{ PERSON OF INTEREST }

Sew Sensational

Talking style with San Diego designer and Project Runway winner Ashley Nell Tipton 

By Christina Orlovsky Page 
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Ashley Nell Tipton has a new tattoo. The 24-year-old fashion designer and winner of the hit Lifetime show Project Runway now proudly bares the words, “My dearest Ashley, All my love forever. Beverly J. Tipton” on her forearm—a tribute to the cherished grandmother who sparked her creativity.

“My grandmother taught me to sew when I was 7,” Tipton says. “She was one of the most special people in my life and she passed away last year, right before I auditioned for Project Runway. Her birthday was May 22nd, and in her honor, I tattooed a note from her that I’d been carrying around forever—complete with her signature. It’s a reminder that she’s always with me. I know she would be proud of what I’ve accomplished.”

That list of accomplishments is long—and growing by the minute. A graduate of University City High School, Tipton knew from those early days of crafting with her grandmother and designing her own Barbie clothes that she was destined to do something artistic.

“I struggled in school because I have dyslexia,” she says. “I got involved in theatre, hair and makeup, and costume design, and loved using my creative side. I started looking into art and fashion institutes and chose Fashion Career College because I felt they would give me the attention I needed. Going there taught me so many things.”

When the San Diego school closed after Tipton’s graduating year, she was able to buy their machines and cutting tables at auction. This serendipity led her to show her designs at the 2012 Full Figured Fashion Week in New York—kick-starting her career with a runway show that caught people’s eye. With a small loan from her uncle, the full support of her family, and her sister Abril as her manager, Tipton began fulfilling orders from her parents’ garage. And then she got the call.

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“I’d auditioned for other shows in the past, but hadn’t gotten any bites,” she says. “My sister and I were in the car when I got the call that I made it onto Project Runway. We pulled over and started bawling on the side of the freeway! It was a special moment for us to share.”

That call kicked off a whirlwind four months of filming, sometimes 16-hour days at a time, completing 12 challenges, and competing against 16 other contestants. On September 11, 2015, Tipton found out what wouldn’t be revealed to viewers until November 5th of that year: she was the winner! But the winning had already begun, thanks to meetings with executives of major retailers looking to partner with her on their plus-size lines. Tipton credits her mentor, show judge Nina Garcia, for connecting her to JCPenney, where she recently became brand ambassador for the Boutique+ line, and where her own collection will launch this September.

This is all a dream come true for a young woman who has designed her own plus-size wardrobe for years.

“Growing up I wore men’s or oversized clothes, which just make you look bigger. There just weren’t a lot of fashionable clothes out there for plus-size women,” she says. “Now, it’s important for me to make women feel good—because when you feel good about what you’re wearing, it’s like you’re putting a whole different person out there.” Tipton adds, “If it doesn’t feel right on me, I’m not going to sell it.”

Committed to only including clothes in the JCPenney collection that she would wear herself—her favorites are frilly skirts and crop tops in vivid colors—Tipton is finally realizing the impact she’s making on the world of fashion. And not just for full-figured women.

“When I started, I just thought I want to make cute, fashionable clothes for real women,” she says. “Now I get mail from everyone—little girls, teens, women, even men who say they watched the show with their mom or sister or girlfriend—and not only plus-size, just normal people who were affected by the show in some way. I never went into this thinking I could change the way people thought about plus sizes, but now I’m realizing the voice I have. It’s been quite the ride!”

Tipton is the new brand ambassador for JCPenney’s plus-size collection, Boutique+. Her line launches at JCPenney in September.