I was recently asked to write down a few stories of how ash white, the label came about and what experiences shaped the creation of my brand. I thought it would be nice to reveal some of those stories and share a little more about who I am; the brand bares my name after all so there has to be some relation, right?
I’ve tried to keep it as short as I can, however, I love to write, so be prepared for it.
If you’re like my Dad and want the ash white story in bullet form, scroll to the bottom to find the bulleted list of how ash white came about. If you’re like me and you find pleasure in reading creative long-winded stories that paint a picture inside your mind where you actually embody the subject in writing, then please read on.
The ash white story is made up of many more stories from my makers and wearers, not just my experience and how it shaped the brand. We love storytelling at ash white and we love to build honest connections between maker, garment and wearer. Read about the makers who helped being this first collection together here or write your own ash white story and mail it our way.
We love building connection through honesty, transparency and respect and hope we can positively impact both the lives of our wearer and makers. This is what ash white is about after all.
A passionate teenager choosing to leave the nest
As a 17 year old, I asked my father if I could travel to India, alongside 20 other students from my senior school. I had always planned to travel as a young adult as my imaginative mind often travelled to destinations outside my small childhood town of Mackay.
Having the upbringing I did, I was fortunate in that my parents motto was always “do what makes you happy” and I feel I have embodied this statement from a very young age. I was a creative child and sometimes bossy. I made up songs with my sister who had no choice other than sing them with me. I wrote plays for the family at christmas time and made sure my cousins knew their lines off by heart. And I dramatically enhanced our child-like store set up with homemade cheque books, cardboard credit cards and inventory lists.
As a child my mum said I was always in my imaginary world and I became fascinated with ‘creating stuff’. This creative energy runs through everything I do. Into my late teens I was making (poorly) constructed clothing and handmade jewellery to sell at markets on my one day off for the week. I am a bit of a workaholic and feel uneasy when my direction is unclear. I am ambitious and passionate and compassionately curious, always have been and always will be.
During the emotional chaos of my adolescence life is when I started to take an interest in psychology and human relationships. I did not understand why some people felt the need to bully others or act out in ways to establish their dominance. Through my eyes, everyone is equal and deserves the same level of respect. It was during this period of my life when my values were challenged and my personality was pulled apart. It took a long time for me to put the pieces back together again in a more positive way, however it was my adolescent experience which led me to question my life’s direction and leave my small home town in search of new experiences.
From the time I left Mackay as a curious 18 year old to when I returned as a 29 year old woman who had just experienced a psychological ‘reset’, I continued to ask questions. Questions of how something worked, how someone felt and more importantly how I can be a better person. There aren’t always answers to my questions, however I’ve since realised the quest in finding the answers is the most important part.
Two degrees, 4 new towns and a series of life altering events helped shape the formation of ash white, the brand. The ash white brand encapsulates the essence of my personal values and goals and my hope is to educate others and inspire them to act positively in their fashionable lives. Reflecting on all the experiences I have had in my 30 years of life, it is evident to me that this is my purpose. This is what I have been creating from the very beginning, even when I felt clueless and directionless. This is the culmination of all my questions and experiences.
This is the ash white story.
the who’s who VS the bee’s knees
It is 5am and I am sitting in the steward’s kitchen trying everything to stay awake. I am on night shift and I started work 12 hours before. The guests have gone ashore to attend an A-list party and I’m expected to fluff the cushions, dust every surface twice and polish the cutlery for the third time today before the guests return. I am inside a 54m fuel powered, luxury superyacht and we are moored off the coast of France, after having travelled for 10 days straight across the Atlantic ocean in chase of the European summer.
The A-list yachting industry is a hard industry to wrap your head around. You are thrown into this overwhelming and wasteful environment where human values are skewed and money is power. Sure enough, I only lasted 10 months as a stewardess before I couldn’t handle it anymore.
Yes, the good times outweighed the bad and there are a lot of perks; world’s finest beaches, no living expenses and you can pay off a 300,000 mortgage in less than 5 years in you’re smart. For me though, I couldn’t succumb to living my life in a wealth bubble and I yearned for a deeper meaning in my work. Thankfully, I was part of a small crew and worked for a down-to-earth celebrity who valued the simple things in life. This isn’t always the case and I did hear some sumptuosity horror stories in the short 10 months I worked in the Caribbean.
