Style Profile: Ashta Hunter & Elizabeth Benzing, Founders of Tomboy BKLYN

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Sometimes when a word is so overused it loses its significance. That’s how I feel about curate. Thanks to the Internet, everyone is a curator. That’s fine, but it’s important to recognize the people who are actually good at it. Ashta Hunter and Elizabeth Benzing of Tomboy BKLYN are great at it. Their Tumblr account is filled with beautiful images of women wearing looks that are part androgynous, part street, part active, and all the way cool. It’s a look that’s having a moment, but I’m drawn to their Tumblr because it depicts a mood that goes beyond the fleeting nature of fashion. And cudos to them for showcasing beautiful women of ALL ethnicities.

Their wardrobes are equally as impressive. Both Hunter and Benzing are designers who work for major brands, which means they’ve travelled the world looking for inspiration and have collected some amazing pieces along the way. Read on to see their secrets for getting discounted designer items, why we all need to go to Korea, and what clothes we’re spending too much money on. (And check out their newly launched site!)

*Click on images for credits.

Why did you start Tomboy BKLYN?

Ashta: A year and a half ago we we’re so bored with fashion. I’m an apparel designer and Liz is a shoe designer. We met in design school. I didn’t really see anything that represents us so we thought, “How awesome would it be to have a curated boutique?” Then we realized we had no money. So, while we’re figuring out how we’re going to pay for this and write a business plan, we started a Tumblr to put our ideas out there. We started doing it as something amongst ourselves. It was like a mood board. And then High Snobiety wrote about it and it just blew up from that. We started Tomboybklyn.tumblr.com in August, then in December we decided to do our own editorial and we didn’t know where to put it, so we did a magazine. Our friend had this store called The Newsstand by Alldayeveryday. We launched the magazine there. That had a good response and we started to ship all over the world. Now we’re working on more of an editorial site.

Liz: That’s under construction now. Our tumblr is very visual. We put up blurbs. But the editorial site will give us a chance to write about what we’re into.

Where do you design shoes?

Liz: I’ve been consulting for about four or five years now. Right now I’m currently with Tory Burch. I was doing runway with Rebecca Taylor, and then I used to head LAMB. I’ve worked all over.

What about you, Ashta?

Ashta: Before I went into consulting, I was working with Vera Wang when they launched the Princess line. I did that and then Liz talked me into quitting my job to consult. I still freelance for other companies. It’s a good way to decompress and have more free time.

How did you get into fashion?

Ashta: I went to UVA first, and then I transferred to do fashion at VCU. Liz and I transferred at the same time. I transferred because I ended up getting involved with the costuming department at UVA and fell in love with fashion. I always loved fashion but I didn’t know you could work in it. That didn’t seem like a reality to me growing up in Virginia. When I transferred, my dad had a fit. He was so mad because I was going to major in International Business. Now he’s like “Oh, you’re successful at fashion.” But at the time he didn’t see how I could make a career out of it.

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How do you think growing up in the south affected your style?

Ashta: You know what, I think I’m always going to like gold. I had a grill at one point but I think I threw it away by accident. I love that baggy, ‘90s style. I don’t know if it’s a southern thing or a black thing, but you didn’t go out of the house looking any type of way. So I think that that’s where I’ve always thought about how I presented myself. But as long as our clothes were clean and fresh, we could wear them. So my mom also allowed us to wear whatever.

Liz: I grew up in Chicago. Chicago definitely was interesting because I grew up in a mixed family. My mom is black and my dad is white so I spent some time in the North Side and some time in the South Side. It was great being in the city because I had access to some crazy shopping and I think that triggered my interest in fashion. I got into thrifting in downtown Chicago. My mom was an amazing thrift and vintage shopper, so I kind of got into that world with her.

But I do think that because of the cultural issues that I dealt with growing up in a mixed family, there were different kinds of fashion senses that I sort of picked up. I remember wearing certain things around the white kids and they would make fun of me a little. But if anything it made me even more rebellious with my fashion.

As a shoe designer, what brands do you like the most?

Liz: I have a lot of Alexander Wang and Costume National. Those were always my go-to brands. I like what Givenchy does. I love pumps and I love heels. I used to buy Margiela all the time because they had crazy heels and construction.

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Do you shop a lot in Brooklyn?

