CFDA Fellows ASHYA on How to Find Success and Balance in the Luxury Fashion Industry

ASHYA AW18, “Blue Mountains”

ASHYA AW18, “Blue Mountains”

“First things first,” I say to the designers behind what Vogue has called the new reinvented fanny pack, “‘Fanny pack’ or ‘belt bag’?”

“I prefer ‘belt bags,’” says ASHYA co-founder Moya Annece. “Fanny packs have an ugly, not-cute connotation to it, so I try to steer clear of that.” Like her response, every move Annece and her business partner Ashley Cimone make for ASHYA is very deliberate. “We do two collections per year, and to be honest, that’s enough right now,” she says. “We value ourselves in not feeling so pressured to abide by this fast-fashion calendar schedule.”

In the two years since launching their luxury leather goods brand, Cimone and Annece have created collections that educate as much as they sell—rooted in the stories of shamans in Guatemala and the Blue Mountains in Jamaica, and each accompanied by an experimental short film.

The duo met at FIT, but they interact as if they were sisters who’d known each other their whole lives. “When I first saw Moya, I was attracted to her style,” Cimone says. “When we started working together, I felt the same level of curiosity and ambition.” Now, with the CFDA Elaine Gold Launch Pad fellowship under their belt—no pun intended!—they are preparing to launch their AW19 collection and are working to make ASHYA a more sustainable company. “Nothing happens in a silo. We’re constantly sharing,” says Cimone. “We’ve created multiple business ideas together over the course of the last 10 years, and this is the first one that really materialized.”

Below, the designers reveal how they built ASHYA as “first-generation creatives,” how they avoid cultural appropriation as black fashion designers, and how to find inspiration with self-help books.

AMIRAH MERCER: What’s the difference between the way ASHYA is inspired by different cultures and the rampant cultural appropriation we see in fashion now?

Beyoncé wears ASHYA at Made in America 2019

Beyoncé wears ASHYA at Made in America 2019

MOYA ANNECE: The way we approach traveling and sharing stories every season, we want it to come from the point of view of the people — and not: ‘Get into a space and then be inspired and then give our point of view.’ So whenever we travel, we have a film component, and we try not to put product in it, because we don’t want it to come off as if we’re commodifying these people’s cultures or trying to misappropriate what’s happening here.

ASHLEY CIMONE: We live in a world where everyone’s taking from each other, and we’re very aware of that.

MOYA: When we went to India for [our upcoming] collection, it was very important for us to work with Indian talent. We sought after an Indian creative director, Radha Rathi, and as we’re casting and putting garments together, we don’t want to be insensitive, we don’t want to come across as really ignorant in the pursuit of being creative. She really helped guide us and said, ‘You know, I wouldn’t include that child in [the shoot]. India is very sensitive about the child labor laws, and you don’t know what that’s going to come across as, so let’s not even try to go in that direction.’ That’s how you tell a really authentic story.

What is it about India that inspired your journey into luxury leather goods? [Ashley and Moya conceived of ASHYA while on a trip to Rishikesh, India, in 2015.]

MOYA: A good friend of ours was doing a yoga teachers training in Rishikesh. We ended up going to the southern coast, which is Kerala, and essentially we wanted to bring belt bags on that trip, and we realized, ‘Wow, this is actually really convenient to have.’ We came back from that trip and it was like, maybe this is something that we should actually pursue. We always wanted to be designers. Let’s try this out.

A Guatemalan shaman narrates ASHYA’s 2019 experimental short film Men of Maize.

So you literally saw a problem in the market that you wanted to solve.

ASHLEY: There was a void. And we were like, we think we can fill this void with our design. The trip was life-changing for us. It was spiritual and emotional; it was so much love on the trip. We were with our friends, and India felt like it hugged us while we were there. It’s such a beautiful country. The culture is so rich, and the people are so warm, and that is really why the brand itself is rooted in this idea of exploring cultural narratives, because we learned a lot about ourselves and about what inspires us while we were on that trip.

MOYA: We get asked this question a lot [about India], and I find it really hard to articulate the feeling inside, in terms of this spiritual embodiment of that experience and how it’s manifested in us being designers and being creatives. If I tried to put it into words, I wouldn’t give it any justice.

ASHLEY: I feel like there was no other way for us to approach design after that trip.

MOYA: Anything we do, travel had to be at the core of it, for sure.

ASHLEY: Anything that you choose to do, it should help you do what you love more. For us, anything that allows us to engage with new people and learn from other cultures, it just helps us be better people. So, like, how can we root our desire to design in something that will continue to help us grow, and also share the information that we’re learning while also exploring the world with whoever potentially buys our designs or just follows what we’re doing as creatives?

