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Ashley Graham on how to handle rejection and why inclusivity is a billion-dollar opportunity

“There’s still is such a lack of diversity on the runway and the luxury market,” a bubbly Ashley Graham tells Vogue of fashion’s current inclusivity problem. However, Graham doesn’t think the predicament is something that should change tomorrow. Instead, she’s focused on longevity rather than fleeting tokenistic moments.

“I don’t want anything to happen overnight because things don’t ever stick if it happens overnight,” says the supermodel when we ask about her recent runway appearances for the likes of Michael Kors and Prabal Gurung, both notable steps forward for inclusive sizing.

“Slow and steady wins the race. I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, so I’m really happy to see so much progression in the last five years,” Graham adds, speaking to Vogue over the phone from Melbourne, where she touched down ahead of the 2019 Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival (or VAMFF as Australians affectionately call it) this March, to walk for the very first time.

The name Ashley Graham means a lot of different things to a lot of different people and now, some 20 years after Graham first started modelling, the label ‘model’ just doesn’t cut it for the body positivity activist and businesswoman who is growing a burgeoning empire while fighting for diversity in a somewhat stagnant industry.

“I feel like every time I walk the runway I’m just reminding people and showcasing that beauty comes in all different sizes and it’s really that diversity inclusion conversation,” Graham said of taking the 20-plus hour flight from the US to Australia to walk one of the direct-to-consumer VAMFF shows. 

Graham’s reach is quickly becoming all-encompassing; the model now designs swimwear (Swimsuits For All) and lingerie (Addition Elle), authored the 2017 memoir, A New Model: What Confidence, Beauty, and Power Really Look Like, and hosts her podcast, Pretty Big Deal, for which Graham has interviewed the likes of Kim Kardashian West and Serena Williams—the kind of women she believes are a pretty big deal. 

“I love and appreciate so much people like Prabal [Gurung], Michael [Kors], Christian [Siriano], you know, they have really committed to designing for women and representing women of all shapes, sizes, ethnicity, and ages,” Graham says of the designers currently championing a diverse size range on and off the red carpet.

“It’s an honour to work with some of these designers on custom looks that celebrate my curves and it’s so fun to be able to go into the design teams and have these raw, natural conversations with them and talk about what I want to accentuate and what fabrics I would like to wear,” adds the supermodel, who recently made a splash at the 2019 Oscars in a black Zac Posen gown.

“The designers who have dressed me have been really passionate about it and they’re passionate about what it means to dress a woman with curves. And I think that we need more designers like that, that are not just taking a chance but believing in the diversity of women,” Graham continues, noting her transition from model to designer was sparked by the lack of sizing options for women, most certainly a lucrative groove to fill.

“I didn’t have sexy, supportive lingerie that I could find for my size. And same goes with bikinis, I wanted little tiny string bikinis and nobody wanted to make them for my curvy-ass body, so I did it!” Graham says of her foray into design, adding the catalyst for all of her output has not only been linked to her personal wardrobe desires but her fans’ ne too—she has 8.2 million of them on Instagram and counting.

“I think what it does is it opens up the eyes to designers also and says, ‘oh wow, if she’s making these clothes, lingerie, and swim and they’re selling out, then what does that mean?’ Well it means that the curve industry is a multi-billion dollar industry and that more people should get involved,” says Graham, who certainly isn’t content with pigeonholing herself. In fact, she welcomes a challenge, given it’s an opportunity for self-reflection and growth. 

“I think that every challenge that comes your way is just another opportunity for you to grow,” Graham reflects when we ask how setbacks the model has experienced have shaped her path. “If you look at it as a challenge, or if you look at it as something that’s going to hurt you in the long run, it might do that. But I think if you look at it as a learning or teachable moment then it can really help you and enhance your growth as a business person or even just in your personal life.”

Graham has been notably vocal about obstacles she’s faced when pursuing her career in modelling. Her 2015 TED Talk, Plus-size? More like my size, touched on the pigeonholing of the ‘plus-size’ label and Graham’s journey of discovery at the age of 13 in her native Nebraska to her catalogue work and repeated ‘never-going-happen moments’ she faced within the industry, specifically, how unlikely it would be that she would ever land a cover. The model now has more than 20 to her name.

Persistence and those teachable moments, specifically being let go from a groundbreaking 2011 Vogue Italia ‘plus-size’ cover shoot by Steven Meisel, which she cast for but ended up featuring Tara Lynn, Candice Huffine and Robyn Lawley, have shaped how Graham approaches her brand now.

“I’m thankful that I had the clarity to be able to look back at those moments, like you said the Italian Vogue cover, and say ‘okay you know what, that wasn’t my cover, that wasn’t my job, that wasn’t supposed to be it’. And now I’m able to do that moving forward in my own business ventures and I’m so glad that that happened to me because it made me realise that not everything is going to be mine,” Graham reflects.

Is there anything the model wouldn’t do? Graham doesn’t think so, joking that at this stage anything is possible but above all she’s thankful for the platform she has to not only start important conversations but keeping them moving forward. “It’s exciting being an author, having a podcast, being a television producer, designer, model, all those things. It’s so much, and I’m so glad to be able to use my platform to change the conversation, to make people think differently, to give a voice to younger generations, to women in general. And I think that that’s what everybody who has a platform and who can do that should be doing.”