Ash­ley

Two mil­lion peo­ple watched her TEDx talk, she’s walked run­ways, founded a swimwear and lin­gerie line, and writ­ten a book. Donna Karan in­vites the world’s most suc­cess­ful curve model into her stu­dio

ELLE (UK) - - Wonder Women -

Ash­ley Gra­ham is sit­ting on a gi­ant cush­ion in Donna Karan’s West Vil­lage branch of Ur­ban Zen, the fash­ion brand and non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion the renowned de­signer founded 10 years ago. Ash­ley ar­rives post-work­out in vel­vet track­suit bot­toms, an A.L.C. top, lace-up an­kle boots and a Coach leather jacket, and talks en­thu­si­as­ti­cally about the la­tex dress she’s wear­ing tonight for a din­ner in hon­our of De­sigual creative di­rec­tor Jean-Paul Goude. ‘I’m so ex­cited,’ she says. ‘La­tex is fun. I’m not go­ing to be wear­ing any un­der­wear. My big­gest pet peeve is a [vis­i­ble] panty­line.’

The 29-year-old, who turns 30 in Oc­to­ber, is chang­ing the fash­ion world and it isn’t dif­fi­cult to see why. Beau­ti­ful and with in­fec­tious con­fi­dence, Ash­ley is a pi­o­neer­ing body ac­tivist. Af­ter be­ing told for years she wasn’t suit­able for ed­i­to­rial work as a US size 14 (UK size 16), she co-founded her own mod­el­ling col­lec­tive, ALDA, which means ‘wave’ in Ice­landic and sym­bol­ises the sea change she hopes to bring about in the in­dus­try when it comes to body di­ver­sity. Ash­ley has been in­stru­men­tal in this shift, prov­ing her crit­ics wrong and walk­ing for Michael Kors, while ap­pear­ing on nu­mer­ous mag­a­zine cov­ers. She also has cloth­ing, lin­gerie and swimwear lines, and is a judge on Amer­ica’s Next Top Model.

When Donna Karan walks in to meet Ash­ley, the con­ver­sa­tion flows as Ash­ley tries on pieces from Donna’s lat­est col­lec­tion, be­fore mov­ing to the rooftop. It’s like watch­ing two old (very glam­orous) friends shop­ping to­gether.

DONNA KARAN: How do you

start your day?

ASH­LEY GRA­HAM: I do aerial yoga, but it’s not a part of my ev­ery­day rou­tine. I pray ev­ery morn­ing. I come from a Chris­tian back­ground, and when I moved to New York, I got away from God. Then I re­alised that liv­ing here, you need some­thing to keep you grounded or you’ll go crazy.

DK: I have to find the calm in the chaos, too.

AG: Yeah, I bet. It all comes from a per­sonal as­pect – ev­ery­thing that hap­pens to you per­son­ally is in­spi­ra­tion for your work.

DK: There’s no ques­tion about it. I swore I’d never be a de­signer. AG: [laughs] Re­ally?

DK: I’ll have to give you the au­to­bi­og­ra­phy I wrote be­cause I want to tell you the whole story. How did you get into the fash­ion in­dus­try?

AG: At 12, I was a 5’9” curvy girl and I was con­sid­ered plus size. That’s when I did my first job, [mod­el­ling] a see-through bra. My mum took me and I got paid $300. That’s kind of how it started. Then I moved to New York at 17, and I didn’t re­alise that mod­el­ling was a ca­reer. I thought, ‘Oh, I’m a pretty girl in the city,’ and I didn’t and un­der­stand some­thing. too. a swim­suit turned I have col­lec­tion it I that into a took lin­gerie it be­ing be­ing could and a col­lec­tion, de­signer, a now turn model into I’ve got with an Ma­rina all-denim Ri­naldi. cap­sule You’ve col­lec­tion been a pi­o­neer in siz­ing – you, Michael [Kors] and Calvin [Klein] have al­ways gone up into the curve sizes, but there are so many de­sign­ers who your DK: Have haven’t. body? you al­ways showed off

AG: I have, yes. My prob­lem, though, was I kept get­ting big­ger

be­cause I wasn’t tak­ing care of my body. I wasn’t work­ing out, I was eat­ing what­ever be­cause I was in this cat­e­gory – ‘plus size’ – and it got out of con­trol. I started hat­ing my body, but I never hid it with cloth­ing be­cause I al­ways felt sexy in­side. The mo­ment that I started re­spect­ing my­self, my clothes changed. I wasn’t wear­ing stuff that just fit, I was wear­ing clothes that were a part of my style, which was cool, ca­sual, chic, yet show­ing some­thing off. My mother just lost 40lbs, and she still doesn’t get it. I al­ways say, ‘Show off your body! It’s beau­ti­ful! You don’t have to wear over­sized tu­nics, show off your in­cred­i­ble waist.’

DG: I try to ac­cent the pos­i­tive and delete the neg­a­tive.

AG: Yes! You have to ed­u­cate.