Liz: I do a lot of vintage shopping and thrifting in Brooklyn.

Where do you thrift in New York?

Liz: 

In Manhattan, I usually go around St. Marks. I like Tokio 7.

Ashta: She’s a thrift shopper. I’m not.

It’s funny that you don’t do vintage and thrifting being that you like statement pieces?

Ashta: I know, don’t get me wrong I have found a piece or two along my travels but for the most part I only buy vintage/thrifted jewelry. I think it comes from growing up in a black, working class household and neighborhoood. Liz’s mom was black and thrifted, but I never grew up around people that thrift shopped. I grew up in what you would call “the hood” in Richmond and having new, fresh clothes was always a special experience. Back to school and christmas shopping were exciting moments in my childhood. I still love that feeling of putting on something new, crisp, and fresh. I used to have to borrow hand me downs and I guess now as I got older I wanted to buy my own things. Plus, I don’t really like how thrift stores smell. I don’t like the process. I’m not a shopper. When you go to Beacon’s Closet, you have racks and racks of things and you look through them. I hate that. I’ll do it for work, but that’s like my nightmare. When I shop I go into a store and usually see four things that I like and I end up buying the one thing I love and that’s it. So I don’t shop a lot. My wardrobe is kind of collected over the years.

Liz: I think a thrift shop is a slight adventure. You go in with no expectations and all of a sudden you come out with great stuff. I love Paris vintage shopping. It’s mostly consignment. That’s the way you get the best stuff. When you know that things are $800 and you paid $50 for it, you’re like ok, I just won. At Beacon’s there is a lot of Marc Jacobs, but in Paris all of it is high end. The last time I was there I got an awesome jean jacket there from a Japanese designer based in Paris. One of my best finds is this Issey Miyake Pleats Please piece that was an exclusive and I think I paid $200 bucks for when something like that sells on Ebay for $800. That’s what I love about Paris.

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What drew you to the tomboy aesthetic?

Ashta: It’s just us. The name came secondary to the style. We were talking about the kind of boutique we want and the kind of women we are. I’m from the South. I still love that street, hip-hop aesthetic. But we’d been in fashion for years and traveled and shopped all over. I love mixing and matching high end with low end. We are a conglomeration of all of that. There’s nothing out there that represents that mix. It’s always one extreme or another. It’s either something like an Opening Ceremony with funky fresh clothes, or it’s higher end like Barneys.

Liz: Or it’s extremely, I hate to say this word, urban or boogie, and we want to mix the two together.

Ashta: And even though tomboy only denotes a woman in man’s clothing, we want to redefine it. It’s a woman who is so comfortable with herself that she’s willing to explore outside of the box in all facets. In terms of race, gender, and sexuality.

Do you have a uniform?

Ashta: No. I wear a lot of button-ups. I feel like I actually wear some of everything. I love to play with clothes. And I love to play with accessories. Jewelry is my favorite thing.

Do you go through moods were you don’t want to wear jewelry?

Ashta: No. The bigger the better. I don’t wear a lot of rings, but I always wear earrings and chains. I wear earrings to the beach.

Where do you get cheap jewelry?

Ashta: I love costume jewelry. I buy a lot of it. I probably have the most pieces from Alexis Bittar. I like Pixie Market. That store is fun. That’s a little store that I’ll go into and I’ll always find something unique. Shopping in that store reminds me of my favorite place to shop, which is actually Seoul in Korea.

Do you like fine jewelry?

Ashta: I do, but I’m realistic. I like to actually have money in the bank. I have a few fine jewelry pieces and I would probably buy more if I had no concerns for money. I’ve really been dying for gold bangles. I want like 20 one day and they are at least like $300 a pop. I like fine jewelry, but I have more fun with costume.

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How often do you shop?

Liz: I go through phases. There will be a month where I’m non-stop shopping and then there will be a month where I don’t buy anything.

Ashta: I’m a power piece shopper. I am never a shopper unless I’m shopping for work, so in my personal life if I run across something that I just can’t leave at the store, I buy it no matter how much the cost. Which means there are times I am never in store so I can go months without buying anything for myself.

Liz: I do that for shoes. You’re an emotional shopper.

Ashta: I’m an emotional shopper. I just buy things that I love.

Do you ever regret any of your purchases?

