Nashville Designer Ashley Balding Of Womenswear Luxury Brand Ona Rex
As the designer and founder of the Nashville-based luxury womenswear brand Ona Rex, Ashley Balding would surely survive an alien apocalypse. Her pieces ride the line between otherworldly and down to earth, shaping textiles and colors that could have been foraged in the midst of a UFO attack into silhouettes that belong in a street-style lookbook. Balding is a designer who longs to tell stories with her clothing. But what excites her more are the stories her designs can equip women to tell themselves: that they are bolder and braver survivors than they ever knew. As the designer’s website reads, “The Ona Rex woman is a bold, confident purveyor of pioneered eccentricity.”
We spoke with Ashley about her fashion inspirations (bad ’50s creature features, gravity and anti-gravity), her dreams (hot-pink planets and the end of the world) and finding a logical direction while holding on to what makes each of us strange and incredible.
Don’t miss our Issue 5 fashion feature, which showcases several Ona Rex pieces.
Tell me about your journey to becoming a designer. Were you always passionate about fashion?
Growing up, I actually wanted to be a marine biologist, which is the opposite of what I am now [laughs]. I went to Arizona State [University] right out of high school—and like most people, I honestly had no idea what I wanted to do. I knew that I loved textiles and fabrics, and I was starting to explore [the idea of] taking some classes in the fibers department. But I didn’t think fashion was actually something I could do as a career, and it didn’t feel right to continue in school until I had a direction.
So I left after a year, moved back home and worked at a Starbucks for six years. I knew that I wanted to do something creative, but I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t serendipitously find myself in a situation that worked out. The only thing that happened was—I mean, it sounds cliche, [laughs], but I had a dream one night about these alien-like creatures that were so strange and unique, and I woke up and said, “I think I want to do fashion,” [laughs]. I started researching programs, and one nearby had an opening. I said, “Let’s just jump in and do this.” So it was very, very slow, and then it happened all at once.
I have to say, I’m not surprised to hear that a dream about aliens was a catalyst for you. You have all these really intriguing science-fiction references in your work, from epaulettes and military wear to almost industrial-looking textiles, Day-Glo colors and pendants in melted acrylics that look like toxic waste. What draws you towards that kind of palette?
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been obsessed with science fiction. That’ll never go away. I love really bad sci-fi from the ’50s; I love contemporary bad sci-fi, I love good sci-fi. There’s just something about the galaxy and the universe that makes me feel very calm and strange and quiet. I think I like that feeling. I like to think about what else is going on in the universe that we don’t know about about. I’m actually a very neurotic, logical person on the outside, but I also have this pocket in my brain that goes in a completely opposite, fantastical direction.
It makes total sense that that manifests in both your dream life and in your fashion.
I do have a lot of dreams! And specifically—it sounds weird, but I have a lot of dreams about the world ending. I’m sure it’s just because my brain’s in overdrive all the time, but there’s something about people surviving and overcoming, this utilitarian story. In whatever weird corner of my brain, that’s just what I’m putting out.
It seems really important to you that your clothes tell a story, and, specifically, one about fantasy and surviving. What stories have you concocted for your current collection?
For this collection, I incorporated a lot of paracords into my garments, and the story I was telling was about air. I was so interested in what fabric would do as it fell. To me, that’s a story.
I’m currently working on my spring collection, and my concept is jellyfish on Mars [laughs]. I was working in the studio at one in the morning, and—I’m telling you, my brain just does this to keep me alive—I saw this picture in my brain of a hot-pink Mars and all these little creatures living on it. It occurred to me that outer space is so similar to the deep sea—that there’s no gravity in either—and that concocted this weird story for me.
There’s always an image that kick-starts me. I might start with an image of a woman in a city on another planet, but then I also feel like our world is just so nutty these days. It starts with something quirky and fantastical, but then I think, “Let’s bring it down to earth.” Let’s give the Ona Rex woman something that will make her feel strong and brave. Sometimes I struggle with that part, but I think it’s important.
There’s something about the fact that your clothes are brave and otherworldly that makes them, paradoxically, super wearable. They’re aimed at a woman who wants to exceed herself, to change the world around her, at any age and in any place she might find herself. Is that part of your vision?
I think so. Maybe that comes from me—because I felt so aimless for so long and I wanted to have a direction so badly—and maybe, in some way, I’m trying to show people that this is something that you can say about yourself. I think of women who maybe already know how bold and strong they are, and this perfectly expresses what they want and they don’t mind standing out. But I also think of someone who doesn’t know that about herself yet. Maybe she wears black all the time but has an opportunity to put on one of my weird paracord tops and can say, “Wow. This is a part of me, too.” That brings me the most joy—when someone doesn’t expect to feel so comfortable in the clothes I make, but they do. We need more reasons to feel transported in our daily lives.
Part of what makes your work feel so transportive is how bold you are about the way you present it. You’ve got an incredible collaborator in fashion photographer and brand director Brett Warren. How do you work together?
Brett is incredible. He and I met working for another designer years ago, and our brains just instantly clicked. He was actually the one who really pushed me to start doing Ona Rex. Again, I’m a very logical person, and starting a fashion line straight out of school seemed completely stupid when I thought about it logically. But he told me I should go for it, and it’s been really great.
I don’t think my story would be as complete without his input. He takes my little world and puts it all together in a little package for me. We collaborate on the sets for my shoots, and if I ever want to do a little pop-up shop, I ask him to help and we create these stories. I always want something that feels grandiose, even if it’s in a five-foot corner of a shop and all we have to do it is construction fencing and tape. He can take that and make something so incredible. As individuals, we’re both always doing something cinematic, so when we come together, it’s amazing.
If you and Brett could work on a remake of a science-fiction movie, and he would do the sets and you could do the costumes, which would you choose?
I would die. [Laughs]. Literally any bad creature feature. Brett just sent me a Gucci campaign the other day that was recreating references from these old sci-fi movies [like “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “Forbidden Planet”]. I would love to be at the point where Brett and I had a million dollars to make something like that.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Attilio D’Agostino
MODEL: Lauren Taylor @ Wilhelmina
STYLIST: Trudy Fogarty-Hayden
HAIR AND MAKEUP: Amber Perry