Updated: Jan 25, 2021
At IRK, we support diversity, inclusion,and amplification of marginalized voices so we caught up with the team for our latest feature and cover, featuring all Black creatives including the designer, to talk about style, fashion, and racism in the industry.
At what point did you realize that this industry is what you wanted to do as a career?
SEAN: My first time developing pictures in a darkroom, I was entranced by the magic of an image rising from nothing on the photo paper. I’m fairly sure it was then.
PORTIA: When fashion styling started to feel like an addiction. I could not get enough, despite the grueling work, rude people, long hours, horrible pay, I still love the industry.
EZIE: A few pivotal moments stand out but one in particular was sometime in 2014-2015 when I would get home from a shift and despite having a grueling shift in the ED, all I wanted to do was sketch a design I had. Jennifer Lee said it best “Be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your souls on fire.”
PASCALE: In 1993 I had replaced a “no show “makeup artist assistant on a film. I was merely powdering faces all day, but I discovered a whole new world going on. It is when I chose to become a makeup artist.
Hatter Corset, Tribal Red: Ezie @ezieny_official, Simone caped pants (A/W 2019 collection): Ezie @ezieny_official, Earrings: Dolce & Gabbana @dolcegabbana,
Shoes: Vince Camuto @vincecamuto
Is there anyone in your field who inspired your art/creativity?
SEAN: Seydou Keita and August Sander are of great inspiration to me.
PORTIA: The purveyor of style, and the epitome of cool Patti Wilson. Her sartorial expertise ranges from iconic, to whimsical, to glamorous to outrageous. She cultivates an entire production with her eclectic taste, where her editorial stories leave you visually satisfied. Yves Saint Laurent because he was a strong pioneer for models of color gracing his runways. Jean Paul Gaultier because of his all-inclusive runway shows, his avant-garde design (Madonna’s iconic cone bra) and his costume design for the movie Fifth Element.
EZIE: Always inspired by the ingenuity of Elsa Schiaparelli, Carolina Herrera, Emilia Wickstead and Alexander McQueen, rest his soul. June Ambrose is another woman I’ve admired for a while; I love her creative disposition and her expansive work in fashion is inspiring.
PASCALE: I love a lot of different people for different reasons, but I would say Tyen is probably the one whose work keeps on inspiring me the most, but so do Topolino, Peter Philips and of course the great Pat McGrath.
What’s your favorite photo shoot you’ve done and why?
SEAN: Shooting protests and other work surrounding efforts to effect social change and or justice are most important to me.
PORTIA: My first styling job for an editorial in Rendezvous de la Mode Magazine wedding edition. I was given creative freedom by the editor who allowed me to style these beautiful elegant gowns with elaborate avant-garde headpieces from a young emerging milliner. Everyone was a quite worried about my vision, but the story came out amazing.
EZIE: My favorite shoot to date would be the one for my capsule collection glamour shot for AW ’18 with an amazing cast which included Altorrin, Patricia Akello, Van Troung and shot by Oriana Leyendecker. It’s my favorite because it was almost an all-black cast and the collection was my perspective of what glamour is and by a black designer.
PASCALE: Well without any hesitation one of the first covers I ever worked on. It was for a Belgian magazine called Vif L'Express, with photographer Andrea Klarin in the late 90's. We flew to NYC for that!
Motif Cropped Jacket, Silver: Ezie @ezieny_official, Hatter Maxi pleated skirt, red: Ezie @ezieny_official, Beret: DON Paris @donparis, Boots: Moschino @moschino
What percentage of your jobs had an all-black cast/crew?
SEAN: Very few, however, once I did get to be on a crew that was compromised of all Black Women. Towards the end of the day, I was asked if I was being so quiet because I was the only boy on set. I laughed it off, but she wasn’t wrong. Hahaha.
