Gabriella Karefa-Johnson Wants to Change What Fashion Editorials Can Look Like
The stylist is already making her mark on the fashion industry with her joyous approach to photoshoots and style.
Here at Fashionista, we're passionate about covering all the ways that the industry is changing for the better. That's why we wanted to honor the forces working tirelessly to reshape what it means to work in fashion and beauty. With our new annual series, Fashionista Five, we'll be doing just that by highlighting (you guessed it) five people whose work we've admired over the past year.
At fashion shows, there's often an air of practiced boredom, with many attendees pretending like the events of the day are blasé, even an imposition on their time. It can be, well, kinda boring.
Thank god, then, for Gabriella Karefa-Johnson. The stylist instantly owns any room she bounds into, saying hello to the people she knows, smiling and cracking jokes with her signature, infectious laugh. Her own wardrobe is bright and sunny; she clearly enjoys the clothes while they're on the runway, too. She cheers on her model pals. And then, when the show ends, she's gone again, leaving behind the kind of joyous feeling that should always be present in fashion.
That happiness spills out into Karefa-Johnson's work for places like Garage, where she serves as fashion director, and Vogue, where she got her start under the legendary Tonne Goodman. (More on that later.) Her "Black Cotillion" editorial for Garage's Issue 16 remains one of the best — if not the best — that we've seen all year. It combined her love for the magic of fashion with her deep appreciation for Black culture.
"At Garage, I've been really lucky to have two editors-in-chief who were open to rewriting what our magazine is supposed to be," she explains. "What I took from that opportunity was, 'Okay, what does the fashion world need to be hearing? And what do I have to say that can fill those voids?' I think based on who I am and where our industry was going, in terms of the images we were looking at, representation became super important to me, and I figured out that it wasn't just types of people who weren't being photographed, it was that certain stories weren't being told."
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The power of storytelling through image is something Karefa-Johnson has intrinsically understood from a young age, when she figured out that her dream of becoming a Spice Girl wasn't going to work out. "I realized that maybe I don't have a good singing voice and maybe I don't actually care about music, I just liked the glam of it," she says with a laugh. Instead, she learned by watching women like her grandmother and her aunt, a former model and religiously reading Style.com and Teen Vogue. It opened her eyes to the world of fashion and clothes.
Then, like most of us who came of age during the era of "The Hills," Karefa-Johnson realized she could forge a career in fashion through internships. There was a disastrous stint at Showroom Seven, which officially put Karefa-Johnson off the PR path, and time spent with Miles Socha at WWD's Paris bureau, where she learned that maybe fashion writing wasn't for her, either.
"My very first day at Women's Wear Daily was the day after John Galliano had his meltdown at La Perle, and Joelle [Diderich] sent me to La Perle to report on it," she explains. "I was like, 'Guys, my French is bad, they're going to know who I am.' I sat down at the bar and I didn't speak French well, so I was clamoring, and he just knew that I was there to be a reporter, and he told me this long-winded story." That story, as it turns out, was completely fake and given under the alias of a French liquor brand. "Again, fashion news, not my thing," she finishes wryly.
But something that clicked almost immediately for Karefa-Johnson was an internship at Vogue, where she brushed shoulders with the likes of Grace Coddington and Anna Wintour.
"I worked my ass off," she recalls. "I got to go on all of these amazing shoots, and I realized I liked being a fashion editor; it was the best of both worlds. You really have to be analytical, you have to be connecting the clothing to what's happening in the world, there are stories that are told through clothing, but those stories are also reflected in who we are as people, what people want to be buying, and how we translate that to any reader in America — actually, in the world."
She didn't stay there; she worked under Joe Zee at Elle, where she experienced the celebrity world, and then with Wonderland's Julia Sarr Jamois, who Karefa-Johnson aptly describes as "so fucking major." However, a return to Vogue was always in the back of her mind. When a friend was leaving their job as assistant to Hamish Bowles, she jumped at the chance to get her foot firmly in the door at the fashion bible. Though she knew she wanted to be a stylist, she figured she could still learn a lot from him. It ended up being transformative for her career. "I just think there's a science and a history to fashion photography and pictures that you can only get to the heart of in journalism, and I didn't really understand that you could do both things until Hamish came around," she explains.
