It's a hot day in early June at the Mount Auburn Cemetery near Watertown, Massachusetts, and Ashley Rose is out gathering twigs. The fashion designer is on a tight schedule — a dress for a music video needs to be finished, and she's got her own second collection to present at the end of the summer. Fortunately, things she can't find at the fabric store, she can usually find on Etsy (dried bees, cicada carcasses) or outside — like birch to shape into a single-breasted bustier, or moss to cup into a shoulder. "The first time I was like, 'I'm gonna go to Mount Auburn and pick up some bark,' my boyfriend was like, 'Don't do that — it's haunted!'" Rose says. "So I always have that weird feeling." But it hasn't stopped her from coming back.
Today Rose is looking for sticks for gowns in her new collection, a visual interpretation of a 17th-century mourning poem to be presented as three short films and a live show this fall. "It was about a woman who lost her husband. She's ready for death. She can't stand the idea of living on her own," Rose says of the poem, which, like her collection, is called "My Dearest Dust." "She lived for another 33 years." The first video she shot for the collection featured a series of models and children in white, gauzy dresses and headpieces in a vacant New Hampshire farmhouse, intercut with images of worms going in and out of dirt. "Obviously, I love David Lynch," she says.
That love of Lynch comes through. Combining traditional silhouettes with materials of all kinds — and plenty of bare flesh — Rose's pieces are stunning and intricate, at once titillating and repulsive. Beaded masks with feathers or skulls top gowns made of organic debris, lace, tulle, beads and chiffon. Her work evokes the characters of Grimm's Fairy Tales, as imagined by a terrified Victorian child when she shuts her eyes. Lately, Rose is being embraced by the metal and hardcore worlds, working with artists like Converge, Baroness and Lacuna Coil singer Cristina Scabbia. These collaborations make sense — she grew up in the early 2000s in Cape Cod, devouring Lord of the Rings and H.P. Lovecraft books, studying the records that she'd buy at every local hardcore show she attended. But Rose started with a dream of being a more traditional kind of designer — and it wasn't until she encountered bullying and backstabbing in the Boston fashion scene that she realized that her home had been in the music world all along.
Rose was born in Salem, Massachusetts — location of the infamous 17th century witch trials — to a woman who was bouncing around the North Shore. While she was still a toddler, Rose and her two brothers ended up at a foster home for a few months, before their biological aunt arrived and brought them to live with her and her husband in Barnstable, Cape Cod. Their hometown was a seasonal tourist haven that cleared out when fall set in. But her family stuck it out during the long winters, and Rose developed an appreciation for the bleak landscape of the snowy beach.
Rose and her brothers listened to every record they could keep hidden from their conservative adoptive parents, but leaned towards the rising hardcore acts of the time: Lodge, Cave In, Converge, Dillinger Escape Plan. "American Nightmare," she says. "That band changed my entire youth." There was a local scene — 50 or so kids could make it out for a gig in nearby Hyannis or Chatham. "Every weekend there'd always be some sort of show going on," she says.
As a teenager, Rose became fascinated by fashion, but wasn't particularly interested in shopping for herself. While she stuck to simple, all-black ensembles — paired with a series of studded belts her mother would confiscate from her backpack — she excelled in her high school's fashion program. After high school, Rose studied fashion design at Bay State College in Boston, and though she already knew most of the techniques they were teaching, she did pick up a few useful new skills including how to construct a simple corset.
Rose returned to Cape Cod after the two-year program — but going home was "the worst decision ever," she says. She spent her spare time working for a local wedding dress designer, sewing ruffles onto thrift store men's shirts to sell at absurd markups. After a while, the designer turned the shop into a yoga studio, and all Rose got was a pile of leftover tulle and the ability to ruffle at an incredible pace.
Then, one night in January 2011, inspiration struck. Rose was avoiding going to a love interest's local show. Instead she sat at home, letting her nervous energy out on her crafting supplies. Within an hour, she made something she really liked. "It was a corset top, and then I had ruffled on pieces of tulle," Rose recalls. She put it on Facebook and got a positive response. "I remember one person was super nice about it," she says. "I was like, I'm just gonna keep doing this." From there she kept experimenting, playing with texture and unconventional materials, such as a shower curtain she transformed into a corset.
A few months later, Rose discovered the work of Alexander McQueen, the famed Givenchy designer who had taken his own life the previous year, when she stumbled across his retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She was amazed by the exhibit, particularly the full-length gowns made of ostrich feathers and seashells. It was fashion only in that it was designed to fit on a body — it was certainly not meant to be worn. "My mind was blown," she says. "I don't know if it's 'cause I was sheltered, but I did not know that fashion existed like this." She went home and tried to make her next corset out of gears and metal, then one out of mirrors. It didn't really work — "disco boobs," as she describes the result — but she knew she was done with simple designs.
