The Magical, Multilayered Singularity of Ashley Chew

by D. Amari Jackson

Despite being an artist, activist, model, fashion designer, and writer, 30 year-old Ashley Chew is nonetheless guilty of putting her proverbial eggs in one basket.

“It’s just the only life that I’ve known and there still is no plan B,” laughs Chew, promoting her belief that “some people are just born to create. I do believe we can do anything that we put our minds to, but I also believe that some people are just born to do just that. And I think I am one of those people.”

Few, if any, would disagree. Over the past decade, Chew’s inspired artistic creations have attracted such partners and clients as Spike Lee, Tommy Hilfiger, Coach, Nike, Pharrell, and L’Oreal. She has exhibited and held residencies at venues in New York, Indianapolis, and The Netherlands. Along with being listed one of “The 26 To Watch Under 26” by PATTERN Magazine, Chew was named “Artist of The Week” by Milk Studios, and one of “10 Uplifting Artists To Follow on Instagram” by MyDomaine.

She has written for Vogue, Cosmopolitan, & Harper’s Bazaar. And, in 2015, while attending New York Fashion Week, Chew drew international attention to the lack of opportunities for Black models after grabbing a brush and writing “Black Models Matter” on a leather handbag. An image with her carrying the bag went viral, as did the impromptu international campaign it launched, shedding light on the inequitable practices of the industry’s powerful fashion brands and institutions.

“I really have an issue with me being one of the darkest people in the room,” stresses Chew, who has a light complexion and green eyes. “I had an issue with me being the point of diversity for some people, and I didn’t think that was fair or safe. And, as an artist, I just painted on my bag and I didn’t think anybody would pay any attention to me.” They did. For at the time, estimates Chew, “runways were less than 10 percent of color” for models. “And right now they’re about 47 percent, so it did help. And I’ve been cited in numerous articles for helping that number go up.”

But make no mistake, even with all of her inspiring activities—the fashion design, the creative activism, and the modeling—Chew sees it all through the singular lens of the creative process.

“I literally just remember always creating, even as a child,” says the Chicago native who grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana. “Different family members would get me little art sets and watercolors, markers, and colored pencils. I never remember doing anything else or my parents really getting me anything else,” she acknowledges. “When I had Barbies, I would cut up their clothes and make my own outfit for them, and I’d cut up socks and sheets and make outfits,” continues Chew, recounting how “I was never scolded for it. My parents were always supportive, so I was always making things.”

Unlike her parents, educators with no artistic inclinations, Chew’s grandmother, Aña Chew-Washington, has a degree in fashion design and was also a model and fashion illustrator. Chew-Washington—who Chew regards as her “rock of support” and “best friend still to this day”—eventually quit and settled for a different type of job, as her family wasn’t supportive. “She’s so supportive and excited for me as an artist because she gets to see the path that she didn’t get to take in fashion and creating,” explains Chew.

“She took it where I couldn’t,” acknowledges Chew-Washington. “I didn’t have anyone to motivate me when I was young.” The proud grandmother rattles off a list of similarities between the two artistic, fashion-oriented women, including March birthdays one day apart. “The thing I love about her is that Ashley loves helping people. She once went to a shelter there in New York and had her girlfriend do these women’s hair, and she gave them all journals so that they could write what their dreams are and how they would achieve them,” reveals Chew-Washington, adding “there’s not a lot of young people that would do that.”

After attending a fine arts high school where she took art, ballet, and theater, the 20 year-old Chew began parttime modelling for bridal shows, catalogs, and local events in Indianapolis. But it wasn’t until she turned 25 and relocated to New York that the multitalented artist began modelling fulltime. Five years in, Chew is looking toward the future. “People age, our looks age, I’m not going to model forever,” she recognizes, clarifying that “I’ve always been an artist. So I’ve been trying to find ways through fashion brand partnerships, illustration, and collaborations to pivot what I have to offer, besides how I look. And I feel like my strength is in my art.”

