Ashley’s youngest son is furious: his older brother has sold him a RC car that doesn’t work and he wants his money back. Now. “Maybe you can do a job later and earn some money back?” she suggests, in no rush to remedy this first-time buyer’s remorse. This is a lesson — and Ashley’s made a life learning from them.
Inside her light-filled Southern California home, it’s equal parts chaos and calm. One of her three sons is feeding his breakfast to the family dog, Jimmie, while another negotiates a ride to a friend’s house. Toy sharks swim through stacks of vintage photo books on the oversized coffee table. There are surfboards stacked against the couch, still sandy from the beach... But instead of apologetically tidying up, Ashley makes a moment for stillness and scoops her boys into a hug.
It’s been nearly a decade since Ashley started her T-shirt brand, The Bee & The Fox. In that time she’s grown the company from a handful of Etsy listings to a full line of responsibly made shirts inspired by graphics and statement-making slogans from the ‘70s, both steadfast in their politics and clever in conveying them. She’s also navigated love and loss, and her passion for loudly supporting women — especially those who mother — is apparent in everything she creates. The language on one of her shirts might capture the philosophy best: “Do no harm, but take no shit.”
As told to SeaVees. Photography by Johnie Gall.
“T-shirts have always felt like blank pages of paper to me. I grew up as a competitive gymnast and had a coach from China named Liang. My teammates and I pitched in and bought him a T-shirt with a drawing of Daffy Duck on it, emblazoned with the words “I’m the Boss.” He was a soft-spoken man, so the shirt almost spoke for him in a way he couldn’t. I’m not sure if we listened any better when he wore that shirt, but I’d like to think we may have.
Our ancestors used tattoos and body markings to distinguish individuals within the same tribes. It’s the same today — we choose what we wear because we like the message it tells the world about who we are. So many of the slogans I use on The Bee & The Fox shirts are ones I personally identify with. If you want to know what’s going on in my personal evolution, you can probably just check out whatever the latest collection is [laughs].
I probably wouldn’t have even said I launched a company at the time — it felt more like an online lemonade stand.
I don’t even recall the specific moment I knew I wanted to start a company, I just knew I had a deep disdain for what was on the market when it came to kids’ shirts. I hated the slogans, the colors, the quality. I thought I could do better, so I invested $700 and just started making my own. I probably wouldn’t have even said I launched a company at the time — it felt more like an online lemonade stand. I’d throw a few listings up on Etsy and celebrate anytime a sale came in. I was lucky to have started when Instagram wasn’t owned by Facebook and algorithms didn’t exist, so we could grow organically and by word of mouth, slowly and steadily. Influencers (before they were even called influencers) had a big hand in that.
I was actually working as a registered nurse on a medical surgical unit up until the latter part of last year. I started out working full-time, then part-time, then per diem, and then I arranged an under-the-table agreement with my manager to work just once a month. I say “under-the-table” because a position that would allow me to work just once a month didn’t even really exist.
I probably kept my day job longer than was necessary. I didn’t want to acknowledge that a business I built and ran could sustain me because if I accepted that, I’d also have to confront the fear of losing it. That thinking came from my inner critic that tells me the floor is going to fall out from under me tomorrow and I need to be hyper-vigilant so I’m prepared. Then the pandemic hit, my manager changed, and I was asked to quadruple my number of shifts each month. So, I resigned and kept my license active.
I’ve found that sometimes having a clear-cut vision and hope for what I want something to be can feel too overwhelming. Sometimes it’s more fun to let it flow organically and see what comes of it. I do feel pressure to have an answer to where I want it to be in five years, ten years, but the more work I do internally, the more the answer to that question is to be simply present and willing and for all else to fall where it may.
There was a time when my life had become unmanageable and I lost myself. I felt powerless in my marriage. It didn’t feel so traumatic at the time but unpacking all that led to the downfall has been paralyzing at times and I’ve been riddled with self-doubt, fear and distrust. I attend recovery meetings throughout the week with other women who have found themselves in similar circumstances. I journal, meditate, read, educate myself, go to therapy, and I surround myself with people who are able to see me and support me in my healing and self-discovery. The challenges I had in my marriage have become my greatest teachers and are the catalyst for the relationship that I have with myself today. I have so much gratitude for it all. Taking care of myself first has always aided me indirectly in guiding my business. Some would say I gave up on my marriage; I would say I chose to place my energy where I did have some power — over myself.
Being a mom and running a business is getting to be constantly “present” but not always available and having to navigate the fallout that comes from that.
Being a mom and running a business is a balancing act that I don’t know if I’ll ever get right. It’s answering emails while also being asked to help with a Lego set. Having a garage filled with T-shirt racks and samples, but also bikes and skateboards. Looking at the work calendar on my wall next to a drawing of a rainbow with “I love you Mom” taped next to it. Getting up early or going to bed late, or both. Getting to be constantly “present” but not always available and having to navigate the fallout that comes from that. But more than anything, it’s getting to be a single mom and getting to raise three boys who get to see their mom falter, apologize for mistakes, grow, mature and provide.
Moms—single or partnered—are often referred to as superwomen because of our ability to seemingly do it all. To carry the emotional weight of our relationships, to plan, to tend to the house, to caretake, and, for so many, to also hold down full-time employment. And while it feels good to be acknowledged, most of us don’t actually want to be superwomen. What we want is help, equality, opportunity and a goddamn break.
I just got back from taking my three young sons with me to Costa Rica. A man on a bus asked if I was traveling with them on my own and referred to me as “badass.” I guess there’s a difference between being referred to as a badass by a patriarchal society that refuses to give mothers the support they need while simultaneously demanding more, and being acknowledged by an individual on a bus who isn’t in a place of power over my personal circumstances. One feels manipulative and one feels supportive.
Most of us don’t actually want to be super-women. What we want is help, equality, opportunity and a goddamn break.
I wish we didn’t live in a world where a woman traveling solo with her kids was considered brave. But I also wish we lived in a world where there was equal pay, equal opportunity, accessible healthcare, ample maternity leave, and so on. All that to say, if you see a mother holding it down solo on a bus with three kids in a foreign country, let her know you see her [laughs]. I can tell you from experience it’s a cup filler.
Years ago we released a tee that said “No Uterus No Opinion.” We got some pushback from it; some from people who were pro-life and some who were offended by a statement that seemed to exclude those that no longer have a uterus or never had one to begin with. I always think it’s important to hear and consider the perspective of others as opposed to getting immediately reactive and defensive. I actually agreed with the latter and we re-produced the same design but changed the wording to read “My Uterus My Opinion.” Our customers do a great job of calling us in when it’s appropriate.
I used to lean heavily into the fact that I still worked as a registered nurse and used that as freedom to say what I wanted with little concern about being liked or accepted. It was like, well I have this career, so even if the whole world was like “nope, we don’t agree,” it wouldn’t matter. Fortunately I think I’ve created a niche where our customers appreciate the fact we take a stance on issues. That’s why I looked at the Summer of Love in 1967 for inspiration for my shoe design with SeaVees — it was a time of revolution where people started asking more questions. Where the status quo was rejected and young people came together to oppose the Vietnam war. It was a time that shares so many similarities to the present day; the way history repeats itself is fascinating. It’s an invitation to bring the same curiosity, rebellion, and love from then to now.
I wouldn’t say that The Bee & The Fox started as a dream. It was more like starting a little something with what I had and seeing where it would lead. It still feels like that. The question of what I want to be still causes me anxiety. There’s so much pressure to be one thing and for that one thing to define us. I don’t ever remember wanting to be any one thing but I do remember having a deep inner connection with self that I could not identify nor honor at the time.
Pursuing your dream means becoming more you in a society that wants you to become more them.
Maybe everyone has that? So I guess all I ever wanted to be was me. I’m still on that journey. Pursuing your dream means becoming more you in a society that wants you to become more them. You don’t need investors to start. Start wherever you are with what you’ve got.
Ashley wears the Legend Sneaker from the limited edition The Bee & the Fox Summer of Love collection for SeaVees — 10% of every purchase gives back to Planned Parenthood. She also wears the Monterey Sneaker.