Project Runway alum — and Season 14 winner — Ashley Nell Tipton always knew she wanted to be a designer, but before she found herself cast on the long-running fashion design reality show, she wasn’t sure what realm of the fashion world would be the best fit for her.
“I originally thought I would be going into wedding dresses,” she tells Yahoo Style. “I wanted to create gowns, especially for weddings. I liked the idea of dealing with just one color, and within that, you could design whatever you want.”
Before she took the plunge into bridal designing, she decided to challenge herself by creating a plus-size ready-to-wear collection. After she designed her first collection, she posted images of it on social media — and the responses, she says, were “phenomenal.”
“I saw how much I struggled finding clothing that fit me and my personality,” she says. The response to her collection proved that she wasn’t alone.
“There was just not enough effort put into this industry, so it motivated me to keep going, seeing how much need there was and knowing how much passion I had.”
“At the time, I didn’t see myself as the solution” to addressing the fashion industry’s difficulty meeting the needs of curvy customers, Tipton says. After all, she adds, “Who’s going to believe me, this kid from San Diego? I didn’t come from a fashion capital; I just knew what I liked and what I didn’t like, and was working retail at a plus-size clothing store.”
While working there, she says, she saw men and women struggle to “try to find something to wear and to feel comfortable in. I noticed how much we were settling, and how disappointing it is to settle for less. We buy things that we know aren’t going to work for us, and have this reaction when we go to the fitting room of setting ourselves up for failure because there’s nothing out there for us.”
And then the chance to apply for Project Runway came up.
At the time, Tipton says, she was in a “really difficult place.” She was living with her sister, running her pluz-size design collection out of her garage, working two retail jobs to make ends meet, and dealing with the death of her grandmother — the woman who first taught Tipton to sew, and who she describes as her best friend.
Two days after her grandmother passed away, Tipton received an email about applying for the show.
“I just sat there with that email and read it over a bunch of times, and hearing the prizes I could potentially win sounded so amazing but something that felt so far away. It was something I could never expect, because I thought I didn’t have what it took,” she recalls.
Tipton’s cousin, who was working with her as her fabric cutter at the time, insisted she apply.
“She knew reading and writing were big challenges for me because I am dyslexic, so she said she would help me with filling out the application. She told me, ‘You know your grandma would love this — you have to apply.'”
So apply she did — and within a month she received notice that she had a callback. Shortly thereafter, she learned that she had been cast.
At that point, Tipton says, “It was really difficult trying to process, ‘What are people going to think about me because I am on TV? I am a plus-size women of color and I have purple hair, and is this going to be accepted? Are people going to rip me apart?’ I couldn’t get my mind to wrap around the idea that I was going to be on TV. So I was just naive about it and just let it be.”
Tipton says her plan was to approach the show with humility and gratitude. When she won it all, she says, she was in “complete shock.”
“I had to constantly remind myself — you got on the show even though you were terrified to even apply, and then you went on and did it and you put everything into every challenge, and you survived and you did it. You put everything on the line and you did it. It was the best feeling to come out with a win when I went in not expecting anything,” Tipton says. “And it was also very powerful to be a plus-size person and being acknowledged for your talent.”
Even after winning, Tipton says, she worried about how the media would respond to her as a plus-size woman designing for other plus-size women.
“It could be like, ‘Wow — this plus-size designer won with a plus-size collection!’ or would people just say I was this woman who put plus-size women in, in their words, unflattering clothing,” she shares. “It’s a constant battle being a plus-size designer. There are a lot of people in the fashion industry who could give two sh***s about what I do or think I should change how I design because they think it’s ‘unflattering’ — and those are exactly the people I’m trying to tell that none of this matters. We have to give clothing to the [plus-size] community and give them options. Let us show you what a plus-size person can do when there is clothing available for them to wear. We are stylish. But if you give us nothing, we have nothing to play off of.”
Tipton says she still has to constantly reminder herself to not care what others think — and not stop doing her work because of the opinions of others.
“I want to wear things that make me feel good. I’m not trying to get approval from anyone else. No one’s approval matters to me — what matters is making myself happy for myself and no one else. And if I look good to someone else, I hope they take me as inspiration or whatever they want. But I know now that always trying to get approval from other people is a full-time job and I no longer want that job,” she says.
The job she does have now, however, is being a major influencer in the fashion world and in the curvy community.
“I have to remind myself I am just one person — and I was blessed with this success, and have to handle it in a way that I am going to enjoy it,” she said. “And I want to continue in it and I want to leverage it. I want to be doing this for years. I want to help make myself happy.”
How she does that, Tipton says, is also the best part of being an influencer: “I can just be myself, and this community just eats it up. All the things I think I am so insecure about myself — it’s the complete opposite. It continues to show me that I need to be myself more because people appreciate the authentic part of me. And I love being myself, and I don’t want to have to pretend to be someone I am not.”
The hardest part of the responsibility of wielding so much influence, though, is “teaching other people to love themselves the right way,” she said.
Tipton explains that she thinks that a lot of people believe that body acceptance and body positivity are just “about exposing your body and saying, ‘I’m OK being in front of a camera naked.’ And that’s not the kind of body positivity I am about.”
Rather, she says, “It’s a mental thing of knowing that there is nothing wrong with you. And if someone calls you fat, it’s nothing. It’s just a word. Guess what? I am fat. That word does no harm to me. And that word, fat, doesn’t mean something bad. Why do we have this ugly idea that fat is ugly? That’s just people’s opinion. There is no right way to be beautiful.”
And this is why, Tipton says, at this year’s CurvyCon she’ll be speaking about everything she has learned over the past two years since winning Project Runway and gaining international success. Most notably, she’ll talk about not looking to other people for approval.
She says she’ll also be sharing the exact same advice she wishes she could give her 16-year-old self: “Nobody’s perfect — there’s no such thing as perfect. So accept yourself for who you are and what you look like, and love every part of that.”
Read more from Yahoo Style + Beauty: