Ashley-Brooke Sandall’s career in fashion proves that a classic success story never goes out of style.
By Erin Marie Miller
Photography by Viviana Pernot
In a corner of her apartment in New York City’s West Village, Ashley-Brooke Sandall has built a library of the classic novels she once read as a student in high school. The Michigan native says the experiences she’s had over a successful 15-year career in the fashion industry have helped her appreciate the stories more fully, noting a fondness for Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
“Reading it again as an adult in New York who has been around a lot of big personalities in fashion — I think I totally get it this time,” she says.
Stylish with dark hair and an air of understated elegance, Sandall looks the part of a New York fashionista. A candid sincerity distinguishes her from the aloof Manhattan couture set, though, and Sandall has made a point of preserving her Midwestern sensibilities in an industry that is notorious for its loftiness. “I still consider myself a Michigander. I’m really proud of my home,” she says, adding that she has even held onto her Michigan driver’s license as a memento of affection for her roots.
Those roots are, after all, where Sandall’s interest in fashion began. Her mother, Carren, a former model with a syndicated fashion column, cultivated an admiration for the industry in Sandall from an early age in Ann Arbor. Despite a lifelong fascination with fashion, Sandall’s aptitude for business and marketing steered her toward a degree in communications from the University of Michigan rather than fashion school. Sandall credits the decision as part of the reason she was selected for an internship with Prada in 2002, noting that a traditional education set her apart from the usual flood of applicants from fashion and design schools.
Interning for the iconic label in Chicago, Sandall thrived under the mentorship of a woman named Mildred Fabian whose background was in business. It was also in Chicago where Sandall, while attending a trunk show with her college boyfriend, would come to have a serendipitous encounter with another Michigan native working in fashion: John Varvatos. Sandall recognized the designer, who had recently opened his namesake menswear boutique in Lower Manhattan’s posh SoHo neighborhood, and struck up a conversation with him. Impressed by Sandall’s confidence and love of fashion, Varvatos told the pair to get in touch if they ever found themselves in New York City.
The young couple reached out to Varvatos before a trip to New York prior to graduation. Making good on his promise, the esteemed designer invited them to dinner and encouraged them to contact him once they finished college. After graduating in 2004, Sandall was offered a full-time position at Varvatos’ chic SoHo boutique where she worked in sales for the next two years. She remembers falling in love with the quality design and loyal clientele that are the hallmarks of menswear, adding that Varvatos “has been quite ingenious in building his brand and creating a very strong point of view.” By looking at his clothing, she says, “you can tell it’s a John Varvatos piece.”
Michelle Melendez, senior director of global philanthropy of the movement Global Citizen, was the boutique’s general manager at the time. She admired Sandall’s work ethic and supportive nature, recalling a time Sandall put in extra hours to help cover for a colleague who needed the time to study for his master’s degree. “There is something effortless about her discipline,” Melendez says, adding that Sandall made her “want to be a better professional.”
Eventually seeking out new challenges, Sandall moved on from her work in sales to positions in business development, account management and communications for brands like Stuart Weitzman and Rodale. In 2013, she accepted a position with the Council of Fashion Designers of America, a trade association that works to further American fashion on a global scale. Three years later, Sandall was promoted to her current position as director of strategic partnerships.
One of the CFDA’s goals, Sandall says, is to bring fashion manufacturing back to the U.S. She believes there are opportunities beyond New York, adding that the trade association’s director recently made several trips to Detroit to explore its potential. Beyond manufacturing, Sandall’s work supports the fashion industry through events like the annual CFDA Fashion Awards and this year’s partnership with Love Ball III, a revival of Susanne Bartsch’s iconic AIDS and HIV benefits from the ’80s and ’90s.
Members of the CFDA run the gamut from emerging designers to industry giants like Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, and Sandall regularly finds herself in meetings with fashion icons. “If I had told my 16-year-old self that someday I would be sitting in a boardroom with Diane von Furstenberg, I wouldn’t have believed it,” she says. To stay grounded, she often retreats to her “favorite place on earth” — her family’s summer home in Harbor Springs. In her charming way, Sandall seems almost caught off guard by her own success. When she moved to New York in 2004, she says she never could have predicted her career would turn out this way.
In “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Oscar Wilde wrote, “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Sandall, then, must be an anomaly. She seems to understand the value of everything in her life and, true to her Midwest roots, refuses to take even a moment of it for granted.