the magazine changing how black creativity is showcased
From cover to cover ‘Neu Neu’ puts black talent in the spotlight both behind and in front of the camera.
Photography Ronan Mckenzie. Fashion Editor Justin Hamilton. Make-up Lai Zakaria. Hair Nadia Hassan. Production Harry Fisher.
In recent years, you’ll have noticed an increase in discussions around the need for truly diverse representation in fashion -- there’s a good chance you’ve taken an active part in them yourself. It’s arguably because of this call to action from the public that we’re now seeing such a positive shift in the range of ethnicities, body types and gender identities on runways, in campaigns and in the pages of magazines. But while we’ve certainly come far when it comes to broadening representation in front of the camera, what do things look like when the lens is turned on the teams that stand behind it?
While the imagery put out by both brands and publications makes slow-but-steady progress towards mirroring the reality of our melting-pot communities, a peek behind the scenes shows that this isn’t necessarily reflected in the teams making that imagery. It’s often situations like these that lead to gaffes and outright scandals that would probably have been easily avoided if there had been any real diversity among the people making the executive decisions. “The problem is that a lot of these places are primarily made up of white European contributors,” explains Alexis Noelle Barnett, the founder and editor-in-chief of Neu Neu Media (pronounced ‘new new’), a New York-based digital and print platform showcasing the best of black fashion creativity worldwide. “A lot of the time, they don’t even understand where the influences and trends they reference, like the phrase ‘on fleek’, for example, come from.”
Frustrated with seeing blackness misrepresented and tokenised in front of the camera, and a worrying lack of blackness behind it, Alexis founded the platform as a means of demonstrating the full potential that comes when black creatives are given the space to collaborate, from writers to photographers; graphic designers to stylists. “It’s important to have a space where young black artists can see themselves,” they continue, “especially in an industry like fashion, Neu Neu is a magazine really about inciting change and showcasing the work of our community.”
Don’t make the mistake of placing Neu Neu in the ‘by us, for us’ category though: while its glitzy roster of contributors lies at the heart of black creative communities, both their networks and audiences extend far beyond. For the upcoming print issue, Alexis chose music as the harmonising theme, bringing together figures as prolific and diverse as Dev Hynes, Telfar, Martine Rose, and BbyMutha. If that doesn’t whet your appetite, we don’t know what will.
What led you to choose music as the theme of this issue?
I think putting together a music issue definitely presents a certain kind of challenge. Musical artists are so hard to nail down, but Dev was actually one of the first people we confirmed for this issue, which made me want to really push the music theme.
Also, the music industry, especially rap and hip-hop, has always been the driving force of what’s cool, even outside of fashion. There’s a deeper form of identity that stems from music, but it really wasn’t until quite recently that we saw more mainstream publications adapting the “black fashion” associated with it in a way that wasn’t just appropriating our culture. And a lot of mainstream content really originates from black spaces. It's kind of like that scene in The Devil Wears Prada when Miranda talks about the origins of the colour blue… If you look at a lot of silhouettes, art direction, styling references in these predominantly white spaces, you can often trace it back to rappers in Atlanta circa 2004, for example.
Are there any stories that you’re particularly proud of?
Dev’s cover story is definitely one of my favourite written pieces in the issue. It’s just a transcript of him and Zuri Marley talking about everything, from total gems about his creative process to his skincare routine -- stuff that just makes it fun. So much time and money goes into what I’m doing, and I do it because I want to, so it’s always really rewarding when I have people like Dev be a part of it.
BbyMutha’s cover story was another highlight. I’m a huge fan of what she represents; she’s a working black mom who’s open about her sexuality and what she has to say. And she’s just a really nice, cool person; her energy is really incredible. I think it's important to include both the Dev Hynes and BbyMuthas of the world, as what they both have to say is equally impactful.
You’ve previously spoken of how Neu Neu is placed in the ‘by us, for us’ category. Why do you think black creatives are often pigeon-holed as only creating for one another?
My key word here is laziness. It comes back to publications not being fully able to communicate black culture -- because they don’t have black people on their teams!
It’s about time that black creatives, especially those that don’t enjoy the limelight to the same degree as others, are showcased. It’s a matter of pushing for accurate representation, and that starts with the story that you’re trying to tell and how you’re going to tell it: how will you ensure that the people on your team have an accurate sense of what that story is? Where are the references from? Where and how did that story originate? It doesn’t just come down to having black people on your team. There are so many articles about how black kids are the most influential people on the internet -- they have so much impact and influence on our culture and there’s so much value in that. We’re still at a point where we’re trying to get people to see and understand that value, by putting them both behind and in front of the camera.
The creatives profiled in this issue of Neu Neu are based across a range of locations. How important was it for you to broaden the conversation beyond the London-New York-LA axis that’s typically in focus when discussing black creativity?
Well, to be honest, when I’m thinking about who to feature in an issue, it literally comes down to who I like and who my friends like. For example, we had the opportunity to interview a really big artist who ended up winning a Grammy this past award season. Sure, she would’ve been a big name for us, but it didn’t really make sense because my peers and I didn’t listen to her music.
It’s really a matter of staying authentic to myself, to my peers and to my community, as there’s already so much diversity within it. I spent three years at school in Paris, many of our contributors, and a huge chunk of our fanbase, are based in London and my community and I are here in New York, so these places are often starting points. But then there are friends elsewhere who love people in different places. One goal for me is to be able to really branch out and do shoots in some of them. For example, BbyMutha’s based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and next issue I want to be able to go to a place like Chattanooga and really spend time finding black artists and contributors that can work out of a place like that.
And it’s also about bringing in a worldly view, as there’s so much diversity within blackness -- we’re spread all over the world, doing really incredible things. Like in Lagos or Johannesburg -- I really want to platform the talent there as much as I can.
What ultimately sets Neu Neu apart?
The fact that it’s not part of this current trend of being overtly political. Instead, it’s a space I created because I wanted to share my point of view. It just happened to be the case that my blackness and the culture I’m a part of are so intertwined. This community I’ve amassed of black creatives from around the world is really just a result of the diversity of the people, their lives and interests, that I’ve naturally surrounded myself with.
I think the reason for publications and designers to include black women, or trans women, or plus-sized women should be because the people within them are surrounding themselves with those people in a natural manner, rather than just for the sake of being able to tick a box. It should be much deeper than that.
What would your advice be to young black creatives looking to carve out their own niche in the industry?
Success can really be as simple as doing whatever the fuck you want and just being confident in it. I didn’t know how to start or run a magazine, or how to even print one, before I started. I did my research and took the initiative to create a space I was confident in, and from there we’ve been able to garner a very genuine following. I’m very grateful that people see the intent behind what we’re doing. So, yeah, definitely be confident.
Also, learn how to write an email! You aren’t gonna get into this industry if you think that all it takes is writing someone a passive sentence in a DM. You really need to be able to sit down, write an email, introduce yourself, and really take the initiative to seek out who you want to speak to and tell them why you deserve to be a part of something.