Posted by Irene Ojo-Felix | April 7th, 2017

There are few stylists in the world that have risen to cult status as swift as Julia Sarr-Jamois. Former model and current senior fashion editor at British monolith, i-D Magazine, the London based style star has charmed fashion enthusiasts worldwide with her bold textural aesthetic, signature gravity defying mane, and street style nerve. It’s easy to forget with all that personal flair and risk-taking that the editor holds no qualms applying the same rules to the people she works with. Aligning herself with the new age of photographic peers like Harley Weir, Tyrone Lebon, Oliver Hadlee Perch, Angelo Penneta, and Theo Wenner has launched a whole new aesthetic in intimate, contemporary imagery – one that’s undaunted in its pursuit of what’s next even if it pushes a few buttons. Her rise to top ranks and tastemaker status is a classic tale of how talent and hard work can make any dream possible. We spoke to the insider on how she started in the business, the female gaze, and her optimistic point-of-view when it comes to fashion.

Interview and text by Irene Ojo-Felix

LEFT: i-D Fall 2016 by Harley Weir | RIGHT: i-D Winter 2014 by Harley Weir

i-D has curated for over 25 years major content. They have such a unique, distinctly British point-of-view. I probably shouldn’t even say British as it’s not only.

It’s quite global really.

So I must admit, I follow your Instagram, and the story you did with Adwoa (Aboah) and that whole controversy of Instagram and Harley Weir.

Yes because she got deleted.

Quite hypocritical.

I know, it really is. It was the period picture that we did together for that issue. It was just so crazy.

I wonder if Instagram has a lot of women over there, to kind of give them that perspective.

The whole nipple thing as well, you’re just like…”really?”

But I’m seeing man penises on art. No deletion, no issue, but for whatever reason…nipples are where we draw the line?

Exactly! Sexualizing women all the time, where that was not, you know.

“…when we sat down we were like, there’s really not that many female photographers. Which is an issue.”

So when you first started, you used to model, and that’s how you first got hooked into the industry, right?

A friend of my mum’s worked for a fashion magazine in Paris when I was younger. My mum’s French, my dad is Senegalese, and I grew up in London, saw what she was doing and thought “this is interesting”. I wanted to be a fashion designer but back then I didn’t realize it was a job that you could really do.

Then I started attending art school, was modeling quite a bit here and there and realized that design wasn’t what I actually wanted to do. My brother’s girlfriend at the time was the editor of i-D so I spoke to her because I really wanted to get an internship and asked if she could help me. I hadn’t had any experience and it was supposed to be a 2 week placement but I ended up staying there for a year. It was a really fun time. I was working under Francesca Burns and Erika Kurihara who were the fashion editors there at the time and Holly (Shackleton), who is now the editor-in-chief, was there as well. Then, when Fran left to go to Love she offered me a job as her assistant. So, I left with her, worked there for a year and then I got offered a job at Wonderland to become the fashion editor there. Which was a really great experience as well as it really gave me an opportunity to just be an editor. It’s so different from being a stylist, which I think a lot of people don’t realize.

What’s the main difference?

When you’re a stylist you’re worrying about your own stories and ideas but when you’re an editor you have to think about commissions and putting teams together; you have to come up with editorial ideas and suggest people to feature. There’s a much broader range of things to do. That’s what I really enjoy about both. A past issue that we did, “The Female Gaze Issue” of i-D was really one of my favorite things to work on.

One of mine as well, such a great perspective.

Holly had the idea of an all female issue. There struck some challenges, because when we sat down we were like, there’s really not that many female photographers. Which is an issue.

i-D Winter 2014 by Tyrone Lebon

Paula Magyar
We talk about it in the office all the time.

Yes and we couldn’t just be like we’re gonna have this feature shot by a guy. Everyone needs to be female to get the perspective. Actually it was really good because it tied together a lot of different people. We gave younger photographers a bigger opportunity and it actually worked out really well. Brianna Capozzi shot Zosia Mamet and they looked amazing! Hanna Moon and Hari Nef. It’s a good time for female photographers. There aren’t many but the ones that are there have their own point of view and perspective.

What was the first initiation that made i-D delve into the issue of gender representation?

We very much wanted to do a cover with Adwoa and she had her Gurls Talk initiative so it was built around that. Holly then wanted it to be a female photographers only issue and get Inez & Vinoodh, Harley (Weir), and Letty Schmiterlow to shoot her – kind of like the establishment, the new establishment, and the younger generation of female photographic talent. I think it worked out so well, and to me got what i-D is about. It’s a balance between having those established, well-known fashion photographers and at the same time supporting the next generation.

