Shannon Stokes and the High Art of Obsession

Shannon Stokes and the High Art of Obsession

by Evan Ross Katz

Classic hallmarks. The existence of contrast. Garish. Ghetto fabulous. The power of the sidewalk. Rich tapestry of a multitude of references. The flawlessness of the execution, and the rigorousness of the creative direction. These are some just some of the words and expressions Shannon Stokes articulates in a chat that felt for me more akin to an opportunity than an interview.

As a four-pronged creative multi-hyphenate, balancing styling, illustration, design and direction, Stokes is a go-to force in visual world-building and storytelling. You've seen his work, designing custom suiting for Beyoncé in 2016, creative directing and co-styling Rihanna's bodega-themed PAPER cover shoot from 2017, styling SZA's "Drew Barrymore" music video, creative directing and styling Ciara's King Kong magazine cover shoot from 2018. But to hear his words, to witness his thought pattern, makes clear one of his biggest assets beyond his obvious talents: that of his ability to excite, to stimulate, to arouse.

"I try to impress upon clients, the fact that I'm obsessive with the things that I'm proposing and it's the only thing that I've been thinking about for months," he says.

Below, Stokes discusses proper dressing, bad taste, his "Halloween rule," discovering references outside of pop and developing his extensive and exhaustive archive and more.

I have to start by saying you're one of my favorite people to follow online. Not only because I feel like I get such an education from your words and images, but I also really enjoy how sure of yourself and your opinions you are. I feel like you have an authority about the way you feel that is really striking.

It's always interesting to see how people will perceive you on social media because there's a certain tone in which you may write that tweet and then there's a tone in which it's read and those might not be the same. And often when you're coming from a position of often correcting incorrect information — setting things straight that someone is putting out there that's incorrect — it can come off like you're just like a nitpicker, you know, like a lot of little things can be inferred about your personality from doing that.

The way I always receive it is I always think of you kind of like a historian in that sense, in terms of just wanting to make sure if this tweet is a historical record, I see your role as wanting to make sure that the record is correct.

Right. But sometimes people are just annoyed with the "well actually" of it all.

Let's go back a little bit to your early life. Can you tell me where you grew up and how your upbringing informed or influenced how you see the world?

I'm born in Brooklyn, New York. Fashion has always been around me, like in the periphery, because my grandmother and my mother were both sewers. So I grew up seeing them always making clothes, taking clothes apart, and I got a knowledge of garment construction as well as designer clothes at that time because they were often buying the designer patterns that would be in the pattern books. Like the designers then would license their certain designs to be distributed as patterns and I would see how they would take those patterns and then often adjust things, twist things from the designer's overall plan of silhouette. And then my grandmother often would have Vogue magazines around as part of her love of fashion. So that would inform part of my taste. My grandmother being from the South but also living in New York for all her life, there was a lot of conversations about what is proper dressing, like great, classic color combinations of black and brown, pink and navy, when you wore certain things depending on the time of year, like white linens, suede, velvet. Also a lot of talk about refined taste and teaching me all of the rules that are considered the classic hallmarks of being well dressed.

When you're being shown all these images and you're learning about all of these tenants, as you mentioned, how did you start to develop your own sense of taste from within that?

I've always believed in an existence of contrast. So whereas I would take those things and bring that with me, I'm also still interacting with the culture at large of the things that are happening in the time. So in the 80s and 90s, there was a lot of what people would consider "bad taste." So I would say my taste has been created because while I was being taught about refined dress, I'm seeing a lot of things of people who are pushing the boundaries, who are being garish because it's the 80s and taking in those things that are considered bad taste and filtering those two things, those two opposites together, to challenge each other.

So even today if I see something that is considered to be like "bad dressing," I will often look at it and try to decipher it and dissect it to figure out what the fix is. How can I have that and make it work? My taste is always about elegance, but with a street edge. I love a couture influence, but then I'm inspired by that power of the sidewalk and just the thing of being in Brooklyn and somebody wearing a great look at walking out into the courtyard and having everyone's heads hurting because they're just dressed to the nines.

"I basically live in an archive."

You know, it's interesting that you say that, because it's like you're always seeking some sort of balance between two things. And I always find the idea of balance to be so much more interesting than anything finite, because there's a tension. Now I know you loved music videos when you were growing up. What was it that captured you about them?

Whenever I work with music artists, I often talk to them about what I consider to be the Halloween rule, which is basically if someone can't dress as you for Halloween, then you haven't really made the impact or cut through the clutter properly. Music video impressed on me the importance of a big, iconic look. So often when I'm working with music artists or trying to create editorials I'm trying to come up with a definitive, clear look that will be memorable — the hair, the make-up, the way the clothes are styled, the mood that it's coming from. And it's music video really taught me about that. My sister and I would watch music videos all day in the heyday of MTV. And then we were watching hip-hop videos on Video Music Box which was like a local New York show that would come on that had all of the hip-hop videos that maybe weren't shown on MTV, but then we were seeing the Bon Jovis, the Van Halens, the Peter Gabriels, the Madonnas on MTV that gave you a really complete world view of everything that's happening at the same time and taking a little bit of this and taking it a little bit of that and mixing it all together into something new. But whereas the Madonnas, the Peter Gabriels, the Michael Jacksons were a great influence in pop, having the other side of the thing, like the ghetto fabulous movement of the nineties of Sean "Puffy" Combs, Bad Boy Records, Mary J. Blige… those people often had a very big total vision, but of a totally different world. And it was almost as if you had both worlds clashing against each other. So if you were observing what was happening in those magazines, like Vibe and everything, but then also observing what's happening in Vogue it allowed for this rich tapestry of a multitude of references coming together and not just from the mainstream in pop.

