Foreword from your Head F&N Babe-in-Charge Tiff: Each week, we're introducing a new friend with a new story. A story that'll make you root for the author reading through her (or his!) ups and downs. A story that will inspire you to chase your own dreams and maybe pursue other paths you may have not considered before. A story that will show you never-before-seen vulnerabilities and suck you in. Every story is different but one thing remains the same. Each person is pushing forward ever-onward, giving it all to living the best life possible.
This week's guest blogger is a woman who actually was one of the inspirations for me to establish Freret & Napoleon. Inspiration comes from all kinds of places and things, but the most powerful inspirations are, in my opinion, from people. I learned about Ashley when I became interested in applying for Fashion Week New Orleans. She had won a few years before and her collection was magical. My only connection with her was actually my sister's sorority sister, Katie, and I reached out to pick her cousin's brain to begin my path.
Ashley was so kind and answered my many questions. She's down-to-Earth, positive and, most importantly, supportive of other people chasing their dreams. When people support each other, that's what really makes the world go round.
I'm so happy to have made a friend in her because she's a fellow Coastie (shout-out to my Coasties!!) that took chances to follow her heart.
Life is meant to be lived.
Risks are meant to be taken.
And each day is meant to be appreciated.
Read along to hear Ashley's story about her start as a Fashion Designer and get an inside look to how some dreams can lead you to where you least expect -Tiffany
(A. Gunk Designs at Austin Fashion Week with F&N jewels)
F&N Babe Ashley: The darkest twilight of a dawn that would never come is the epitome of the worst years in my life: whenever the sun would act as though it was rising, something would push it right back down. Every road I took seemed to be riddled with stop signs and potholes. With each right turn I found a bridge under construction, and each left meandered through dim lit slums with the shadiest of characters. Life had imprisoned me in a maze with no way out. It begged the question:
"Why me? What was I doing wrong? Was it trying to force my hand?"
I couldn't eat; I couldn't sleep. I had to get out.
So how did I get to that place? First, I should probably mention that I graduated with a BS in Apparel, Textiles, and Merchandising (or in layman's terms, Fashion Design). After college I landed an internship in one of the absolute perfect spots for an aspiring fashion designer... Manhattan! Not only was I headed to the Big Apple, but the gig I had accepted happened to be working for the Donna Karan!! It was truly unbelievable, and it seemed as though I was on track towards one day being a high end fashion designer.
For the entire summer I worked hand-in-hand with designers, fit models, marketing and branding agents, helping the team get ready for the Mercedes Benz Fall Fashion Week. It was such an experience, and I was totally immersed in this new lifestyle. Surrounded by fashion, with around-the-clock amenities, I was running errands all around the city, living in the midst of a new culture directly opposite from what a small town Mississippi girl was accustomed.
I loved this new world, and had every intention of continuing to live this life; then SCREEEEECH!!! The brakes were slammed, and now the car was in neutral flashing the engine overheating sign. I had just learned that Donna Karan does not hire summer interns for full time positions. Plus, the housing crisis of 2008 was underway which caused a “hiring freeze” in most establishments, which meant they were not looking to bring on recent college graduates. Needless to say, there was no job for me. With the big city life comes big city expenses and without an income, this girl was forced to make a huge u-turn back to Mississippi.
Losing your job sucks. Coming home and facing people from your hometown after going away sucks.
So what now? Where do I go?
Mississippi did not offer an abundance of careers that had an ounce of anything to do with fashion. You were basically left with a multitude of retail opportunities. I went out and began my search. I quickly found a glimmer of hope at the Beau Rivage casino where I met with the VP of Retail and Fashion Marketing. I was offered a position, that was created for me. I would be helping to produce and manage a high dollar fashion event. It would include putting together the fashion show, booking caterers, marketing, the works. Joy flooded my heart.
Everything was set for me to sign the paper work, but then the call to set up a time never came. So I waited, and waited, and waited. After a week I called because I did not want to lose this opportunity. Apparently with the recession in full swing, MGM had decided to lay off over 400 people country wide, and my one source for this position being one of them. There went that job. Left with scarce opportunities and desperate to just find work, I filled my application to Dillard's, which at the time was the only department store near me.
The retail management side of fashion was where I began my career. My bags were packed and I was now in a new city again, this time a little closer to home in Baton Rouge. I still wanted to be a fashion designer, but with my competitiveness I also desired to move up quickly.
The position that I wanted was lead buyer. I could be in charge of selecting the fashion items that were sold in-store in the women's department and even have opportunities to spotlight my own creations. In my mind it was the best of both worlds. I found a job where my goals and motivations collided and forged a crystal path for my success. In two years, I was promoted to the Corporate Headquarters in Little Rock, AR as an assistant buyer for men's fashion. Now it wasn't women's fashion, but I perceived this as a stepping stone, nonetheless.
I stayed at the buying office in Little Rock for three years. It was a good job, regular work hours, holidays off, typical set up... but I eventually realized I wasn’t happy. Monotony had set in. I was cast in the middle of a cubicle, where the persistent drone of the office air conditioner rotted my eardrums and nine o'clock Monday morning slowly drudged to five o'clock Friday.
I was limited in my creativity. Minimal projects were pushed to my desk. So I tried to compensate my creative needs by designing custom clothes for friends, clients, and, of course, myself.
I never gave up on my dream.
I would work endlessly on collections that I presented at Runway Shows all over the southern region, sometimes even resulting in winning top designer awards. Instead of finding fulfillment in these endeavors, the sleepless nights and endless work hours began to take a toll on my happiness and my health. I started to slip into a depression because I had spread myself too thin.
