Creative Lives — Stylist and THIIIRD editor-in-chief Rhona Ezuma on the social drive that powers everything she creates
Starting out as an English Literature student, Rhona Ezuma has always been fascinated with the art of storytelling. Seeing herself reflected in literary characters who broke away from the status quo, she soon found herself carving out her own alternative path, as she set her sights on the world of fashion. After learning the ropes through internships and assisting, Rhona has now established herself as an accomplished stylist, working with the likes of GQ, Vogue Arabia, Adidas, Lynx and many more. Here, she tells us how narrative and story continue to shape her work, as well as the motivation behind founding her own boundary-breaking magazine, THIIIRD.
Freelance Fashion Stylist, Writer and Founder of THIIIRD magazine
Sony Music, Universal, GQ , Vogue Arabia, Adidas, Lynx, Marionnaud Paris, Tate Modern, Dazed, Huffington Post
1st Stylist Assistant, (2011–2014)
Editorial and Fashion Assistant, Arise Magazine (2012–2013)
BA English Literature, University of Manchester (2008–2011)
How would you describe what you do?
I’m quite multi-hyphenated, but I would say that being a communicator is at the core of everything I do. I work primarily as a stylist and use the medium of clothes to communicate visually. I move through different industries: music, advertising, fashion and magazines.
On the one hand, styling is very much about understanding fashion and sealing looks, but on the other, the it’s about telling a story. There’s a lot of research, sourcing and preparation that goes into it, as well as intuitive flair and experimentation.
Can you tell us a little about THIIIRD, and the thinking behind it?
THIIIRD is the magazine I founded. When I first started freelancing as a stylist I became very aware that diversity issues in fashion and culture magazines stemmed very deep. The lack of representation, especially of people of colour, wasn’t just coincidental. For us, celebrating diversity is not a trend, and it’s not tokenism. We are very much about inclusivity and allyship, but to us, it means amplifying where there is usually marginalisation, and being socially engaged is important too.
“On one hand, styling is about understanding fashion and sealing looks, but on the other, the it’s about telling a story.”
Producing THIIIRD has opened up new areas in the wider fashion, advertising and creative arts industries, and shown us where we can see ourselves adding value. We are moving towards partnering with brands and organisations on campaigns and creative projects, including brands like Eastpak. And, Covid-allowing, we will be doing more of that this year!
As the editor-in-chief, I wear a few different hats; it involves a combination of team-leading, creative directing, writing, publishing and business planning, as well as my usual styling work.
THIIIRD magazine covers; Photography by Vicky Grout, Silvia Draz and Turkina Faso
Do you feel lockdown has changed the way you work?
At the beginning of lockdown, it was easy to feel like this year had been completely derailed. Now, however, I am grateful for the time it gave me to reflect and re-evaluate, which working job-to-job doesn’t often allow you to do.
I’ve taken this time to do the reading, researching and cultural immersing which nurtures the work I produce. I’m very attuned to the idea that what we make, as part of art and culture, has wider social reverberations, and I’ve thought about how to make my work purposeful to what is going on in the world, especially with Black Lives Matter.
I’ve found staying connected to the people, continuing to plan stuff and support each other through this rollercoaster, has been important and really helped. Just doing the human thing of checking in, lending or asking for things from my wider networks has been important.
“What we make has wider social reverberations. I’ve thought about how to make my work purposeful, especially with Black Lives Matter.”
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
A good day is one that has been planned the night before, with a to-do list! Pre-lockdown, and on the days I was not shooting, I could be writing emails, doing research, having meetings, shopping, doing press appointments, fittings and boring old admin.
Lockdown gave my days a lot more of a conventionality, as I’ve had to do things virtually, on a laptop. I’m still working a lot from home, but I go into the studio to prepare shoots and focus on completing singular tasks.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Last year I worked on my first multi-channel campaign for Lynx with Anthony Joshua, Jesse Lingard, Mo Gilligan and others. With commercial projects like this, there is always a set agenda for what you are shooting, and the styling has to facilitate that. I always want to enhance that vision, but when working with people who have their own particular brands, you have to cater to that and gel it to the vision.
There’s not a lot of time to waste on set and you want everyone to be happy and comfortable. I love succeeding at that. Anthony Joshua actually posted one of his looks on his socials as a behind-the-scenes, so I took that as a good sign.
