Photographer Tyler Mitchell and designer Georgina Johnson are on a mission to reinvent how we see ourselves
Georgina Johnson, the young designer behind fresh label Laundry Service, and photographer Tyler Mitchell are on a mission to reinvent how we see ourselves. It’s a continuation of the self-love she promoted with her graduate collection lookbook, titled ‘Yellow Undertones,’ which questioned women’s fixation on constantly improving themselves. “This isn’t about shaming anybody before people get crazy,” Johnson reiterates, though – “I just wanted to question some women on how they feel about themselves.” As a black woman herself, she noticed that “there is so much inherent mess deep inside us that we don’t know what to do with.” Wanting to create a space to deal with this, the limits of a conventional campaign didn’t feel enough, so she began expanding her ideas into a zine, finding a natural partnership with Tyler Mitchell.
Having shot an imaginary world where black men are free to express themselves just as white men do for Dazed Digital last year, Mitchell has now turned his utopian vision to lensing Laundry Service’s self-love aesthetic – “inspired by black womanhood and sisterhood,” but represented in a way that still feels authentic to them both. “We wanted to make something that was unforced,” Mitchell says, “Our blackness is politicised and not just a side factor. It means a lot to us and luckily the fashion and art worlds can benefit from our voices.” Here, these perspectives come together in images that see Johnson’s bare-faced models, modelling designs draped in trees, softly lit in the light of the setting sun or against baby pink backdrops.
“We were tired of imagery that was too caught up in any sort of scene-y rat race, for sure,” he says of working with Johnson, wanting instead to “emphasise all (the) amazing points about black womanhood” in the darker political times we find ourselves in. It’s Johnson’s continued dedication to not playing to over-sexualised, fetishised presentations of black womanhood in mainstream media – sustained here by Mitchell’s eye for capturing a real narrative beyond Tumblr feed aesthetics. Blissfully unaffected and carefree, both Johnson’s designs and Mitchell’s images offer a positive expression of difference in an increasingly hostile world – we talk to the pair about what inspires them, how they came to work together, and how they see their zine growing.
Georgina, as a designer from London, what made you want to shoot your first large scale brand collaboration in New York City?
Georgina Johnson: Ha, I think it’s my character actually. I don’t do things by half – I knew that if I was really going to leap into this industry, I wanted to do it my way. I think young designers need to disrupt things, make some noise, shake things up. I’ve learnt to befriend discomfort – comfort is just gonna stunt you. That’s what it was about working in another city for me – it wasn’t really about New York. It was about growth and, of course, you were there Tyler. People there were really open to my work and just wanted to get me connected – that’s not the attitude I expect from people in the industry, but I was happily surprised. So that alone will bring me back to New York.
Tyler, what’s really important for you, when you’re working with people or considering doing so?
Tyler Mitchell: I always start by asking, ‘If I work with this person will it come off as organic collaboration?’ If yes, then it’s probably worth trying. Anything that’s forced won’t work. It’s very important to me to always be thinking big picture with collaborations: would this make sense and impact people?
“I’ve learnt to befriend discomfort – comfort is just gonna stunt you” – Georgina Johnson
Tyler, what do you like about Georgina’s work?
Tyler Mitchell: You know when you don’t have to force the right thing? Everything just comes out effortlessly at the right moment. That’s how her clothes feel to me. They’re effortless but have an arresting beauty. You can appreciate how they look and at the same time tell that they’re concerned with something greater than just surface beauty.
Georgina, what drew you to Tyler’s?
Georgina Johnson: Aww Tyler, Thank you! Umm, I think it’s because I felt like I got a picture of his personality through his work. I could feel his energy. Not in a psyche type of way, more so I felt that he would be fun to work with. His work is considered and bold but has this natural character. I think with Tyler especially through his Instagram, you immediately feel like “This guy doesn’t take himself too seriously”. Which is pretty perfect for me.
Tyler Mitchell: I’m also glad you think I don’t take myself too seriously! I think it’s amazing to be focused on making groundbreaking work but also, c’mon – be a person. We definitely laughed and had fun making this.
Was there any one story or few sentences for you that would sum up our collaboration?
Georgina Johnson: Special and honest. We were so meticulous. I think that it’s really easy to just say; ‘Right let’s shoot some cool stuff’, but we sat down with the girls, asked them questions, made sure they were comfortable with what they disclosed. I remember Ami saying it was the first time she’d felt comfortable shooting something like this, and remarking how she never saw herself as beautiful. I was like, man! I know that feeling so well, as I’m sure a lot of women do, but to create a space that someone can see themselves differently on is incredibly special.
Georgina Johnson: I think you definitely achieve intimacy and energy in all your work, both film and photo. How do you feel you’ve evolved?
