After A Collab at Louis Vuitton, Poet and Activist Kai Isaiah Jamal Continues Breaking Boundaries

In the year since what may have been the last-ever traditional Paris Fashion Week last March, designers large and small have pushed their creative limits to reinvent the runway format, offering everything from standard look books to socially distanced events and multimedia presentations to present their latest designs. Those with the energy and budget to spare have produced lavish videos, encapsulating much of the show experience in a few short minutes of glowing pixels. Louis Vuitton’s Fall 2021 men’s collection, Virgil Abloh’s sixth since taking over as artistic director, was a celebration of the travel and exploration that have been denied to so many of us over the past thirteen months, but it also offered a more interior journey for one of the models, Kai Isaiah Jamal, who became not only the first Black transgender man to walk for the house but also, as a poet, narrated their own words over the soundtrack alongside Saul Williams and Mos Def. “It was really amazing to work alongside Louis Vuitton because they are very established and well-known. They’ve been one of the traditional brands that we’ve seen for years,” Jamal, who prefers the pronoun “they,” says, “and having Black queer and non-binary input into this really changed the game.”

“I think as Black people and as trans people and as marginalized people, the world is here for our taking, for it takes so much from us,” Jamal intones in the video, a reclamation of space, identity, ownership, and culture that has been wrested away over the course of centuries of white supremacy. Their involvement is a reflection of two continuing trends in the modeling industry, the first the celebration of models as people with interests, passions, and talents of their own, rather than the clothes hangers of old; and the second, the more recent uplifting of individuals representing a new diversity, from age and race to body shape and gender identity. “That was the most humbling part of the whole experience, the fact that I could see that I was not just there as another body,” Jamal elaborates. “I was really there to platform what I identify as and the worlds I’m in, therefore it was a really monumental moment. Being able to be the first Black trans model to walk for such a large, established brand is really proof that we are moving things forward into a more progressive and more current and relevant showcasing of this industry.”

Jamal’s performance in the Louis Vuitton video was a breakthrough moment, but it was also just the latest step forward on a path that has been years in the making. After first discovering the Romantic poets in school, they began to recognize a synergy between their struggles with their gender identity and their creative interests. “It was the first time that I could understand the freedom in metaphorical language and being able to non-explicitly explain things,” they recall. “That also came in conjunction with not having a way to explain my gender or what I was feeling, so the two worked hand in hand.” Years later, Jamal rediscovered their love of language through slam poetry, spending hours in sessions with friends reciting and improvising their work. “Slam poetry or spoken word poetry is the first place that you really see marginalized Black queer trans people being at the forefront of these conversations,” they add.

Their debut as a model came last year right before the world went into lockdown, with a turn at a Valentino show that also featured other trans models like Krow Kian (another Louis Vuitton favorite of Nicolas Ghesquière’s) and Finn Buchanan. Since then, they’ve appeared on the covers of i-D, Wonderland, and 10 Magazine, as well as in a Tommy Hilfiger campaign. Still, Jamal is quick to recognize that, even with their newfound visibility and the industry’s recent rush to diversity, there is still a long way to go. “At the core of everything I want to do is to not only push trans people to the forefront of billboards or magazines or runways, but I think it’s important to see trans photographers and trans stylists in all facets of this industry so we have a full idea of what narratives exist,” they say. “I think the fashion industry is moving forward, but I think there’s a lot more that needs to be done behind the scenes. If we continue moving in this direction and collaborate with artists and models and people that have a platform and a voice and a reason and a purpose, I think we can really change what was once a very regimented idea of beauty to something that caters to and represents everybody.”

Now at work on a forthcoming anthology and an EP, Jamal is fitfully coming to terms with their status as not only a model but a role model as well. “I wouldn’t even constitute myself as some kind of ‘role model,’” they offer, “but I have realized in gathering a bigger platform that that does exist, whether I completely see it or not.” What is essential to remember, they say, is that even though they are being positioned as a representative of the trans community, the experiences of their brothers and sisters are unimaginably varied, and Jamal does not, and should not be asked to, speak for them. “For me, it’s so important to bring other people on board with me and take the community further. I think there’s a responsibility for me that when I get into these places and if I do break down these barriers, I also provide a bridge for other people to come on board,” they say. “I also urge people to always remember and be considerate that we are humans and we all make mistakes. Sometimes we have to take people off these pedestals and just remember that not only am I an advocate for something, but I am also a Black trans person who is navigating the world, trying to be a voice for others but also sometimes having to be a voice for just myself.”

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