LaQuan Smith & Jonathan Mannion Want To See More Creativity & Diversity in Hip-Hop Photography & Fashion

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Lewis Mirrett for Moët & Chandon
LaQuan Smith, Lil Kim and Jonathan Mannion.

On Tuesday (Oct. 22), New York City's bustling midtown became a lively celebration as Moët & Chandon honored their new partnership with lauded hip-hop photographer Jonathan Mannion and fashion designer LaQuan Smith.

The campaign, titled "Nectar Of The Culture," aims to usher in "a new era of pioneers who are changing the game today and shaping culture to impact a new generation," per a press release. This era is marked by a new limited-edition customized bottle of Moët & Chandon Nectar Impérial Rosé, which was flowing throughout the night's launch party. Along with Mannion and Smith, the tastemakers who made appearances included Wale, Lil Kim, models Andreja Pejic and Vlada Roslyakova, BJ The Chicago Kid and Mack Wilds.

The guests gathered around lavish marble tables topped with various drinks, featuring berry-colored hues plucked straight from the garden, to enjoy a family-style dinner prepared by celebrity Chef JJ Johnson. Setting the tone was a soundtrack of classic party starters like Jay-Z's "Change Clothes," Aaliyah's "Rock The Boat," Megan Thee Stallion's "Hot Girl Summer" and Lil Kim's "Crush On You." But before the party began, Billboard spoke to Mannion and Smith backstage about the new campaign, why they're dismissing false diversity and the lessons they've learned from a new generation of creatives.

This campaign is titled “Nectar of the Culture.” What is the key to keeping our creative culture thriving?

Smith: It's innovation. Just always finding levels of newness and people's interpretations. As long as we can embrace the youth, diversity and inclusivity, I think we'll always be on the uprise of keeping the fashion industry relevant.

Mannion: For 25 years I've been documenting this genre that I love so much, so I've been challenging myself to find the new and fresh people who are making changes and carrying the torch and honoring the tradition of the art form. Things move pretty fast nowadays and people are digesting imagery at a rapid rate, so how do you slow it down? We have to figure out the story we're telling within the image so it's not just thrown away and forgotten. We can't just click, tap and swipe. It's also about mentoring the new generation as well. Having the benefits of the lessons I've learned along the way, how can I arm this next wave of brilliant photographers so they can miss the speed bumps I probably hit along the way.

Speaking of lessons, being an OG in this game, have you learned anything by watching rising photographers?

Mannion: It's interesting to analyze how photographers are working with the talent. In my case, having done 300 album covers, things were different [back then]. It's like, Ludacris has an album coming out, [the label] wants to break this guy so we have to make him look like a star straight out the gate. Here's the budget, go to Atlanta, get it done, mark up the contact sheets -- because it was all analog back then -- and then it gets packaged. The way images are flowing now, everything is documented. There are now personal photographers that are running with Drake, DJ Khaled and Puff [Daddy]. People now have a full-time job -- even though they're freelance.

Now, photographers are stepping out from behind the scenes. When you think of Beyoncé and Jay-Z, you think of Ravie B. When you think of DJ Khaled, you think of Ivan Berrios. Photographers are becoming influencers in their own right.

Mannion: But I think it's due to the core principles of establishing trust. They're around because they're executing at a high level, they can keep up with the pace of these artists' insane schedules -- it's pretty amazing to see. They go up until 5 in the morning and no one can keep up with them, and that solidifies their position and access. That's all a photographer could ask for; that's what allows for really special moments to be documented.

LaQuan, you're a Queens native. How does this city help fuel your creativity?

Smith: New York City is the ultimate inspiration. I always drew inspiration from my travels of going from Jamaica Avenue to Times Square. The juxtaposition of this city, you have areas that are so gritty and others that are super bougie and posh. It's really about intertwining those and that represents the women that I dress. There's so many different characteristics of who she is: strength, unapologetic, raw and has sex appeal. And that's New York City.

If you could place the LaQuan Smith woman in a film, which would you choose?

Smith: She would definitely be in Boomerang! Everyone from Grace Jones to Robin Givens and Halle Berry, they all played sexy and confident roles. They all represented something different and that was amazing. It's one of my favorite movies of all time.

Jonathan, your 1998 portraits of OutKast were recently memorialized in an Atlanta mural. What does it mean for you to have your work transformed?