One such collaboration is Chew’s current engagement with popular international fashion brand, Zadig & Voltaire, and their ongoing ART IS HOPE campaign. Since May 2020, the philanthropic effort has highlighted the work of numerous arts organizations, raising millions of dollars for them by offering collections of fashionable items designed by emerging and established artists and bearing such slogans as “Art Is Hope” and “Art Is Love.” Chew is one of the latest artists to be added to the inclusion-based campaign which presents custom bags, T-shirts, jackets, and other clothing items.

“Ashley is a full-on triple threat: an artist, activist, and a model,” says Ryan Gendron, Head Of Creative for Zadig & Voltaire in North America. “Most of the time when that happens with a person, if they are that multitalented, they will lack a bit in some way, but not with her.” Characterizing Chew as highly-intelligent, super talented, beautiful, and an “incredible” artist, Gendron depicts how his company initially worked with her on a number of custom product store events under the ART IS HOPE umbrella. “She not only agreed to do them, she absolutely crushed the events,” he reports, noting “this led me to ask her to be featured on our ART IS HOPE page. She expressed her interest in BAIA as a partner, which obviously made me very happy and seemed like a perfect marriage.” Black Art In America, who Chew followed on social media for several years, was selected to receive a percent of the proceeds from her involvement with ART IS HOPE.

These type of high-level collaborations and consistent accolades, combined with her increasing popularity and success, could prompt some to say that Chew is living a dream. At the beginning of her third decade here on earth, the creative wizard has already had a significant impact on the world around her. Largely because of her efforts, New York Fashion Week has included more models of color in their shows and, internationally, the iconic, Paris-based Balenciaga fashion house experienced relevant protests at their 2017-2018 show during Paris Fashion Week. Even more consistent with Chew’s apparent dream, the influential Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) released a statement to their members encouraging diversity and inclusion in American fashion, excerpted here:

“Make no mistake. The American fashion industry—or for that matter, the industry worldwide—has so far struggled to reflect the diversity of its constituents and incorporate the inclusion it requires. It’s crucial for our industry to understand that diversity and inclusion are not a trend, but the way every company should operate…. A long-term meaningful solution needs the support and courage of top leaders who prioritize its enforcement. Leadership and understanding of this will solidify our position as business stewards and creative thinkers, fostering a strong, enticing home to top talent—and a fashion industry for all.”

                —CFDA, A Briefing on Diversity & Inclusion in American Fashion

Perhaps, in a way, Chew’s colorful life is being lived from a dream. “I’ve been a meditator for the past four years,” she reveals, reporting that “I attended five sessions last week. In meditation, I actually solve a lot of paintings and artistic problems as I can see the painting moving, the parts moving, and the challenges that I need to solve.”

It’s almost as if Chew possesses some sort of magical, Midas-like ability where everything she touches turns to art.

“I absolutely believe in magic in a sense that we can create anything,” confirms Chew. “The fact that everything in our life was someone’s thought—everything we wear, sit on, walk through, and travel on. I think that it’s so incredible that it was made possible by someone’s thought, a thought that they turned into action.”

“So I believe we can create anything,” continues Chew. “I believe that we create our own magic and that we just have to look around at everything in our life and realize that it came from nothing, from someone’s very thought and collaboration.”

“Absolutely,” reiterates Chew. “I do believe in magic.”

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AMARI JACKSON is a creator, author, TV/web/film producer, and award-winning journalist. He is author of the 2011 novel, The Savion Sequence; creator/writer/coproducer of the 2012-2014 web series The Book Look; writer/coproducer of the 2016 film Edge of the Pier; and current writer/coproducer of Listen Up! on HBCU GO/Roku TV. He is a former Chief of Staff for a NJ State Senator; a former VP of Communications & Development for the Jamestown Project at Harvard University; and a recipient of several writing fellowships including the George Washington Williams Fellowship from the Independent Press Association. An active ghost writer, song writer, martial artist, and journalist, his writings have appeared in a wide variety of national and regional publications.

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