I never hid my body. I al­ways felt sexy in­side

ASH­LEY GRA­HAM by DON NA KARAN

DK: Oh, I can’t tell you, peo­ple who are size four say, ‘Oh my God, my butt’s big.’ I go: ‘You have got to be kid­ding me.’ [Ash­ley bursts into fits of laugh­ter] If you take a larger-size skirt, you look dou­ble the size.

AG: That’s what I say about swimwear. The big­ger the swimwear, the big­ger you’re go­ing to look.

DK: Ex­actly. What’s the best fash­ion ad­vice you’ve re­ceived? AG: Well, my mother al­ways told me that my belt, my shoes and my purse had to match [laughs]. I wouldn’t say it’s the best, but I’ve never re­ceived ad­vice that has stuck with me like that. Some­thing I’ve re­alised my­self is that I have to wear what’s go­ing to make me feel good.

DK: Good for you. Most peo­ple don’t. Are you ever afraid of try­ing some­thing?

AG: No, I’m not like that. I love to wear an over­sized men’s suit, but I love a body­con dress, too. I know what doesn’t look good on me: a dropped seam, and that’s OK. But your the­ory as a de­signer – ‘I don’t have plus sizes, plus-size women just fit into my clothes’ – that’s bril­liant. I hate the phrase ‘plus size’. DK: What do you pre­fer?

AG: If some­one’s go­ing to la­bel me, I’m go­ing to say, ‘I’m a curvy model.’

DK: You know, the Christies [Turling­ton and Brink­ley], Iman and all those girls, they all had bod­ies. It was a woman, that’s what I was dress­ing. I wasn’t think­ing about plus or mi­nus.

AG: Plus or mi­nus! I love you. Ex­actly – be­cause if we’re plus, they [sam­ple-size mod­els] have to be mi­nus.

DK: How do you think the fash­ion in­dus­try needs to change? AG: We should see more curvy women on the run­way. Fash­ion needs to be more di­verse. I do see in­clu­sion hap­pen­ing with size, race and age, but it’s been a slow process. I’m at IMG now and I’ve been there five years. That was step one: your agent be­lieves in you and be­lieves in your size. Then it’s the ed­i­tors, the de­sign­ers and the buy­ers.

DK: What made you start your own mod­el­ling col­lec­tive?

AG: I was at Ford Mod­els for about 10 years be­fore they shut down the whole curve di­vi­sion. Me and five other curve mod­els banded to­gether, like, ‘Screw this, we know that we’re mon­ey­mak­ers, we know that we’ve got an au­di­ence.’ We gave our busi­ness pro­posal to IMG and, bada bing, bada boom. I’m a brand, but IMG has also helped me cre­ate that – mod­els go there to start a busi­ness be­yond just be­ing a pretty face. That’s the best part of be­ing a model to­day – you can have some­thing to say, be­cause it’s a plat­form.

DK: Be­yond be­ing on a run­way.

AG: Yeah, ex­actly. We wanted to go to an agency that had never done plus size be­fore.

DK: What made you start your own lin­gerie line?

AG: Well, this is another thing you and I have in com­mon, we wanted some­thing for our­selves, so we made it [laughs].

DK: That’s why I did un­der­wear! That’s why I did hosiery, that’s why I did ev­ery­thing, be­cause it was self­ish. I couldn’t find stuff for me.

AG: Ex­actly. I wanted sexy, sup­port­ive lin­gerie, so I cre­ated it. DK: Does your faith af­fect your ca­reer de­ci­sions at all? AG: My mother al­ways told me the per­son you are in church is the per­son you should be in your daily life. When I’m shoot­ing lin­gerie or Sports Il­lus­trated, I’m aware that my pas­tor fol­lows me on In­sta­gram. You should be the same per­son from the mo­ment you wake up to when you go to bed.

DK: God bless you for do­ing it. I’ve been do­ing me­di­a­tion and yoga since I was 18 years old and I’m still try­ing to fig­ure out how to do it all day long. In your book you de­scribe your grand­mother’s hos­til­ity when she first met your hus­band Justin. Were you sur­prised? Are older gen­er­a­tions less likely to em­brace di­ver­sity?

AG: My hus­band is black, his grand­mother is Ital­ian.

DK: Black Ital­ian?

AG: Yes. Meow! You want to see him? [shows Donna a photo on her phone] DK: Oh, hello! And what does he do?

AG: He’s a cin­e­matog­ra­pher di­rec­tor. And he likes to cin­e­mato­graph­i­cally di­rect me! But here’s the prob­lem: when my grand­mother met him, she was 73 years old, she couldn’t look him in the eye. It’s a gen­er­a­tional thing. When she left, she said: ‘Tell that man I said good­bye.’ But the best thing that my hus­band ever said to me, and I’ll never for­get it, he said: ‘Racism is never sur­pris­ing, but it’s al­ways dis­ap­point­ing.’ And it stuck with me. In un­der­stand­ing that I’ll never get it, we’ll never get it be­cause we’re white, but if we con­sciously make an ef­fort to talk about it, to have these racial con­ver­sa­tions, then that’s how we’re go­ing to change the world and peo­ple’s world out­look.

Pho­to­graphs by GILLES BEN­SI­MON

GILLES BEN­SI­MON

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