Coming out of 2020, many of us were woken up and resolved to build our own future – to create brands that belonged to everyone and support platforms that served everyone, rather than relying on established institutions. to deliver the same exclusive content we’ve grown accustomed to. . And while it may seem counterintuitive to launch a magazine in the 2020s, for Kevin Hunter and Bryce Thomas, just smile – an independent print publication dedicated to amplifying the voices of BIPOC – was a no-brainer.
Coming from professional backgrounds as a stylist (Hunter) and photographer (Thomas) for clients such as Farfetch, QG Australia, and Squire, the duo witnessed and experienced first-hand the exclusionary practices of the fashion and creative industries. Swearing that change when it comes to diversity and inclusion should last beyond the release of a black tile, they set out to shape a future where diverse stories don’t just contribute to a quota, but rather occupy every page.
Now two numbers in, just smile has previously featured cover stars like Vince Staples, Antwaun Sargent and Ian Isiah (in Hood By Air, Head to Toe). The magazine was co-authored by the late Virgil Abloh, along with Tremaine Emory, Jason Rider and Highsnobietyis Corey Stokes own. This speaks to how ready the community was for an opportunity of this nature.
Shortly after the release of just smilewe spoke with the New York-based co-founders to learn more about the passion that drives the magazine, the commitment needed to create an independent publication, and the community that keeps it all coming together.
You previously described the magazine as living at the intersection of fine art, fashion, ideas and inclusivity. How did you arrive at this editorial perspective for the magazine?
KEVIN HUNTER: I think we just wanted to make a post that we felt connected to. There are so many stories to share, especially from the perspective of black artists and POC, so we wanted to give them their own voice in an unrestricted post. How did we land here? Because we are into these things… culture, art, fashion, so it was natural to focus just smile around what we value.
BRYCE THOMAS: Even thinking back to before starting just smile. As individual creatives, we have these different communities, whether it’s with beautiful artists that we follow, or other creatives like photographers, writers, or stylists that we used to know. We had so many of these people that we looked up to and whose work we respected, but we often found ourselves asking, “Why aren’t these people mandated?” There are so many potential creators and contributors of different voices that we thought we had a platform to tell their stories, and so it is just smile came about.
The response has been amazing, with people posting about it all over the world. Even Virgil Abloh posted a photo of number one. How does it feel to see people’s reaction to this thing you’ve created?
HUNTER: Honestly, I’m shocked. All the time. Maybe because my world is so insular and I only focus on creating it, I don’t look at what’s going on around me. So when other people talk about it or when I hear other people talk about it, it shocks me. But I think it’s great. However, what excites me the most is the artists in the magazine getting more people to notice them. That’s what’s most important to me. The post is not about us, but about everyone included in it.
Absoutely. It’s amazing that you are able to provide a platform to foster the recognition of new voices. I think the reception highlights people’s thirst for a publication like “Justsmile”. Just today you mentioned that Samira Nasr (Editor of Harper’s Bazaar) picked up a copy of issue two this week. He’s someone who works in the same world as the two of you, and that’s clearly something even she craves.
HUNTER: Yeah, like I said, I’m just happy that the artists we feature, ranging from Lauren Halsey to Umar Rashid, are recognized by people who buy the magazine and are noticed.
Having worked in fashion and photography, before launching the magazine, and even now that you are two issues away from “Justsmile”, what are some of your first-hand observations on the state of diversity within the creative industries ?
HUNTER: When I started, about 13 years ago now, there were not many people who looked like me. And now I notice a lot of these big publications saying they hire black staff and people who look like me. But one thing that’s important to note is that it’s not just about having people of color as editors or fashion directors. It’s really important that we have Black and POC editors and work on the publishing side. We need people of color on the boards of these big companies and publications because that’s where the changes start. It’s not about starting at the bottom. We have to change from top to bottom.
THOMAS: There is certainly still a lot of work to be done. A lot has happened in the wake of the murder of George Floyd where fashion brands and publications want to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and represent the talent and stories of POC. But despite everything, even while making this post, we met several contributors who have never been published before and who have done an exceptional job. So, as a note to any legacy publications or major brands ordering, black or POC creatives: don’t just include the famous ones.
Well said. Usually it’s the emerging artists and voices that really open up new creative horizons. Historically, I think the lack of diversity and inclusion in the arts is a result of exclusionary thinking. But these days it’s more a lack of imagination or effort to seek out these new voices. And obviously that’s what ‘Justsmile’ is trying to address. I wonder though, in the context of creating a publication dedicated to championing marginalized talent, are there any other learnings or practices that you have implemented that you would like the industry to take note?
HUNTER: For us, everyone’s voice counts. When we reach out to artists, we want to hear what they have to say. However they want to tell the story, however they want to create it, we’re here to make it easy. We are not here to put constraints on anyone’s work. We are there to allow them to be fully themselves and to bring out their ideas. When you give talent a platform, you have to step into their world. With just smile, our world is there, but we allow you to create in this world and you don’t have to change yourself to be in this world. And I think when you look at other titles, it’s about fitting into their world.
THOMAS: Number two is called “Together in the Fold,” and it’s about how different artists interpret ideas around the theme of community. And for so many feature films, we’ve been able to say, “What couldn’t you say somewhere else? or “What are you thinking right now?”
HUNTER: When we work with artists, we realize that they feel comfortable sharing certain stories in this space that they would not feel comfortable sharing in other spaces, because these other platforms can not understand them. So back to your question: I would say it’s about allowing artists to be themselves. Allow them to share, to tell the stories they want to tell, and not try to fit them into a box.
The second issue, “Together in the fold”, focuses on family and community. How were you able to incorporate these themes into this issue? Community in particular is one of those buzzwords that has been diluted by marketing over the past couple of years. I’m curious what it means for “Justsmile” to responsibly engage with marginalized communities, and what does it mean for you to create your own community?
HUNTER: When we look at the word “community”, it is really about finding authentic communities that are in our world. Moreover, in everything we do, there is an intention behind it all. We did a story in Los Angeles called “Regeneration”. The photographer, Barrington Darius, and the stylist, Tamia Mathis, are both from Los Angeles, and they each have their own communities that they are part of in Los Angeles, which intersects with all the feature film talent that is all based in Los Angeles. . It’s just about being authentic in how we represent the community and not forcing it.
THOMAS: This also goes back to what Kevin was saying about our approach – allowing the artists to define this for themselves and not having too much of a premeditated idea of where the story might go. We worked with Julius Fraser, a young photographer in New York on a story called “Searching for Blue” – and again, this was a collaboration between him and the stylist, Ian McRae. They have so many friends in the story, people they work with, friends on the internet, friends in real life, people they see all the time – they threw this together and it was a truly amazing approach that shows how a community come together to tell a story.
HUNTER: With “Searching for Blue,” what’s so important to note is that everyone in this story is the people everyone will be talking about in the next four to five years. They are stylists and photographers, and artists of all kinds that in a few years you will recognize among just smile.
I imagine there will be so many instances where everyone shows up to a “Justsmile” set and knows each other in some way.
HUNTER: This is what is important. That’s what we want. We want everyone on one just smile be comfortable for them to do their best and create work that inspires them and will inspire generations to come.
I’d like to end by asking a question you posed in your “Touch Base” column in issue one… What’s the one thing that has made you smile lately?
HUNTER: Seeing my family recently really made me smile! I got to spend some time in Virginia, and it was so special because I hadn’t been able to see them for so long!
THOMAS: For me, it was yesterday at Casa Magazines and Ali, the co-owner, was there making all these jokes, people asked him why he was so funny, and he said “just smile”. That’s what we have to do, make people smile. It was really a great moment.