I recently have had the pleasure of working with the fabulous Mikki Taylor, the author, international speaker and editor-at-large for Essence Magazine. Ms. Taylor is the leading authority on “inner and outer beauty” for women of color and a compelling empowerment speaker. She also is the author of several books, including Commander-in-Chic: Every Woman’s Guide to Managing Her Style Like a First Lady and her latest, Editor in Chic, How to Style and Be Your Most Empowered Self. The recipient of the 2019 National Urban League Trailblazer Award, Ms. Taylor has appeared on national television, including CNN, CBS, OWN and BET. In addition, she’s worked with some of the world’s most influential people, such as former First Lady Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Beyoncé and Rihanna.
At the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s annual Author Expo, Ms. Taylor talked about preparing to become an author and the publishing industry. She captivated the audience with her pearls of wisdom about writing and the creative process. As I listened to her presentation urging artists to polish both their craft and their lives, I realized that Ms. Taylor’s insights were relevant to those of us working to create access to the arts, and I wanted to share her thoughts with the readers of Arts & Culture Connections.
Donna Walker-Kuhne: How did you begin your work in fashion?
Mikki Taylor: I came of age in beauty and fashion school so to speak in Newark, New Jersey, in my home and under my mother’s tutelage. My mother was an image-maker who served as hairstylist, makeup artist and wardrobe stylist for the late jazz singer Sarah Vaughan and, for that matter, for Yours Truly. So, one could say that beauty and fashion is in my DNA because it was part of my Genesis story.
If I look at my career starting out as a model on 7th Avenue and then doing commercials, runway and later print, it seems a natural progression to joining Essence in 1980. When I began as an editor at Essence in the fashion and beauty department, the culture demonstrated that fashion and beauty were a form of self-expression. So, it was no challenge to me that one of my early responsibilities was to have clothing made by the pattern houses to put on the fashion pages of the magazine because we sewed our clothing.
Black women were entering the workforce in large numbers at that time but not receiving pay comparable to that of our white counterparts. We recognized an opportunity to serve the audience with fashion options that could be made. I shopped the fabric market and had pattern houses like Vogue and McCall’s create clothing for our fashion pages that was then worn by the likes of Pat Cleveland, Billie Blair and the other top models of the day.
Without question it called for an expertise that best showcased looks worthy of the fashion pages of the magazine. It called for a distinct style sensibility as well—because for Black women it was always more about how we expressed ourselves than it was about clothing or simply getting dressed. You know, even if we look back at ourselves as children and how we were dressed for church, that was a form of expression. So, it was innate and the fullest expression of that took place on the pages of Essence—first in fashion and then in the 30-plus year career that I had as Beauty and Cover Director.
Question: What do you see as the connection between fashion, beauty and the arts?
Mikki: Art is a form of expression and it gives a metaphorical voice to that which is seen internally. So, in the hand of a designer, fashion is art; in the eyes of a photographer, images become art. The same holds true for a makeup artist and how they treat a face as a canvas upon which to create. The connection is that all are deeply rooted in self-expression and what the artist wishes to convey.
Donna: In your work at Essence, you were able to see culture and the arts through the pages of the magazine. What did success look like and what was the impact?
Mikki: If you look at the magazine’s history the evidence was profound from the beginning because Essence was born out of a great need for a publication that spoke directly to Black women. There was no other magazine on the newsstand that did so, and it quickly became the griot that addressed every area of our lives. In the 30 years that I was at the desk, Essence gave voice to some of the greatest writers of our times—the late Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison and Bebe Moore Campbell; writers such as Isabel Wilkerson, Alice Walker, Nikki Giovanni, Pearl Cleage, bell hooks (cq) and others.
The magazine showcased fashion designers that became global names as the last word on style during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, such as Stephen Burrows, Willi Smith, and Patrick Kelly, and today, such designers as Aurora James, Virgil Abloh, Duro Olowu and others. It is worth noting that many of our Black designers were celebrated in their own right in the 90’s when Essence had its own exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York on Museum Mile with an exhibit titled “The Power of Black Style.” We published a book by the same title as well.
During my tenure, in 1995, The Essence Festival was born and, as editors, we all had a say in the content that would be put before the audience during the empowerment seminars. It was billed as “The Party with a Purpose,” and today it draws over a half-million people for entertainment, empowerment and community. In truth, then, as it is now, Essence Magazine is the intersection where creatives, artists, authors, politicians and experts from every corridor meet in support of the magazine’s mission to affirm, inform and inspire. Its success is in a class by itself.
Donna: What are your thoughts about using the arts to influence the lives of people also serving as a path to create access to the arts?
Mikki: It’s on us to demonstrate the power we have to do so. For example, at Essence we would bring artists together to interview one another. We would have Alicia Keys and Roberta Flack, Jada Pinkett Smith and bell hooks—even artists from different genres—to have a conversation on a particular subject and feature it on the magazine’s pages. For us, it was always about influence; bringing our voices to the forefront to expound upon and ultimately tell our narratives.
Donna: Your many books, including Editor in Chic, discuss the value and impact of self-care; inner and outer beauty, as well as style. Please talk about that intersectionality.
Mikki: I penned Editor in Chic because I was hearing too much survival talk and we were created to thrive and to demonstrate that we know who we are. Self-perception colors your entire life—personally, professionally, emotionally and creatively. When you know who you are, you recognize that self-care isn’t optional. You understand that your inner and outer beauty are inextricably bound and must be nurtured. On a creative level, you understand that how you style begins within; with an unapologetic appreciation of who you are! So, here again, “self-view” impacts how you look, what you wear, and how you wear it.
So, you have to possess a healthy sense of self that compels you to appreciate the power of who you are.
Donna: So, how does one get there?
Mikki: It begins with knowing your value. When you know your value, you anchor down what you have control over, and you don’t ask permission where you already have authority.
Each of us must recognize that we have the power to choose our path. We each have the authority to carve out time to get still; to meditate; to clear out insecurities; to dispel the thinking that the grass is greener on the other side, and to recognize that we possess a lawn that’s lush and full. Each of us has the authority to set boundaries in our lives and block out that which negatively impacts our creativity. We have to get off the treadmill of false urgencies that the news, social media, texts, emails and the many notifications masquerade as time sensitive. That’s the antithesis of owning your life and mastering your purpose. So, you have to value the power you possess to own your life
Donna: Look for Part 2 of this wonderful conversation with Mikki Taylor in the coming weeks. In the interim, please leave your comments below, or send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org