PORTIA: It’s an extremely low percent working with an all-black creative team, but this shooting was a great experience because we were not just an all-black creative team, we were all from different ethnicities so there was a unique melting pot of creative ideas. It’s sad to know that in 2020 this is not a norm for many magazines, but I am grateful to IRK Magazine who had this vision which I hope many other publications follow.
EZIE: I’ve had an almost all black crew when shooting my look book twice. I love to see it, quite uplifting and empowering.
PASCALE: Not that much, but I have 2 friends Giannie Couji from Ubikwist and Keziah Makoundou from Afropolitan Magazine who are working hard to provide black people with platforms where to tell their own narrative and therefore, showing other facets of the story.
Vivienne sheer hooded dress, distressed gold (A/W 2019): Ezie @ezieny_official
What are the most difficult aspects of your industry?
SEAN: Nepotism, lack of social responsibility, vapidity, and racism are pervasive, however, it would seem that the current climate is making for a reckoning within the industry. I suppose that we’ll have to see if lasting change has been begotten.
PORTIA: A difficult aspect in the fashion industry is how a huge majority of individuals from that industry continue to use and view diversity as a trend.
EZIE: I will say the most difficult obstacle for an emerging designer will be finding and owning your creative voice in the industry and the community accepting it
PASCALE: The most difficult aspect to me is gaining deciders trust and enthusiasm getting those bookings that could change the game for me. I am working on it.
Simone Long Coat: Ezie @ezieny_official, Motif Crop Jacket: Ezie @ezieny_official, Ije high waist pants: Ezie @ezieny_official, Hat: Borsalino @borsalino_world, Eyewear: Stylist own, Shoe: Christian Louboutin @louboutinworld
What has been the biggest challenge of your career?
SEAN: It hasn’t happened yet.
PORTIA: One of my biggest challenges is being taken seriously, because coming from the modelling industry many assume models are just pretty faces who are uncreative, talentless, individuals who just like to party. I constantly have to prove them wrong.
EZIE: I’ll say one of my biggest challenges was venturing into an industry with no prior insider experience or connection besides attending shows at NYFW.
PASCALE: The biggest challenge was probably choosing to do this job and still cater to my family.
Vivienne sheer hooded dress, Rose gold (A/W 2019): Ezie @ezieny_official
Have you witnessed racism in your industry?
PORTIA: As a stylist just being the only minority on set speaks volumes. As a model I experienced racism on many occasions. While searching for an agency to represent me these were the salutations I received as I entered the fickle world of fashion, “black models do not work very well here" or “we already have one black model." At every open call, bookers tried to disparage my efforts to follow my dreams, reciting the aforementioned scripted responses. Even after finding an agency the color of my skin continued to take precedence over my portfolio. I would often be the token black model in a sea of white faces for most of my jobs. In Paris during a casting a casting director came up to me and asked who sent me here because she specifically told all the agencies she did not want to see any black models. In Rome during an Alta Moda casting, I overheard a designer telling my booker that she is not using tanned girls for her fashion show. I knew that as a black model I needed to work twice as hard as my white counterparts.
EZIE: The fashion industry hasn’t been inclusive for a very long time and though steps are actively being taken to change that, there’s still much to be done. An instance that stood out to me was calling a modeling agency to book a model and was told she was unavailable for a shoot despite asking for her availability and us being flexible as she was perfect for the concept we were shooting. I love working with black models and from the conversations I’ve had with a few, they’ve shared how hard it can be for them to book jobs.
