Devonrae Jones on sustainability and the nurturing power of nature

A born and raised New Yorker, Devonrae Jones is the embodiment of New York City's energized and creative spirit. Throughout the trajectory of her career, Devonrae has worn multiple hats including that of stylist, photographer, art director, and currently as social media strategist for A Peace Treaty.

Walking through the tranquil galleries of the Noguchi Museum in Queens, Denvonrae shared with us how nature can nourish one both creatively and spiritually, the highs and lows of being a creative, and stories of her greatest source of inspiration – her beloved grandfather.

Devonrae, tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born in the melting pot that is Queens, New York, to a single mother and absent father. My mother was in real estate so we had quite the nomadic lifestyle. She was always looking for the next best school district/neighborhood and at the time, in the mid to late 90’s, there were many being developed. The experience was at once incredibly enlightening and very toiling. Every new school district presented an opportunity to get acquainted with new cultures/manners outside of my own but also presented a hurdle to overcome in regards to relating to people. I felt like a sociologist in the field recording/drawing everything in notebooks, taking photos on an old camera my mother picked up from Salvation Army. The experience informed who I am today and created a visual vocabulary for me to pull from.

What does your work in creative direction encompass?

For me, a great deal of research. I’d say most of my time is spent gathering visual information so I can clearly manifest a client's vision. I spend a lot of time in libraries looking through catalogues. I still have my password for JSTOR and use it often. It becomes really important to source from responsible and well curated outlets. I’d say the other 25% of the time is spent coordinating with the other parties involved, i.e hairstylists, stylists, designers, models etc. The window for producing campaigns and shoots is usually quite narrow. My job is to make sure it's all been worth it- that there is a clear/alternative narrative in place.

As of late, I've been interested in manifesting a narrative on the fashion industry and its excessive levels of consumption. I am reaching out to several sustainable brands/brands making the transition into a more sustainable business model to create content which enlightens and inspires viewers. I’ve also been considering how to make all aspects of producing campaigns and shoots sustainable. Utilizing pre-existing sets, taking into consideration how wasteful certain prop styling can be, and working with sustainable designers are ways I’ve been going about this. We are living in a time when imagery works as social currency. I’d like to exist in a world where we consider what our images say to the general public.

You’ve designed and produced clothing for clients such as Solange and the Saint Heron store. What motivated you to pursue clothing design?

The collaboration with Saint Heron store was such a blessing. To receive acknowledgement for my designs from such a tastemaker was an honor. I really respect Solange and Armina Mussa for taking the initiative to work with young designers in general. The dress Saint Heron ordered was made very nonchalantly on my way to the beach. They reached out after an Instagram post of me wearing it. At the time I had all of 500 followers and no intention of selling clothes. I don't know that I’ve ever considered myself a designer as making clothing has always been an organic process for me. I made my first dress at age 8. It was a pillowcase tube dress, no seaming or darts etc. It came out a hot mess of course, but the need to create something, anything was visceral. I would draw pages and pages of “designs” in my marble notebooks.

Over the past few years however, my sentiments towards design have become rather communistic. I feel in an ideal world, all members of society would have to take a stab at making their own clothes. Perhaps then, we would have a different level of understanding on the economics surrounding craft as well as the implications of outsourcing manufacturing. It is possible to look cute without supporting businesses that rape and pillage countries natural resources whilst paying workers next to nothing. I’ve become very interested in fabrication and longevity. I imagine all of the clothing I own will take me well into my 50s.

How did you transition from design to styling and art direction? Was this an organic process for you?

I feel my success in design has been a result of my visual strength. When I first started selling clothing seriously, it was the visual and marketing aspects of creating which excited me most. I would spend hours on end perfecting the website or planning shoots for a new season's campaign, but very little time pattern making and perfecting the design. The transition to art direction was always on the surface but it took me a while to get there.

The trajectory of working freelance can be exhilarating, but can also be exhausting in terms of financial stability and sourcing projects. What have been some obstacles you’ve faced as a freelance creative from which you’ve learned from?

Being a one-woman show starting off in this industry has been an obstacle for sure, but also an immense learning experience. By this point, there isn't anything I feel like I can't accomplish if I set my mind to it. Coming up with the collateral for shoots, paying models and mostly photographing things myself really forces you to get innovative. Asking for what I want and taking the risk of waiting until I find it. Taking odd jobs in between the stuff you really want to do. Asking for contracts.

What (physical) spaces have informed your creative process?

Nature. My grandfather who recently passed away has this wonderfully old house and garden. I had been making the effort to go visit him whenever I could and learn from him. He had a green thumb who grew most of the food he ate. I’ve been interested in exploring the intrinsic connection we as humans have with the earth in my work so time spent with him and in his house has been very cleansing. It is quite easy to get wrapped up in the city, especially while working in the fashion industry. Nature has always been a return to something authentic for me.

What has been the most fulfilling project you’ve undertaken thus far?

I consider them all so fulfilling because I enjoy the work. If I had to mention one aspect, it’d be working with women whom I admire and respect. I've been fortunate enough to work with warm, talented and conscious women who really bring every part of themselves to a project.

The fashion industry has assumed a biased structure with regard to the representation of people of color at every level of the business. What can we – as a community, and as consumers and creators – do to necessitate a reorienting of representation and exclusion within this industry?

Support black business owners and artists. Hire people of color. Ask for their opinions more. I’ve realized my work sphere has to reflect the diversity in cultural background and opinion that is my circle of friends. I think there’s also something to be said about investing your money in black businesses. There is such a disparity in who acquires investment and who does not.

Who are some artists who have inspired you as an individual and in the work that you do?

A friend of mine made a playlist for The Fader that was entirely female artists. It suddenly occurred to me that I wasn’t really giving enough of my time, money, and energy to discovering and supporting female artists. I really became obsessed with compiling a solid catalogue of female artists. To name a few: the peruvian singer, Yma Sumac; the brazilian singer, Zelia Barbosa; the writer, bell hooks; the political commentator, Melissa Harris Perry; the photographer, Madame Yevonde; the painter, Emma Amos; the sculptor, Eva Hesse…This list could end up being long. I will say there is such a wealth in exploring “female” art as a “female”. The more I delved into it, the more complex a definition I was able to foster on what it means to be “female”.

How do you practice being kind to yourself?

Eating well. Sleeping. Surrounding myself with intelligent and stimulating women. Taking time to check in with how I’m feeling and what I need.

What do you immerse yourself in when you want to disconnect?

Nature.

What are you planning towards next?

I am reaching out to sustainable brands for a hands-on project. For the past few months, I have been foraging my grandfather's estate, and the forest surrounding it to make conceptual garments and sculptures. I hope to use them for a concept shoot surrounding sustainability and our connection to nature.

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