As far as your perspective in the industry, what has changed from good or bad? Is there anything that you’ve experienced whether it be from an editor’s point of view or a stylist’s point of view, that you’ve noticed from your perspective?

I think it’s probably easier to get recognized for good work with social media. I also think it’s really hard to stay there because the pace is so quick now. I don’t do rushed editorials. I like to think of an idea and have time to discuss it with the photographer. I don’t want it to be like, “this is what we’re gonna be doing. Put it together in a week.” The costume design is so important to me. What I usually do at the beginning of the season is I start with kind of a vague fashion idea of what I want to do for a story and then I will say, this is the girl that I have to get for this story.

Bar none? Nobody else?

Yes, and so I’ll just say, this needs to be exactly what it’s like. I think it’s really important. Especially with i-D. Because i-D is all about the girls who have personality and who bring something about themselves into the story. i-D is about people.

i-D Spring 2015 by Harley Weir

Aya Jones
Favorite moments you’ve had working with them? As far as covers that you’ve done, or personal stories?

Yes, I think that the Adwoa cover was quite special because I’ve known her for a long time so it was great to work with her. I love working with Harley so much and it felt like it was really saying something. It wasn’t just like doing a shoot for no reason. It had a message, a strong message.

I also loved shooting Willow Smith with Tyrone (Lebon). She’s incredible and such a babe. I love her so much and she looks amazing in anything you put on her. Again it was just such a magical day as well. Then one of my other shoots that I would say is the Senegal one with Harley.

How was that experience? I mean, taking her to Senegal must have been epic. Where did you cast those guys?

We were there for a week and we did two stories. The Grace Wales Bonner fashion story and then a fashion story as well. It felt like a luxurious amount of time to do the amount of pages that we did. You know, some days we’d get like 4 pictures, other days we just did the whole thing. The Grace one we had someone research and cast them beforehand and then the other people we just drove around and asked, “do you wanna do a picture?” Just like that.

Normally for a shoot you’re used to a lot of production and having all the pieces together, was it frightening to just jump out there and street cast like that?

I think it is kind of hard to do it like that of course, but you kind of push yourself in that way, to get something more special. Harley and I had a lot of fun. Everything looks incredible there; I’ve always wanted to do a shoot there.

i-D Winter 2015 by Harley Weir

Senegalese Youth
You’ve surrounded yourself with amazing collaborators. You’ve mentioned Harley, you’ve mentioned Tyrone. These are kind of the people of the moment as far as fashion and art photography. How did that connection with you and them happen? Was it just an organic thing? I’m curious to see kind of how your energies drew each other to each other, because it seems so seamless the way that you guys work.

Tyrone, before we even started working together, was a friend of mine and I’ve known him for a very long time. I’ve worked with Oliver Hadlee Pearch as well and it’s the same. All of the people I work with are my friends so that’s why I think it’s probably worked. I think when I work with people who aren’t my friends, it’s probably not as good. I think it’s better when I have a relationship that’s more than work with someone, because you can be honest with them, you can have a conversation. It’s not like “this is work time”.

i-D has been one of the few publications that has really made sure that their digital presence is not secondary to their published work. Have you found with the invention of digital, it’s a help or a hindrance to the overall happiness here?

A lot of fashion is quite disconnected from it in a way. I feel like fashion was raised in a very small bubble because it’s all about access and how this new moment translates is still not clear. Like how doing an editorial translates to online. When it’s written, the content, totally but shooting an editorial specifically for a website – that’s what I mean about the disconnect that those big teams will go invest the money for an editorial but shooting something for a specific website. There are certain brands for who digital is not their priority at all. So I still feel like it’s very different than other types of industries like music, or film. I do think i-D has a really strong platform that was built very quickly.

LEFT: i-D Winter 2016 Cover by Zoe Ghertner | RIGHT: i-D Pre-Fall 2015 Cover by Tyrone Lebon

What is it about fashion that you find connects all of us? What made you fall in love with it in the first place?

I don’t know if it was a specific thing or if it all fell into place. Being a stylist is creative but also you have to be incredibly organized. You can’t just be good at one of them. There’s many elements and it’s the right combination of them to establish yourself. It’s really hard to make a new voice heard in the same way but I guess it’s the same for a designer when trying to do something new. I just knew I never wanted to do anything else. It just happened to work out. I could have been really bad at organizing.

Also, I’ve learned a lot of things on the job. Which is good, but sometimes it’s frustrating because when you make a mistake you don’t really get a second chance. You just have to be on top of it. Fashion is not very forgiving and very quick to forget! I think it’s good to push yourself as well. “Ok, I’ve done this. Try something else.” Try and do something you don’t necessarily do all the time.

How do you continue to find inspiration? Where do you find inspiration to keep going?

