In our continued celebration and recognition of Pride Month, we’re highlighting Ash+Chess—a stationery company out of Richmond, Virginia. We spoke with co-owners Ashley Molesso and Chess Needham about taking a chance on their art, their growth, and supporting fellow LGBTQ+ artists.
Creating a brand
When Ashley Molesso (she/her) and Chess Needham (he/him) met years ago on a dating app in Brooklyn, New York, art was just a shared hobby. At the time, they had jobs designing wallpaper and teaching at a high school, respectively. About one year into their relationship, Ash brought Chess to one of her favorite events—the National Stationery Show in New York City, where thousands of brands would exhibit. “I looked at Chess and said, ‘I want to do this. I want to have a booth here and have my own company,” Ash said.
The queer and trans power couple got to work on doing just that, with Ash teaching Chess more about drawing, illustrating, and using Adobe Suite. Though there was a learning curve when it came to making and printing cards, the world of art was familiar to the couple. “I was always really artsy growing up, and I used to sew my own clothes,” Ash said. She went on to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology for textile surface design. Chess’s interest had been more in the photography realm, but he’d always had an interest in drawing, design, and typeface creation.
With the skills of the two artists combined—and advice from a successful stationery designer in their Brooklyn neighborhood—Ash and Chess put together work to exhibit at the next stationary trade show. “I convinced Chess to put all of his savings into the booth for the show,” Ash said. They made their debut as a wholesale company at the National Stationery Show in 2017, selling a handful of colorful greeting cards and art prints. The very first order placed ended up covering the entire cost of the booth.
Since that first show, Ash and Chess have gone on to have their work sold in over 400 retailers throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Asia. Their collection of work today ranges far beyond the few birthday cards they debuted in 2017, and they now often use their work to promote causes important to them. They create art prints with uplifting and self-empowering phrases, stickers that share statements like “ask me about my pronouns,” and “happy to be queer,” and t-shirts reading “trans people belong here,” and “every body is a good body.” All of these items are available to consumers on their website, along with products from some of their many successful collaborations. In the past years, they’ve created art for tote bags with The Belletrist, a book club run by actress Emma Roberts and Karah Preiss, t-shirt designs for The Style Club x Forever21, and apparel designs for San Francisco clothing company, Nooworks.
Along with this growth came the opportunity to publish their own book. An agent saw their Belletrist collaboration on Instagram and was impressed, leading her to reach out to the duo. “We were definitely surprised,” Chess said. “She asked us to pitch anything we wanted.” The two came up with many ideas, but ultimately they decided to use the opportunity to make a positive impact. “We wanted to make something important that we’d never seen before, and we saw it as a chance to create an accessible way to give access to the queer community,” Chess said. They ultimately pitched and published The Gay Agenda: A Queer History & Handbook with Morrow Gift/Harper Collins in April of 2020. The book is packed full of beautiful and colorful illustrations alongside educational content that takes the reader through LGBTQ+ history from the 1800s to today.
Ash and Chess are often asked what it’s been like to navigate this growth not only as a brand but as a couple. The pair said the main thing they’ve learned is to make an effort to separate their jobs and relationship—especially when working together from a shared home studio. “You have to set boundaries,” Ash said. “It took us a long time to figure that out.” They said it’s important to have time away from each other, whether that be alone time or time with separate friends. “You also learn to not take things personally when it comes to work,” Ash said. “Make sure if you have a business disagreement it’s not a relationship disagreement.”
Ash and Chess hope to positively impact the LGBTQ+ community through all their work, whether it be their book, stickers, posters, or inclusive greeting cards. “With our work, I want people to see themselves somewhere and know they’re not alone,” Chess said. “I want them to know they have a community that’s behind them.”
For Ash and Chess, that’s what Pride Month is about—reflecting on the support of the LGBTQ+ community and recognizing how far they’ve come. “It’s also a time to focus on how much further we have to go,” Chess said. The couple also emphasizes that it’s important for consumers and retailers to buy from LGBTQ+ business year-round, not just in the month of June. “It can feel like a show during Pride,” Chess said. “We’re here all year. And you can buy stuff other than Pride-themed products. It shows that queer people have more to offer than just queer stuff.”
Ash added that a great way to display that year-round support is by making stores a safe space for customers. “You can have employees wear pronoun pins,” she said, “Or have gender-neutral bathrooms. Put a sign in the door saying your store is a safe space for everyone. Make your allyship active. That can be more effective than just decorating for Pride.”
Advising fellow artists and makers
Ash and Chess didn’t get to where they are today overnight. “It took us four years to do this full time,” Chess said. “It’s important to not compare yourself to other brands. Sometimes people will come out of nowhere and go viral. But focus on yourself and learn to celebrate the small wins.”
When it comes to learning the ins and outs of entrepreneurship, Ash and Chess are strong advocates of learning from other successful business owners. “Try to reach out to people you admire,” Ash said. “Ask for advice and information. Whenever you find people that will share that with you, it’s really helpful.” Chess notes that building up your confidence as a brand and an artist is also important when starting a new business. “Be confident in yourself and don’t be afraid to try out different styles,” he said. “You don’t have to play it safe, especially in the world today. A lot of really good art gets made by not holding it in and telling your truth.”
Lastly, the pair says it’s important to not let work become your entire life. “As a small business, it’s easy to not know when to stop working,” Ash said. “Try to have hobbies outside of your work. Don’t forget parts of yourself.”