The first rule in men’s fashion is there are no rules.
At Liberty Fairs in Miami last week, Fashion Snoops VP and creative director of men’s wear Michael Fisher sat down with Jeff Kim, Rachel Johnson and Kwasi Kessie to discuss the sense of freedom and discovery that is filtering across men’s fashion and how it’s impacting their role as celebrity stylists.
With a shared client roster that spans Jay Z to Michael B. Jordan to Diddy, they have a pulse on the cultural shifts influencing the way men want to dress. While a confluence of factors like the Black Lives Matter movement, social media and direct-to-consumer retail is chipping away at fashion’s traditional gatekeepers, the stylists recognize the role they can have in elevating new voices.
“The beauty of what we can do a stylist is to be able to cultivate empowerment within everybody, and that’s what fashion should be in general,” Kim said.
Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback and civil rights activist, was Johnson’s first client to request designers that are people of color for his December 2017 GQ cover story. “Colin was very specific about the fact that he wanted to wear only black, indigenous and female designers in the book. He wanted to make sure that we were including brands and men’s wear designers who had not ever gotten an opportunity to have their clothes in the GQ offices.”
Though a simple request, the effect it had on designers was monumental. Designers, Johnson said, cried over the phone and said they never thought that their brand could be even considered to be on the cover of a magazine, let alone GQ and let alone on someone as iconic as Kaepernick. Not only that, GQ’s editors were introduced to new roster of brands. “They had to go outside of their comfort zone and their usual Rolodex to really go out there and open things up for us, and that was the precipice of it for me,” she said.
Incorporating people of color is ingrained in Kessie’s work. His goal coming into styling was to provide his friends and the brands and people he grew up a platform.
“That’s always been a part of my wheelhouse—celebrating my fellow friends or African American brands or female brands or just anybody that’s the underdog,” he said. “I want to show them some light because they have some amazingly cool stuff… that’s always been a part of my styling profile, to give like people a chance.”
As a curator for clients, stylists are using their position to help shine a spotlight on oft-overlooked designers. Requests for Black brands are increasing, Kessie said, “because of the climate of what’s going on and because people just want something different something fresh, something new,” but it is work in progress.
Though fashion brands, retailers and publications responded to the BLM movement last summer by incorporating more Black models and designers, Kim underscored that undoing systemic racism will not be achieved by one-and-done stunts.
“The most important thing is to recognize that inclusion and diversity is a constant. It’s something that needs to be in our constant vocabulary and be ingrained in our minds,” he said. “As stylists of color, we also have started at a place of where we were going up the hill and having to fight against the grain…we have the privilege to be able to create moments for these designers and emerging designers, but at the same time it’s something that we have to constantly study.”
While the role of a stylist sometimes feels like the “publicist, manager, agent, assistant, therapist, hairstylist, sometimes nail artist,” Kim joked, creative storytelling is at the crux their work.
“We have the ability to be able to show our clients’ point-of-view on the world in fashion without having to use any words,” he said. “We connect with our clients in a way to be able to find out what’s important to them, what they want to present to the world, and we get to create that imagery, as creatives, through clothing.”
Mood boards and sketches remain favorite tools for stylists to convey their vision for clients. For Kessie, they’re a way to express the “energy and vibe” of a project because people tend to interpret creative ideas differently through e-mails and conversations.
These tools, Johnson added, are the perfect place to start because they foster a collaborative environment. “It’s really important, especially for up-and-coming stylists, to understand that this is a collaborative effort between you and the client… You’re not coming in to put your foot down and change this person overnight,” she said.
Rather, change is a process—one which Johnson likened to planting seeds. “If I want my client to wear pink, and I know for a fact he is not going to wear pink, every single time I come in for a fitting, there’s going to be something pink on that rack,” she said.
Eventually, the color will feel familiar, and they’ll try it.
The work of a stylist, however, does not end with one job. When Johnson began working with Lebron James, she learned he had a long-term vision to become a global fashion icon. From there, it was her task to break down that goal into smaller steps that would help make it a reality.
Beyond dressing for one event or having early access to collections, Johnson said her part to achieve this vision is to make sure that her 6’9” client has designer suits, so when editors would eventually come ringing, they could pull directly from his own collection. “And that means that I have to spend the time beating down doors of designers having custom things in his closet,” she said.
“The clothes are there, so that long-term vision and understanding what’s coming down the pipeline is key,” she said.
Embrace the freak flag
In a visual world enhanced by social media and virtual communication, fashion has become a form of art, self-expression and a gateway to discover your truest self.
This has never been truer, Kim said, since the start of the pandemic. Just as the unprecedented events of 2020 led individuals to recalibrate their priorities, embrace nature in new ways or embark on new careers and lifepaths, it amplified the antiquated ideas and traditions the fashion industry and consumers were beholden to.
“Let’s be honest, we all went through some real shit during Covid,” Kim said. “Style-wise 2021, 2022, forever—I hope—is all about letting your freak flag fly and being yourself. There is no other reason than to be living your truth and to show the world who you are, and we have the opportunity to be able to bring that out of the clients that may have self-confidence issues or feel insecure just like we do.”
Confidence is what reverberates through fashion today, Kessie said. Rather than trends or wearing head-to-toe designer looks, he said confidence is the intangible quality that makes a man stylish.
“The only rule is you make your own rules—you decide what it is and how you want to express yourself in the world,” Johnson said. A job well-done, she added, is when her client “walks out of the door and no matter what audience he’s going to be in front of, he’s going to rule that audience because confidence is already built in.”