Left and centre: Work for Notion magazine; photography by Jess Mahaffey. Right: Styling for singer Mahalia; photography by Polly Hanrahan
And with THIIIRD, last year we did a talk at Tate Modern which we titled ‘Not Another Diversity Panel’. Myself and our producer, Daniela, did not want to follow the trend we could see happening with diversity panels, where the conversations are limited to stats and do nothing to question infrastructural approaches or support for diverse recruits. The feedback was really positive, but most importantly, many of the things we were discussing feel really necessary to this moment now, so it just felt like a really important talk to have had.
“You rarely have the skills to take the shot, find the clothes, do the modelling, fix the hair... that takes collaboration. Respecting other people’s creativity is imperative.”
What skills would you say are essential to your job?
Team work. There are lots of people behind a photoshoot. You can be talented in a few ways, but you rarely have the skills to take the shot, find the clothes, do the modelling, fix the hair and keep the skin looking slick – that takes collaboration. You should have your own tastes and opinions, but embracing being a part of a team and respecting other people’s creativity is imperative.
What tools do you use most for your work?
As a stylist, a steamer is my most important tool! You don’t want to mess with creases on clothes that have been transported halfway across the city! As a creative in general, though, nothing beats my laptop.
How I Got Here
How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
I’m Nigerian-British and growing up in any African household – especially when you’re excelling academically – you are told to aspire for two career paths: becoming a doctor or a lawyer. However, growing up in London, surrounded by so much subculture and style, I developed a natural affinity for fashion.
I was also a massive reader (I was nicknamed ‘Matilda’ by my brothers). I think that prepared me for going against the grain with my career choices. In a typical bildungsroman novel, many characters who break away from the status quo, encounter a period of struggle but come out somehow the better for it. When styling required me to intern and support my creative career with secondary work and side hustles, I was very much just like ‘trust the bigger vision’ and luckily, it worked out.
Did you go to university? If so, do you feel you need formal education for what you do?
I studied English Literature. My course exposed me to the fact that other mediums could be read as text, and all text has storytellers. Today an aspect of my styling definitely feels like a kind of cultural studies through clothes.
“Launching THIIIRD was my lucky break. It’s allowed me to celebrate the things and people I felt there wasn’t space for, or interest in.”
After graduating, what were your initial steps?
I knew I wanted to get into styling after I graduated. I applied for loads of internships but my first break was a freelance job in an e-commerce studio. I hated it because the environment was pretty toxic, but ironically, that job taught me a lot; it trained my eye to pay attention to detail and gave me the skills to go on and style for other (much nicer) e-comm studios later in my career.
I didn’t want to get comfortable there, so I started applying for internships and took one with an in-house PR which allowed me to assist stylists. I also interned at a magazine, then started freelance assisting. At that point, I was doing a lot of things in tandem, soaking up every opportunity that got me closer to my goal of becoming a 1st assistant – and eventually I took on the role, with two stylists at once!
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break?
I would say that launching THIIIRD was my lucky break. It’s allowed me to celebrate the things and people I felt there wasn’t space for, or interest in. So many people and stories get sidelined and I always want to be able to celebrate the multifaceted nature of people we traditionally typecast, and to connect my love of creativity to wider conversations, whether that be through art, music, politics or any form of culture.
How important would you say social media has been to establishing your career?
Social media is a great way to share your work, do research and find collaborations, but it’s not the be-all-and-end-all of this job or your value. At its best, it is a place of self-curation, you should feel free to communicate what you want through it. I know people whose feeds are strictly about work, others who have Instagrams about art direction with little to none of their own work on it. I like to share my work through it and I have had jobs come through Instagram, but it's not what's established my career.
“Founding an indie magazine really stretches what you think you can do. You are constantly stepping up to the bar you never knew you set.”
What’s been your biggest challenge in navigating the industry, if any?
I like to think that challenges are part and parcel of learning. For example, rejection at first can feel terrible, but I think it ignites improvement and builds resilience. Founding an indie magazine really stretches what you think you can and can’t do, because you are constantly stepping up to the bar you never knew you set. Making hardline business decisions can also be a challenge for any creative, especially when they are associated with risk. But speaking very generally, I think there have been challenges at every stage, and they are always changing. The pandemic has already offered new ones.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Don’t expect anything to fall into your lap. This industry can be competitive but it really doesn’t have to be The Devil Wears Prada. Enjoy your work and be kind to people. Don’t let anyone make you forget why you got into this industry.
As an extra tip, if you can find a mentor or peer to help you work out the scary questions around money, rates, contracts and deciphering what is an actually an opportunity, and what is taking the piss, do! It’s not always as clear-cut as you would think.