Mannion: It was long overdue for OutKast to be immortalized. They're true royalty in music with how they've shown how the borders can be pushed. They've created lanes for everybody else to run. Like, I can wear drapery for pants and a mountain fleece hat with a marching band top? They really showed what freedom looks like! OutKast are one of my favorites. They're in my top five on any given day, for sure. To see my work 30 feet tall was just amazing. And the work that muralist JEKS did was masterful, that's the only way to describe it. 

If you could re-create one of your iconic album covers, which would it be?

Mannion: With a full heart, I'd say it would be the Aaliyah cover shoot [for the late star's 2001 self-titled album]. Just because that would mean she would come back. It means a lot to do what I do. Having had the time with these artists who really fulfilled their dreams and also enriched the fans' lives through their music [is special]. Working with any of those artists that we've sadly lost too soon -- Nipsey Hussle, Ol' Dirty Bastard, any of the magical voices that we've witnessed -- to be able to have another dance with them would be a joy.

Which new artist would you like to capture, and why?

Mannion: I love what H.E.R. is doing. I recently saw her perform at Barclays Center and I was surprised. Lekeli47 is badass -- I've worked with her twice. It's so hard to keep up with the wave of new artists coming out. Things that hit my radar might be last-minute. But there's certain gifts, like I did Ella Mai's cover [for her 2018 debut album]. They chose me and told me they understood the value of my alignment. So to work with artists who are making a difference right now -- she just sold out arenas in Europe -- makes you just want to rise to another level. But also want to photographer some legends. I always bring up Sadé just to keep the energy going.

The fashion world is increasingly embracing diversity. LaQuan, how are you helping to ignite this change?

Smith: I think right now it's very trendy to talk about being diverse and inclusive in fashion. There's a lot of conversation of how we can push this forward, but I really don't feel like the action is being done. You can't have a conversation about diversity if you're not putting the gatekeepers in the room. You have to put everyone under one roof and have these hard dialogues to come to a middle ground. With all that being said, it doesn't take away from the efforts that's being done. But the word is used so loosely. When you go to corporate companies and fashion brands you still have to look at it with a microscopic eye, because we're still not let in. Why? Because the color of our skin. All that I can do is continue to inspire. If that's a contribution to what inclusivity and diversity means, being a part of this incredible union with Moët & Chandon, then I'll represent it to its true authentic self.

For rising designers who may be searching for guidance, what advice would you give them?

Smith: Focus on the work. At the end of the day, your skin color is not going to change. No man can stop anyone's dreams. There's a lot of doors that's gonna get slammed in your face, but you gotta be willing to push forward and fight for what you believe in. I'm a true testimony of that. I started this business from the ground up -- no money or investors -- solely because I was passionate. As long as these young designers study their craft and work really hard, they're bound for success.

How do you think your designs are breaking the barriers of traditional fashion?

Smith: I think I know my lane and the woman I'm designing for. I stick to what works for me, and that's just being sexy. What woman doesn't want to feel beautiful and be desired? So I want to continue to tap into that experience. If you want to get married, I'm not the one to call for the wedding -- I'm the one to call for the reception. And people identify with that, so it creates this clientele. We're in such a streetwear phase that no one is doing sexy anymore. You don't see women wearing skirt suits to work anymore -- they're wearing leggings. It's not shade, but where are you going? I don't feel like women are putting the effort in dressing up the way that they used to. So when you look at films from the '80s and '90s that were shot in New York, women were wearing power suits with shoulders. You might go to cocktail hour after work, so you take off your blazer to show your blouse. Maybe that's why my work feels so refreshing, because I want to revive the heyday of sexiness meant.

As we head in 2020 and leaving the Golden Age of art behind, how would you both like to see this new Rose Gold era be defined?

Mannion: Like I said before, we just have to slow things down and pay attention. I don't want to tell you who I'm shooting in Chicago, L.A. and Miami. Take the journey with us. It's fascinating to spend time with this new generation who are on their own wave. They're entrepreneurs, artists, musicians -- and oftentimes they'd be doing all those things. It used to be that you have to pick one career just to be safe, but we're shattering the box. It's a new age of enlightenment and those voices need to be amplified. For me, being a master of my own craft, I want to articulate a vision and make the artists feel like themselves.

Smith: More equal opportunity. There are a lot of fantastic opportunities that we as black designers aren't necessarily exposed to. I'm referring to investments and a level of exposure. I'd love to see more of that for designers of color.


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