fashion photographer and part time drag queen, Louie Banks talks fashion, empowerment and pride
Splashed in colour, tattoos, and peroxide in equal parts, 22 year-old Louie Banks has been on i-D’s radar for a while. Interviewing him three years ago, still in his teens, we expected great things and we haven’t been left wanting. Iggy Azalea, Daisy...
Photography by Louie Banks
Louie hands me his portfolio to browse through, it practically drips glamour. An irresistible aesthetic of luxury and confidence; plush fabrics, pink feather, silken gowns, rouged lips and skyscraper heels adorn its pages. However, even amongst the props, pomp and glitter, the models are the first to beam forward. Through each image of musician, fashion mogul and model, you can distinguish a glowing sense of an individual, and they become as empowered under his lens as they do beautiful. As a part-time drag queen and active member of London's gay community, beauty in self-expression seems to be as important in his work as it is outside of it.
Fashion is run by creative people and in the creative world there are a lot of people who are LGBT. They've had to have different lives and therefore tend to be a bit more open minded and forward thinking, which is why they strive forward in the industry.
'I like working with strong characters, making them powerful and making it look expensive and glamorous, that's the aim.' For such a young photographer, Banks seems to have honed a skill-set that uses styling, colour and ornamentation to translate as strength, beauty and power. For Louie, strength and power seem interchangeable with beauty: 'Recently I shot Pam Hogg, I absolutely love her. She's the perfect example of what I like to photograph. She's a strong woman, and has a fucking grit to her.' He tells me he avoids baby-faced models with shy demeanors. Drawn instead to the unabashedly bold, his typical sitters embody a mantra of 'powerful, fuckable and important'. His work is less of disclosing secrets, and more of telling powerful stories: 'A lot of the people I work with have strong identities, and have interesting things going on, and you try to put that across. I definitely look for those who have a uniqueness to them'.
For all the portraits of high celebrity Louie has notched up over his career, his shoots of his friends in drag often tell the most colourful stories. 'I enjoy photographing my friends,' he reflects, 'I know them so I can adapt and style them up using their personality.' He assures me his drag collection only touched on a few manifestations of gender-bending, though: 'there's a lot of different ideas of what drag is - some guys have a full beard and put a jock strap on and a wig and that's their drag and it's just a bit of fun. Some people take it very seriously.' Thumbing through his portfolio, a self-portrait of Louie wearing nothing but make-up and a wig falls out. Smiling he recalls his first flirtations with drag: forever being pulled onto stage at East London club-nights like Sink the Pink, and from there, getting more and more involved in the community. Louie is happy to share these tales candidly, but he insists not all queens are so open. He explains that even though a significant portion of the drag scene may be out the closet in their daily lives, they ensure their sequin dresses are kept behind firmly closed doors. In fact, many 'don't combine it at all', by day working as models or in the creative industries only to emerge beside East London's glitterati when night draws in.Louie suggests that, for some, discretion is a safeguard to their professional situation. On the topic, I ask tentatively why Louie has decided against adopting a pseudonym himself. 'A lot of people, including Glyn Famous, have said I should keep certain things separate,' he pauses, 'but then I thought why the fuck should I should I hide it. And why should it influence if anyone would book me for a job? I'm trying to incorporate it all together. I bring together models, influential gay men, trannies and influential women in my work. I'm trying to incorporate it all: music, fashion, performance. It's all art isn't it?'
Louie is an unflinching presence in a growing wave of LGBT creatives who are making their mark in fashion. 'There are so many transgender models killing it at the minute,' Louie exclaims. Transgender model and Givenchy's muse, Lea T continues to redefine what a supermodel can be, whilst Andrej Pejic walks international runways in both male and female shows. Louie speaks about his adoration for New York-based fashion duo The Blonds: '[they're] the most amazing designers, I love them. Phillipe Blond always finishes the show in a drag look and looks fucking amazing.' Asking his why there seems to be a flood of LGBT talent at the moment, he replies, 'fashion is run by creative people and in the creative world there's a lot of people who are LGBT because they've have had to have different lives and therefore tend to be a bit more open minded and forward thinking, which is why they strive forward in the industry.'
People from all round the country, even the world can come and experience gay culture in London and leave inspired. It's amazing when you see that. You think fuck yeah. Let's spread it.
Even with these few championing LGBT in fashion circles, it's unquestionable that this effort isn't universal. 'At the moment, there's a strong backwards movement against gay people in so many places and there's so much hatred and violence.' Louie refers to the policies in Russia that caused global controversy in the run up to the Winter Olympics. Elsewhere too there's a rising tide of state-sponsored homophobia. Only last week, Uganda passed a law that would impose life sentences for 'aggravated homosexuality'. The Gambian government has also toughened homophobic legislation by banning gay rights organizations. Closer to home, too, a LGBT group was attacked by a homophobic mob in Rome last week while, in February, 100,000 people protested against same sex marriage in France. However, Louie considers London as a tinder-box for progressive attitudes: 'people from all around the country - even the world - can come and experience gay culture in London and leave inspired. And it's amazing when you see that. You think 'Fuck yeah. Let's spread it.' Louie reflects that even with the gay community itself there's progress to be made, 'there's a lot of denial, there's a lot of seediness, and a lot of unprotected sex. People saying they're only into straight-acting people, which to me sounds like self-hating. So the drag community is all about shouting about what they believe in, but in a charming,funny way.'
When Louie drags up it's so he can 'bash out looks (he) would if you were a chick'. It's to enjoy being 'trashy-but-fashy' for an evening. But, as importantly, it carries a message. Much like his photographs, drag translates strength, power and individuality. 'It's not destructive; it's silly. Every time I come away from it I have a feeling about what you should be promoting in the world. You try and be as loud and as proud as you can. I feel like there's lots of that at the moment too, and it's growing and growing.'
Text Alice Lewis
Photography Louie Banks