Someone I knew worked on a 80 metre power yacht that had a glass plunge pool on the lower deck, a helipad on the top deck and whose owner had 5 full-time personal staff including a stylist, hairdresser, gym instructor, ski instructor and masseuse. This elite woman was draped in the latest fashions of the world’s glamour brands such as gucci, dior, prada, valentino, and was lavishly dressed day in and day out. She oozed wealth and not the humble kind. Her stylist was made to cut up her designer garments after she wore them, just once. This was a complete shock to me. Why?, I asked myself.
This wasteful and greedy attitude is not rare in this world in general, and I have definitely has phases in my life when I embodied this wasteful attitude. I’ve been on retail therapy rampages in the past and spent buckets loads of coin on products I wore once – it’s common, people do it. However, over time and as I grew older, I started to consciously choose and buy less. The greed is something I still cannot fathom.
Some people are oblivious to how wasteful and harmful we can be as humans. Some people don’t let it bother their daily lives. Some, like me, find it hard to tolerate and act in ways to inspire positive change.
As I lay in my very small bunk bed after the guest finally arrived back to the yacht, my mind was filled with questions. Questions I wanted to explore and challenge and these questions led me feeling more and more bewildered not knowing what lie beyond the four walls of my tiny cabin. I yearned a morally deeper connection and I knew I had to leave the yachting industry to find it.
Toward the end of my yachting career, there was a significant moment when I realised I needed to change directions. After being pulled aside and questioned why I was not polishing the taps correctly by my chief stew, and why I wasn’t performing my duties like everyone else; a penny dropped.
My chief said something to me during our meeting that propelled yet another life change for me. “Ashleigh, I just don’t think your hearts in it”. This time, I actually agreed with her, my heart is not fulfilled being a stewardess and living a life of luxury or polishing taps and fluffing cushions; my passion is design and I need to be a designer. This experience taught me how the world is not always fair and just, and how wealth can be a force in manipulating human values, for better or worse. I was choosing a different path and I wanted to find ways to inspire a fairer world.
Madam, wait, I take the car.
Arriving at 3am, Monday morning, it was difficult to see the surroundings that will soon become my home for the next couple of years. The humidity was overwhelming as I stepped out of the air-conditioned comfort of the airport and onto the sidewalk. Following the lead of my driver I pushed through the crowd with my luggage and came to a spot on the curb where the driver told me to wait as he ‘takes the car’.
Here I stand, in Colombo, Sri Lanka where I have been contracted to mentor young Sri Lankan designers in swimwear textile design for an International market. Drawing a deep breath as I waited on the sidewalk for my driver, I felt the stares of many dark eyes curiously watching my every move. This alone makes you feel a little uneasy being the only woman in the vicinity, standing alone in foreign country, awaiting the arrival of a non-english speaking driver. However, for some reason it felt ok. I didn’t feel fearful. It weirdly felt like home.
The Sri Lankan political war ended a year before my arrival to the island and I saw very few foreigners around the city. During my 2 year tenor with an ethical swimwear manufacturer I learnt a great deal about the vulnerability of garment makers and how important their job is to the support of their families and personal lives. The 2500 men and woman, sat behinds rows and rows of machines, dressed in uniform and wearing the appropriate safety gear. Their faces lit up every time I smiled at them or said “hello” as I walked by each morning. These curiously smiling faces inspired me to delve deeper in the fashion system and to learn as much as I could about fashion production.
Being in Sri Lanka and working in manufacturing allowed an experience that not many fashion designers get the chance to have. I was thrown into the deep end, asked to solve production wastage issues I had no idea how to solve and I was made aware of the hypocrisies that existed in the convoluted fashion system.
The board meeting conversations with designers from conglomerate businesses were always centered around cost and lead times. The expectations of product quality is very high and cost is always the most important factor. Unfortunately with cost being the driving factor, other important factors such as worker welfare, worker compensation or environmental impact aren’t always part of the agenda. Yes, colour, fabric, quality and seasonal trends are all important factors in the success of products in the fashion world. However, for me, the underlying factors such as method of creation, worker welfare and development impact are the building blocks in business. Create a system that is sustainable and which positively supports those in it and it will continue to strengthen as time goes on.
