Fashion forward

First plus-size designer on “Project Runway” talks about breaking down barriers

Ashley Nell Tipton is on a mission to represent full-figured women and to enable them to have the same fashion options as women who wear “standard” sizes

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Photo via Ashley Nell Tipton/Facebook

Being a contestant on any reality TV competition is challenging (well, the talent-based shows, at least — sorry, ladies and gents of The Bachelor). You not only have to sew or dance or perform at the top of your game in episode after episode, but you often have to do it using unusual materials under weird conditions in high-pressure, timed environments with cameras constantly in your face.

But one contestant on the latest season of Project Runway is facing the highest stakes yet. Ashley Nell Tipton isn’t just competing to win; she is also making history as the first designer of plus-size apparel to be featured on Lifetime’s hit reality show.

“Just being on this show is unbelievable,” says Tipton, 24, who is speechless for a few seconds after being asked what it feels like to be in such a unique position. “And then, I have to look on the other side and see that now I’m the only plus-size designer. This is crazy, like to the point where I could make history right now.”

Three episodes in, Season 14 of Project Runway is off to a fierce start, and Tipton has shown she is more than equal to the challenge. While she had a small hiccup in episode two — when she, thankfully, had immunity — she has won two of the three challenges so far and has swept the competition with her fresh and modern designs. All the while, she’s remained poised under pressure and stayed true to herself and her vision.

Describing herself and her ideal woman as “fun, funky, and fat,” Tipton is on a mission to represent full-figured women and to enable them to have the same options to express their style and individuality through fashion as women who wear “standard” sizes. This mission is born out of Tipton’s own frustration with the clothing available to her while growing up as a “big girl.” Tipton recalls that the outfits her mom bought for her to wear seemed more like they were made for older women than for a young girl. The limited plus-size offerings also relied heavily on black, which is considered a slimming color but is at odds with the aesthetic that interests Tipton.

“I really wanted to show my personality and feel comfortable in my clothing and look confident,” Tipton says. But the available options had the opposite effect. “I just didn’t feel like myself. I didn’t feel like a girl.”

So, she started styling and designing her own looks following nobody’s rules but her own. Out with the black, in with bright colors and patterns.

“I always would buy the things that people would never buy at the store because they thought that it was too risk-taking or it was weird,” Tipton explains of her early forays in fashion. “I was getting those compliments, you know, ‘Oh, I love your outfit.’ It just boosts your confidence, and it always made me happy. So, I felt like this is the way I have to dress, because, at the end of the day, I want to be happy, and I don’t want to look frumpy in my clothing.”

Tipton is on the cutting-edge of the changes sweeping fashion for full-figured women. Over the past several years, the plus-size market has finally started to gain some long overdue respect and visibility in the mainstream industry. According to Fashionista, plus-size apparel is a $17 billion market and accounts for 65 percent of women in America. Yet, for too long, these bigger sizes, which typically are considered size 14 and up, were buried in the back or missing entirely from store racks and runways. Recently, this has started to change. Dedicated fashion weeks for plus-size designers have been popping up across the U.S. and in some international locations, and plus-size bloggers are getting more attention and editorial space.

Just in the past year, model Robyn Lawley became the first plus-size model to pose in the infamous Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue; size-22 model Tess Holliday was signed by a major modeling agency, Milk Model Management; and Melissa McCarthy has launched her own clothing line after speaking out about the difficulty even she, an Oscar-nominated actress, has convincing top designers to dress her for the red carpet.

Tipton’s position on Project Runway is another step in the right direction. The designer won her spot on the show by presenting a plus-size collection (she’s educated in both plus and straight-size design). But the Season 14 competition is still built around straight-size challenges presented on typically slender models (at least, so far — fingers crossed for a plus-size challenge this season).

While this has been the opportunity of a lifetime for Tipton (“you won’t get this [feedback] anywhere else unless you pay top dollar for it … you just want to soak up everything and ask [the judges and mentor Tim Gunn] a billion and one questions”), she’s emphatic that she is representing “100 percent for plus-size.” Once Project Runway is over, she plans to get right back to her plus-size line.

“I think I truly pushed myself being in this competition and finding who I am as a designer and just taking risks and finding new styles,” Tipton says. “Like, I wasn’t a person who would design things that were sexy [before the show]. And I feel like now, coming back, I’m able to bring that into my clothing, and I want to do that for the plus-size industry as well.”

Tipton acknowledges that more companies are starting to get into the full-figure business, “but I feel like they’re not taking enough risks on clothing,” she says. “It’s like we’re following the trendsetters. Why can’t we be the trendsetters?”

If anyone can change this order, it may well be Tipton. She can’t be bothered with distractions, like the politics of what to call this sector of the market (“whatever you want to call it, call it, but we just need people to accept us”). She’s fully focused on her mission: “get[ting] clothing out there that women want” and making sure that they have a place and voice in the fashion industry.

“I’m just being me on the show,” Tipton says. “I’m also telling my story for every other plus-size girl that’s out there, that you’re not alone and that I’m here to represent for all of us.”

With the visibility she’s won from being on Project Runway, and other coups like actress Gabourey Sidebe rocking one of her designs at the Teen Choice Awards, Tipton’s well on her way. Now, let’s just hope she doesn’t hear the dreaded “auf wiedersehen” from host Heidi Klum.

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