I had a conversation with a friend of mine about this before just referencing that. You see so many different things, all of the time but it’s more of a conversation about a character.

“Sometimes it’s good to just not be too planned and just let it go. That’s the thing, It’s hard to just like let go sometimes and let the creativity happen.”

Like a script.

Yes. Who is that? What are they going to do? Why are they doing it? Where would they go? Why are they wearing these clothes? What’s going on? Rather than like, “Oh look at this painting, let’s do something like that.” I don’t know… I think at the moment I’m interested in getting influence in building a character and coming up with a story.

That’s interesting because then I guess you don’t fall into the issue of doing something that somebody else has already done. It’s hard to find something you haven’t seen in fashion and as you know, photographers use other photographers as reference.

I mean referencing is good but at certain points we have to be welcoming and inspired by not just visual things. Inspired by your experiences and your surroundings, rather than just an image of something. “Oh I have this feeling that something is happening right now in the world” or “this is weird….how would that work as a story?” You know? It’s like a conversation. For example the shoot that Harley and I did with Adwoa, we didn’t think about anything. There was no visual reference. It was just like we had a conversation with Adwoa about what she liked, what she was thinking, and then we took some ideas from that. Then sometimes it’s good to just not be too planned and just let it go. That’s the thing, it’s hard to just let go sometimes and let the creativity happen. Rather than trying to force it into something like “we have to do this. This is what we’re here to do today.” I guess that’s just how I work. Whether it’s good or not. Sometimes I do like to use references but it really depends on the story and I never like to look at them. I’ll look at it only in the beginning just to get an idea then I won’t look at them again. I think it comes back to that thing where if you want to do something new you have to just trust who you’re working with.

i-D Fall 2015 by Harley Weir
That they’ll pick the right image?

No, that they’ll bring an idea in the moment. I think Olly (Hadlee Perch) is really like that. The same with Harley, she has that quality. It’s just very organic rather than being “this is the image”. And that’s why I like working with my friends. On some pictures it’s about the clothes. Like with Adwoa’s shoot, I wanted to do a power woman with big huge shoulders. That’s where it started.

So, you being based in London and working with a British publication, you clearly have been privy to all of the developments that have been happening in the London scene. What is it about London and its celebration of new talent that makes it so unique compared to Paris or even New York. What makes it unique in its point of view in fashion?

London is so big. The way it feels is quite suburban and everything is so far. It’s very tolerant of other people, I think. No one says anything to you, no one cares if you’re wearing some crazy outfit. Which I guess encourages people to express themselves more fully.

No, it’s never been about money. Creativity. It’s never been about the money.

I mean I’ve seen grandmothers with pink hair.

Yes but also with designers and artists, there’s always been a kind of quirky eccentricity. So I think a combination of those things. I think it’s all of those things put together. You can do what you want. Growing up in London you don’t ever feel like you’re trying to achieve something you can’t do. And it’s not about money. It’s a creative city and I think it always has been.

So you say it’s not about the money?

No, it’s never been about money. Creativity. It’s never been about the money.

So, can London sustain people? People come to New York because that’s where the money is at. How does that work in terms of London being the youngest fashion week and how did the most prolific designers come from its streets? It always seem like everybody leaves.

You know I think that maybe you’re right – you’re never going to make enough money to stay here…

i-D Fall 2014 by Harley Weir

Lindsey Wixon
But the pound is so strong! **laughs**

Yes, the pound is strong **laughs**. At the same time I always think if you’re doing it for the money, you’re doing it for the wrong reason. The money will come, you just have to do what you want to do.

Designers like Craig Green, Faustine Steinmetz, and Grace Wales Bonner have emerged from London but I’m always curious if there’s an initiative to find the next talent to represent London?

I think for i-D and you know, even for me as well, I really like to support talented young models. And I think with i-D we can do that, it’s what it’s about. It’s the same way we support young stylists, young photographers, young designers, writers. It’s really about having a place where people can really be themselves. Also, where you know you can’t tell a photographer- we want you to shoot this. It’s very free! It’s so open. If you come to us with an idea and it’s great it’s just a matter of actualizing it and it goes in the magazine.

For like a bigger book like Vogue or whatever it’s a completely different structure but it’s understandable because it’s a different type of magazine. And they don’t necessarily work with teams and things like that. They have established people that they work with. That’s why I like i-D because I feel like it’s a mix between the two, you know? We had Inez & Vinoodh shoot the cover, and then we had Letty (Schmiterlow) shoot the cover. No one else would take the risk and it paid off.

“That’s the most important thing, it has to be believable. Even if she’s wearing something crazy it has to be believable.”

