Considerations on Work and The New Collection: An Essay from Ashley

This collection for me was born out of a strange place.  The past year has been one of the most challenging ones for me.  Looking back I can see it as perhaps a strange off-set form of depression.  But it was unlike anything I’ve dealt with. As a teenager and portions of my twenties, I struggled to separate myself from a heaviness that always seemed to hover.  It didn’t always dominate, but it was always there. To be honest, I always wrote it off as a connection to soul. As a highly sensitive child, it felt good to be introspective in a way that transcended emotions of the daily life.  And not only did it feel good, but it felt as if those thoughts and feelings were intertwined into my very sinews and tendons. And any deviation from allowing myself to experience those emotions felt like an ultimate separation of self.  I was born into the existential crisis that so many of us are - how to find ourselves in a world that tells us we can be anything that we want. We grew up with the beautiful notion that we can have anything we want, be anything we want, say anything we want (so often behind the constructs of social media).  As a millennial, I often groan at the association of those in my age bracket. But we are a unique group for sure.

As I have stumbled through the navigation of the pursuit of my career, I have felt mostly unprepared, a bit naive, and a lot worried by the fact that I may or may not be getting all of this right.  And worse, what if someone discovers that I’m a fraud. I think it’s hard to be a creative person in a world that allows us to be what we want. Suddenly there is no wall to feel your hand against when it seems dark around you and you need a guide.  There is nothing on the other side saying “you can’t do that,” because often in this world, anything goes. And the traditional answers don’t always apply anymore. Sometimes I feel like there are more voices pressuring me to say something and feel something, even when I don’t.  I look around me and there seems to be this pressing attempt to cause ripples no matter where we are. I love having the freedom to feel and think what I desire. And thanks to that ever-present, ever-daunting social media, sometimes I feel paralyzed by that exact freedom. Lucky for me, as a tried and true Libra, the ability to choose anything I want often leads to a dramatically petty breakdown of my ability to function as a human being.  

I pride myself on being honest and never trying to present something that isn’t actually occurring in my life.  Sometimes I feel that I’m a little too honest when someone, in that all-too-sweet Southern way, asks me how I am.  But I come from two parents who have always managed to present themselves with honesty and respect and I can only hope that I am half of that.  But it has allowed me to grow up in a way in which makes me comfortable to not hide behind something simply because I feel I must present myself a certain way.  Shying away from speaking out on my social media accounts is a combination of my inability to choose how I feel about a situation combined with my inability to stand behind a version of myself that I am not 1000% feeling.  For better or worse, I think being in my thirties has at least allowed me the very simple ability to acknowledge these things. Whether I am able to do anything about this is yet to be determined.

At the beginning of this year, something happened in my brain.  I was incredibly burned out. I was a bit sad. I was super overwhelmed by pretty much every aspect of  my life. I felt burdened by the very ability to stand up each day and be excited and thankful for what I had.  And in true Ashley form, my reactionary stance to this was to pull inside. Introspection is my drug. And I was ready to binge.  I pulled away from people. I stopped pushing my business. I stopped having any sort of thought about much. It didn’t necessarily feel good to do this, but it felt a bit safer than that strange feeling of the floor constantly moving from below my feet that was beginning to take a very familiar post in my day-to-day life.  I’ve always been told that I work incredibly well under pressure. Growing up, I was always thrown into the game in the final moments my team was down. There was an incredible adrenaline rush of fight-or-flight that would surge into my veins, and I would launch into go-mode. Any high-stress job I’ve held has resulted in me thriving under the same intense pressure.  It was a high. I would feel the toxicity of the stress and vibrate in the excess of it. It felt so good, and yet I always knew I would crash from it. And the crashes were rough.

I think at the beginning of this year, I finally grew tired of the crash.  Or, at the very least, I was scared to crash again. This year has been plagued by fear.  Fear in so many different capacities. Fear of being alone. Fear of being around too many people.  Fear of loving and being loved. Fear of being accepted. Fear that I was letting everyone down around me.  Fear that I was living this life from the outside, in - one that looked cool but sometimes felt the most uncool.  The fear plagued me. It sat with me each night while I tried to shut down my brain with my fancy meditation app. It plagued me in the mornings when I would wake up and already feel like I wasn’t doing something right.  It plagued me throughout the day as I spoke to people in my life. It sat in the front seat of my car. On the stool next to me in my studio. It rested on my shoulder every time I looked in my mirror. And yet he was steadfast:  my old, weird-o friend, Fear. I didn’t like him. But he was at least loyal.

This summer, something finally broke in me.  I was working so hard for everyone around me except for myself, and I felt completely lost.  Even old Fear was a tired hag that I was eager to get rid of. I can’t even remember the exact moment it happened, but at some point I had arrived at the conclusion that I was finished with this phase that had quietly wreaked havoc on my brain for so long.  Change is terrifying. And I admire the people who can take it on without an ounce of hesitation. Change for me has always been incredibly daunting. But I also have always at least attempted to acknowledge that, and embrace it when I can. But it is NOT fun.  And I will likely complain about it the whole way.
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Ona Rex has been the most important to me these last few years.  Ona is the middle name of my great-grandmother and Rex is the middle name of my father.  It felt important and imperative to me to have legacy in my business. Who knows if there will ever be children in my future, but this was my child.  I created her and I have fought for her. She is a wild one, and sometimes I worry I am not strong enough. But she is with me forever, and I will never forget that.  Ramblings of a self-conscious mother, I know.

