Ashley Tipton talks to PEOPLE about overcoming bullying and her hopes for the plus-size fashion world

By Gabrielle Olya
August 05, 2015 10:00 AM
Barbara Nitke/Lifetime

Project Runway contestant Ashley Tipton wants to see a major change in the plus-size fashion industry.

“I feel like there’s not enough clothing out there to show our personality, and just to be comfortable and to be fashion-forward and to be a trendsetter,” the designer, 24, tells PEOPLE. “There are a lot of clothes out there for the straight-size woman to be able to show that, but in the plus-size industry, I don’t feel like it’s there just yet.”

Tipton – who is the first designer to appear on the show that specializes in plus-size apparel – was actually inspired to pursue her dreams by all the bullies who told her she’d never succeed at anything.

“When people told me that I couldn’t do something, I wanted to always prove them wrong,” she says. “That comes a lot from people always bullying me because of my size, and not thinking that I could do anything to impact the world or inspire other people. I feel like this first episode is showing that what they’ve done to me in the past does not affect who I am. I’m still going to do what I want to do.”

Still, she admits that her former bullying still weighs negatively on her self-esteem, which is something she struggled with while filming.

“Being bullied young, it definitely brought up a lot of insecurities, and it’s taken me a long time to get rid of those insecurities, and I’m still learning today,” says the San Diego native. “Going onto this show, I really had to have faith in myself and believe in myself that I could do this, because I knew going into it that at any point, it could trigger these insecurities that I’ve had.”

Tipton decided to push past her insecurities and audition for Project Runway after a tragic death in her family.

“I lost my grandma two days before I auditioned,” she says. “She taught me how to sew at a young age, and I felt like I had nothing else to lose, so I might as well take this chance. I’m very, very glad that I did.”

While Tipton is used to designing for plus-size women, she liked being able to design for straight-size women for the show’s challenges.

“I think the hardest thing is to design for plus-size women,” she explains. “I enjoyed designing for straight-size because there’s no limits. They can basically wear anything, and that’s where I was able to have creative freedom with it.”

No matter whom she’s designing for, Tipton is sure to incorporate her unique aesthetic.

“I like to design funky things, and I love to mix prints and patterns together,” says Tipton. “I think outside of the box with my designs.”

Project Runway premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on Lifetime.