Creating black history is nothing new for Rachel Johnson. She's been blazing trails in the celebrity fashion styling industry for 20 years, and she won't be stopping any time soon. From being the catalyst of LeBron James becoming one of the most stylish athletes on the planet to outfitting Colin Kaepernick for his landmark GQ cover, her impact on black celebrity style today is unmatched.
We had the great pleasure of sitting with Rachel for the fourth installment of our New Black History series, and chatted about her career, a recent life-changing trip to Ghana, and of course, sneakers. Find the video clip and full interview below.
Let's do a brief introduction. Tell me your name, where you're from, and what you do.
Rachel Johnson: My name is Rachel Johnson. I am from Englewood, New Jersey and I am a celebrity wardrobe stylist.
Tell us a little bit about your journey. What brought you to this point?
RJ: I attended Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. And I actually have a degree to teach high school English. I was halfway through earning my degree when I was told that there were black women who were creating images for musicians. And I was led to this career through that path. Once I found out that I could get paid to create images, I knew that's what I wanted to do, to the point that I wanted to quit school and leave FAMU, but my mom was like "Absolutely not. You have to finish your degree and then you can do anything you want." So although I do to this day get paid to create images, I also do have a degree to teach high school English.
What does black history mean to you?
RJ: Black history is the cornerstone and the foundation of who I am and how I've gotten to where I am today. Although we choose to celebrate Black History Month and zero in on it during a certain period of time during the year, black history lives throughout my life, because I'll be black last January and I'll be black next March, too. But having the opportunity to zero in on and discover pioneers who we've never heard of before, who we've never been able to celebrate before or give their roses while they were alive is a beautiful thing.
So what do you feel is the new black history? Do you feel like you're a part of the new black history?
RJ: The new black history for me is this new evolution that has come into my life. I was fortunate enough to go to Ghana for the Year of Return, and I spent 12 or 13 days there. And what I discovered about myself and my new black history is actually where I came from. To be in a space where everywhere I turned, I saw myself in all my glory, in all my beauty, from every magazine, every television show, every billboard. I was everywhere. So there's this new confidence that I have returned to America with, this new understanding of my regality, this new boldness that I have reentered into the world with because of that trip. So this new history for me actually started on that trip about six weeks ago and these kinds of exchanges and opportunities for me to talk about understanding more of who I am falls right in line with this new history that I'm experiencing.
So it's new black history because black history is everyday. Do you feel like you are contributing to the black history?
RJ: I am absolutely contributing to the new black history proudly as I sit here. Not only because of that experience and how I plan to contribute to the world past this trip that I took to Ghana, but the history that I built during my career. One of the things that I'm most proud of is being able to change the way that people view black athletes, black men in particular. Being able to instill a level of confidence in black men that they may not have had within themselves before has been part of my journey and part of this new black history. So the gentlemen who I've had an opportunity to work with have allowed me to come into their lives and not only tell them that they can wear navy blue and black together, but really work with them to instill the confidence to live and rule any room that they walk into.
Can you name some of the clients that you have worked with over the years?
RJ: Sure. This year I'm celebrating my 20-year anniversary in styling. I started in 2000, so I'm also happy to be able to speak to the history and what I've seen. The first half of my career was focused on music and I was able to work with gents like Puffy and Jay-Z and Pharrell and Ja Rule. And the list goes on from there. And then I pivoted to focus on sports and work with gentlemen. My first basketball player was Jalen Rose and then I went on to work with LeBron James and Amar'e Stoudemire and Chris Bosh and Chris Paul. And on the football side, Cam Newton, Victor Cruz, Colin Kaepernick. So I've been able to touch a lot of lives through my craft and I'm blessed to be here 20 years later.
How are you creating history?
RJ: I'm creating history right now, sitting here wearing what I'm wearing because I am wearing black designers head to toe. And these are black designers whose clothing is mainstream. So I didn't have to go to one specific place to go and buy it. I didn't have to dig and find and discover it. I could easily purchase all of these items in a major department store or online. So that alone is historic to me. And I wear these designers proudly and as much as I possibly can.
My next step is going to be to normalize travel to Africa. So one of the things that I figured out during my trip to Ghana is that our world is a lot smaller than we think it is. And our family lives in Ghana, whether you know it or not. So this year and years to come, my goal is going to be to open up our worlds and connect the diaspora and bring as many African American people as I can to Ghana. I've done it in the past taking celebrities to Paris and London and Milan to Fashion Week. But now I see an even greater calling to help us return to our heritage and to meet the family we never knew existed.
As a confident black woman, are there any challenges that you experienced in your 20 years of celebrity wardrobe styling with people maybe not believing in your skillset or you having to prove people wrong, is there anything that has come with that in the last 20 years?
RJ: Well, I'll tell this story. When I ventured out to marry the world of sports and fashion together, I was definitely met with resistance. There are countless fashion houses that I went to who I wanted to collaborate and partner with on working with LeBron James. Our goal at that time for him was to make him a global icon. And my part in that was to ensure that he was dressed for the part and that he was wearing mainstream designers. And because of his size at that time and the way that clothes were cut, those items were not available to me on a retail level. So I had to go to designers and had them build pieces for me. And unfortunately they just didn't understand. They didn't understand him, they didn't understand why he was important to men's wear. They didn't understand his sizes, they just didn't understand anything. And so that part of the journey in working to marry these two worlds and have both sides understand each other was one of the most challenging things that I have done.
But I knew that it was my calling. I was very clear that that was my purpose and what I was meant to do. And so I wasn't frustrated. I was encouraged to push forward and do what it is that I know I was tasked to do.
How are sneakers a part of your identity?
RJ: Right now as far as sneakers are concerned, what I'm wearing is sneakers that my friends and my family have created. So I have a lineup of sneakers at my door that are my go-tos when I'm getting dressed and either running errands or putting looks together. And whether it's the New Balance collab from Aime Leon Dore or the Experiments from Pyer Moss and Reebok, those are the sneakers that I'm wearing right now because I love to support the people who support me.
Have sneakers inspired your creative process?
RJ: Sneakers absolutely inspire my creative process. The gentlemen who I work with usually have their own sneaker or they have sneaker deals with prominent athletic companies, so a lot of what I do is centered around incorporating those brands into their lifestyles. And not only that, last year I had the opportunity to work with Pierre Hardy and Victor Cruz on a sneaker collab, where I was a part of the creative process of making this sneaker that never existed from beginning to end. And that was a major project for me and something that helped me understand the building and the design of sneakers even more.
You mentioned earlier that you are head to toe in black designers and that's something that in the Colin Kaepernick style shoot for GQ, you also made sure to push that point. Is that something that you normally have with your clients, as far as them wanting to wear black designers, or is it something that you just came up with yourself?
RJ: That directive that I received to style Colin in only black designers for the cover of GQ came directly from him. Everything that he does is very well thought out and very purposeful. So not only did he want to represent black designers and designers who may not necessarily get that kind of opportunity on a regular basis, he also wanted the entire staff, the entire glam team, the entire shoot, to be people of color or women. He wanted to make sure that his opportunity became our opportunity. And that's just the type of man that he is. So he was the one who gave me that directive.
It didn't all the way dawn on me how powerful an opportunity that that was until I started contacting designers. I couldn't tell them what I was shooting, but I let them know that we were focused on highlighting designers of color. And the reaction that I received was incredible. And then when those designers saw themselves in the magazine being worn by this historic figure, people called me and cried on the phone because it was just such a powerful moment. And so now you see Chris Paul doing it. I just saw today that Dwyane Wade is on TNT now every week and he's only going to wear designers of color. So you know that movement continues, and that too is part of this new black history.