Meet The First Plus-Size Designer To Win Project Runway

Photo: Barbra Nitke/Lifetime.
Last night was the Project Runway finale. I'm woman enough to admit it — I cried. When Ashley Nell Tipton’s gorgeous collection came down the runway — on a bevy of equally gorgeous full-figured models — I started sniffling. When they announced her as the winner, I bawled. Not only was this a monumental moment for boundary-breaking Tipton, but it was also a monumental moment for the plus-size women of America (which make up over 65% of the purchasing population). It’s pure proof that the fashion industry has is really, finally paying attention.

Tipton has evolved from showing her designs at plus-size-specific fashion events to having her creations on the runway during New York Fashion Week; a feat many designers never experience besides in their dreams. Although Tipton was once one of those dreamers, this is her reality now as the winner of Project Runway.

"I couldn’t believe it," said Tipton. "I had flashbacks of everything that I’ve had to go through in my life and all the struggles — I’m very, very excited and I’m just so proud." I spoke with Tipton the day before the first part of the finale aired and again after her win was announced last night — read below for her thoughts on being a first, in many ways.
Photo: Barbra Nitke/Lifetime.
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What do you think about you or your designs put you ahead of the other contestants?
"Maybe it is because I had a plus-size collection. That's never been done. It was very, very different from what we’ve always seen season after season, and I think the judges could see that I pushed myself. I was taking a real risk by designing plus-size, because either it could go really bad or it could go really well — there was no middle ground. I think they just saw the potential for what this market could be like."

When did they film the finale and told you that you won?
"It was during New York Fashion Week, when the Project Runway collections were shown."

Wow! You had to sit on that knowledge for so long! How did you keep it together, having a secret that big?
"I think it was because I still couldn’t believe it. I literally had to have one of those moments where I had to be like, ‘Ashley, you just won Project Runway!’ It definitely was hard thing to keep it in. You saw me a few days afterwards at Addition Elle, and it was the hardest thing to keep my mouth shut when I would have loved to have shared it with you in that moment."

I watched Rachel Zoe’s show after the Project Runway finale and I saw that you got to be on with Kelly Osbourne and Derek Blasberg. What was it like meeting people who are considered icons in the fashion industry?
"When they told me I was going to be on Rachel Zoe’s show, I flipped out and started crying, because I absolutely love her. And a few days later, they told me that Kelly Osbourne was going to be on the show and I flipped out again! I thought, Oh my god, this is the time that I’m going to finally be able to hug her, and actually talk to her, because we had been sending secret messages through other people just to be able to communicate with each other [after Osbourne appeared as a guest judge on an episode]. She told producers after the show that she sees so much of herself in me and she believes in me so much. She wants me to keep going and keep pushing. Her words of motivation were what got me through the show."
Photo: Barbra Nitke/Lifetime.
What do you think this means for plus-size women of the world?
"We’re putting the plus-size industry on the map. People are now raising their eyebrows — they see the potential of what we can do. Come on, the first plus-size collection to walk down New York Fashion Week for Project Runway? That made history. And I’m so glad that I am able to be one of those people representing us and this industry."

What surprised you the most, being on the show?
"How dedicated you have to be; you literally have to breathe, eat, and sleep this. You cannot, for one second, get distracted or lose track of what you’re doing."

What challenge was the most difficult for you?
"I think the most difficult challenge was the makeover challenge, because I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure that I listened to my client and designed something that she wanted. But it was so difficult to divide the difference of being a seamstress or designer. You want to listen to your client and you want to make sure that you design something that she wants, but at the same time, you have to keep to who you are as a designer. I think I really, really struggled with that. And because I was given a plus-size client, I really wanted to make her happy and show the judges who I truly am with designing for plus-sizes. I really felt like I let the judges, myself, and my client down. That was the worst experience."

Has being on Project Runway influenced your design ideas?
"Listening to the judges and hearing what they have to say really makes you think more about what you want to design and what you want people to see. I think they really changed my design aesthetic; I was very afraid to design sexy and I really tested my boundaries. I tried to do more [of what] I haven’t done in my past with designing. So I really felt that I pushed myself this season to test the waters and design things that I normally don’t design."
Photo: Barbra Nitke/Lifetime.
The paintball group challenge was painful to watch, from you being chosen last to the other women in your team picking you apart on stage and saying you should be the person sent home. How did it feel when Kelly Osbourne stuck up for you?
"It was amazing, because I look up to Kelly so much. When she got on the show, I literally had to fight back my tears, because one of my dreams has been to meet her. It was the most amazing feeling to know that she could see right through me and the other women on the stage and stand up for me. I was not trying to play the victim card in any way and I was just telling it how it was and how I felt, because no one else on the team wanted to hear how I felt, except Laurie [Underwood]."

It surprised me, as you had won two challenges; it just reminded me of being in middle school or grade school and getting picked for dodgeball.
"Of course! I don’t even remember the last time I was put into a situation like that, where someone had to choose teams. I think that was the first time I’ve ever witnessed being in that type of situation. I’m kind to everyone I meet and I never give attitude. I’m never rude to anyone. I just didn’t understand why the girls didn’t want to pick me in the beginning. They said it was their ‘strategy’ to choose me last, but I really felt like I was an outcast. I really felt like I was on my own and the only people who accepted me were Laurie and the guys.

"Even off camera, when we were just hanging out in the apartments, I didn't feel like I was ever involved with them. It’s just like high school; they never wanted to sit with me — nothing. At that point, I realized I wasn't there to make everyone like me. I wasn't there to be everyone's friend, and if they don’t like me, that’s their problem, not mine. I had to learn how to grow thick skin very quickly on the show, because if this was real life, it would hurt me so much more. But coming out of this, I’m completely different. Things happen for a reason and I’m glad I was able to learn from this experience and make it into a positive, not a negative."
Photo: Barbra Nitke/Lifetime.
Why is fashion so important to you?
"It wasn’t something that I ever thought that I could be a part of. Growing up, I felt like I had to dress in men’s clothing and I always settled for less. So it makes me feel good to make fashion myself — it brings out my confidence, it’s something that I can always turn to, and I just always admired it. I just love creating things!"

Once the show is done, do you plan to reopen your online store?
"I do. Right now, I’m working on a couple projects with different companies and I’m hoping to open up my website back again; and hopefully, find some future investors to finally produce the collections I’ve always wanted."

So, when you do re-open the store, do you plan to keep it plus-size specific or would you design for the entire size range?
"I definitely want to design for plus-size. I feel like there’s enough clothing out there for the straight sizes. What’s most important is the plus-size industry and I want to continue designing for them. For any future projects with any department stores or anything like that, I would like to carry my designs in all sizes."
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Photo: Barbra Nitke/Lifetime.
Since you won, what are your plans for the prize?
"I plan on using that money to create my collection and invest it all in my business; and hopefully, use that to move to Los Angeles, create my dream studio, and just help me take my business to the next step."

What advice can you give to other people struggling with body-confidence issues?
"Love yourself is the first thing to do. Don’t care what other people think about you. Because at the end of the day, you have to make yourself happy before you can make anyone else happy."
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