We spent a morning in New York City with Ms. Ashley Owens: the creative behind Grandpa Style, creator of Suited magazine, and purveyor of fantastic self-expression. Her brand of confidence is inspiring, infectious, and unfortunately rare. Take note.
Ashley Owens is different.
It’s not because of her stature (though she’s 6’1”). Nor is it because of her sense of style (though it’s exceptional). And it’s not because of her resumé (though it’s impressive). Rather, Ms. Owens is different because she does as she damn pleases. And there simply aren’t enough people like that in the world.
Growing up in Vancouver, BC, Ashley figured out she stood out from her peers early on. As an athlete and “tomboy” (a term she hated until embracing it in high school), she refused to wear dresses by age six, favoring Chuck Taylors, Levis, and oversized tees. Bouncing from school to school as her family moved, she fought with herself on whether it was worth trying to fit in. All the while, she noticed what others would wear and drew pictures of fictional people and their outfits in her spare time.
It wasn’t until the 10th grade — when she moved to the US and took up a drawing class — that Ashley concluded two things. One, she would no longer care what others thought. And two, she would begin to express herself through art. “I took this drawing class, and I kind of sucked actually,” says Ashley, laughing. “I was terrible. But I’m very stubborn, so I just decided I wanted to be good and spent time trying to figure it out.”
Around the same time, Ashley was scouted as a model. She was fascinated by the work and the process, but every time she reviewed her photos, she developed a list of things to change. After only a handful of shoots, the young model realized she was simply on the wrong side of the camera.
Ms. Owens’ pursuit of art and fashion continued to develop in college, where she took additional art classes and learned to paint from a friend’s father. But it remained a “side” interest to her major of Political Science. It wasn’t until voicing her interest in fashion to a friend that something clicked. “I think the power of really realizing what you want…it starts to unfold around you. As soon as I vocalized what I wanted to do, some pretty strange opportunities opened up that reinforced the direction of the next steps.”
Strange opportunities like winning a contest via Marie Claire magazine to meet Giorgio Armani in Milan. Upon returning from the trip, Ashley had found the inspiration and direction she needed. She finished working on her portfolio and applied and was accepted to Parsons School of Design in New York City.
Unsurprisingly, studying at Parsons put Ashley into contact with those that embraced their individuality as well. She learned to take criticism but also to express herself authentically. Notably, her embrace of wearing tweed blazers and trousers awarded her the nickname of “Grandpa” among her friends. The title was fully actualized when Owens launched her blog “Grandpa Style” in 2008, and continues today as a sort of moniker for her personal brand.
Through her post-college path, from Veronica Beard to Thom Browne to studying tailoring under master tailor Rocco Ciccarelli, Ms. Owens has sharpened her toolbox alongside her creative interests. She is passionate about drape and fabric and garment construction in a holistic way; not simply its precision and aesthetic and elegance, but it’s durability, sustainability, and longevity.
But perhaps more than anything, Ashley is committed to discovering and telling authentic stories. So much so that she recently launched her very own biannual print publication: Suited Magazine. Self-described as “A Publication Celebrating Those Who Have Found What They Are Well-Suited For”, Ms. Owens’ creation is a beautiful celebration of those with specific passions in fashion and art and beyond. Featuring exclusively black and white photography amidst minimal layouts, Suited is, like it’s creator, just a little different.
What’s the most valuable thing you learned at Parsons?
The most valuable part of going to school was learning to take criticism. Everybody’s idea of creative is so personal. I don’t believe in something being good or bad in a lot of ways; I think that it’s all about information. Things that are good are well informed. Something that is bad is just anything that’s ignorant.
Once creative people begin to be able to take criticism, that’s when they start to become informed. With artists, it’s so important to be open to other’s opinions but also to realize that those opinions are not facts; they are based on experiences. Your point of view as an artist is the most important thing. But you can’t have that point of view if you’re unaware of other people’s point of view. If you look at any artist that has really been able to make an impact, they had a very strong point of view. It wasn’t about shutting other people out, it was about understanding what you think and why you think it.
Tell us about the formation of your perspective on style.
As a kid, I would only feel comfortable in certain things; like, I couldn’t wear a certain pattern or I could only wear solids. I remember throwing a fit if my mom would put me in certain things. I was wearing MC Hammer pants in 1st grade with giant oversized sweaters. My favorite thing was when I’d be able to choose a new piece of clothing each birthday or whatever and it was like white Levis with black Chuck high tops and an oversized white t-shirt. I also remember being in a new school when I was six and wearing “boy’s” jeans and being chased home by an older bully who was wearing the same jeans. He was like, ‘You’re not allowed to wear those!’
How do you pick what you’re wearing on any given day?
Anytime that I’m wearing something that I don’t identify with, I just feel self-conscious. It’s a waste of energy if I’m worrying about what I’m wearing. So, over time, I just stopped thinking about it. What I love about “menswear” is that you can forget what you’re wearing, because you get so accustomed to your uniform that it just becomes a part of your body, and you no longer walk into the room and think anything about what you’re wearing or even what you look like. It’s really about what you feel comfortable with. And the more that you get to know yourself, the more you know how you’re coming off, and you’re able to just relax.
