Ashley Nell Tipton
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On February 19, when I text my friend Sofia that I’m on my way to see Ashley Nell Tipton in her new home in Hillcrest, she responds:

“Her HOME?!! Her place of residence? Where she LIVES, and SLEEPS and eats CEREAL?!!!!!! I am green right now!! GREEN!!!!! Can you sneak me a scrap of her fabric from the floor that she is not using??? Have her sign a Von’s bag? SOMETHING?????? Tell her u have a plus sized BFF stay at home mom who is 5´9 (say 5´10…sounds better) and is available to be her mannequin to try on cloths she makes.”

The dramatic response is to be expected from Sofia (who is very dramatic), but I feel the same way, though maybe for a different reason.

For Sofia and a bazillion other fans and followers, Tipton’s rise to stardom began on season 14 of Project Runway — where she became the first contestant to send a plus-size collection down the runway at Fashion Week…and then won.

Back in November 2015, hundreds of San Diegans packed the rooftop bar at the then W (now Renaissance) Hotel’s Rooftop Bar to watch the season’s final episode projected onto the side of the building. The crappy sound-projection caused friction between the shushers and the talkers as the two-hour episode ran. But everyone was there to find out did our girl win?

Tipton sat with her family on a couch at the front, her back to the rest of us. During commercial breaks, her friends and family members took the microphone and told stories about how they’ve always known Tipton was destined for stardom and that no matter what happened tonight, she’d always be a winner in their eyes. Every few minutes, someone announced that Tipton would be available for a meet-and-greet after the show, but for now, please give her a little space. An entertainment news network snuck around with their bright camera lights, reminding everyone that this was a big moment. It was impossible to imagine how this crowd would respond if she didn’t take home the top prize.

But she did. And the moment Heidi Klum announced Tipton’s win, the finale party crowd released its held breath, and the air over West B Street detonated with cheer.

I am that person

Ashley Nell Tipton’s tagline is “Fun, Funky, and Fat,” perfectly befitting of a 24-year-old girl with lavender hair and a bright and flirty wardrobe who weighs in at 384 pounds.

Tipton’s mission, as it reads on her website, is “to represent for full-figured women and enable them to have options to express their style and individuality through fashion just like women who wear ‘standard’ size.”

I met Tipton in the summer of 2014, a few months after I began to follow her on Instagram. I don’t remember how I ended up on her Instagram feed, but I remember the first photo because it was the one that compelled me to follow her feed and eventually chase her down under the guise of local journalism.

In the picture, she’s floating in a Jacuzzi in an inner tube shaped like a pink-frosted donut with a bite out of the side. She’s wearing a beaming smile and a “fatkini,” and she looks likes she’s living the best life ever.

“When I took that picture, I didn’t care. I felt confident and I was with a group of people who embraced who I was,” Tipton says of the photo.

Fabric in Tipton's studio

Fabric in Tipton's studio

We’re sitting in the upstairs loft of her new home in Hillcrest. She’s moved here from her sister’s home in Chula Vista a few days/weeks ago. Although most of the house is still fairly furniture-less and unlived-in, up here in the studio, she has already set up her three sewing machines, a floor-to-ceiling shelf of fabrics, a wall hung with spools of thread and zippers in multiple colors, a couple of dress forms, two desks with Apple computers, an inspiration bulletin board featuring an article about Rebel Wilson, and a white board on which someone has scrawled a to-do list:

“Decide on cards/ stationary... Watch PR... Decide on theme tagline... Create talking points.”

Tipton and I sit on stools at the large cutting table in the middle of the room. Her wiry and muscular manager (and former teacher) Andrew Bisaha sits with us, on an exercise ball.

Andrew Bisaha

Andrew Bisaha

I have just asked Tipton how much she weighs. The question agitates Bisaha, “What’s that have to do with it?” he asks. “Like, who cares if she’s 384?”

I explain that it matters to me because the Instagram photo that originally compelled me to seek Ashley out is of a young woman who weighs X and is happily wearing a bikini anyway. If I can’t ask that question, and she can’t answer it, then it’s just going to sit there unasked and unanswered, and that self-acceptance we’ve been talking about for two hours now — in fact, almost two years — has reached its limits.

Bisaha remains tensed up and narrow-eyed while I speak, but Tipton is quicker to recover. “You just opened my eyes to how other people see me,” she says. “Because sometimes I reflect back on what I do, and I’m, like, ‘How did I have the nerve to do that?’ It makes me feel like, ‘I want to be that person.’ But wait, I am that person.’”