PASCALE: Of course, I often tell this story that happened on one of the first gigs I got upon moving here. I got booked by photographer Jeffrey Apoien. So, the model, myself, the stylist and her assistant are all by the makeup station and the stylist which name I totally forgot was talking about a new foundation she had bought. As she was raving on and on about it the model asked her if she could see it and then this happened...the stylist said they were not making that foundation for black people. It took me a minute to comprehend what just happened until the model said she was not black, and she wasn't. She was from Madrid, with blond hair, green eyes and clearly Caucasian. At that point the stylist said: "oh you know, black, Hispanic, it's all the same" the model left the studio and went outside, I was so taken aback that I had not said a word. A few minutes passed and I went outside to see where the model was, she was in the lobby, talking to her parents in Spain. She apologized to me saying that she was not crying because the stylist called her black but because it was the first time ever something like this happened to her. And she was wondering if that was the reason why she was not working. I was very saddened for her and she was for me. We went back to the studio and kept it professional all day just making sure to not talk to that stylist at all. Jeffrey was never aware of what went on in that makeup room. Something like this would happen to me today, I would sure be vocal and bring the issue to the photographer and have him choose who to keep in the studio and of course bring the offender to court. But at that time, I was fresh off the boat and had no idea of what was going on in there! LOL. You know, I witnessed racism from black folks too ...Essence magazine had me come 3 times to show that I could do makeup on black people, I had to apply makeup to one of their receptionists or interns. I never got hired, but that was fine, probably better like that
Simone long Coat in black Motif: Ezie @ezieny_official, Ije Faux leather dress: Ezie @ezieny_official, Ije high waist pants: Ezie @ezieny_official, Gloves: Stylist own, Garrison Cap: Stylist Own, Boots: Moschino @moschino
Do you think that “Blackness” goes in and out of fashion?
SEAN: No, not in any way that is real, but I believe that the power structures in place in the industry do treat Blackness in that way. Regarding Blackness as an aesthetic choice as opposed to a representative normality dehumanizes and commodifies Black people (and some other POC groups) in a manner beyond the industry’s normal deleterious standards.
PORTIA: Blackness never goes out of fashion, many individuals in the fashion industry as a whole appropriate and fetishize the unique qualities that outline blackness.
EZIE: A loaded question but the many facets of being black culture, heritage, style etc. is never out of fashion. I would like to think society needed some time to come around.
PASCALE: Absolutely, like anything else for that matters. Fashion is a game which rules change every season. For it to evolve into something else but just another trend for others to run their mouths and ink on, it has to be lovingly owned, celebrated, developed and exploited by us. It is our reality, our daily experience after all, not just another fashion moment.
Simone long Coat in black Motif: Ezie @ezieny_official, Ije Faux leather dress: Ezie @ezieny_official, Ije high waist pants: Ezie @ezieny_official, Gloves: Stylist own, Garrison Cap: Stylist Own
How have you been using your platform to make a change?
SEAN: I would like to think that I do. I believe that the only proper use for the “Trickle-down” metaphor is certainly not in economics, but in Civil Rights. If we center those with the greatest needs among us for protection, then by reason we should all be protected. It’s why statements like All Black Lives Matter are also necessary. Black Trans people, for example, have a life expectancy of 35 years. That is an injustice of epic proportion, so while I use my platform to support BLM, I do my best to assure that it is clear that All Black Lives Matter to me and that they should to everyone else.
PORTIA: I continuously try to highlight and provide opportunities for Black and other minority creatives giving a platform to showcase the incredible talents.
EZIE: Before the uprising that occurred this year, I always used my platform to uplift women, promote love and equality. That will never change.
PASCALE: Look I have already enough work to do changes in my own little world. I choose my battles, one at a time.
How important is social media activism?
SEAN: Activism is necessary in all spaces while there are fights to be fought and battles to be won for the people.
PORTIA: Social media activism is very important because it helps put the issue in the public and in the light, with the goal of bringing about social change.
EZIE: Social media is a huge tool these days, probably the most effective and fastest tool in getting information across generations in this day and age. It’s a no brainer that it is used for activism and advocacy.
PASCALE: I am not really an activist in anything I must say. However, I do the changes I want to see in my own life and hopefully this will trickle down outside of my own little circle.
What are your feelings amid the social unrest --- sparked by the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor?
SEAN: I took my first photograph at a police brutality protest in 1996. It’s been a long time since then and we are still here with ever-mounting evidence that the claims of generations past have been true with respect to American “law enforcement” and its stormtroopers. I have dedicated the last few months of my work to amplifying and documenting this fight.
