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Sissi Johnson on Maxwell’s new video, shame and the Fashion Industry’s Future

The iconic musician Maxwell released the breathtaking visuals for his single ‘Feel No Shame’ today. Combining fashion, music and politics to gorgeous and profound effect, the video makes a powerful statement about black beauty and humanity in our era.

Its central concept reimagines George Michael’s historic ‘Freedom! ‘90’ video, which featured the supermodels Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, and Tatjana Patiz. Writing for CNN, Kara Fox and Stephy Chung describe Michaels’ video as ‘an unforgettable 1990's style moment and an enduring reminder of the rise of the supermodel’.

With the release of ‘Feel No Shame’, Maxwell’s video, created with a stellar team, has recast the video for our era – using black, dark-skinned models of our moment, with a cast that includes Maria Borges, Adonis Bosso, Achok Majak, Sira Kante and Riley Montana. This skillfully highlights fashion’s continued lack of inclusivity and societal standards of beauty that continue to function as a site of radical exclusion and shame. Even as inroads continue to be made, there journey is a long one to travel until everyone feels fully seen.

Opening with a shot that pans a cityscape, the video cuts to three veiled models while the wind whispers in the background. It then shifts to a single model whose face covered in transparent cloth, and finally features Maxwell in a white shirt, lying on a bed and crooning:

Turn around and look and see what you been missing
Look behind you and put on your glasses, forward vision
Maybe one day we'll be more than we were way, way back when
Maybe then they'll listen
Maybe then the world will understand

Here, invisibility, representation and recognition are neatly packaged in a single verse that functions as a treatise on structures of power. Featuring models in everyday spaces, the sense of not being seen is universalized - going beyond runways and editorials and entering each space occupied; whilst even when veiled, the cast projects powerful and palpable presence. The video functions as a reminder that black models, and people, have always been here: breathing; human; existing.

Combining music and image, Maxwell invites us to journey through time, while projecting ourselves into a future that brims with an unapologetic optimism. With ‘Feel No Shame’, Maxwell and his team of collaborators have taken the temperature of our time, while refusing to remain locked in it and projecting a sense of freedom and limitlessness. It is a reminder of the sheer force of representation, and what it means to be truly seen, for so many communities that exist on the margins of society.

As someone whose work centrally focuses on doing this work in society through illuminating the intersections of fashion and politics, Sissi Johnson is the Creative Director and Executive Producer of the project, while also being a member of the cast.  Johnson is a multifaceted creative who is currently an MBA professor at the International Fashion Academy in Paris (IFA), teaching on “Multiculturalism in the beauty industry”.

Elle spoke to her on her involvement, the videos concept and her views on the future of the fashion industry:

Elle: The video reimagines George Michael’s ‘Freedom’. How did you interpret this for our era? Also, do you remember where you were when you first saw ‘Freedom’. What does that video mean to you?

Sissi Johnson: I worked closely with directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz who had a crystal-clear vision in what they wanted to communicate in paying homage to this epic video only this time with a modern twist - which is where I stepped in. All I remember is being a little girl watching a gorgeous Naomi Campbell singing and dancing carefree. This is my current and forever mood.

In thinking about fashion as ‘a powerful political tool’, what did you seek to get across with the video?

The veil is an integral part of the video and what this garment represents across cultures around the world evokes both feelings of freedom and oppression. The examples are many fold from the Tignon laws of Louisiana (USA) passed in the 18th century criminalizing black women’s hair and forcing them to conceal it, to the wedding veil. It holds religious significance while not being exclusive to any belief system. Lastly, the veil can also be a deliberate choice, an accessory of adornment and empowerment.

Maxwell courageously confronts personal shame, liberating himself from the scars of insecurity and bad decisions— while simultaneously celebrating black beauty in all its magnificence. ‘Shame’ is a bold, sensual, audacious statement, that is meant to catalyze a conversation around extending beauty norms beyond European sensibilities in fashion.