This might be a hard question for you, but how would you kind of describe your aesthetic? What are you going for when it comes to the fashion, in the sense of the voice that you’re trying to put out into this sphere?

I like to create optimistic images. I won’t do something that feels to me like doing something crazy just for the sake of doing it – it has to feel right, it has to feel genuine. I think that is what I’m trying to do, is to create a real character. I feel like the work I do needs to be real. It needs to come from a real place. And I like the element of fantasy but it needs to still feel like it could be a real goal, in this fantasy world. That’s the most important thing, it has to be believable. Even if she’s wearing something crazy it has to be believable.

And it’s so funny that you say that, because I find that whenever I see you wearing street style you’re wearing amazingly bold outfits but they look totally believable, like “oh yeah, she can pull this off, she can pull this crazy green fur coat off”. **laughs**

Totally! When I was styling the Ashley Williams show, both of us said, “would you wear that jacket? Ok that’s good, that can go in.” And it’s not even necessarily about what I would wear because I’ve done so many shoots where I would never wear the clothes. I would never dress like that, I always wear jeans and color. All it is, is it needs to be a believable character. Even if there is something strange going on.

i-D Spring 2016 Cover by Harley Weir

Lineisy Montero
How would you like to see fashion evolve to dealing with diversity?

Here’s the thing, I think that for models, I do think that there is so much more diversity now than there was when I first started. I really do believe that. Girls like Imaan Hamman represent a modern, more worldly look to them. There are hundreds of different countries and I think that’s superb. To me embracing that is a more modern way of thinking about beauty. The one thing I would say is I feel as though behind the scenes in fashion the diversity is not mirrored. It’s also an issue, because if you don’t have diversity behind the scenes you can only go so far.

How do you support those faces, because some times you see great faces and then they don’t do so well. Is it personality?

Definitely. Some girls I work with would get so bored and it’s like when will this end? Probably not the right mindset. But if you like some of them you just want to do more and more shoots with them. You think “she’s so cool” and I want to work with them more.

In your experience how easy was it to break into those higher up positions in fashion? Especially as a woman of color?

Well I think no matter what it’s hard. Probably harder if you’re a woman and not like, “this” race. So, you can’t use it as an excuse because no one gives a shit. Once you’re in, just get the shit done and then you just go.

Do you have any muses? Is there anyone who you are always, constantly looking to for inspiration because of their spirit?

I love North West, she’s so cute. **laughs** And she just kills me with those looks!! Kills me!! Her outfits are just like …”fuck! That’s so good!”

Le Monde M by Oliver Hadlee Perch

Shelby Hayes
Is there anything you want to champion in the fashion industry?

i-D is a huge platform to talk about certain things. I think especially when I work with Harley, there’s always a message there. I think we’re always interesting with what’s going on in the world. When we did the Senegal shoot, there was like some backlash on Instagram, this girl was like “oh you’re exploiting these people, going there and taking pictures of them.” Just because this picture was taken in Africa you assume everyone in Africa is poor. #1. they’re not. #2. Do you think that this 16 year old model wearing this $20,000 couture dress can afford it? We paid everyone involved and asked them if they want to do it and they said yes! What’s the problem?

What’s the difference between going to the middle of nowhere in England and taking some pictures of who knows who? To me, it makes no difference. I guess that’s the other thing. Educating people. I think you can do that through images but also I think sometimes with certain stories, it starts with the fashion in mind but then it’s really not about the fashion. It’s about the final images.

Are you very selective in what you do, in that sense? Do you always find yourself trying to explore that personal element?

When I’m doing a story it’s very all-consuming. So I think about it a lot- all the time. Thinking about every exact thing I can do to make it feel real, you know? What’s that little twist I can give it?

But that’s why I love someone like Tyrone’s work so much because his work is incredibly personal. It’s him, completely. It’s hard because when you’re constantly putting that much of yourself in something, it can be quite draining.

When it comes to new collaborators, what do you look for in order to feel out if they’re the right one?

If I see someone’s work I think what would I do with them that they haven’t already done with someone else or hasn’t been done before? That’s the other thing, it’s much easier to work with new people because they haven’t done like a thousand things! **laughs** There are so many people that I love or I’m like “I like what you do with them, but maybe it wouldn’t work, maybe you wouldn’t have that same relationship.” It has to align as well because even if you admire someone it might not necessarily work.

Yes, definitely.

It’s so much about your relationship with the team. I think that everybody I work with has their own point of view and I don’t want to work with anyone that has a similar aesthetic. I think my work is very different with different people.

i-D Winter 2015 by Harley Weir

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2 Comments to “Julia Sarr-Jamois”

  1. Sam says:

    “There are certain brands for who digital is not their priority at all”

    Ha-ha. Let’s give it another 12 months.