Ashley Graham On Her Dressbarn Collaboration and How She Is Changing the Fashion Industry

Fashion is changing in more way than one. Primarily, it has become more democratic, more inclusive, and much less stuffy. Could this be a result of the Internet and social media platforms giving unfettered access to anyone with a connection, showing stylish women of varying sizes and ethnicities? Or could it be that the masses are just tired of following the dictates of select purveyors? Either way, a change was needed. So long has there been an idealized model of beauty, an unattainable standard that women starved themselves to reach. But thanks in large part to activists in the industry, women can now have their cake and eat it too—literally!

One such person is Ashley Graham, the New York-based model (and Forbes 30 Under 30 member) who has appeared in the pages of Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar and other high-fashion glossies. Most significantly, she is the first plus-size model to grace the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, proving that you don’t have to be a size 2 to be considered sexy. Indeed, Graham has achieved a great deal of notoriety, which she is not taking lightly, and is putting to good use. She has become one of the most vocal proponents for change, speaking at youth groups and conferences about how the fashion industry needs to evolve past the gamine-girl-only mindset.

BEYOND by Ashley Graham.

BEYOND by Ashley Graham.

Adding to her roster of achievements is her new collection, Beyond by Ashley Graham, which she has designed with Dressbarn, a specialty retailer that offers occasion apparel at wallet-friendly prices. Comprised of dresses made of scuba material, flirty prints and flattering silhouettes, the line is meant to reach women of disparate body types. And with sizes raging from 4 to 24, it certainly does.

“Beyond by Ashley Graham speaks to the true DNA of Dressbar; fashionable dresses at a smart value point, for all sizes,” said Lori Wagner, Dressbarn’s Executive Vice President of Digital Commerce, in a statement. “Ashley’s collection brings a new point of view to Dressbar, which is smart, sophisticated and speaks directly to our consumer.”

In celebration of the collection’s launch, Graham and Dressabarn hosted a dinner at The Musket Room in New York City, where she spoke with fervor about her designs, and how she wants to show women that “beauty is beyond size.”

How did you initially feel about entering an industry where the ideal body type is a size 2?
I never knew any different, cause I’ve always been a bigger girl.  When I was approached to be a model, it was one of those instances when I said, ‘OK, sure.’ Then I was told that I’m plus size, and I didn’t know what that meant. On my first trip to New York, I was told that I was fat by my agent, and casting directors. I moved to New York at 17, and gained a lot of weight. It was my version of the freshman 50, which every person goes through. I looked in the mirror and saw too much cellulite and back fat. I was doing things that were so degrading to myself, and wasn’t what my mother instilled in me. All of a sudden, I realized that if I want to make money and if I want to have a successful career, I would have to first love that woman in the mirror. My whole career is based on this exterior. I told myself: ‘you are better than what you think; and you mother, Linda Graham, has instilled better values and morals in you. Remind yourself of those things.’ I had a come-to-Jesus moment.  Thankfully, my mother instilled such confidence in me that hearing these things later on didn’t affect me too deeply. Of course, I’ve had my ups and downs with loving my body, and accepting who I was, but, overall, I never got caught up in the industry mainly loving sizes 0, 2 and 4.

BEYOND by Ashley Graham.

BEYOND by Ashley Graham.

How would you describe the plus-size community in the fashion industry?
We’re all friends. We’re not best friends, but we’re all pretty tight. We look out for each other. We know that it’s power in numbers. I’ve always said: you’ll know that the industry has changed when you don’t see one girl on top, but multiple curvy girls on magazines, on covers, making it.

Given your platform, what have you done to change the perceived standard of beauty?
First of all, being on the cover of Sports Illustrated—the first size-14 girl on the cover—was one thing in and of itself. If I hadn’t done any work until that point, then that alone is huge. Honestly, I’ve made it a point to be vulnerable and talk about my imperfections. I went on TEDx and talked about my cellulite, my back fat, my thick thighs that giggle, my awkward-shaped butt. There are so many things that women are not talking about because we live in a society that promotes this idea of perfection. But I’m sitting here telling you that my body is not perfect, your body is not perfect. So why are we striving for perfection? By being open, I think that I’ve changed the lives of young girls, and let them know that, regardless of their size, they are beautiful.

Who do you admire in the fashion industry, and why?
Kathy Ireland is one person that I’ve admired. She is old school; she was a Sports Illustrated girl; a businesswoman who had multiple Forbes covers. She is an icon in my book. And she’s done everything in a very classy way.  I mean, now she successfully sells laminates.

BEYOND by Ashley Graham.

BEYOND by Ashley Graham.

Is this why you wanted to go into business?
Yes, she inspired me to be a businesswoman, which is why I created my lingerie line.  My dresses at Dressbarn came about because I knew I wanted to do a ready-to-wear that was affordable and accessible to every woman.

Tell us more about that.
The dresses go from size 4 to 24, and the prices range from $48 to $66. You can buy them online or in store. Dressbarn is nationwide. My lingerie line has become so successful, and designing dresses was just a natural progression. I mean, I’m a dress girl—you’ll always find me in one. And want girls who look up to me to be able to dress like me. I want girls who are above, say, a size 18 to be able to wear fashionable clothes.

So how does Beyond by Ashley Graham differ from other plus-size lines?
The main difference is that it’s personal to me. We’re not just smacking print on a T-shirt, or just putting different cuts together.  We’re thinking about the woman and her shape, and how a dress will translate from size 4 to 24. Also, if I’m not going to wear it, we’re not going to design it. These pieces are currently living in my closet.

Do you think your name carries a lot of weight in the plus-size community?
100 percent!

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