PORTIA: Despite the numerous deaths of unarmed citizens, massive public outcry, and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality against black people continues to escalate. Blacks cannot fight police brutality alone. We need the continuous support of every race especially from our white allies. Our white allies must muster the ongoing focus and turn the moment into a movement, into tangible outcomes in policing and criminal justice. When our white allies speak out on behalf of the unheard black people and communities the world pays closer attention, than when blacks are left to fight solo.
EZIE: My feelings amid the social unrest sparked by the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor? When will it stop?! Begs the question - does the latter portion of the pledge of allegiance, “One nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all,” apply to just some, not all people?!
PASCALE: Of course, I am saddened to see this type of things still happening. As long as the judicial system is not updated to fit a modern society’s expectations, nothing would change. Beside I do notice how these things do happen when the country needs division for some obscure reasons. We need to stop playing that race card trick. All of us.
How would you dismantle racism in your industry?
SEAN: Black people need to be in places of power in decision making in all of the industries that we contribute to and certainly those in which our culture is the main source of profitability.
PORTIA: The fashion industry can start dismantling racism by our white counterparts first acknowledging that racism exists then they must step up and speak up because racism is not a figment of black people’s imagination. Our white counter parts must pull the curtains back to reveal its true colors, that the fashion industry is still rife with systemic barriers for non-white creatives and executives from diversity on runways, behind the scenes at shows, photoshoots, to multiple missteps over cultural appropriation and racial insensitivity. Our white counterparts must realize that when they remain silent, they become part of the problem.
EZIE: Educate......Educate......Educate. The more we educate ourselves and others about race relations, cultural sensitivities and systemic racism, the better we get about fixing it for a better tomorrow.
PASCALE: Hard question, not sure I do have THE answer…if there is even an answer that would be satisfying. Racism is a social problem more than anything else. Obviously, having more black models on runways and magazines is not stopping it from going rampant within the industry. How do you address how black people, and their culture are being perceived as unattractive, unsalable? How do you want to start a conversation when nobody wants to listen to what you have to say or just look at you? Nothing will get better until black people start having more of that green power and can buy their way into it or creating their own universe. Green seems to be the color that levels everyone and everything up.
What are some changes you’d like to see in the fashion industry? How can they be implemented?
SEAN: Nepotism, lack of social responsibility, vapidity, and racism are pervasive, however, it would seem that the current climate is making for a reckoning within the industry. I suppose that we’ll have to see if lasting change has been begotten. Variety of background and experience in higher levels of management is necessary to make commitment to change consistent and non-performative.
PORTIA: Changes I would like to see in the fashion industry along with all other industries is the hiring of more people of color from the entry level to the boardroom, where a huge amount of the power is concentrated. I don’t mean a token hire where there is only one minority seating at the table but rather a table filled with a melting pot of individuals that resemble the colorful world that we all live in.
EZIE: More diversity overall. Accepting that designers don’t have to go the conventional route to become brands or household names. Creating more opportunities to foster new talent.
Rather than creating design competition, how about pairing rising talents with already
established designers, kind of like the Boys and Girls Club. The CFDA, fashion houses,
companies making a commitment to have more people of color at different levels in their
PASCALE: Another good question… what I would like to see is a fashion industry more involved in everything related to the preservation of energy, resources and more respect bestowed upon all the small hands (and more often than none the very small ones) working behind the scene, which allow this industry to exist in all its glory. Fashion is not meant to save us, but we, all together and by working in a concerted fashion, can save fashion… in the long run.
Photographer: Sean Waltrous @seanwaltrous
Fashion Stylist: Portia Chérie @stylistfaction
Designer: Esther Ihezie @ezieny_official
Makeup Artist & Hair: Pascale Poma @ppmakeup1
Model: Minnie Warren @sknnieminnie
Model agency: @newyorkmodels
MAO PR: @maopublicrelations