You created an amazing editorial piece called MASCULINE-FEMININE. The labels of menswear and womenswear are, thankfully, evolving.
I think that there’s much more of a shedding of these material things within the people who are more thought leaders, or our generation of just wanting to rethink why we’re consumers or how we consume. “Menswear” is just the title that has been given; it’s just a term that has literally come up in the last 60 years or even less. If you look at Dior in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was completely based on “menswear” with shoulder pads and jackets and the like.
I saw something in the press saying: “Women borrow from the boys looks.” At a point, I wonder ‘When does that drop off? When do we stop referencing men?’ There’s kind of this genderless movement within Parsons now that’s moving away from the connotation of menswear and womenswear. I think that’s exciting because we give ourselves freedom from these silly titles of what should be for different types of aesthetics.
It comes back to comfort and authenticity and simplicity.
Almost every inspirational individual that I have in my life right now are people who say, “I just want to simplify all of the items and the materials in my life and I really want to focus on the experiences and the people.” That’s where genderless clothing is exciting. I think dresses are beautiful, and I think that items that are claimed as “feminine” are beautiful. They’re not things that I can personally identify with, but they’re things that my friends feel comfortable in because that’s who they are.
I think people really have to get to know what they are comfortable with and what their uniform is. It could be heels and a dress. It could be flats with trousers, whatever. If you look around now, and you look at all these different movements of art and fashion, the more you can stay away from a label or confining something the better, because there’s just so many different types of people out there.
Tell us about the formation of Grandpa Style
I was walking through Times Square one day, and there was an elderly man wearing this incredibly beautiful, blue powdered suit with a pocket square that matched the socks and a tie that matched the belt. It was so considerate. It gave me life. It gave me inspiration and energy. This person just got out of bed and thought, ‘These are the things I’m considering, and these are important to me. This is how I want to represent and express myself.’
That’s where the inspiration for Grandpa Style began. When I got out of school, I felt like a lot of brands were copying each other. It felt like every opportunity and interview was about looking at street style blogs and regurgitating the looks and styles that are already out there simply to make a profit. That felt like the most inauthentic expression of, and also an indication of, how many media sources put pressure on fitting in and wearing the same thing as everyone else. When I think back to that man that day in Times Square, he wasn’t trying to fit in. He was definitely standing out and coming at life with such an energy. For me, that’s an everyday excitement: a celebration of having another day to be able to come out and express yourself.
Tell us about the quality conversation.
For me, it has a lot to do with craft. The more that you become informed, the more you realize you’re always contributing to something, because you’re a consumer and your money and energy and alliance to something will always continue. I really want to join that conversation of what you’re buying, why you’re buying it, and how you align yourself to something. I think that should be a part of the thought process when buying clothes.
How did you come up with the name for your publication, Suited?
I wanted something that played off the way people perceive me. But the title is mostly about people who are well suited for what they do. It’s been a fun way to constantly surprise people. Sometimes that means people are disappointed. There are some who were disappointed when they first saw the first issue. There are some that were confused by the content, and then later on they’re the people that come back and are the most invested. It’s been more of an exploration of keeping people unsure of what’s coming.
What has been the biggest challenge?
There have been a lot of really hard decisions; we’ve had a lot of different opportunities to work with and make friends with those who have money or with bigger models or celebrities. But there are so many independent magazines that I want to have a reason for putting this out. If we’re doing the same thing everyone else is doing and we’re touching on the same subjects with the same commentary — trying to be some cool fashion magazine — for me, that’s the antithesis of what I want.
How do you decide what’s going to be in each issue?
I have a really incredible team that is very thoughtful and dedicated to the content, so I’ve had a lot of different people throwing ideas here and there, and we try to be open to things that are coming around. It’s not really a system, it’s just trying to be observant of different things that are coming up. It’s based on relationships and on conversation. For better or worse, I’m constantly surrounded by people; there are always different ideas coming to the surface.
One of the features in Issue 3, I woke up in the middle of the night from a dream, and it was one of those things where I thought: ‘Oh that’s weird,’ and I put down the name of one of the features. Then I reached out and it was the one thing I didn’t give up on. It just felt very important for me, probably one of the most important features in this issue. A lot of it is really intuitive in terms of how I’m feeling. It feels crazy to dictate content based on that, but for some reason, the more I listen to my intuition, the more it’s aligned.
What’s on the horizon?
Seeing a bigger picture. Perception changes everything. In the next year, I’d like to see how the magazine can come to a place of being sustainable. There’s authenticity and there’s being aspirational, but you also have to be able to support the people that give you your time and are contributing their energy. We’re figuring out a way to solidify our presence now that we’re on Issue 3. Before you launch, everyone is like ‘Alright, we want to see what you’re doing.’ Once you get number 1 out, they’re like, ‘Alright. We want to see the next thing you’re doing.’ And then the second that comes out, they’re like, ‘Okay, now we’re starting to get it.’
Issue 3 is putting your foot down on this is what we’re doing. It’s solidifying our presence now that we’re comfortable in our message and what we want to say. And then we’ll stand our ground on that.