Unfortunately, in the global fashion system the people who are creating our garments are often disregarded as profit margins, lead times and consumer demand take precedence.
The way in which our current fashion system works will not change instantly, it is too vast and too lucrative for businesses to shift to a more positive structure overnight. However, the industry is driven by customer demand and if customers values change to support a healthier system than the system eventually needs to change. It may not happen in my lifetime, however I feel compelled to be part of this positive force in fashion and educate future generations of why it is important to seek ethical and sustainable products.
My Sri Lankan experience and working alongside the garment makers helped shape my purpose in fashion and inspired a shift in my personal attitudes. My only hope is that I can inspire others in shifting their personal attitudes to support a positive fashion system too.
On a global scale the impact of which ash white has on the total effect of the fashion industry is pretty minute and there are other brands out there who are turning to sustainability and ethics in their development. However, I feel that what sets ash white apart from other ethical or sustainable brands is that I, ash white, genuinely have a connection with my makers, I sit with them, I speak with them and enquire about their needs. The brand is focused in providing sustainable support for those who craft the product and preserving the traditional craft on which artisan communities are built on. The brand is authentic and transparent and will undoubtedly make mistakes along the way. We are not perfect, however we can act positively in creating a better outcome for all.
If ash white, the brand somehow contributed to making an opportunity exist for my makers or their children that was not available to them before than the brand has met its objective and I will be happy. At the end of the day it is the maker’s hands that bring my ideas to life and who create the beautiful handwork, I am purely showcasing their talent to the world.
Good things take time: ash white start-up 2.0
As I walked out of the Mumbai airport in February 2017, I knew I was embarking on a journey that may or may not work out how I envisioned it to. I made a conscious effort to remove the pressure and loosen my expectations. This conscious decision was a reaction to what had transpired after the first attempt in developing ash white, the brand.
July 2016, I returned to Sri Lanka with the goal of reconnecting with my past fashion alliances to start manufacturing ash white product. The pressure I created for myself in starting ash white was too much for me mentally at the time and I was thrown into a state where I needed to stop the ash white quest and return home to Australia for recovery. Failure to me was one of my biggest fears and when I had to return to Mackay to be with my family during this delicate time, I cried. I cried uncontrollably. I felt like I had not only failed in starting ash white the brand I felt I had failed at life completely. After several weeks of frantically trying to clamber back onto the employment horse, I fell and I fell hard. Depression seeped in and I was forced to reset. Yoga, dance and a few significant people helped me through the murky waters and I starting building a stronger foundation within myself.
6 months in Mackay with a self-loving focus and a couple of christmas casual jobs to keep me stimulated, I began sketching and planning out the sequel to the ash white story. A story I had started to write before, however this time I consciously decided to intuitively go with the flow and not force the process. Mental illness is something I have been familiar with in my life and I understand more deeply how it affects me and my ability to endure stress. I am conscious of what triggers my anxiety and I do my best in maintaining a healthy life balance. The fragility of life itself is a defining aspect of ash white as the collections draw of the postive and negative aspects of human behaviour. The yin and the yang. The masculine and the feminine. The brand is about connection, fuelled by emotion and built on the foundations of what makes us human.
the story continues.
To learn more about the ash white misson have a squiz at our about page or watch the film and see what an average day in Mumbai looked like in February this year, where I met and worked alongside the makers who helped bring this first collection together.
As promised, here is the bulleted list of how ash white, the label began.
- Ash grew up in Mackay, Queensland and has both positive and negative memories of her upbringing and her imaginative thoughts and yearning of new vistas led to her departure as an 18 year old.
- Being an emtional person, Ash is connected deeply to everything around her and uses these emotions in the creative process of building her collections and is the underlying purpose of the brand – to emotively connect to products and the people who make them.
- Ash has fond memories of her country upbringing and decided to use these memories creatively for the concept of the first collection, reminiscence. The memories associated with Ash’s grandparent’s cane farm form the basis of the collection.
Honestly, I’m finding this really difficult and will stop the bulleted list right here. I’m sure if you’re interested enough, you’ll go back and read the long-winded creative stories.