Describe the experience of writing and styling a shoot for Vogue Italia Black Lives Matter spread.
When I was approached to do the story, I knew that I had a great responsibility to tell the story with style and grace. It’s a peculiar thing to write and style editorials around my people. As a regular contributor to Vogue, it’s routine for me to research the story, pull the clothes, and then submit to the editor, but this one was special. This story was about Sanda Bland, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Philando Castille, and it was even about me. It was therapeutic in the best way because fashion is often how I show my perspective. I wanted contrast and movement because contrast and movement are how black people live their lives — and it is certainly what I’ve had to deal with as a black fashion editor.
The interviews took time because I wanted to speak to people with enough fashion credibility to make what they had to say about the industry, valuable to those in authority. Sadly, people don’t often pay attention until someone who they deem valuable speaks. The fashion wasn’t a challenge. I pulled pieces mostly in dark colors with hard lines to capture the angst that often comes with a double consciousness (see WEB DuBois quote).
I don’t at all think it my responsibility to speak for all black people. But I do think that I owe it to my ancestors to be great. They went through too much for me to be mediocre. My grandmother and grandfather struggled at a point where a stylist didn’t exist as it does now. If she was still alive, she’d probably look at what I do and say, “I do that every Sunday for church,” and she’d be right. But I stand on their shoulders. So you see, this story was about so much more than photos and a video. It was about paying tribute to the beautiful struggle and the lives that it affects.
The Black Lives Matter story is still getting traction all over the world. People who weren’t familiar with the movement are now following the headlines and I take pride in that. Fashion is translatable to everyone because the language is one size fits all. Using fashion to talk about race is a fresh and non-threatening way to educate people who wouldn’t otherwise be interested.
Walk us through the process of styling a celebrity for a red carpet event.
It’s so funny that you would ask that because I’m actually in the process of styling a certain Grammy-award winning singer/songwriter for the BET Awards. When she approached me, it was an incredible honor because her voice is crazy! I love real singers, or should I say SANGERS! And this one gives me everything I need each time she sings. Normally, management for the artist will reach out to me. I’m blessed to be at a point where word of mouth is how I get a majority of my clients.
If I’m styling the talent for something specific, it plays a major role in the kind of work I have to do. For the BET Awards, we’re looking for a red carpet gown. She’ll need something that fits her pefectly, so I always bring my assistant who is a master seamstress with over 35 years experience. I cannot stress how important fit is. Each red carpet has its own personality and that dictates the different designers we would pull from. If it’s a press event or an appearance, they are the easiest the work on. But the hardest is certainly performance looks. You need the client to be able to move and breathe comfortably. But you also need them to be chic. Most recently, I began designing custom looks for clients because this season I didn’t think anything worked.
The client is always important because they are the customer. I always try to take their personality into account because I want what I put them in, to be a soulful representation of who they are – served with a fashion cocktail!
[bctt tweet=”What do you feel is missing in fashion for the men of size?” username=”xltribe”]
I’m so glad you asked. I think fashion is missing! With the exception of a few newer labels such as Brandon Kyle, Oublier, and Gulliva, all of which are incredible at what they do, the bigger labels and design houses still think that big men don’t care about fashion. The designers are often not big, and so they don’t understand the plight of a big man who is concerned about style. This is still a big problem mostly because Bob and Tom in Seattle, probably don’t want jumpsuits or super long tees with holes and joggers – and that’s fine. But where skinny fashion is all inclusive, so should big and tall menswear. The women’s plus market is a cash cow for those involved. Christian Siriano is a prime example of a high-end designer who saw the trend and capitalized. I’m waiting on John Varvatos, Rick Owens, and Saint Laurent to jump on the bandwagon for men. But understand this – the more, these brands that produce big and tall menswear, think that there are more Bobs and Toms than there are XL Tribe men, the clothes are going to keep being boring.
I understand the concept – play it safe because they should just be grateful that they have things that fit, right? WRONG. The Devil Is a Liar! You won’t trick me into thinking that I need to be grateful to look tacky.
When did you know that you wanted to become a stylist?
Hmm – I don’t remember. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been doing this all of my life, which certainly isn’t the case. I used to think I was so cute, and I looked so crazy – and not crazy like that singer’s voice, no, I was looking crazy like Marlon Wayans in “Don’t Be a Menace to South Central LA While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood.” But I got better. And I think when I realized that fashion wasn’t intimidating, I knew that this was something that I could do. Any opportunity is a set up to be a blessing to someone else. In everything I do, I try to honor the situation while also honoring God from whom all good things come.
I guess that was my long-winded way of saying that I knew I wanted to be a stylist when I first fell in love with fashion which happened when I was in college and realized that fashion was going to be how I told my story.
How are your biggest style inspiration and why?
My biggest style inspirations were my maternal and paternal grandmothers. They were incredibly sharp and each Sunday was their runway shows. Church conventions were their church conventions. I learned garment construction from my aunt Lency Whitaker, and I learned to be dapper from Bishop Joseph Scott and Bishop Otis Grayson – both my pastors currently, and growing up (respectively). I didn’t grow up around professional fashion people, church was when we dressed up.
Currently, I’m inspired by trailblazers of style. I love Gabrielle Chanel and what she did for fashion. In her heyday, fashion had a lot of problems. She was style’s greatest problem fixer. I’m also inspired by the newness of Marc Jacobs who is in my opinion, the reigning king of New York fashion. And of course, I am really inspired by the unsung heroes in a black fashion such as Elizabeth Keckly, Zelda Wynn Valdes, and Anne Lowe. Look these women up, their work is incredible.
Where do you see yourself in five to ten years?
In 10 years, I want to have an even stronger faith in myself, and in God. I want people to say, “he’s talented, but he’s also humble.” I hope to be a father. But if you’re referring to my career (as I suspect you are), I want Styled by James to be a famous hashtag. I want my brand to evolve into a product. I hope to keep telling my story through fashion as it grows and matures. I hope to have great friends in the industry, and I hope to help as many people as I can. The fashion industry can be ugly, and that’s a shame – but it doesn’t have to be. I admire so much what Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry do for people. I want to do that for people, using fashion. And let’s be clear, I don’t want to be broke, cause that ain’t cute. I want to own several different properties because my greatest struggle has always been with homelessness. So many times I thought I was going to give up. I counted myself out along with all of the haters, but God said no. And then when the blessings came, he said yes. So I want to own many properties to ensure that I will never be homeless again. And if one of those rooms in one of those houses was filled with Chanel bags, I wouldn’t mind that either.
July 2, 2017