Another turn came a couple years later, when Rose met Karen Jerzyk, a photographer who had come up shooting bands in the hardcore scene. They quickly began a working relationship and close friendship that has lasted to this day. "We just have the same vision and the same aesthetic," Jerzyk says. "Which is really hard to find." Rose offered the photographer pieces to shoot — and Jerzyk introduced Rose to a little light trespassing. Together, they began scouting abandoned schools, homes and train cars to use as makeshift studios.
Even with this movement toward fine art, Rose wanted a career as a designer. She continued to pursue the traditional path in Boston, applying to internships at every fashion house she could find (interviews: zero). But mostly she was bullied and taunted. In one incident in 2015, which she wrote about for Vogue, she was given models to dress backstage at a local event, when another designer pulled them all back minutes before the show, leaving Rose scrambling to find friends to fill in. Another time, when she and Jerzyk were the only two participants covered in a news piece about a show with 20 artists, they were targeted online by other people in fashion circles — accused of giving money or sexual favors in return for the positive coverage — to the point where the story had to be taken down. "It took me a while to realize that these people are either miserable or they're jealous," says Jerzyk, who was an equal focus of the attacks.
Rose realized how toxic the jealousy was, and that she couldn't continue trying to get the approval of a group of people who so clearly didn't want her to be part of their scene. "No one stood up for me," she says. "That was when I stopped. I wasn't trying to reach out to Boston designers anymore."
Of course, it turned out she already had ties to a different scene that was ready to embrace her. In 2014, Rose connected with the musician Chelsea Wolfe after making an Instagram comment that she'd love to dress her. When Wolfe was coming through Boston that May, she put Rose on the list. "It was literally just a meeting," Rose says. "I saw her set, gave her the pieces, left." A few months later, Wolfe was back in town, so the two set up a shoot — and it went great. They've been collaborating ever since, meeting up in Boston or in Salem when Wolfe was there to record. "She listens to your inspiration and ideas and then fuses them with her own sensibilities," enthuses Wolfe, who found the designs to be like costumes that helped her get into character. As for Rose, the relationship not only put her in touch with other influential musicians, it completely changed the way she approached her designs. "I think that's what sparked me wanting to work with musicians," she says. " 'Cause I go to shows, but it never even crossed my mind."
Being freed from the expectations of the Boston fashion community was what her vision needed, and 2016 became her best year so far. It began with the Baroness video for "Shock Me," the one that sent her digging in the graveyard in the first place. "I worked with [Baroness frontman] John Baizley, and he came up with this idea of kind of this earth, like moss and stuff," she says. "So we sourced all the bark and dirt from the cemetery. Which I guess is creepy, but kind of my thing."
Perhaps her most impressive collaboration to date came last summer, when Converge decided to re-record their seminal 2001 album, Jane Doe, live. She almost deleted the personal email from the band's vocalist Jacob Bannon — mistaking it for a piece of fan-club spam — but thought twice and recovered it. "It was an email asking to do artwork for them," she recalls. The message listed the other artists who would be creating alternate covers for the album: Baizley, Thomas Hooper, Randy Ortiz and Florian Bertmer. Rose was floored. "I have, like, Florian Bertmer prints in my bedroom," she says. "And Baroness, obviously, I love." Rose dropped everything and enlisted Jerzyk; they didn't have much direction beyond it should be a live shot, so they had to start from scratch. Their artwork ended up on the cover of some of the vinyl editions of the live album — including all the repressings — and every CD. "One of my friends just toured with Jake's new band [Wear Your Wounds], and he hit me up and was like, 'Oh yeah, everyone's wearing your T-shirts in Europe,'" says Rose. The irony of 2016 was that she finally won a Boston Fashion Award — though in a somewhat confounding twist, it was for swimwear.
Despite finally getting that nod of acceptance from the local establishment, Rose seems happy to have carved her own niche, and to have brought together two of the passions of her youth: fashion and music. Having found the rightful home for her work, it might be time to find a home for herself soon, too. Though Rose loves her time in Watertown, the lease is up on her house in a couple years, and she has been thinking about relocating to the city where she was born: Salem. Sitting in her studio, a slope-roofed room in an attic that she shares with her long-term boyfriend, she ponders leaving. When she visited Salem for the first time as an adult a few years ago — she has no memory of it from her brief time there as a baby — she was struck by its beauty. It is a place with more room to wander forests and graveyards collecting materials for her work, and a history that could help inspire her future gowns and collections.
"It's my favorite," she says of her birthplace. "When our lease is up here, we're just making the jump to Salem."