Khiry's Jameel Mohammed Is Here To Disrupt The Concept Of Fashion & Luxury
Read V Magazine's full interview with the 2021 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund grant recipient.
Read V Magazine's full interview with the 2021 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund grant recipient.
In today's fashion and entertainment landscape, garments and accessories are more than just accouterments to our everyday life. Any given piece can be as much of a political statement as it is a medium of self-expression. One of the brands that are exploring the culture-changing potential of fashion as a creative medium is KHIRY, a Brooklyn-based jewelry label founded by the recipient of 2021 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Grant Jameel Mohammed. Ever since its emergence on the fashion scene back in 2016, KHIRY has been featured in several Savage X Fenty campaigns and worn by a wide range of A-listers and political figures, including Serena Williams, Solange Knowles, Alicia Keys, Cardi B, Michelle Obama, and Kamala Harris.
"It's always been about demonstrating the breadth of the diaspora and of the global Black experience," Mohammed tells V Magazine. "It's Cardi B on the feed next to Michelle Obama, next to Megan Thee Stallion, next to Serena Williams — I think that's the celebration of different varieties of Black excellence and joy. I've always wanted to celebrate a diverse set of people." (For reference, Mohammed himself made the 2021 Forbes 30 under 30 list in the Arts & Style category.)
To honor the talent of the aspiring multi-disciplinary, culture-shifting entrepreneur, V spoke with Mohammed about his formative years, the experience of breaking into the industry as a Black entrepreneur, and the vision of sublime Afro-futurist society he wants to convey to people through his work in fashion and other creative media. Read the full conversation with one of America's most promising creatives (and an exclusive scoop on his vision of KHIRY's future), below.
V Magazine To start off, why don't you tell me about what your life was like growing up? Did you have a lot of creative influences around you during those formative years?
Jameel Mohammed I've always drawn and done a lot of different types of art, and I've only [recently] started to reflect on how fortunate I was to have encouragement to play around with a lot of different types of media. I drew, I read a lot of manga as a kid and watched anime, but I also took African dance classes and tap as a kid. It was a lot of teaching myself different things and also having the support to grow from more formal types of learning — and I feel like now I'm able to draw from a really diverse set of experiences.
With anime and manga characters, there always was this piece of character design — and that was kind of my entry point to start thinking about how what a person wears is indicative of who they are in this particular scene or environment or the real world. I was just telling my team yesterday about the Cheetah Girls on Disney Channel, Raven-Symoné, Adrienne Bailon, and how they looked so cool and fashion-y when I was super young. I definitely grew up drawing them and women, primarily female characters. That was kind of a recurring theme for me.
V Were your friends and family supportive of your hobbies and creative interests?
JM I didn't always feel like I had the support of my family because in my mind I was like, 'If you're not Kris Jenner, you're not supporting your kid' — you know? (laughs) But looking back, I really was supported to try different things, to grow in different ways, and I think the parts of it that didn't feel like support — things like saying that you have to contend with the reality of this world, which is that you're not rich, and you are Black, and you will have to make sure that you have the ability to survive in this world.
As I grew up and got older, there was a little bit of like, 'Okay, but what if you went to business school first? What if you did consulting for a little while? You can always get back to that, you know?' And my high school self was like, 'You're lying. You don't want me to get back to it. You want me to just forget about it.' But as things have started to work out, especially over the past few years, I've kind of stabilized in this career trajectory. My parents have definitely been like, 'All we ever really wanted was to see you have a life that you could make work for yourself.' And I feel that they see that for me now.
V You mentioned previously how you have been 'pointedly told by the CEO of a preeminent luxury goods company that true luxury brands could only emerge from Paris and Milan.' What did it feel like to prove them wrong, now that you've garnered quite a bit of acclaim in the industry and established yourself as a major player in the American fashion world?
JM It's so interesting. I take that as the learning of the fact that sometimes, you can see something that literally no one else in the room can see at the time. And that doesn't mean that it's wrong — it actually might be right for that reason, you know, that actually might be the competitive advantage that you need. The real way that I've processed that evolution is trying to bring that same energy into the next round of ideas. That's entrepreneurship.
V How did you go about putting yourself out there? How did all of these major opportunities and awards come about for you?
JM A lot of places really started reaching out to me once they saw that there was a rising consumer demand that pushed non-diverse companies to become more diverse — and there are a lot of different implications of that. Part of that was that they empowered other people to be able to give me resources and acclaim, those who wouldn't have always had the ability to give out a hundred thousand dollars grant, for example. And other, more storied institutions would then be like, 'Oh, maybe you're the one to help us figure this out!' So that was — and then, on the other hand, some existing institutions were kind of like, 'Yo, we need to figure it out because we're getting flamed on the internet' versus just being real about that change.
