgynous clothes with clean lines and streetwear.

She typically gravitates toward the fabrics that other designers try to stay away from, such as slippery, lightweight chiffons. Tipton also likes working with upholstery and any print fabric.

“It’s a lot of tedious work, but it’s relaxing, ” she says. “I’m able to decompress while I’m behind a machine working with my hands.”

Two days after Tipton’s grandmother died, she got an email from Project Runway to apply for the show. She knew her grandmother always wanted her to audition, but she had already auditioned for other shows, Fashion Star and Styled to Rock, without success. This time she went in with purple hair and an increased comfort in her own skin, and knew she would have to give it her all in the audition tape.

With best friends by her side to help come out of her shell in front of the camera, Tipton recorded a tape and then had to wait patiently for an answer. She was shopping in Los Angeles when the show producers called and asked her to audition for an on-camera interview in two weeks.

“I couldn’t believe I was getting that close to the show, ” she says. “It was the biggest news I could ever get. At the time, I was still grieving the loss of my grandma and trying to find my purpose in life.”

Tipton’s family, friends and coworkers helped her put a portfolio and outfits together for the audition at Bunim/Murray Productions. She received great feedback from the judges, and then had another on-camera interview the following day with the network. Less than two days later they called to tell her she was a semi-finalist. A week after that, she was leaving her job styling the window displays and visuals at Gap Outlet when she received a call notifying her that she had made it on the show.

“That was everything, ” she says. “I can’t explain that feeling, but it was a reinforcement that I had what it took to do it.”

And from that point on, her life took a route for success.

“I grew up on the show and had to grow thick skin, ” she says. “It was a huge learning experience, and I really had to learn to start thinking on my own because they strip away any outside inspiration while you’re on the show—this gives you a clean canvas to create from.”

The show began airing when Tipton was back home designing her collection for New York Fashion Week and was difficult for her to relive.

“Watching it just reminds [me] of how [I was] feeling in that moment, ” she says. “The first and last episodes are the only ones I can stand to watch anymore. When I see myself cry on the show, I start crying.”

As the winner of Project Runway, Tipton received $100, 000 to help launch her business. Her winnings also include a luxury cruise, travel and hotel accommodations to destinations around the world, a luxury sports car from Lexus, a year’s worth of beauty products, a complete sewing and crafting studio, and a fashion spread in Marie Claire magazine.

While the prizes and money were fantastic rewards for Tipton after triumphing the emotionally draining show, they weren’t necessarily the ultimate for her. There’s an emotional win as well.

“It’s so rewarding to walk down the street and have people recognize me now, ” Tipton says. “They tell me how inspired they are, how much they love me, and how they were rooting for me … It really erases all the negative thoughts I have of seeing myself on the show.”

Showing at New York Fashion Week is most designers’ dream, and the exposure needed to launch their career in the fashion industry. With so much on the line, she definitely felt the pressure to break down barriers for the plus size community.

“Being the first plus size designer on Project Runway to show at New York Fashion Week felt so groundbreaking, ” Tipton says. “I never thought I would be the person to do it, but I wanted it so bad.”

If Tipton had never auditioned for the show, she would still be working to repay her loan to her uncle. Now, with the money from the show, she has been able to jump start her career: She owns a studio and runs her own business. And to top it all off, she just signed with JCPenney. So, keep an eye out for Tipton’s looks when window shopping! Can you say “fabulous?!”

Tipton isn’t setting any limits for her career. She’s busy pursuing significant opportunities and having meetings with major companies. She’s also looking for investors for her business since it takes more than $100, 000 to go into production.

With quite a following, she continues to work on branding her business and being a positive influence for her fans. She says her fans are very diverse, and her message has been to learn to accept each other and love yourself.

Since being back home, she has learned to appreciate San Diego even more.

“The fact that I’m representing for San Diego makes me want to stay here, ” she says. “This is home and I’m glad to be in a familiar city.”

Be sure to look out for her at Fashion Week San Diego in October, seeing as she continues to support other local designers.

Crystal Ball: Ashley’s High School Senior photo is captioned with “I am America’s next fashion designer for plus sizes.” Can this girl tell the future, or what?!

Ashley’s favorite fashion designers:

  1. Viktor & Rolf
  2. Marc Jacobs
  3. Karl Lagerfeld

Ashley’s favorite local spots to draw inspiration:

  1. Golden Hill Park
  2. Downtown San Diego
  3. Coronado

Native Knowledge: Tipton’s hair has been dyed lavender since 2012, except for about six months when she went back to brunette (and hated it). Kelly Osbourne was her inspiration for the bold hue.

@ashley_nell_tipton | @byashley_nell

 | Website

Kai Oliver-Kurtin is a San Diego-based writer who contributes to several national and regional publications, covering travel, dining and lifestyle.




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