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
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.