Traveling to new territories almost always refreshes one’s perspective. It’s the unfamiliar landscapes and associated cultures that move the beholder’s eye to see their home base in a new light upon return. But what’s more beautiful than traveling the world? Easy, nothing can really top the beauty of our world’s most natural creations besides getting the chance to travel with a friend. Speaking from experience, embarking on a trip also usually sparks new ideas – there’s something about being in a completely new place that sets off those light bulbs. Take Ashley Cimone and Moya Annece for example: the two best friends experienced a joint ‘aha’ moment while on a trip to India that resulted in creating their luxury accessories brand, ASHYA. “ASHYA is a love child from Moya and I’s friendship,” Cimone tells ESSENCE. “We met as classmates at FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology] and over the years through sharing dreams and aspirations, traveling the world together, and searching for careers in fashion, we found commonality.”
Like any other aspiring fashion entrepreneur, the two female founders were searching for an untapped market to differentiate themselves from the beginning. While in India, Cimone and Annece found a white space in design, specifically among accessories, and that turned out to be fashionable belt bags. They were inspired by their needs to move freely in style, which led to creating accessories that spoke to the modern day explorer. “Exposing ourselves to Black and brown cultures around the world influenced us in a way to want to honor them through our design sense,” says Cimone. “Ashya is an ode to exploration.”
Prior to entering the field of design, Cimone started in fashion with operational roles and Annece worked in PR and project management. However, beginning their careers on the business side of things laid a great foundation for running their own fashion brand. “I’m happy we came from a fashion business background before we dabbled into design because it allowed me to sharpen my skills, develop a strong business acumen, and understand how a conception comes to life,” says Annece. Typically, when two people decide to run a business together, one leads the business front and the other takes the wheel on creative, but that’s not the case for the ASHYA team. “On a day to day, Ashley and I co-creative direct, co-design, and co-manage production. We have junior level team members that support us, but we manage the day to day together,” Annece explained. “It’s very collaborative, and there’s just a certain level of trust we have with each other that I appreciate,” Cimone expressed.
Since launching the brand in 2017, following their own rhythm has not steered them wrong yet. ASHYA has been recognized several times as one of the leading fashion accessories brands, received awards from the CFDA and Harlem’s Fashion Row, and been spotted on some of the most stylish celebrities including Beyoncé. And speaking of moving to their own beat, ASHYA is also one of the few brands that still use genuine leather as vegan leathers become more prominent across the industry.
However, the founders of ASHYA are not behind one beat, but they are being more intentional about ensuring quality and tracking the environmental impact of new vegan leathers. “I’m excited about the innovations happening in the material space in general, and it’s definitely something we’re thinking about as we evolve,” says Cimone. “Vegan leather is tricky because there are different types. There’s what we knew in the past as pleather or plastic based alternatives to leather, which while they present as being more eco-friendly, there are still components that are not. Then there are materials being created using apple skins, mushrooms, and vegetables, and with vegan leather moving away from plastic based alternatives, I’m excited to explore the innovations in the future.” Until then, customers can enjoy ASHYA’s fresh offering of genuine leather in all of the brand’s innovative shapes and sizes.
2021 has been a year of growth for ASHYA as the brand added new colorways and textures in their highly sought Bolo bag and even introduced a new style, the Shema slingback, which is hand stitched and made of vegetable tanned leather and 14K gold plated hardware. But the most significant pillar of growth for the brand has been opening a store in Industry City, a creative hub in Brooklyn, New York. The new development stemmed from an invitation to join Industry City’s Makers Guild, an immersive shopping destination where design studios meet retail. Timing couldn’t have been more divine as Cimone and Annece wanted to shift their focus to DTC and opening a retail space seemed like the best way to interact directly with customers. “Our biggest customer base is in New York. They are young creatives, young professionals, who just want to submerge themselves in our world, and they are aspirational shoppers, who spend time with us to save money for our product,” said Annece. “We’re just now being able to get one on one interactions with customers to get immediate feedback and respond right away.” Upon reflecting on running the store for a full year, Cimone added, “It’s been a big learning experience. We’ve learned what we want for the brand, and how to cater to our customers.”
As someone who’s been fortunate to visit ASHYA’s store, I can attest that the location is just as beautiful as the brand’s products. It’s truly an extension of the brand’s vision and a reflection of the beautiful messages portrayed with each collection. “I think our identity as two Black women owning a luxury business informs all that we do,” said Annece. “At the root it’s always going to be cultivating thoughtfulness, especially in the travel space, like designing something that makes it easier to move with fluidity in the world, and diversifying narratives through storytelling,” she added. Each one of ASHYA’s collections have been influenced by an exploration, and the two founders plan to continue allowing their future excursions to inspire the next ASHYA project.
In fact, both founders are currently diving into their own roots to better understand where they come from and how that’s embedded in their DNA. “Right now, we’re in the process of really diving deeper to understand our own personal cultural heritage and drawing connections between our Caribbean African-American culture,” Cimone shared. “I’m really excited to explore West Africa. I’ve yet to travel there, but I’m really excited to learn about my ties to the West African coast and you know, be with my people.” Annece added, “I have had this very deep desire the past few years to understand my roots to the point that I now live in Jamaica. I’m also particularly interested in exploring Ghana because of the intersection between Jamaica and Ghana, and deep diving into my personal roots on this island because so much is lost and not documented.” While ASHYA encourages us to travel in style, interacting with the brand also inspires one to discover their family’s origin. Cimone says, “The longing for a connection to your roots is a longing to know yourself.”
Aside from being two talented accessory designers and business owners, Cimone and Annece consider themselves to be modern day researchers as they embark on worldly explorations. And soon they’ll reveal their latest discoveries as they are finalizing a short film that will preserve cultural stories and be rolled out with the ‘Heritage’ collection releasing this month. Until then, shop the brand’s latest and greatest on ashya.co or visit the store by booking a private shopping appointment on the website.