(Winner of Fashion Week New Orleans)
Even the happiness I found in my custom design work began to deplete. When I would wake up in the morning, probably going on only 3 to 4 hours of sleep, I would dread going to work. Eventually I started calling in sick because I couldn’t force myself to go in. Stuck in a merciless cycle, the stress and depression that I had burdened myself with got so bad that my stomach was in a constant state of gut wrenching anxiety.
I had to force myself to eat, and only then could I manage two to three bites. I lost about ten pounds within a week. At the time I didn't realize the stress and depression was causing my sickness, I genuinely thought something was wrong with me and was scared that I was sick. My parents, also worried, offered for me to come home, figure things out, go to a doctor and work on getting better. So I quit Dillard's, moved back to Mississippi to pursue me, a new way to push towards my dreams and find a place where I would wake up and be happy doing what I was doing.
Again my life hit a pothole, blew out a tire, and I was back at home base trying to figure out how to get back out on the road.
So upon quitting my job, my dad asked me, “What do you want to do?”
My answer was still to be a fashion designer.
But you can’t just start out being a full time fashion designer.
I had already built up clientele, so I definitely had work, but needed something else to substantiate my income while still growing my design business. Then came along: Stitched. It was a joint venture between my parents and me. Stitched was my very own women’s clothing boutique in Hattiesburg, MS. This was a coalescence of perfection: it gave me an opportunity to be in the field that I love and have the time to work on my own designs.
Dream come true. Done.
But no. Another “closed road” sign awaited.
This job entailed far more than what most people realize, and it takes a lot of time and energy. Time that I thought I would be able to spend on my custom work. The business did well for a few months but bills slowly started to pile up. My customer base was dwindling by the month. Hattiesburg was saturated with boutiques, and it was feast or famine for the owners.
It wasn't long before I realized what I thought I wanted, wasn’t what I wanted at all. I found myself feeling alone, and scared to ask for help because I had taken a huge leap,and invested a lot of money to follow my dreams and again it wasn’t working out. I didn’t want people to think I couldn’t do it, and I didn’t want to seem as though I had failed. But that's exactly how I felt. I was a failure.
No matter how hard I tried to take one step towards my dream, something would happen and push me eight steps backwards. I couldn't catch a break. After my first year with the boutique, I decided to close shop because it wasn’t where my heart was, I didn't want to lose more money, and the stress and depression I had felt before was slowly overcoming me again. I just wasn't happy and didn't know how to find my happiness.
I felt lost and started to doubt myself, my abilities, and even what I was capable of.
But what did I want to do?
Honestly, I was scared to try anything. For so long after that, I felt as though I was a failure and that I may never get to where I wanted to be. It was hard telling some people what I was doing. Not everyone understood, and some people thought I was running away from my problems, rather than dealing with them. It took me a long time to be okay and not worry about what other people thought.
They weren't the ones living my life and they didn't know what my heart needed in order to heal. It's so hard in today's society to not feel judged for stepping out of the box and living your life differently than what's “normal.” We are our own worst critic and that's where I had found myself. I was giving myself a bad review over and over again about all the wrong choices, the mistakes, and blaming myself for circumstances that were out of my control. I needed to get away, to a new place where I wasn't surrounded by these thoughts, so that I could begin to love myself again, heal, and open my heart to a new future, new dreams, a place where I would be happy again with myself and the life I was moving forward with.
So, a year and a half ago I embarked on a journey to Quito, Ecuador. No idea what to expect, only knowing that I would be gone for 5 months doing some type of mission work. So I boarded the plane and told America, “Peace out.” Twenty-one strangers, a foreign country, a new language, this was going to be interesting.
I was 100% scared but forced myself to go.
Ecuador was a journey that I am so happy that I embarked on. I was allowed to be raw and open and admit things about myself that were hard to say out loud, but needed to be said so that I could begin to move past them. One of the hardest battles to overcome throughout our entire lives is learning to love ourselves through our mistakes, trials and errors. We are not perfect and were not made to be so.
I've learned to be okay with me and who I am, and I accept my past as a part of life that has made me the person I am today and stronger for my future. So love yourself for the mistakes and wrong choices because they are a part of your journey and what makes you, YOU. And every part of you is worth loving.
When I ventured back to the states I had new dreams, new motivation, new inspiration, and a new found happiness guiding my way. I founded a new company Feathers for Hope, along with my now husband. It is a jewelry and accessory company that focuses on providing unique, quality products while engaging the consumer in the awareness of human trafficking. Profits from all of our purchases are used to provide healthy working opportunities for women who have fallen victim to labor and sex trafficking.
I found away to combine my creativity and love for fashion and put it towards a mission that means something to me and helps someone else potentially change their life and find their own new path. We just hit our first year mark and this endeavor has brought more hope and joy into my life by helping bring hope to these women, then anything else I have ever done.
This realization resonated throughout me.
Forget all the negativity. All the stops and wrong turns that I had been through could have silenced me.
It almost had.
But I found a way to cope and to get back onto a road that I wanted to be on. I had a rejuvenated sense of joy and happiness, and was once again set free. No longer was I imprisoned in this eternal despondence. The streets began to shine. The full spectrum of color is in full view and nothing can take me down.
So believe me. I know your pain, and I know it's wrenching in the pit of your stomach. I may not know exactly where you have been or even how far you have burrowed into your hiding place. I do, however, know the path that has been lain for you. It may take a few turns and even stops to get there, but hope is always in front of you. And I want you to remember this one thing:
Hope is the warmth that radiates throughout us, “casting the shadow of our burdens behind us.”
To follow Feathers for Hope:
Facebook: Feathers for Hope