Do you remember a specific video in which you were just really captured by the aesthetic or it could be like a specific outfit in a video or an image?

I remember being heavily influenced by Janet Jackson. I loved her idea of having an era, a whole idea of an overarching concept, which I think influenced my creative direction. Coming up with this point of view and that's going to inform everything from the packaging to the look of the videos to what I'm wearing. So I remember Janet Jackson doing this "Rhythm Nation" long form video, and that being really impressed upon my mind about this 360 degree view of how to communicate a message visually. Also growing up I loved Madonna's videos because she was also a champion of eras, but then also in between them radically changing her image to almost be unrecognizable. But within that one video also doing a small version of world building. So she would build a complete world within that one music video that's totally different than the one that came before.

You mentioned Janet and Madonna. Are there any current artists that you think do era with that level of specificity?

Yes. I think Solange definitely does that. She does that very, very clearly, and that it's basically a refusal of anything that doesn't match this particular era. So something might be really great and really important that's going on, but if it doesn't relate to this era, it's not used at all.

You're a big proponent of tangible fashion. So magazines, books, tactile objects that don't just live on the internet. Why is that particularly important to you?

For me, the people who I admire and have really created great visuals over the years in fashion, their work is really a collection of tons of references. And when you're looking at random images that you find on Tumblr — and I love Tumblr, but when you find those images, the random images, they don't tell you anything about the time in which they were created, what they relate to. You're not seeing a series of images from the same person. You're just seeing the one singular image that doesn't connect to anything. So often if you don't know where it's from, you can just easily take it out of context. But when you own books, and when you own magazines, you have a better snapshot of a particular influence, a particular era or particular movement in art, in fashion.

I imagine you have quite a collection of books. How do you decide which fashion book is important enough for you that you want it to be displayed?

I basically live in an archive. So for American Vogue, for instance, I have from, I would say, 1993 until now, every issue. But I've collected other magazines that are also super influential to me, like Paris Vogue, like Fabien Baron's Interview, Harper's Bazaar, and Elle. So for me, the books that have the most prominent space are the ones that I go to more frequently than others, that have the most important information or the designers that I'm most influenced by.

Obviously the internet has made fashion more accessible and archival work more prominent. And obviously accessibility is important, but does fashion lose anything in becoming so easily accessible and making people not have to work to seek out information?

I mean, the thing is you still have to work. You still have to work even when it's online. During quarantine Italian Vogue opened up their archive from 1964 to currently and I took the time to go through every single issue, every single page from 1964, the year the magazine was started, to now. That was one of my side projects and building my archival images from them. So that project was a ton of work. So things being on the internet doesn't often doesn't necessarily mean that it's not work. It takes a lot of time when you're really digging for rare imagery and rare influences and references to actually find those things. It's a needle in a haystack.

Do you think that taste is something that a person either has or they don't, or is it something that can be honed and developed?

I think you can hone it and develop it. A lot of it is how you were raised, the things that you were raised around that often will shape your taste, but then as you gain more knowledge it gets richer. So I would say it's both the environment that you were brought up in and surrounded by, but then it's enriched by the work that you yourself do to sharpen your eye and give you more of a range in your taste.

You mentioned earlier both MTV and Madonna, and those are two entities that mean something completely different in 2020 than they did in previous decades. What's your perspective on watching something age in a way that perhaps shifts its overall legacy?

Regardless of what you may feel about the brand in 2020, the DNA of what they were still exists. You can not accept what it's currently giving to you and still go back when they were in their full time of relevance and pull from that to create new things for today. Because even if it's the little promos in between segments that MTV would commission like really great artists to do, it's still like this perfect thing that sits in a time capsule of that time. And you can still extract from that as far as just this flawless execution and take that and apply it to something in 2020. What I take from most of the things is not necessarily about the person themselves, of course their spirit is important, but what I appreciate the most about those people and those entities is the flawlessness of the execution and the rigorousness of the creative direction that was put in those projects And for me, that's forever.

Now you have four disciplines that you are really a master of: styling, illustration, design and direction. How do you compartmentalize the four, especially when there's so much overlap in those disciplines?

They're basically four skill sets that I use that are often rotating as far as which one is at the forefront, depending on what client it is. So when I styled the Rihanna cover for PAPER, whereas I did have my style and what I wanted to say in the creative direction side of coming from where I was born in Brooklyn and being around bodegas and all of that concept going into it, beyond that I used the illustration side of what I do to fully draw out the hair and makeup looks so that the artists can see where I want to take them.

Because often when you're just working with images, I find that sometimes everyone takes a different thing from an image. Someone might look at an image that you give as a reference for hair and makeup, and they'll just take the lighting from it. The illustration for me often is a clear statement from me to the artist saying from all of these visual references that I've given these all distilled down into this, this is what I'm taken from all these things and this is what I want you to get from it.

Who's someone in your life that when they compliment your work or make you feel seen, it means the most to you?

My sister is important. She's often my assistant on shoots, and she's a sounding board and she grew up with a lot of the same references as I did. So she often knows exactly what I'm trying to go for. So sometimes we don't work together on projects so when she sees it and she's like, "Oh wow, this is amazing," I will respect her viewpoint because I know that she gets it. She's seeing the same things that I see and she knows that this holds up to the amazing things that we've seen in the past.

Welcome to "Wear Me Out,"a column by pop culture fiend Evan Ross Katz that takes a look at the week in celebrity dressing. From award shows and movie premieres to grocery store runs, he'll keep you up to date on what your favorite celebs have recently worn to the biggest and most inconsequential events.

Portrait of Shannon Stokes by Micaiah Carter
Editorial photography by Micaiah Carter for PAPER Spring 2018
Fashion illustration courtesy of Shannon Stokes