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Eric McNealIndependent Artist

New York, US. September 21st, 2020

Interviewed by Alexei Key

Photographed by Justin von Oldershausen


 

I was introduced to the world of fashion by being around musicians and artists all my life. These were people who cared about how they presented themselves, and did it in a way that told story. I was first drawn in by their freedom of expression, and that’s how I’ve always approached my work. I always ask clients when starting a job, how do you feel? What do you want to say today? And, we create the story from there.

As an artist, I really like to collaborate on all aspects of whatever project I’m working on — from styling to image-directing to casting. I think the title of stylist can often be really restrictive, because so many of us go about our work in a more holistic way.

The first style memory I had growing up was of my aunt Geneva, who had an atelier where she would make prom dresses for all the girls in the community. The way these girls would light up when they put on the finished garment is something that has always stuck with me. Prom was such a big moment for them, and here was my aunt, swooping in with gorgeous gowns to make these beautiful young women feel their best. That’s when I realized the full transformative power of fashion.

Being an assistant and deciding it was time to go out on my own was a huge career turning point for me. I knew I had already become so much more than an assistant, so I felt ready. But, you’re never really ready to make a leap like that. When I went out on my own, Joan Smalls played a huge role in helping me find my footing. She reached out before anyone really knew I was out here on my own, and we’ve been working together ever since.


The American, Also show by Pyer Moss was definitely another big moment for me. I think that was the first time I really felt seen by my peers. For Kerby and I, just seeing our work on the show how it impacted the people was incredible. To do the show in Weeksville, which is where I’m from, and seeing the people from our community impacted in real time — it felt really liberating and it’s something I’ll never forget.

I feel I’ve evolved a lot over the years as a stylist and in a positive way. I think a lot of it can be attributed to the amazing people I’ve been around and assisted — people like Jason Rembert and Memsor Kamarake and Kerby Jean-Raymond.

I really honed my skills, got in touch with my own aesthetic and figured out how I work best during the years that I assisted for Jason. When the time came, he was also really supportive of my decision to go out on my own.

Memsor helped me realize the full scope of what a career in styling and fashion could be. Seeing how he moved and worked, I found there’s so much more to it than styling — it’s fashion directing, it’s creating imagery.

Kerby is my brother, but working with him, especially during the American, Also and Seven Mothers campaigns, transformed what the industry means to me. Fashion is ultimately something that’s elitist, right? But, we managed to bring fashion home to our people, to our community, and that humbling mindset has really shaped how I approach all my work.

The most challenging thing I have faced in my career is racism in the fashion industry. There are over- and undertones to this. Some of it is blatant; some of it is isn’t. But, it all boils down to the issue of race and how my people are often not acknowledged or appreciated for their talents because of the color of their skin. We put in the work, but rarely see the same sort of payoff as our white counterparts do. There have been some promising changes made in this industry and others, but there is still so much work to do.

Fashion is built on an elitist fantasy, one that doesn’t truly believe black people and people of color belong. I think once we dismantle the idea of fashion as a fairytale fantasyland, we’ll be able to acknowledge the reality of racism and the inequality within it. I think we need to create a space that everyone feels comfortable and seen in — a “fantasy” where everyone is invited to participate. We have to make fashion a holistic representation of the world we actually live in.

To me, the key to a successful collaboration (like any relationship!) is communication. My bond with all my clients is deep and something I try really hard to foster. I could have a fitting that lasts hours where we reflect on how we’re feeling and the specific intentions around what we’re trying to create. It’s like therapy! The best work comes out when you break the creative process down this way. First and foremost, I like to show up on set as human being, more so than as a stylist or an artist — one that’s really vulnerable and is there to create meaningful relationships with everyone he works with.

My personal style is really simple for the most part. I really believe in uniforms and am obsessed with Japanese design and quality fabrics. My favorite brands are Lemaire, Engineered Garments and Bode. I always dress for the ease of life, so I will often focus on same silhouettes or the same piece in different colors. My style is very subtle for the most part. A lot of my personal style is influenced by my childhood summers in South Carolina and how my granddad would dress — clean, simple and subtle, but with so much quality and detail.

