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Designing her future

She has the ideas, the creativity and an excess of sunny, laid-back charisma. But does Charlotte native Ashley Reid, 31, have what it takes to make it as a fashion designer?

Since graduating from West Charlotte High School in 1995, Reid has had opportunities that put her ahead of most aspiring designers, but she's still waiting for the big break.

She won a $10,000 design competition. She talked her way into becoming the first intern for a high-end New York design house.

And with her selection as one of six emerging designers picked to show at this year's Charleston Fashion Week, she decided to launch Clewis Reid, her earthy yet sophisticated line named for her parents, Claudia and Lewis.

The business of fashion couldn't be hotter. Reality show powerhouse “Project Runway” has created a nation of armchair fashionistas. Designers, stylists and former models are landing TV shows with frightening regularity, and the eyes of the bloggers and paparazzi were recently fixed on Fashion Week in New York City.

As a designer, “it's important to put yourself out there,” says Jeffrey Costello, one half of Costello Tagliapietra, the critically acclaimed fashion house where Reid interned in 2005. “It's important to find your way and find your aesthetic. Any opportunity is an amazing opportunity.”

Her chances look promising, but Reid has yet to get traction. “Starting a business is a lot harder than I thought,” she says from her cottage on Sullivan's Island, S.C. “I am doing this by myself, which is good because I can call all the shots, but it would be nice to have a partner to take care of more of the business-y and number-y things, which I tend to loathe.”

A creative free spirit

Unlike today's fashion-saturated pop culture that has teens on a faux first-name basis with Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors, Reid didn't live and breathe fashion in high school. At West Charlotte, she enjoyed general art classes, she says, particularly etching, painting, pen-and-ink drawing.

“I wanted (my clothing) a certain way. I was very specific,” she says. “If I couldn't find it, I'd create them.

“The ideas were there. I never put two and two together,” she says. “I never realized that was something I could do.”

She was never destined to sit behind a desk, says mother Claudia Reid, who lives in Charlotte with Ashley's father, Lewis. Ashley, the youngest of three sisters, was always creative, a free spirit.

It's hard to say when her light bulb moment happened, but studying in Kenya and western Samoa while attending UNC Chapel Hill flipped her fashion switch.

“I was drawn to traditional clothing and ornamentation on the people,” she says. She then spent six months in London waiting tables and soaking up the culture. Observing the fashion students at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design inspired her to apply to Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia.

After graduating from SCAD in 2004, Reid moved to Daufuskie Island, S.C., made and sold her own jewelry and looked for her next inspiration. That came in the form of a design competition through Gen Art, an arts and entertainment organization focused on helping gain exposure for emerging fashion designers, filmmakers, musicians and visual artists.

Zac Posen, Philip Lim and Rebecca Taylor are just a few of the designers whose clothing you can find in upscale boutiques and department stores who got their start with Gen Art.

As the winner of the 2005 Gen Art Perrier Bubbling Under Award, Reid received $10,000. She used her winnings to pay for a stay in New York City, with the goal of gaining hands-on experience.

Working in New York

Reid was “obsessed” with the work of Jeffrey Costello and Robert Tagliapietra, two burly men who defy fashion convention by favoring plaid flannels and suspenders for their own attire. The pair launched their eponymous line in 2005 and quickly became beloved for their appreciation of the female form.

“I called them and stalked them,” Reid says. “I said I would work for free. They finally said, ‘All right, fine.'”

Costello recalls: “We weren't even working with interns at that point. We're very hands-on, and are always reluctant pulling people in. It was kind of serendipitous. She christened us. … Because she was the only one at the time, she got to work really closely with us.”

The Brooklyn-based design house now usually has two or three interns off season, five or six during show season.

Back in 2005, the duo put Reid to work as they fine-tuned their spring runway show. She was running errands, going into the city to pick up fabric swatches and buttons, sitting in on model castings and fittings, attaching embellishments to some 30 pairs of shoes.

“Jeffrey would never let me sew, but he would let me watch,” she says.

On the runway

She brought her own attention to detail to the launch of Clewis Reid this year at Charleston Fashion Week.

On the day of the show, with the clock ticking down, she was almost unflappable. Reid fielded endless calls from friends and family with a phone wedged between her chin and shoulder, all while she pressed clothes (she couldn't spare the $16 per dress the cleaners wanted) and expertly crafted a belt from little leather strips. As friends arrived she put them to work. Some helped with the belts. Others taped the bottoms of models' shoes so they could be returned to the store after the show.

True to free-spirit form, for her line's debut Reid wore a bright floral mini-dress that was nothing more than a swath of fabric wrapped around her and secured with safety pins and a wide belt.

Clewis Reid kicked off the emerging local designer show and received enthusiastic applause from the audience, which included Lacoste CEO Robert Siegel and “Project Runway” season four contestant Jillian Lewis. Reid's designs played with elements of architecture and movement coupled with a healthy dose of tribal influence. Delicate ruffling, empire waists and clean silhouettes made the collection among the most wearable shown that night.

“(My runway show) got great response mainly through reviews and word-of-mouth,” she says. “I did have a couple of boutiques that were interested in picking up the line … I tried approaching more stores to try to sell my line directly, but that is the least effective way to sell.”

All of her 12 looks on the stage in Charleston were one-of-a-kind samples and cost about $5,000 to produce. She had no capital for producing mass quantities to get her line in stores.

She had to consider the next move for Clewis Reid as the financial realities of fashion design set in. Her parents, who had been lending her money, were encouraging her to really commit or change course.

“I am still working on finishing up my business plan,” she says. “I am writing it myself, but I did get the financial forecast to my dad first ... He is investing in the company, so I am lucky not to have to go to a bank for a loan. The bare-bones amount that I need for year one is $65,000.”

In the meantime, she's been baby-sitting, selling her jewelry and teaching part-time at the Art Institute of Charleston.

Landing the teaching job was a turning point, of sorts, says Claudia Reid. The job helps focus Ashley, and it provided a schedule and health insurance.

New focus on surfwear

Those responsibilities translated into changes for Clewis Reid as well. Reid is now dedicated to only eco-friendly, sustainable resources. Her focus has shifted from couture to what she thinks is a growing niche in the surfwear market.

“It's a merging of the surf and contemporary markets,” she says. “It's got a better price point, and it fits better with the environmental thing.”

Reid loves to surf and was inspired by a trip to Hawaii. There's room for smartly designed clothing in the surf market, she says, with retail prices that start at $75. “It's not high fashion, but it's where I want to be.”

The line she hopes to take to a surfing trade show in Florida in January uses three fabrics: organic cotton/silk voile, bamboo twill and organic cotton jersey. She's creating her own prints that will be digitally printed on the fabrics using low-impact ink.

“I want to feel really good about what I'm doing,” she says. “I love clothes and fashion, but I don't love the idea of putting more chemicals and toxins into the world.”

Her free-spirited willfulness gets stuck every once in a while. “I've considered just giving up and getting a job,” she says. “But this is where I always end back up. I just have to keep going, little by little.”

But first, there's more travel: She'll join her family for a trip to Rome and the Amalfi Coast in Italy. Then she'll be back at work on the samples for that January trade show, which she'd like to have done before Christmas.

“I have learned not to put things off,” Reid says. “I am a procrastinator by nature, so this has been hard, but now I know that no one is going to wait for you. If you're not ready when the light turns green, you'll be left behind.”