Tyler Mitchell: Right now I’m extremely focused on shaping my voice and making it more mature. Years ago I was just snapshotting things around me. There’s something very pure about that too, but now I feel myself growing up, I guess. I look around at the great photographers working today and I envision myself being among them and earning my spot up there. So I’m studying everything and taking no prisoners. I’ve been studying magazine and book art direction and layouts. I’m evolving because I’m thinking about how to present my work too, not just shoot it and post it on Instagram. This is why I’m glad you and I get to collaborate on laying out our images with a zine.
“Honestly, when you’re black it’s important to create your own inspiration” – Tyler Mitchell
How do you think where you grew up has shaped or inspired you?
Tyler Mitchell: Honestly, when you’re black it’s important to create your own inspiration. Neither home nor school influenced me – directly at least. I left home to figure out who I was. And in a bigger sense, being black and with no family connections in the art world, I am constantly on an island of isolation creating worlds of inspiration around me. One day I might be inspired by Cuba and the tropics, one day it might be grungy New York. But I’ll always be inspired by where I’m going, not necessarily where I’m from. That’s why I feel a collaboration with this London based brand shows the global nature of today’s world.
Georgina Johnson: Yeah, Tyler is right. PoC experience the creative industries in a completely different way, or they simply don’t experience them at all. We lack representation across the board. It’s not okay to just have black models etc, so black folks are out here building for themselves.
Tyler Mitchell: Yes! And I think a lot of artists around us might not realise it but I think these factors that inspired us in our upbringing, they are now the driving force behind Georgina and my work. Our blackness is politicised and not just a side factor. It means a lot to us and luckily the fashion and art worlds can benefit from our voices.
Georgina Johnson: When did realise you were on an island Tyler?
Tyler Mitchell: It was the moment I looked around and thought about the people I look up to in my field and realised they’re all older and white. It’s an island but it’s not a divisive one. It’s an inspirational and aspirational one. We’re all people. Being on an island motivates me and makes me full of life.
Georgina Johnson: Yeah it’s that energy, it’s really obvious in your work! I think where I grew up inspired me to want more, creatively. I didn’t feel as though I was made for or fit into my area. Though I’m glad that I’m from where I’m from because it gives me perspective. Nothing is particularly easy, nothing’s given to you. It’s not the reality a lot of folks in the art and design world navigate. It’s certainly not a reality majority of art kids now. I didn’t – and, to be frank, still don’t – see myself represented in this industry on a foundational level, so I inspire me and the people around me do, and my area humbles me.
Can you talk about the zine?
Georgina Johnson: The zine is a response to the conversations we were having with the women involved in the campaign, that includes, models, assistants, creative friends etc. It’s a response to the questions asked and answers received. We wanted to show the process, our thoughts behind the campaign. We really just want to build a picture. A cacophony of texture and colour and vivid imagery to delight your eyes, and words and truth to wash through you.
How did the idea come about and what are you working on?
Tyler Mitchell: After many deep conversations with Georgina it became clear what we valued and what we didn’t care for, and I think it felt important to make a zine to push the idea that this campaign is a world people can immerse themselves in. Our collaboration was a process and the zine will be a look at the thoughts and concepts that went into the campaign. Those thoughts felt important to let people in on.
Georgina Johnson: Both me and Tyler thought the work was worth stretching. I think sometimes there is a disconnect between the audience and work, as it can be seen solely for promotional purposes, people just see it as surface. In my mind, if something isn’t really connecting with somebody on some level, what’s the point? We had a story to tell.
“I wanted to see how these girls felt about their place in the world, and how they felt they were viewed in light of the lens the world puts WoC under” – Georgina Johnson
Tyler Mitchell: I always find it so rigid that a brand thinks they should only release the campaign images and that’s it. Zines, books and other materials of this special project nature have always engaged me more! I’m so glad you and I got to make one.
Georgina Johnson: Totally. What about the story we’re telling do you value?
Tyler Mitchell: I value this project’s ability to hopefully reach anyone and allow them to imagine new ways in which they can self-express. I like to think people will see this project as a breath of fresh air in their otherwise constricted lives. Let’s see if that really happens, though. I would just like to continue making images hopefully they incite feeling or leave people wanting more.
Tyler Mitchell: If Laundry Service were given the opportunity to create any sort of special project in the world (our zine aside, of course) what sort of project would you do?
Georgina Johnson: Wow, that’s a big question. I can’t think of one project in particular but, I want to work with a bunch of people from different disciplines such as architecture, sculpture, conceptual art etc., on collections and presentations. Laundry Service as a brand is about the marrying of art and design. Any project that includes these things and tackles something new, I’m with!