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How 'Black Models Matter' Became More Than A Viral Street Style Message

Ashley B. Chew explains how a frustrating casting experience led her to create the bag and why she doesn't want it to become a trend.
Ashley B. Chew at New York Fashion Week in September. Photo: Melodie Jeng/Getty Images

Ashley B. Chew at New York Fashion Week in September. Photo: Melodie Jeng/Getty Images

Last September, a model named Ashley B. Chew made a media splash when she was photographed by street style photographers carrying a large tote bag that she had painted with the words "Black Models Matter." Stories popped up everywhere from CNN to Refinery29 and influential individuals such as Zac Posen, J. Alexander and veteran model and diversity activist Bethann Hardison have since been spotted on Instagram with the bag, helping make #BlackModelsMatter go viral. But the fashion statement is much more than a trend. For Chew, it's an urgent call for diversity on the runway and behind the scenes in fashion. Signed with LModelz, she's walked for designers such as Antonio Urzi and Hendrik Vermeulen in New York and Miami, and worked as a production assistant behind the scenes, thereby witnessing that lack of diversity firsthand.

It was a frustrating casting experience that led the 24-year-old Indianapolis native, who is also a student and painter, to create the viral bag. Even though Zac Posen made headlines this season by casting predominately black models while brands like Hood by Air and Yeezy (for whom Chew modeled this month) maintained strong diversity at their presentations, non-white faces are still extremely under-represented across the board in fashion.

I spoke with Chew about her experiences as a black model and artist, why she decided to scale back her modeling commitments this season and her personal perceptions about the fashion industry. 

How did you get into modeling?

I've always been interested in the craft; I grew up watching shows like "America's Next Top Model" and keeping up with fashion subscriptions. I've modeled off and on when I attended Kent State University. I received the opportunity to participate in fashion week for the past five seasons as a production assistant and a runway model. Being behind the scenes as a production assistant made me realize how much diversity does lack in model casting and it saved me from disappointment when I didn't get cast.

I think it's important for models to be aware of the brutality of the industry. So, my perspective this fall 2016 season was to help models; I get more satisfaction from promoting and helping others. 

What personal experiences inspired you to create "Black Models Matter?"

It was last season, when I went to a casting with my best friend. I already knew the designer, who I'd like to remain anonymous, doesn't usually use women of color in their casting. I told my best friend, 'We're going, but just know she doesn't cast people like us.' We got there and we were literally the only two black models at the casting. [Chew and her friend were not cast.]

So, I was walking around with my paint brushes during New York Fashion Week because I'm a nerd like that. I really didn't know what I was going to write on my bag. It wasn't really a deep thought, when painting "Black Models Matter" on the bag, nothing premeditated. It was just natural.

What is it like being a black model?

Honestly, it can get really frustrating because you know you're good enough. That's the thing that gets to me, but it doesn't do anything to my self-worth and confidence. If you don't use me, that's your loss. I can see how it could really mess with people's self-esteem, but I like to use the critiques to strengthen me.

People don't realize it but the fashion industry is really cutthroat. People will tell you straight up if they don't want black models or natural hair. Skin pigmentation doesn't matter either. Light, medium or dark — you're going to be treated as black. I feel this is why 'Black Models Matter' created such a buzz, because it's been an issue for awhile. There's nothing worse than getting turned down for your natural composition.

Ashley B. Chew walking the Antonio Urzi runway in New York in February 2015. Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week

Ashley B. Chew walking the Antonio Urzi runway in New York in February 2015. Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week

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What is the most bizarre thing a hairstylist has tried to do with your hair?

[It's] not so much what they do to my hair, it's doing nothing at all. They will blatantly tell me: 'I'm not sure what to do with your hair.' So, they cake on all this hairspray in my hair and it doesn't respond well to it. I find it bizarre that they don't even try. It's like, just look up 'black hair care' or research 'black hair products.' You can't call yourself the greatest hairstylist if you don't know how to deal with different hair textures. The lack of preparation and lack of experience with black hair is definitely real in the industry.  

How did this past Fashion Week season go for you? Have you gotten more or less work because of 'Black Models Matter?'

This season, I decided to stay out of production and runway. I actually turned down a lot of shows, except for Kanye West's Yeezy Season 3 show. I had to be a part of that one. I was looking more into media internships, filming short interviews behind the scenes.

Are you selling the bags?

I created the bags in an effort to change things and address issues within the industry. I gave the bags to Bethann Hardison, which is how they got into the hands of influential icons like Iman and Zac Posen. After that, I'm not sure how others got hold of the bag, but I guarantee it was an effort from everybody.

While interning for a media company, I interviewed celebrities [such as J. Alexander, Karrueche Tran and designer Vivienne Tam] as well on runway coverage. A lot of them recognized me: 'Oh, you're the bag girl!' It was pretty cool.

Looking at fashion influencers such as Zac Posen and Kanye West have runway shows featuring models who were predominantly black was very fulfilling to witness. I'll never know if my bag and my message behind it was the sole reason this happened. The message has been trending on social media and I have been receiving a few emails of gratitude.

How do you want to build on the momentum you've already achieved with 'Black Models Matter?' What goals do you have for your modeling career?

I honestly don't want to do anything else with it. I'm hoping next season I don't have to carry the bag, I just want things to finally be different. I want it to be a strong one-time, impactful movement and I want it to stick.

I love modeling but I don't have any specific goals. I mean, I would love to be on a cover of an elite fashion subscription or the face of a major beauty/hair campaign. I feel the experiences I have achieved so far, a lot of people haven't been able to do and I'm just grateful for that. 

Ashley B. Chew modeling at the Yeezy Season 3 show, second from the left. Screengrab: Tidal

Ashley B. Chew modeling at the Yeezy Season 3 show, second from the left. Screengrab: Tidal

Given your powerful stance on encouraging diversity in model casting, why do you feel black models matter?

We matter because we're people too. We're in fashion, a creative environment where we are supposed to be able to be ourselves. The number one place where you can be yourself is the creative realm. Fashion is supposed to represent diversity and creativity. Black people buy the clothing too. So why can't these consumers see people that look like them showcasing the merchandise on the runway and in catalogues? If you think about it, it's actually quite silly. We buy your clothing, we support your brand but we aren't being represented by your brand?