Ashta: Ha! Yes I have before, but less and less every year. I think I am getting better at discerning something I really want and love from something I can live without.

What stores do you go to? Is there a store that’s considered a designer’s best kept secret?

Liz: I treat Yoox like a secret. What I like about Yoox is that you can get stuff that’s not everywhere. Maybe it’s a collection from Prada, but they only made a few. I like pieces that I feel are fairly original. If you miss pieces from season or a specific style, you might find it on Yoox.

Yoox can be overwhelming. How do you shop Yoox?

Liz: I haven’t lately. It’s very overwhelming, but you have to go with a mission. You have to say, “Oh, I need a black dress and shoes.”  Shoes are the only thing I can navigate really. Then I also go to the designers that I like.

Ashta: I’ve only every bought shoes on Yoox. I just look at like a warehouse. I go in and put in my shoe size and then like 50 pages will come up and I will just take a week looking through a few pages a day until I find something and then I put stuff in the dream box.

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Where do you go online for inspiration? 

Ashta: This is going to sound bad but our tumblr. I love searching for just the right images, which definitely influence me, and since Liz also puts up images, sometimes I am surprised.  I just don’t know another place that has that great mix.  Style related I always check StyleLikeU and The Selby, since I like to see how others live.

When you do shop where do you go?

Ashta: I used to frequent Barneys because my sister was a manager there and I got a discount. No. 8. is a store I always have to check out. I do go into Opening Ceremony, but I almost never buy anything. I do go to Zara. I try to go to Zara at least once a month. I can always find at least one or two things, but I never buy anything that’s printed or has a graphic. I usually don’t even buy their bright colors. I have a strategy for Zara. So most people don’t even recognize anything that I’m wearing is from Zara.

Liz: She finds great apparel at Zara. I always find great shoes there.

As a shoe designer, what do you think of Zara’s footwear quality?

Liz: If we are going to talk simple logistics, they are amazing when it comes to the cheap shoe because for the price and speed at which they get stuff out, the quality is amazing. It doesn’t compare to high end, but as far as cheapy shoes, Zara is killing it. I think some of those shoes hold up to even an Aldo.  But their styling is really good. Of course, most of them are knockoffs, but for what they are, I think they are great. It’s kind of insane. I’ll look for a plain black pump and Zara will have the best cut. And you’re paying $60 instead of $700.

Are shoes your biggest investment?

Liz: I buy accessories first and then I get clothes. So for me they are the central point. I’ll pay money for footwear. My style is very simple. I don’t do a lot of layering and stuff like that. So the shoes for me kind of pop. I like to express my style through shoes and bags.

Ashta: I have an eclectic collection of things. I don’t have particularly a lot of shoes. I don’t have a particular lot of anything. I’m a piece shopper.

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How do you think being a designer affects your style?

Ashta: I think that’s why I don’t like to shop. Because I shop for work and you travel to shop. Some of the best stuff I’ve ever gotten is overseas. That’s probably where I do most of my shopping.

Liz: Yea. I think that’s the same for me too. A lot of my shopping will be overseas.

Can you call out 2-3 stores abroad that you cant miss?

Ashta: I never have any specific stores I have to check out, but 3 stores I love to experience is Boon the Shop in Seoul, Korea, La Floret (mall) in Tokyo, Japan, and Matches in London. If you think Zara is good at knockoffs, Korea is way better.

Liz: They are way better. Better than Hong Kong.

Ashta: It’s actually expensive to produce apparel out of Korea because their factories are really nice. Then they have their higher end stuff. Boon the Shop, is one of the best high end boutiques I’ve ever been to. It kind of reminds me of Opening Ceremony but more edited. It’s really funky. Korea also has great consignment stores. Some Korean women consign their designer stuff and the stores cut the tags out so you get it for so cheap. But if you know runway, you usually know what brand it is. They have Celine and Marni, and it’s actually in season. I got this bubble Marni vest for like $120.

Liz: It’s basically like the mistresses get all of these gifts from the men and sell them there.
What’s the vision for the store?

What are you thinking about buying now?

Ashta: I’m looking for culottes. That’s for sure. I haven’t seen any that are like the right ones. I bought one vintage pair because I had to have them, but I can’t fit them. I’m waiting for one day when I do my own line and can recreate them in my size.

Liz: I would like a nice bikini. Something with geometric color blocking I think. I like zippers. I want something with a good hardware.