The only hiccup? At the time, in the culture at Vogue, Karefa-Johnson explains that you were either a "fashion girl" or a "features girl" — and she felt intimidated to try and make the switch to fashion when the time came. "I didn't think I fit into what that needed to be in that environment," she says. "I don't come from money. I'm not thin, I'm not white, I don't wear head-to-toe Celine. I will stick out like a sore thumb." (She adds that, thankfully, the culture is totally different there now.)
Karefa-Johnson pushed past her fears and landed a spot on Tonne Goodman's team; she credits Goodman with teaching her "literally everything" about being an editor. And while she ultimately left the Vogue nest to join Garage — she didn't see any step between her position as associate fashion editor and a stylist at Goodman's level and felt the time had come to try it on her own — she's still applying the things she learned from Goodman to her work today.
"What's so amazing is that [Goodman] literally invented a visual vocabulary that didn't exist; she's absolutely coined the voice of modern Americana. You know when you see a Tonne Goodman spread, it's going to be the crispest, cleanest version of what we think about how American women dress," Karefa-Johnson explains. "I learned all about using the tools in your arsenal to create a language that's identifiable for you but also speaks for a wider group of people and having the baseline tools of somebody who invented an idea or the visual communication of an idea."
Where Karefa-Johnson veers away from the work of her mentor is in trying to address what other, previously ignored groups of American women might look like. There's "The Cowboy Who Fell to Earth," her take on the Western trend for Garage, and the soul-tinged Vogue editorial "Get Ready!" She's taking the baseline of what she knows about fashion and filling in the gaps where she sees them, literally changing the landscape of what magazines can look like.
"If there's going to be a fat, Black woman who wants to spend $3,000 on Marni, you should probably photograph that woman in Marni in the pages of our magazine," she says. "I think sometimes it can seem gimmicky and like there's a marketing ploy in being inclusive and representational, but at the end of the day, I feel like any shift in the industry, whether it's sincere or not, is important."
Such work is not without its challenges, though. As Karefa-Johnson points out, luxury is still very much defined by one type of person — thin, white, straight. It makes her feel limited in her ability to style; while she wants to present as diverse a group of people as possible, she also doesn't want to settle for putting the plus-size bodies in fast fashion and vintage when everyone else is in fresh-off-the-runway ready-to-wear.
"You want that to be out there visually, but it shouldn't be at the expense of the person that you're photographing," she explains. "If I can't find samples that will fit them, it becomes a question of which one is more important: to make sure that this person is represented, or to make sure that they feel dignified and beautiful and all of the things that all other models feel when they're being photographed for a fashion magazine?"
And she knows, too, the struggles of making internal staff more diverse when the barrier to entry is often cost-prohibitive. She's aware that, as a plus-size, Black woman, she carries a certain responsibility to be representative of those communities. "I want people to know that if I'm working, literally anyone else can be working, because there wasn't a Black fashion editor that I'd look to when I was growing up — there was Andre [Leon Talley], who was amazing, but it wasn't a thing," she says.
But Karefa-Johnson doesn't want those things to define her or to define her work. She was recently signed by CLM Agency and has begun to take commercial jobs, like a recent shoot promoting Rodarte's collaboration with the size-inclusive Universal Standard. She wants to develop a visual language that is as signature to her as Goodman's is, and there's hope that maybe some day down the line, she can return to Vogue again. Ultimately, more than anything, Karefa-Johnson wants to keep making a career out of the thing she loves doing.
"Besides the fact that I would like to be some sort of change agent in terms of who we are photographing in fashion and how we're communicating luxury to a more diverse audience, the goal isn't that lofty," she says simply. "I just want to be doing what every other fashion editor I look up to is doing, which is creating work that I'm proud of in the moment, but that will also affect, in the long term, the history of print fashion publication. I want to be creating pictures that can exist in the canon, and I would like this moment in my career to be of pictures that are transforming that canon."
"I just want to be working consistently enough and creating pictures that are poignant enough that, to whoever's looking at them who might want to be a fashion editor, knows that it's fully possible," she finishes.
She may be early in her career yet, but for Karefa-Johnson, the future is looking bright. The fashion industry is just lucky to be along for the ride.
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