I have always been incredibly fortunate in my time in Nashville to receive the support and love from those around me.  Fashion has a reputation for being fickle, and it certainly can be. But Nashville has always been my ground zero. However, I have also always fought against the grain here.  And that wears on a person mentally, physically, and emotionally. At some point in the last year, I really struggled to remember if I even wanted to be doing what I was doing. I knew I did somewhere inside of myself, but I couldn’t remember where that was (or perhaps I simply didn’t have the energy to look).  But when you feel like you aren’t growing and moving toward The Ultimate Goal, it can really knock your ego of its pedestal. Perhaps not a bad thing, but it doesn’t make it any less painful.  

My fall-winter collection for this year was something that came to me many months ago.  I had this idea to design a collection that represented my version of Americana. I feel like a lot of us can relate to a feeling of dissidence for our country right now, and I am no different.  But I also love and respect the utterly crazed work ethic that this country was built on. Our forefathers and foremothers bore this very country with their blood, sweat, and tears - but what does that even mean to me?  

Work has always been a form of solace for me.  A controlled variable when all of my other variables feel like a load of chaotic shit.  When my great grandmother passed away in my early twenties, I went to work. When I have struggled to deal with depression here and there throughout the years, I have gone to work.  When Ona is in a down turn (which happens as often as when it is in an up-turn), I work. I work for others so I don’t have to face my own failures. Work is the brother to my fugly frenemy, Fear.  Work is always there when I need him. Feeling confused? Work. Feeling restless? Work. Feeling inadequate? Work. Fighting with loved ones? Work will fill the hole. Work is like a cork that I will put into the swiss-cheese orifices of my emotions.  But it’s never a permanent fix.

My fall-winter collection was a reaction to this.  I created an incredibly small collection of work wear, utilitarian in nature, but peppered with elements of romanticism and femininity.  This collection was an exploration into what work meant to me and what that becomes in 3-D form. I took elements like pockets, transitional sleeves, and basic button-down shirts and made them mildly excessive in nature.  I wanted the pieces to feel as if they could provide both practicality and escape. Both of which I desired in my own life.

As of now, I’m writing this and it is the end of October.  I have yet to release this collection, that by fashion standards, should have been out months ago.  I fight against the self conscious renderings of my brain constantly and this small detail has riddled me useless at times.  But at the end of the day, I had to make the choice to be mentally sound as opposed to on time. I struggled and fought to create this collection, even in its simplicity.  There were times when it felt physically painful to spend one more moment thinking about it and sitting on it. But at the end of the day, it was too important to my own sanity to let it truly rest in its own culmination of what it needed to be.  I think I have been forced to come to a place of bucking my own system a bit. I cannot and will not create what doesn’t feel fully formed. And so I must find a safe place to exist within it all. Because I know at the end of the day, things can and probably will get harder from here.  And that’s okay.

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The concept for presenting this collection was to present a world in which the utter desolation I have felt recently could carry some acknowledgement.  Sometimes it feels weird to bring attention to something that plagued me so negatively, but I felt like it was the most honest thing I could do. It felt honorable and correct.  I have had conversations with people throughout the year that allowed me to feel safe and heard when I was feeling at my most solitary. I know I’m not the only one who feels it.  Desolation is the only word I could truly stand behind for I what I have been through mentally. I haven’t necessarily been overly angry or sad. But the desolation of feeling what I was feeling was by far the most present emotion.  It brought up considerations of the old west and the dust bowl. Times when the very landscape was absolutely and utterly desolate. But with that desolation came hope. The ability to build up your own world. To know that your spirit is greater than the struggle.  To know that you can push and struggle and fall constantly, but that you have the power to create your future.  That is the place I came to with the completion of this collection.  That, and the idea that work is self medication. Work is a cover, a shroud, and a cloak.  For better or worse.

My desire is that highlighting this Thing that has blanketed the last several months of my life can elicit some change for me - but maybe for someone else, too.  I think in times of complete desperation, art can heal. I believe that is why we see a surge of art when the world is in a place of complete social disruption. And that is why I’m choosing to make something that is honest for me during a time when I don’t even have an answer of what to do.  Sometimes you have to build your own wall to feel in the dark. Maybe it’s a blind comfort. And if it is, then so be it.

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More on the campaign:

Brett Warren worked with both digital and film format to create imagery that respected the core of this collection.   The juxtaposition of the digital versus the film felt really appropriate to us because it allowed the emotion to sing.  The campaign was shot at an as-of-recently-shut-down factory in McMinnville, Tennessee. Brett grew up in McMinnville and his family’s relationship with this factory goes back decades.  This factory was established during the civil war and has transitioned to each economical change through the generations - even the Great Depression. But for whatever reason, it didn’t survive the modern world.  Everything was left as-is in the factory, like a ghost town. It was as if one day, everyone stood up, dropped their tools, and walked out. There is a thick layer of saw dust and dirt that covers everything from the machinery, to the old wooden hand carts of ax handles, to the coffee cups that were literally left exactly as that final moment they were set down on the table.  There is an eeriness to the land that you can only know if you are standing there in cold breeze, listening to the metal clanking on metal. It’s one of those places that has a haunting beauty that elicits fear and admiration.

The film, shot and directed by Jordan Bellamy stars Dylan Stephens, our campaign model.  The film, to me, speaks directly to the notion of work as a self-medication. During the times that I have felt the lowest, work brought me purpose.  Sometimes there is a deep heaviness that comes with that. And Dylan and Jordan unequivocally brought that to life.

The full collection is available now.