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I am really inspired by the work of architect David Adjaye. I think he’s a visionary. I love everything he’s worked on, from the Sugarhill development in Harlem to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. He’s reimagined all these spaces in a way that is iconic. Also, I’m really into typography and graphic design. Tal Midyan is a creative director friend of mine who helped develop my website for over a year and I learned so much about typography from him through the process. The way that people like Tibor Kalman and Saul Bass shape the way we look at brands through graphic design is also something I find really inspiring.

Styling is really just one facet of my creative work — there’s so much more to it than that. Styling is an outlet that had always felt right to me and first allowed me to navigate my own creative expression. It allowed me to create narratives, build people’s confidence and by extension my own as well. Now, when working on a project such as directing or designing costumes, I bring that same confidence with me and allow it to guide me.

There are several people I love collaborating with. Paloma and I have always had a good time when we create together. We’re just like two kids playing with clothes and discovering new things. It’s a lot of fun. We also have a deep bond and a friendship that I think lends itself well to doing great work.


Everything I do with Pyer Moss and Kerby is great because it’s my family. Our bond is so deep and we are of like mind on so many things, which really allows me to do my best work.

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Pyer Moss by Julian Burgueño

I also love working with Aurora at Brother Vellies. We’ve been re-contextualizing the concept of an American luxury shoe brand, which has been a very interesting and beautiful experience for me. She is so honest in her approach and I work the in the same way, so we blend so well in our intentionality.

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Brother Vellies by Adrienne Raquel

Aurora started the “15% Pledge” which has been really transformative, and not just for the fashion industry. You should all know, but for those of you who don’t, the pledge calls on retailers to dedicate a least 15% of their shelf space to black-owned businesses, and it encourages individuals to examine their own spending habits. This initiative is exactly the kind of challenge that we need, and for a long time have needed, to the “business-as-usual” status quo.

Disruptive is an understatement when it comes to how this year has impacted fashion! But, that’s what creative industries are meant to do — challenge norms and bend rules that have been in place for a long time that need to be questioned or looked at from new perspectives. Perspectives that haven’t been acknowledged or respected before. I think all of that is really important.

The most important thing I’ve learned in my career so far is that practice and observation are everything. I have assisted so many amazing stylists for so long before I went out on my own. They guided me, mentored me and really showed me all sides of the industry — the good and the bad — and taught me how to navigate them. Mentorship is so critically important for anyone going up the ladder. Through the process of assisting and being mentored, I was able to establish the type of artist I wanted to be and when it was time to go out on my own, I was ready and felt fully assured that I was making the right move.

I feel my most creative when I’m at rest or in a peaceful state, like after I go on a hike or have spent time in nature. I find that in the moments when my mind and heart are both relaxed, I derive the most beautiful concepts and ideas.

The best way to describe my aesthetic is intentionality. I try to be intentional about every choice I make. In approaching my aesthetic this way, the output always feels right and connected to me and the person with whom I am working.

Lockdown has obviously touched on every aspect of our lives and our work. We’ve all been taking a step back from how we normally operate and have been looking for new ways to get things done or connect with loved ones, and all that. All of this has been really challenging, but I think I’ve gotten into a groove now.

I’ve done some remote work, including the shoot I did for Brother Vellies with Anok which I’m super proud of. To get together with that team, who are like my family, really, was empowering and fulfilling and was just such a bright light in a challenging time. I styled and image-directed that shoot from FaceTime, which was certainly new for me! But, the end result was even better than I could have imagined. Now that things are starting to open up again, I’ve been back on a few socially-distanced sets in full PPE — the face masks, the gloves, all that — which is also new, but so vitally important for everyone’s safety.

Outside of work, I’m really passionate about mental and spiritual growth. I love meditation. It’s something that I rely on a lot in my work, too, especially when preparing for a big, high-profile job. It helps clear the mind and set the right intentions.

I have a few projects and collaborations coming down the pipeline that I’ll be really excited to share once they’ve come to fruition. But, something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, is how to bring people along with me. How to involve my community in the journey. For me, it’s about more than just having a seat at the table — it’s about owning that table and playing host to it for other deserving people, other black creatives. That’s what’s I feel is next for me.


ERIC MCNEAL