ASHYA SS19, “Men of Maize”

ASHYA SS19, “Men of Maize”

Did you have any examples of entrepreneurs around you at this time?

MOYA: Definitely. A huge part of what inspired us to really take the leap and trust in ourselves was being in this community of creatives at the time. All these young people that were really believing in themselves. A good friend of ours when I used to work at Opening Ceremony was [Darlene and Lizzy Okpo, the founders of] William Okpo, and it was incredible to see what they were doing at the time being these young, black, Nigerian designers.

ASHLEY: When I was growing up, I didn’t have any examples of working creatives. It was the act of being defiant that drove me toward entrepreneurship as a creative.

MOYA: We’re both first-generation creatives.

First-generation creatives, I like that.

MOYA: We’re essentially leading by example for our families.

ASHLEY: And I definitely think it’s something that helps to encourage future generations to be more open-minded about what they’re capable of. Because I think the baby boomers had a certain way of approaching success or quantifying success, and as a millennial, it just seems like the world’s our oyster.

I’m curious about the leather goods process. If anyone reads this who is an aspiring designer, and maybe they feel like creating a luxury leather goods line is not accessible to them, what advice do you have to make it less scary?

ASHLEY: We stumbled upon a number of different great resources while we were thinking about starting a brand. The CFDA has really great resources on their website where you can find contact information for local manufacturers that have been vetted by the CFDA in New York and Los Angeles. Maker’s Row is a great resource for suppliers and manufacturers; it’s black owned, a wonderful company. They’re a great resource for designers looking for tanneries. I think in the beginning, what’s really important is pacing yourselves. It’s not an inexpensive process to produce leather goods, but we paced ourselves.

MOYA: Let’s call it what it is—it’s so expensive.

ASHLEY: Okay, it’s expensive, be we paced ourselves. We didn’t do everything at once. We worked on our sketches, our drawings, pulled favors, and developed the first styles over the course of two years.

Did you have funding or did you invest your own money?

MOYA: We launched the business on the backs of our savings. That’s essentially how we started.

ASHLEY: The myth of being designers is that you spend a lot of time designing. We probably spend about 5 to 10 percent of our time designing in a good month. The rest of our time is really taken around building our brand, creating content for the brand—and production is a beast and is something that we focus a lot of our energy on. You can create a beautiful product, but the quality has to stand up to however you’re pricing that product. So it’s really important that the quality of our product is great, that we do our due diligence when we’re sourcing our materials, that we’re looking for leather tanneries that are tanning ethically. All that stuff takes time.

MOYA: We do two collections per year, and to be honest, that’s enough right now. And we value ourselves in not feeling so pressured to abide by this fast-fashion calendar schedule.

ASHLEY: And not burn ourselves out too fast. I think a lot of young designers do that, because there’s a lot of pressure to output often.

With all that you have going on, what are some of your self-care rituals?

ASHLEY: Nails, I have recently become obsessed with getting my nails done. So therapeutic. And I specifically get my nails done with a good friend of mine, Eda from Lady Fancy Nails, so we can just talk through the session. She is quite talented.

MOYA: For me, I’ve been a runner for a few years now. I make a point to run at least twice a week. I do conversational runs, meaning that you go at like a fairly slow pace, a pace that you can breath in and breath out and have a conversation with a friend. I think people take ‘self-care’ for granted. Like, okay, we’re just going to do all these activities, but I think it takes real work in working on yourself in addition to fulfilling things that make you happy. It’s working on being a better you and unlearning terrible habits. So I read a lot of self-help books, so I can, like, be a better person.

The Art of Possibility is a really good one. It’s hitting me at the right moment.

MOYA: I just finished up this book Ashley gave me a few years ago called Head to Heart. It’s basically learning about daily mindfulness. To be honest, I am going to eventually get a therapist. My goal is to have a therapist by the latter part of the year, but in the meantime, it’s like help working through those internal issues through reading.

ASHLEY: I am a complete advocate for self-help books. Some people think it’s corny, but I think even if a book reiterates things you already know, it just helps to solidify positive thinking patterns.

How important is collaboration in your creative process?  Not only with each other, but it seems like you have no problem with reaching out and bringing others in.

MOYA: Collaboration is important in every aspect of our lives. That’s one of the most empowering things for me as an entrepreneur, to be able to say, ‘I want to work with you and this woman and this brown person.’ It really makes me whole, it makes me happy to see that I can make that decision. I don’t think we could run as a business without that level of collaboration.

ASHLEY: I second that. Nothing happens in a silo; we’re constantly sharing. I’m a sharer, I like to share, so we work with people who also like to share and we create what we hope are beautiful things together.