Fashion designer Asha Ama Bias-Daniels, the Taft Museum of Art’s 2021 Duncanson Artist-in-Residence and a contestant on two separate iterations of Project Runway, almost didn’t go into design. “I always thought I’d be something more traditional,” she says. “In the Black community, if you’re book smart, everyone’s like, You’re going to be a lawyer or a doctor. Pick one, which one? So I was kind of thinking I’d end up doing something along those lines.”
The Avondale native was introduced to design during her high school days at St. Ursula Academy, which she followed up with a degree from UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP). “I had a teacher at St. Ursula who was the catalyst for me realizing I could make fashion design a career, Ms. Probst,” says Bias-Daniels. “I took her design class, and she said, You’re really good at this. Kind of changed the whole trajectory of what I thought I was going to do for a career, and I’m thankful for it.”
Alison Probst, a visual communicator in her own right and a St. Ursula teacher since 1998, remembers Bias-Daniels well. “With Asha, I mean, she just had the right attitude. You can always tell,” she says. “First of all, you definitely have to be curious, because curiosity leads to creativity. She also had a very, very high work ethic.” That recognition and identification as a creative was essential to Bias-Daniels. “She saw something in me that a lot of teachers didn’t,” she says. “Before that, I didn’t really look at myself as a creative.”
Identity is a prevalent theme in Bias-Daniels’s work. Her parents—and specifically her mother, who has been sewing since she was a child—were her first inspiration, and she fondly recalls her First Communion crown (white lace and inspired by Queen Nefertiti) that her parents designed together. “At the heart of most of my design, it’s inspired by Black women,” says Bias-Daniels. “A lot of times Black women are put into one box, that we have to be one thing. We have to be strong, independent women, or we’re angry, in-your-face women. But the beautiful thing about Black women is we’re soft and also strong when we need to be. We’re funny, we’re serious. I think my work takes that on in fabric form. There’s a lot of duality—strong versus soft, draped pieces versus a corseted, exoskeleton, armor feel.”
Through DAAP’s renowned co-op program, Bias-Daniels worked for couture fashion house Marchesa, an experience she was grateful to have. It also made her realize she wanted to forge her own path. “I was able to design the showpiece for their couture bridal design,” she says. “It was truly my design that went down the runway, and I was so proud and happy about the moment, but at the end of the runway show I didn’t get to go out and say, Thanks, guys, that was me. So I was like, OK, I want to figure out doing this for myself.”
Bias-Daniels started charting her own path after college, appearing on Project Runway spinoffs Under the Gunn (placing third) and Project Runway All Stars. She plans to continue exploring identity during her Duncanson residency by leading a handful of public events this month, including workshops, public programs, and school visits. “What I want people to take away from my event is the strength to reclaim their identity,” she says. “I hope everybody can kind of unplug themselves from the matrix and the constant media we’re fed, and reevaluate who they are.”
Asha Ama Bias-Daniels will host a number of public programs and visit local schools April 12-26 during her Duncanson residency. Get more details and register for events here.
The Duncanson residency was founded in 1986 to honor the legacy of Robert S. Duncanson, a Cincinnati painter whose patron, Nicholas Longworth, commissioned murals for his downtown home—now the Taft Museum of Art. “What I love about Robert Duncanson and other great Black artists who came before me,” Bias-Daniels says, “is that they not only existed in their artwork but had the extra burden of opening doors for people who looked like them. That’s something that was instilled in me from a very early age, of always making sure I make room for more of us.
“I think the design world would really benefit from having more Black voices at the table, because there are so many things from our culture you don’t see represented in the mainstream. Black people aren’t getting the opportunities and aren’t being exposed to the design world. I really hope, especially with the programs I’ll have for the younger students, that I can encourage at least one person to make a career out of the creativity that God gave them.”