As Creative Director and Executive Producer, can you talk me through your research process for the video?

Maxwell’s ‘SHAME’ visual is in line with my work as an MBA professor at the International Fashion Academy in Paris (IFA) and the curriculum on “Multiculturalism in the beauty industry” that I teach.

Together with the directors Bush + Renz, we aimed to showcase black beauty and identity in stark contrast to most of the imagery propagated and promoted historically within popular culture and the media.

My role as an executive producer included meeting philosophical standards that I have defined based on my own experience as a model in the past. I assured integrity was maintained as far as remunerating the models and securing adequate funds to do so. The industry often likes to borrow the image of the ‘black beauty’ without offering adequate pay, which I will be tackling in my forthcoming book.

What informed your decisions in terms of casting and styling?

Nurturing relationships in business is essential. I first connected with Casting Director Irene Ojo-Felix, in Lagos, Nigeria during fashion week last October. Irene has successfully casted for Maki Oh for the past three seasons. Exactly a year later, I decided to bring her on board to identify the best talents in New York City for Maxwell’s new music visual.

Achok Majak @ DNA

Model Achok Majak (South Sudan) is the new face of GUCCI’s Cruise campaign; Adonis Bosso (Ivory Coast) is currently one of the most sought-after male models in the industry and Sira Kante from Guinea just walked NYFW most iconic runway show, Pyer Moss. The cast also includes Riley Montana whose Givenchy campaign is a classic and IMG model Jeneil Williams who ever so gracefully represents Jamaica.

Adonis Bosso (left), Maria Borges (middle), Riley Montana (right)

As far as styling goes, I collaborated with stylist Nicolas Klam on creating sophisticated dark silhouettes with pieces from Jean-Paul Gaultier, Yves Saint Laurent, Tom Ford and Alexander McQueen. In contrast, there is a splash of color in the video where Angolan stunner Maria Borges is sporting a total look by designer Taibo Bacar from Mozambique.

Maria Borges @IMG in Taibo Bacar, Maxwell ‘SHAME’ video

How do you make sense of the current fashion landscape in terms of representation and transformation, and how do you imagine the future of fashion?

The first fashion show in Europe where 48 African models were to be seen for the first time took place in Germany in the 1950s. Thereafter the so-called “Battle of Versailles” acknowledged as the first Paris Fashion Week in 1973 featured a plethora of African American models.  Black models have led the runway all throughout! For me it is not so much about diversity within this context than it is about giving credit and endorsing them, so history may repeat itself for the better without being a mere trend.

Maxwell has said: ‘“The song is about removing that mask of expectation and letting go of the shame of being real and vulnerable’. What does #FeelNoShame mean to you?

Mid-video, there is this dramatic night scene where I unveil in slow motion. It is extremely personal and symbolic in the sense that I have always been hiding behind-the-scenes or simply never credited for my efforts throughout my career. Unveiling has indeed been a long slow-paced process. Up until recently, there was a recurring toxic pattern of being completely taken out of the picture or others wanting to (re)define me to accommodate their own insecurities. The minute I established clear boundaries and focused on nurturing myself, my world shifted.  I just turned 30. I am reclaiming my time and celebrating all of me: decolonizing my mind, my voice, loving the skin and body I am in, embracing all of my talents, my failures, my dreams, my wins, my wounds and so much more...  #FeelNoShame means we check boxes. We don’t get boxed up no more.

You’ve spoken about always wanting to be in a Maxwell video. What did it feel like to realise that dream and what was that experience like?

Surreal and incredibly spontaneous! The entire team stayed long after all the models were gone to get me ready. We drove for a while to film inside a Brooklyn subway station only to end up getting “THE” shot outdoors in less than a minute as we were wrapping up! Maxwell has been giving me props on IG ever since so I guess I did ok…(laughs)

Full Credits:

Artist: @maxwell

Creative Director/Exec Producer: @asksissi

Directors: @bushrenz

Casting Director: @iojofx

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