A couple of tears fall, making shiny tracks in her matte makeup. She wipes them away.

“Now that it’s out in the world, it’s something I don’t have to be afraid of anymore,” she says.

Why did I go to New York?

Tipton grew up in Encanto, surrounded by her parents, her grandmother, an older sister, and two older brothers — all more than a decade older than her. She attended University City High School and then later Fashion Careers College. The Bay Park college has since closed. Tipton was in the school’s last graduating class in 2012. Her grandmother taught her to sew.

Although many designers may have taken the ($100,000 prize) money and run from their hometown, Tipton isn’t going anywhere for now. Her family, friends, and two managers are in San Diego, and this is where she wants to stay. If you ask her what she loves most about San Diego, her first answer is her support network. Second?

“I love that it’s not L.A.,” she says, laughing. “I love that it’s beautiful and clean and that you can get anywhere in 20 minutes. I love that you can see the palm trees and the sky. I don’t know…it’s just…home to me.”

Tipton’s first design studio was in her sister’s Chula Vista garage.

Tipton’s first design studio was in her sister’s Chula Vista garage.

At the time of our first meeting two years ago, Tipton and I met in her sister’s home in Chula Vista, where she lived and worked at the time. We sat in her garage studio, and she gave me the rundown on how her senior project from Fashion Careers College landed her a coveted spot at the 2012 Full Figure Fashion Week in New York, which she describes as, “like the Oscars for the plus-size fashion industry.”

The story began with Tipton’s Tumblr account, on which she posted pictures of the five looks from her plus-size senior collection in January 2011.

“I had a few followers here and there, and I just wanted to update them on my journey of going to school for fashion design and majoring in plus size,” she explained. “Once I had posted pictures on Tumblr, overnight it just went crazy. I was getting emails and messages from Facebook, like, ‘I just discovered your work. How can I buy your designs?’ from bloggers and random people.”

Tipton’s friends posted and reposted her pictures, and her designs caught the eye of key players in the growing plus-size industry, including bloggers Gabi Fresh and Kellie Brown. The latter was involved in Full Figure Fashion Week New York.

“We had a conversation over the phone,” Tipton says of Brown, “and she said, ‘I really think you should fill out an application to be in the show. ‘Once you do that let me know, and I will talk to the boardmembers to see if we can get you in the show.’”

The conversation spurred Tipton into high gear. She put up a website, got her business license, and filled out the application. In March, she received word that she’d been accepted to showcase in New York. That meant she’d have less than three months to create a brand new Spring/Summer 2013 collection. At the time, she was working at both Torrid in Mission Valley and at the Gap; she quit both jobs to get ready for the show.

Tipton was not yet 21.

“Thank God for the school,” she says of Fashion Careers College. “They opened the school for me to use at any moment. They helped me with lookbooks — fashion-speak for portfolio — and organizing myself, because at the same time I was still learning.” A group of students from her graduating class “would come over, my mom would make them dinner, and we would be working from sun up to sun down every day.”

The final collection included all separates, and the 12 looks consisted of approximately 30 pieces.

“Everybody says black makes you look slimmer,” she says, “but what about those other colors that also complement your skin tone or your figure and things like that. We had a lot of pieces and layering just trying to show that plus-size woman’s style and personality through her clothing.”

In New York, the press events and the fashion show inudced anxiety for Tipton — anxiety exacerbated by lack of sleep. “I felt very unprepared, because a lot of people were asking, ‘Where are you selling? Who are you selling to?’ and I was just, like, ‘I’m still in college. I just started this thing.’...

“The last 20 minutes before the first model went down to start the whole show felt like hours. I was just, like, ‘I just want to get this over and done with.’”

In the end, she made her mark. The bloggers were buzzing, and the reviews were stellar. She won the award for best newcomer designer at the Curvy Fashionista’s Reader’s Choice Awards. In the days and weeks after she returned to San Diego from New York, the excitement kept her going. Her email inbox was flooded with messages from people inquiring about when her collection was coming out and where people could find her designs for purchase.

And then she crashed and depression set in. She had no job and no income, and her mother had spent over $5000 on helping her prepare for and get to New York.

“I didn’t have the finances to produce this collection,” she said. “Why did I go to New York? I basically felt like I put my foot in my mouth saying this collection is going to come out in January. I couldn’t do it.”