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What do you invest in?

Ashta: Jewelry and outerwear. I love coats. I will spend money on a coat.

Liz: She’s moving me towards that direction. I don’t know why I was never a coat person. I don’t layer that much. Summer is my favorite time to shine.

What’s your favorite coat you bought last winter?

Ashta: That ESPO rain coat. I got it at Icy Signs, Steve Powers’ graphic design shop.  He’s a street artist and he parlayed that into graphic design and signage. I walked in there on my birthday and it was hanging there. He’s only sold like five.

What are your favorite brands?

Ashta: Probably Stella McCartney. That might be my all time favorite aspirational brand.

Liz: The last few Stella McCartney collections have been flawless. Phillip Lim is also becoming a favorite. Fendi’s been killing it.

Ashta: I always find something that I actually wear and can afford from Band of Outsiders.

I love that brand. You heard they are launching shoes?

Ashta: Yes. I put the striped cuffed ones from their resort collection on Instagram. I have a little bit of a preppy style and they have that.

Sportswear and active-influenced apparel are very popular at the moment. What do you think about the evolution of this tomboy aesthetic?

Liz: We welcome it. This aesthetic isn’t going anywhere. I think if anything it will become a staple like the preppy look. It’s always been here and it’s just as relevant in the fashion world as any other look.

What do you think about the fashion industry’s current obsession with streetwear?

Ashta: You know I just hope it is not a phase but an acknowledgement of the new way people shop now.  We are all influenced by everything, so there is a great mixing and merging of styles. Street fashion is a great reflector of the culture at large.

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Where do you shop for denim?

Liz: In Brazil it’s hard to find jeans without sparkles and gems on them, but the denim has a good cut.

Ashta: I like Gap for denim. They make some of the best waist to curvy measurements and I think that they actually have decent quality because they buy their denim in bulk. I can’t wear too many premium denim brands just because of my shape. But with the Tomboy look getting fashionable there are a couple of brands like 6397 and R13 that do that baggy fit I like.

Does being a designer and knowing how much it actually costs to make something affect how much you spend on something?

Ashta: 100 percent.

What are we wasting our money on? Does it make sense to pay $200 for a cotton top from The Row?

Liz: It depends on the brand. There are some brands that I wouldn’t pay that kind of money for, but there are others that I might. I think Rag & Bone has been fairly cautious about there materials and they are not that bad as far as price. Acne too, I think.

Ashta: I feel like when you hit a certain price, you are paying for brand. When you get into $150-$200 range, that might be the right cost. When you get good fabric that’ s not made in China but rather America or Italy, you are probably paying for what it’s worth.

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What’s a good brand for basics? I’m always looking for good knitwear and basics.

Ashta: T by Alexander Wang and spots like Madewell for simple tees and tanks.

Liz: I feel like Acne is my basics go-to. I also get a lot of stuff from Alexander Wang.

Are you sneaker girls?

Ashta: I used to be. I have a whole shelf of sneakers that I used to wear. Now, I like really simple sneakers, like top tens or hightop blazers. I buy Rivieras. They are this Parisian brand and you can get them in all kinds of colors and fabrics. I order them from their website.

Liz: I still love sneakers. These Cortez sneakers are my new fave. I used to not be a Nike Roshe fan, but I got into them.

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Would you open a store in Brooklyn?

Ashta: We would love to open a Bedstuy destination shop.

When do you plan on opening?

Ashta: Right now we’re planning for summer 2015. That’s our goal.

What’s your vision for your store?

Ashta: We want our store to look like our Tumblr.

Like & Other Stories?

Ashta: Yeah, kind of like & Other Stories but even more curated. We want the store to be even more curated to the tomboy aesthetic. But the store would have that one piece from Stella McCartney runway or that one piece from an unexpected brand like Versace. And mix that with some more known brands and even lower end brands so you get this whole mix just like our Tumblr.

Do you think style is inherent or it can be taught or learned?

Liz: I think you can be taught how to dress well and put yourself together, but as far as unique style, you either have it or you don’t. I think you might be able to grow up with it if your parents are stylish.

Ashta: If I look at pictures from when I was a kid, I was always very into what I was wearing. I feel like if it was something that I was into at such a young age, funky style must be a part of who I am.

Photos by Sam Aldenton.

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