A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending an amazing, empowering event alongside my mother, at a location that holds immense memories for me. This was the Finding Ashley Stewart Tour Stop Chicago at Ford City Mall. I don't even quite know where to begin so I'll just start with a huge thank you to Ms. Stacey Hall-Williams, a Store Manager for the brand, for giving me the invitation to attend and cover the competition! She treated my mother and I so well and even gave us front row seats for optimal viewing. She is awesome! Also, thank you to Ashley Stewart for hosting the event because I believe the entire concept is fantastic, to say the least.
The competition itself is a wonderful idea that gives curvy women the chance to strut their stuff and receive long-deserved recognition in the fashion industry. As both someone who has worked in fashion her entire career since my days of being a 15-year-old Nordstrom intern AND as a plus-size girl myself, I felt a special connection to this event. It was more than just something fun to do on a weekend. It was an opportunity for so many women who'd been bullied, oppressed and unappreciated for so long to get even 2 minutes to shine. The chance to rip the runway in your favorite fit with a cheering crowd, flashing lights and swarming paparazzi is a once-in-a-lifetime for some and an experience that I'm sure will stick with them forever.
One thing that I really enjoyed hearing was that Ashley Stewart offers opportunities to all finalists, even the ones who do not win the grand title. Hearing the experience of a former finalist and learning that she still received money, travel and opportunities after the competition was over brought a smile to my face. I love the idea of inclusion and rewarding people for making it so far in the competition because even if they aren't the "winner," they still win. The fashion industry is so cut-throat that it's hard to find companies who operate on that kind of initiative and I think it's something that needs to be not just acknowledged but praised.
I love the fact that the women got a chance to talk about their lives and who they were before they walked. It demonstrated that there's more to being a model than just being a pretty face, or a puppet for a brand. Some of these women overcame abusive relations, homelessness, extreme grief, gut-wrenching heartbreak and much more. Strength, resilience, and prosperity were heavily embodied in the spirits of these women. They truly showed that women can conquer any obstacle, and do it with grace.
In my career, I've sat in front of easily 100 or more fashion shows. From high-profile and international held at palaces and royal ballrooms to up-and-coming local designers showcasing in the hood. Yet, this show was definitely one of my favorites. Not because the models were highly trained or suited in the most extravagant garb and makeup, but because it showcased REAL women who weren't a jaded product of the industry, who had been through REAL life and reasons beyond chasing fortune and fame for participating. I related to these women and their stories. And, I feel that if more of the industry would consider putting "role models" in the limelight sometimes and not just "fashion models," that a lot of positive change could occur.
Congratulations to all of the participants and especially the semi-finalists! It was an honor to be there supporting you! May you all have the best outcomes with your future endeavors.
*photos by Ashley Stewart