Meet the Rising Leaders Taking Up Space with ‘Justsmile’

For many reacting to the year that was, creating the much-needed space for people of color was of utmost necessity. As the fashion industry has too-slowly recruited people of color into executive positions, enter Justsmile Magazine, one of the new pieces on the print board aiming to bring fun and family back into fashion. In the classic millennial way, editor-in-chief Kevin Hunter and creative director Bryce Thomas met virtually, at first, and eventually in-person in Sydney. They quickly bonded over a shared perspective on the fashion industry and a rising frustration over the lack of opportunities for people of color. The result was a year’s worth of work that kicked off in 2019, preserved through connections and the certain assist of ramped-up meeting technology. We spoke to the rising leaders about their new print venture, producing the behemoth project during a pandemic that limited travel, and what fashion needs right now.

How did you first land on the name Justsmile for your new magazine, and what inspired it?
Bryce Thomas – I was writing a list of possible names that we could call the magazine. I went to images of Kevin and my work together for inspiration since the title’s vision was based on values and aims we tried to achieve through editorial projects in the past. I came across a picture of Fiiel a young man we shot on one of our first shoots together; it’s a straightforward picture, all he’s doing is just smiling – and I wrote down Just Smile. When Kevin heard it from the list, he said: “that’s the one!”.

Why are your cover subjects perfect fits for your first issue, and how did you decide on that casting?
Kevin Hunter – The magazine is based around four values: Family, Uplift, Individuality, and Happiness. Antwaun Sargent, author of the New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion, uplifted the next generation of young black photographers with his book and I felt that to some degree, we both are aiming to share a similar message when it comes to supporting the next generation of Black and POC creatives. He is a longtime friend, and I always want to make sure his platform continues to be elevated and noticed. Ian Isiah has been someone I have known from my days of going out in NYC and, most importantly, his work with Hood by Air. Over the years, I watched his growth from designing to his true calling, which is music. His latest album Auntie was played a lot in the office when we worked on this issue, and I wanted to celebrate him, so I felt it was appropriate to put him on the cover. Additionally, he’s always been someone who embodies the idea of individuality, which is crucial to us at Justsmile. Seven, Tenzin and Christian, shot by Katsu Naito, was about me finding a way to incorporate the concept of family into a cover story. All three of them are skaters and have this common bond of skate culture, which connects them.

What challenges did you face in bringing this debut issue together? Also, how was it producing the issue from Sydney?
Hunter – The biggest challenge was not being able to physically meet with anyone who worked on the magazine. Outside of our editor and sub-editor, who were both Sydney-based, the rest of the team was NYC-based so we never got to all be in a room, throw ideas around, and discuss how to build the issue. Bryce and I took Zoom calls with each team member figuring out how we could best achieve the issue. We both put a lot of trust in the creatives and everyone on our team. We never zoomed in to any shoots. We let the teams build out their vision and just prayed that the imagery would come back according to how we discussed it. Producing in Sydney can be tricky because we are so far from the rest of the world and the time zones are not compatible with NYC or London, which is where we print the magazine. We went into this with a lot of naiveté, which worked in our favor. Most publishers want to be hands-on for us; it’s about researching, planning, and trusting everyone involved, then letting them do their job.

How has your perspective shifted as creatives during quarantine?
Thomas – I think quarantine and being stuck in Australia during the production of Issue One has made me take on the obvious feelings of being stuck, disconnected, and frustrated. But so many times, we would be put in touch or reach out to people and meet virtually and have the most lovely and warm video calls or emails with other creatives from all around the world. It has made me realize that you can genuinely forge meaningful relationships within these restrictions and that the world doesn’t have to be so disconnected.

Hunter – Being in quarantine made me slow down and think about what I wanted to say as a creative, how I wanted to use my voice to support others, and reflect on my time spent working in the industry. The reflections were a significant starting point for Justsmile. I knew this magazine had to be a space that was not about me and my styling work. I had to be a platform for others to express their concerns as artists.

With so many unknown factors in the world of print media, what pushed you to make your own title?
Thomas – Undoubtedly a love for the medium and industry. I think if you’re passionate about something enough, you’ll find a way to make it happen. I also believe that you only know if you try. I also genuinely believe there’s a vast audience out there of a diverse range of people who will genuinely be receptive to our values, perspective and appreciate a place outside Instagram or their phones to engage with people and ideas that they’re interested in.

Hunter – I felt like there wasn’t a space for black men, men of color, or a non-binary person in print within the luxury sector of fashion and culture. I did not notice anyone focusing on that audience and felt that I was a part of that audience, and I knew what I wanted to see in print media and decided to make it. I also felt that a lot of the imagery I saw was repetitive in print media. I wanted to produce imagery that felt inspiring and would bring emotion to people.

How did you two first meet and connect on this project?
Hunter – A modern-day digital link up on Instagram through a friend of mine living in Sydney at the time. We started hanging out and realized we both had commonalities when it came to creating imagery. We felt like an accurate representation of diverse cultures and communities was missing from print imagery in the Australian market, and we wanted to make those kinds of images. We never could express ourselves the way we wanted in other publications, so we decided to make our own.

Where do you think the industry needs to step up in terms of supporting POC creative talent?
Thomas – Globally speaking (and I think it’s tough to see from a public or media lens, but perhaps more evident when you’re recruiting within the industry), I believe certain fashion professions don’t have a diverse talent pool. I think companies at all levels in fashion should be fostering employees from different backgrounds in their teams. I think the creatives who aren’t in front of the camera have just as much importance as those who are. We should be seeing this reflected in education enrollments, corporate hiring, and agencies fostering and building up creatives to have a roster that reflects vast perspectives.

Who are creatives to look out for that have your support?
Hunter – Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. and Becky Akinyode created a story on black gay love, which I felt was important to share with our readers; Justin Mikhail Solomon, an artist based in St. Louis Missouri, who shot a self-portrait piece for the issue.

What are your plans for issue 2, and what do you think fashion needs right now?
Thomas – You’ll certainly be seeing issue two in 2021. As for our plans, we’re still in the preliminary stages. We try not to plan too far in advance, as we love to be responding to stories and ideas that are current and pressing. One thing I can say is that there are plenty of incredible creatives who were on board to contribute with Issue 1 but there were geographic and travel restrictions that prevented us from working together. So the shortlist is ever-growing. What does fashion need right now? More story, heart, and emotion.