Suddenly, her life became less about designing fun and flirty clothes and more about building a business, pretty much everything she didn’t learn at school. While trying to source fabric in Los Angeles, she got shut down and schooled by irritated fabric sourcers, whose questions she couldn’t answer and who told her to go back to school or work under someone who knew more about the industry.

But she kept at it over the next few months and found her way. She created a business plan, got a $5000 loan, purchased her design tables and cutting machines from an auction at the closing Fashion Careers College, and started working on her collection. She launched it in May 2013.

“Everything was basically made to order because that $5000 was only enough to get started, not to go into production,” she says.

And as soon as she launched, the response was immediate, and she found herself in trouble again, unable to fulfill the orders as quickly as they came in. She received 50 orders in that first weekend, and she didn’t have the same help she’d had when preparing for the fashion show. For about a month and a half, Tipton worked on the orders alone.

“I love to sew. But when it’s something that’s being repetitive over and over and over again, it takes a toll,” she says.

Then her sister joined her, eventually convincing her to go into production, which she did.

Then…Project Runway, a $100,000 cash prize (and then some), and now a partnership with JCPenney, which just launched their first-ever in-house plus-size brand, plus a pattern deal with Simplicity.

Ashley Nell Tipton’s grandmother taught her how to sew.

Ashley Nell Tipton’s grandmother taught her how to sew.

The push for 34

Although she seems a little tougher by the time I visit her Hillcrest home, she’s still as open as she was back in 2013. She and Bisaha spend the first couple of hours not saying JCPenney’s name (because the announcement hasn’t yet been made), but she spills the beans about how she was really feeling on the night of the finale party at the W.

“I had so much anxiety,” she says. “They wanted me to do an entrance, and I was, like, ‘No.’ One of the networks was there, and I was just, like, ‘I don’t want to do this. I need a drink to be able to do this because it’s just way too much.”

But she pulled herself together and she faced it anyway. She’s now brand ambassador for Boutique+, JCPenney’s plus-size line. But not just brand ambassador, she also consulted on the line.

“You should’ve seen her,” Bisaha says, describing a recent trip to New York to consult on the design of their line. “One of the biggest retailers in the world, 22 executives, 22 people that were as thin as you and I.”

Ashley Tipton may very well put an end to ruffles.

Ashley Tipton may very well put an end to ruffles.

“…that didn’t understand,” Ashley adds. “When I saw some of their designs, I was, like, ‘Why did you design this the way that you did?’ Like, ‘Why’d you put ruffles on this part of the body?’ And they’re, like, ‘Oh, because these tops sell really well.’ I don’t care if these tops sell really well. It’s what looks right on their bodies.”

Bisaha nods, continuing, “She says stuff and they go, ‘Ohhhh….’”

Tipton schooled the executives on designing for non-“straight-sized” bodies.“You have to understand that we need more fabric on a garment lengthwise because it’s like maternity clothing. When you put a dress on a maternity or a woman that is pregnant, her belly is going to take that fabric and make it go higher in the front,” she says. “It’s something that you have to consider when you’re working with a plus-size woman that she may take up more fabric in the front and in the back.”

And bras: “The wear time on clothing for plus-sized women is half the life span of a straight-sized woman’s clothing. Straight-sized women’s bras can last them three, six months? Our bras don’t last as long as a straight-sized woman’s bras normally do because we have more movement, we have more weight. And companies are not making things that last longer for us.”

It didn’t stop with the ruffles and bras. On the trip to New York, Tipton discovered that they only planned to have their plus-size line go up to size 28 in the stores and online to 30, but as a size 30 herself, she couldn’t let that sit. She tried to push them to take the line in stores to size 34.

“I asked, ‘Why are we doing this? You can say that you’re the only department store in a mall — guaranteed, any mall across the world — that will carry a size 32 or a 34 in a store. [Women] will be able to come into your department store and find a whole complete outfit and be able to shop with their girlfriends and enjoy the time that they’re there.”

She came away with a promise that they would carry up to size 30 in the stores, which she says will do for now.

“I just want to open their eyes,” she says. “So I’m glad that they want to go up to a size 30 in stores. But I’m still pushing for 34 in stores as well.”

“Yeah, it’s the beginning,” Bisaha says.

In the fall, Tipton will launch her own line through JCPenney.

(“Did you see that Ashley made their stocks rise?” Bisaha asks me a week or so after the retailer announced the partnership.)

“We’re building this empire,” Ashley says. “And it’s just very exciting to see what’s going to happen next.”

The empire-builder cried when I read her the text from my friend Sofia.

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