I’m still feeling chills from the magnetic Emmy acceptance speech actress Viola Davis gave empowering African American women as actresses this past week, and I can’t help but applaud our very own Ashley Chew of Indianapolis as well. Her beautifully subtle, yet strong and poignant message on diversity at New York Fashion Week has become a slogan for change. Ashley was photographed carrying a black canvas bag with the words “Black Models Matter” painted on it. Not only did the bag carry a strong message, encouraging the fashion industry to include a more diverse selection of models, it also showcased Chew’s work, who painted the words herself. The photo was posted to instagram and literally became an internet sensation overnight.
In lieu of her message being such a success, Ashley felt an event surrounding her advocacy would be the next best step. Black Models Matter, a celebration geared towards diversity, will be held on Friday, Oct 2nd at the Madame Walker Theatre. I had the pleasure of speaking with Miss Chew, and found her story compelling and inspiring.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I was born in Chicago but Indy has been my hometown most of my life. I am a model and artist and try to be as creative as I can with everything in my life.
When did you first get into modeling?
I started at Kent State University. I was a costume and merchandise design major but really enjoyed modeling. I used that time there as a way to started building a portfolio. When I moved back to Indy in 2011 I signed with LModelz and have been working with them every since.
Indy couldn’t be more proud of the attention you’ve gained from NYFW. Were you surprised by the almost instant popularity of your instagram post?
Well I was lucky enough to have a reasonably strong following on FB already, which helped. Interestingly enough though, my following is based off of my artwork not necessarily my modeling.
The shirt and bag from my instagram were both made by me but when I put them on, I wasn’t really trying to gain attention or make a huge statement. I painted “Black Models Matter” on my bag that week because I do believe the fashion industry needs to put more of an emphasis on diversity, but I also wasn’t trying to gain a huge following. It was just something I believed in and wanted to express my thoughts through my artwork.
While walking around at NYFW I did notice that my photo was being taken quite a bit. I realized quickly that I had the shirt and bag on together. The shirt says BLACK and the bag says Black Models Matter. It seemed very cohesive and I decided to have someone take my photo and post it to instagram.
I am completely overwhelmed by the amount of attention it’s received! It literally just blew up overnight. Refinery 29 called me. I couldn’t believe it. They saw the photo and wrote an article on their website. Since that moment, the message has been gaining momentum.
You know, it’s not just the bag that makes me proud it’s the comments that surround the bag that really resonate with me. People are seeking me out. Clearly this message is an important one and so many people see the need for change in the industry as well. I never put my name under the photo and you can’t even see my face. This bag makes a powerful statement all on its own.
Tell me about the Black Models Matter event.
This whole experience has been a bit of a whirlwind but I’m thrilled to see that Indy is embracing it. Indianapolis has done so many wonderful things for me. I’m grateful for the support and opportunity I’ve gained here. I wanted to take this great message and give back to the city that I love.
The event will be held on Oct. 2nd, 8pm at the Madame Walker Theatre and open to all ages. It is basically a celebration of diversity. There will be a presentation and performance, which I’m really excited about. We will also have a discussion panel featuring myself and fellow Indy models Ebony Wallace and Ashley Barnett. Both have a great deal experience in the industry and each has their own unique view on being an African American model in the fashion industry.
What is the future for Black Models Matter? Where do you see all of this heading?
I just hope that this event brings more awareness to the issue. I want to link the idea to larger organizations that advocate for diversity. I want to see more women of color used in fashion editorials, advertising and especially on the runway. To be honest, I would love to NOT see a need for the bag next season. The reason my message gained so much popularity is because it’s important and an issue that needs addressing. How wonderful would it be if the message weren’t even necessary?
It’s about creating more opportunity for African Americans as a whole. This is a cause I have been fighting for for a very long time. I am so excited to be part of this incredible movement.
Okay, last but not least, we have to ask, what was your favorite show you saw at NYFW?
Betsy Johnson! Oh my gosh it was the most magical show. I couldn’t believe I was sitting there watching it live. She casts the most amazing, fun and talented models. She even did a cartwheel at the end. It was just an absolute treat!