New York Fashion Week has seen more diversity than ever this year, and it’s been hitting the runway in massive waves. At Zac Posen’s presentation, 40 of the 46 models cast by the designer were women of color. What most people probably don’t realize is that this bold move was partly inspired by Ashley B. Chew, a fine arts graduate from the Midwest and the brain behind Black Models Matter movement.
While her work has always depicted women of color, none have spread Chew’s message quite as far as the “Black Models Matter” tote bags she created, which have spotted on everyone from Cindy Bruna and Iman to Shaun Ross and Miss J.
“The inspiration behind the ‘Black Models Matter’ bag was the lack of diversity I had noticed on the runways, working as a production assistant and runway model each season,” Chew tellls us. “Seeing the industry from different angles can really give you insight on how things work and what’s really going on. Being on both sides of the runway is so conflicting and frustrating. Season after season, you start to notice a trend or decline in the lack of diversity or representation. That’s how the idea started.”
Chew started creating the bags this past September, after she and her best friend became aware that they were the only models of color at a casting. “We later realized this designer didn’t even cast models of color when the runway photos hit press. I painted the bag on such a whim, never thinking it would catch this much attention,” she adds. “My street style has been on blogs before so I figured it might land somewhere, but not everywhere.”
So when she saw the Zac Posen presentation, Chew was moved to tears. She was finally seeing a prominent figure in the industry take action. “That is all I wanted to see: actions not words. It’s not that he just cast models of color—he cast us in all different shades, textures and forms,” she says. When Chew met Posen at the show, it seemed as if all her work came full circle. “He recognized me immediately and thanked me,” she says. “I thanked him too. He has always been an advocate for diversity in the industry.”
While this is certainly a huge step in the right direction, Chew expresses some frustration with having to create a tote bag to spark a much-needed conversation. “The ‘bad’ part about the bag is that it shouldn’t have had to happen or be such a shock,” she says. “What good is fashion if we don’t see garments and accessories on our skin tones, hair, and features? People of color are consumers too. I think that’s forgotten when it comes to representation and we get left out.”
Chew recently walked in Yeezy Season 3
, another show that has been applauded for prioritizing the inclusion of diverse models from all walks of life. In that moment, there were enough people of color to fill up an entire stadium. There isn’t a short supply in the industry—people of color are here, and they’re ready and willing to work. Chew believes that teamwork is a major key in pushing for change in the industry. Together, we can all make progress if we want it bad enough.