When the Broad Ripple resident noticed she was one of the few people of color walking the runway during New York Fashion Week last September, she grabbed a brush and wrote “Black Models Matter” on a leather handbag. It went viral, and a year later, Chew’s impromptu campaign for change still has legs.
INTERVIEW BY TONY REHAGEN
What sparked your demonstration?
Working as a production assistant and a model, I see both sides of the fashion industry. Backstage, I’m looking at who they’re hiring and how many girls of color are on the runway. And as a model, I see who ends up in casting and in the catalogs. My best friend and I were at a casting in New York, and we noticed that we were the only girls of color there. I was really frustrated. I’m an artist, and I carry my paint brushes everywhere I go. So I just painted Black Models Matter on my bag. It wasn’t a deep thought process—it wasn’t something planned. Just how I felt in that moment.
It really blew up. You were featured on CNN, and in Vibe, Cosmopolitan, and Glamour. Have you seen any results?
Runways improved last year—something like an 11 percent increase. So that tells me a few more girls got a job. Some designers in Miami contacted me about using the Black Models Matter logo on swimwear in an installation. And it’s not just going to be black models. We’ll have Asian, Indian—10 models of color.
Why are there so few models of color?
There’s this perception of beauty. It’s not just America or Africa; in most countries, they find the lighter person more beautiful. It happens all over the world. I don’t know why, but it’s been internalized over hundreds and hundreds of years.
Are you an accidental activist?
I think who I am as an artist has been getting kind of lost in all this. I’ve done a ton of other things. I do want to talk about Black Models Matter; it’s important. But I think people are forgetting Ashley the person. And Ashley the artist.
Who is Ashley the person and artist?
I’m a painter. I actually won Raw Natural Born Artist of the Year for New York in 2012. I just got back from Nigeria, so right now my work is very tribal and African. I’ve had a lot of work commissioned. I just did something for Bright House and Dress for Success—my art will be used for their gala [this month].
I’m the oldest of four girls, so I’ve always been focused on girl power. Women artists make a significant amount less than males. I’m sure if I was a male, my work would probably sell for double or triple what it does. It’s like the fashion industry. We are just fighting to get paid.
Then why model?
I never really wanted to be a model. But I was always interested in fashion. At Broad Ripple High School, I would make costumes and clothes for the talent shows. I went to Kent State for costuming, but then came back to Indy, to Ivy Tech, to study fine arts. While there, I went to my first Fashion Week, and I ended up getting an intern position at the New York Fashion Week that fall. In September 2014, I walked my first runway. I was attending another show, and one of the models didn’t show up. So I ended up opening the show. Then that production team asked me to come back and I ended up walking for three other designers.
You recently moved to New York. What’s wrong with Indy’s fashion scene?
We have so many models coming out of Indy. I just think people aren’t paying attention. So we go other places where we will be paid attention to. One model in my agency left for China. Another moved to Dubai. Two more to Miami. Everyone thinks there’s no fashion in Indianapolis. But I think the city could build something really great.