For any Black entrepreneur, it's never not fraught in that way. I think in these past 18 months, I've really become more aware of how change happens. There are a lot of other designers and artists who are in the same situation as me, who were making the same caliber of work before this current moment and who have also seen their lives and businesses change in response to the way culture changes. So now, I think it's really incumbent on us to begin building institutions that can amplify that change into the future. For example, I now have four Black design interns who are seeing pretty much every part of the business because it's all happening in one room. I'm just thinking about how we can be not just the class of beneficiaries of this change but also the people who continue to propagate this change into the future.
V KHIRY jewelry has been worn by many major celebs ranging from Cardi B to Yara Shadidi to Tracee Ellis Ross to Serena Williams. How did these major figures from the worlds of politics, sports, and entertainment find out about your brand?
JM I started working with celebrity stylists in probably 2017 or something, and just seeing that develop over time, seeing people transition from one talent person to another and continue to reach out to the brand for different opportunities has been super rewarding. And before that sort of acclaim and broader industry celebration, I feel like there was a more nascent buzz among Black stylists, who are most frequently styling Black talent, you know? That always felt like a great thing, to be able to work with your peers who are styling some of the most dynamic women in the world and the people who inspired me to create a brand. Being able to make images and work on creative projects with those women via the relationships that I have with the like-minded peers who are styling them has been really, really rewarding.
V Is there any particular reason why you settle for jewelry over other creative media?
JM I feel like I haven't actually settled. Here's this the V Magazine scoop: We're making larger wearable pieces, including this one look that incorporates macramé technique over fringe and hardware and stuff like that. This past year, I've been sculpting and doing different kinds of things. But initially, the reason why jewelry made sense in terms of biography is because I had made a couple of necklaces, and those caught the eye of the COO of Barney's at the time. That was an immediate market opportunity, even before I really understood what I wanted to say as a designer, so I kind of kept that door open and kept trying to design into that opportunity. And then, at the outset of the first wave of the Black Lives Matter movement, as I went through this personal evolution of recognizing that as an artist, I wanted to be a part of creating change in the world, creating new images, new objects, and celebrating new perspectives that have been previously kept out — especially in the world of fashion, art, and design.
That's when I started honing in on what kind of 'world' I'm trying to build. Going back to that anime reference — I almost kind of think in scenes, images, paintings, building a king of Afrofuturist scene in the same way. What did the technique of this have to do with the history of the people that will exist in this Afro Future? What does the space look like? What are the things that are on the tables? What are they wearing on their hands and their ears? It's all about slowly but surely filling in the details of different kinds of worlds to say, 'Hey, contemporary audience, wouldn't it be so great if we could all live in this beautiful Afrofuturist format? Well, stop coming against Black people!' (laughs) That's the ultimate thesis of the brand.
V Has that thesis changed or evolved in any way since the brand launch in 2016?
JM It definitely evolves over time but the original kind of tagline and description was 'a luxury brand inspired by the African diaspora.' I ultimately transitioned to 'an Afrofuturist luxury brand' because I wanted to take on more than just trying to make a [Black-owned] luxury brand. If you're thinking more in greater depth about it, you have to think about what luxury has meant to Black people. Black people have been luxuries in the Western world — so is luxury kind of implicitly anti-Black? These are real questions that I kind of want to engage as a thinker because a successful Afrofuturist state will have to engage those questions to be able to provide for its citizens. It's through that process of thinking about these deeper issues that I arrive at these kinds of resolute objects.
In the contemporary moment, there's a good amount of luxury in being able to think about those ideas in a really complex way, especially as a Black person. This society is not trying to give me the space to just think, at great depths, and create an institution that allows me to think about issues that are relevant to Black people at great depths. There's a luxury in creating objects that are indicative of having thought about those questions.
V What is your current vision of the future for KHIRY looking like? What are some of the goals that you want to accomplish in the coming months and years?
JM In the next few months and the rest of the year, I want to just slowly but surely begin introducing people to the other 'folds' of my mind in a way that's intentional and that ultimately communicates something that's of one perspective. It's not the announcement of a million categories and collections; it's the realization, or the nearest realization, of what I've always been envisioning. One part of it is showing people the other parts of that world. In the longer term, I want to be more intentional about bringing in those questions to other parts of our process and how we interact with people, how we can be more supportive of communities that are not en vogue. I don't want to just support people who are kind of already at the center of the conversation. Some of it is expanding our internship program and thinking about how we can produce more of these expanding worlds with Black artisans and Black majority communities, and how we can tap into existing creative expertise that exists in marketing, in creating imagery, in creating new products with existing techniques... Those are some things that I'm interested in.
And in the long term, I would love to have a true atelier that is a hub of Black creativity and, in the same way that I'm co-ording collaborations now with people who have that kind of production bandwidth, to be able to say really sophisticated things with really sophisticated production. In 30 years, I want the next generation of Black creatives to be able to come to a Black-owned company that is huge, that has the bandwidth to give them the tools and the resources to collaborate and make something interesting, to do something at a super-resolved level, to put something out there and know how to market it and actually create a sustainable livelihood from it.