Behind the Scenes of Vogue’s Diverse September Issue
I will never forget showing up to a decrepit old warehouse in Brooklyn in late May, out of shape from a month of traveling and with a swollen eyelid, looking like the polar opposite of the svelte women on the glossy pages of Vogue. I felt embarrassed, out of my element, and anything but glamorous.
And yet, I was there as part of a landmark shoot. For me and many millions of girls and women across America, Vogue’s September issue on globalism changed the game. For the first time in Vogue’s 126-year history, a black photographer, Tyler Mitchell, shot the iconic September issue cover. Beyonce, crowned in bushel of roses, reigns supreme over an issue that celebrates a new American ideal in beauty and business: the more color, the better.
The cover story on globalism featured a diverse set of 34 men and women — at my shoot, I met Sarah McNally, the fair-haired founder of McNally Jackson books, an iconic independent bookshop in New York City; young South Sudanese/Australian model Adut Akech (who hails from the same community as some of Samasource’s refugee workers in East Africa); and Paola Mathe, a Haitian-American creative director from Texas who started a popular head-wrap brand after coming to America as a teenager with nothing.
This is not the Vogue I grew up with, where brown bodies were scarce. It is also a defiant statement against the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping the country: here is the nation’s most iconic fashion and beauty magazine, telling the story of an America made stronger by people from every walk of life. And what’s more, stylist Camilla Nickerson chose brands that don’t commonly get much play in mainstream media — brands like Pero from India, which revives embroidery traditions and practices fair trade principles. I was proud to tell the makeup artists and stylists about our sourcing practices at LXMI: how we find rare botanicals that honor people and their relationship to local plants, and how we try to break the mold of mainstream beauty and skincare.
Though I wasn’t part of the fashion elite (I was wearing a pair of old jeans and a threadbare shirt I’ve stuffed in my carry-on about 300 times), the shoot felt…aspirational. As a first-generation brown girl from a poor suburb of Los Angeles who made her living in Silicon Valley, I felt seen and represented in a way I never imagined was possible for someone like me. I remember being embarrassed by my dry, ashy skin (like many people of color, my skin is adapted for more humid climates and gets very dry in most places I live and work), and feeling relieved that several other people there had the same issue. This might seem minor, but the long-term tally of these small details adds up, either to feeling like you belong or feeling like an Other.
Diversity and Inclusion is all the rage in Silicon Valley these days. We still have a very long way to go — to ensure that people from different socio-economic backgrounds are represented, for example, and to give voice to communities that are so often silenced by poverty. When I was invited to the shoot, it didn’t occur to me that it would be a political statement, or that it might tie back to my work as a tech and beauty entrepreneur. But the globalism issue struck my core, reminding me that at the end of the day, our job as entrepreneurs is to make sure our people don’t ever feel like an Other.
Leila is the Founder and CEO of Samasource, Samaschool, and LXMI, enterprises that #givework to low-income people around the world using cutting-edge social enterprise models, and the author of Give Work. To receive these posts directly via her newsletter, subscribe here.