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Kerry James Marshall chose to paint a fictional woman wearing an Off-White runway look, while Jordan Casteel portrayed Brother Vellies creative director Aurora James wearing a light blue Pyer Moss dress and Brother Vellies shoes

By Hanna Flanagan
August 25, 2020 01:16 PM
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Sept Vogue Covers Tout
Credit: Kerry James Marshall/Vogue; Jordan Casteel/Vogue

From devastating natural disasters and the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic to the ongoing fight against police brutality and a surge in political unrest in America, 2020 turned the world upside down and brought on calls for widespread change.

To signify this unprecedented time in history, Vogue took a creative risk for its highly anticipated September Issue. Instead of featuring an of-the-moment celebrity — like Taylor Swift in 2019 and Beyoncé in 2018 — the fashion magazine invited two contemporary artists, Kerry James Marshall and Jordan Casteel, to make paintings for the covers.

While this is not the first time artists have created covers for Vogue, it is the first time the commissioned painters were given total creative control. The only requirement? Marshall and Casteel had to choose a dress by one of four Vogue-selected designers for their subject to wear on the cover.

For Marshall, the result was a fictional woman wearing an Off-White runway look. The Alabama-born artist described his subject in a press release saying, "I’m trying to build into her expression that she’s not dependent on the gaze of the spectator."

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Kerry James Marshall's Vogue cover
| Credit: Kerry James Marshall/Vogue

"‘I’m here and you can see me, but I’m not here for you.’ That’s a critical element," Marshall added. "The great word, ultimately, is going to be ‘self-possessed.’ That’s what I’m aiming for.”

“[Their skin is so dark that it is] at the edge of visibility... But if you’re going to be at the edge of visibility, you’ve gotta put all the information in there," he explained. "The reality is that even when the lights are off, everything that was in the world is still there. You have to put it in there so that if people actually look hard, they can see it. The point is to show that blackness is rich and complex, within the blackness alone.”

Artist Kerry James Marshall
Kerry James Marshall
| Credit: Rachel Murray/Getty

Meanwhile, Casteel chose to portray Brother Vellies creative director and activist Aurora James, wearing a light blue Pyer Moss dress and Brother Vellies shoes that she kicked off to go barefoot.

"What’s most exciting to me is being given artistic integrity and being able to choose the person to be my sitter—someone who reflects a portion of my own identity—and then to do that truly in the medium of my choice," Casteel said of creating the cover. "This is the way that I speak to the world. And this is the way I’ve been speaking to the world and talking about the humanity of our people, talking about humanity in general. It’s a really profound experience. I do think I’m participating and a change is happening."

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Jordan Casteel's Vogue cover
| Credit: Jordan Casteel/Vogue

The artist said she chose to photograph then paint James for the project because, "I believe what Aurora is doing is hugely important in creating the long-term change that Black people deserve and this country owes us."

Casteel continued: "I see [James] as a light in a lot of darkness, and a potential for hope, a representative of change across all creative industries.”

jordan casteel
Jordan Casteel
| Credit: Bennett Raglin/Gett

The New York City-based fashion designer posted the cover on Instagram on Tuesday morning, explaining how the cover came to fruition a few months back in her caption.

"VOGUE Magazine, September 2020 • Black Women made this 🖤 on a day in June @jordanmcasteel and I went up to my roof in Brooklyn, I brought a few things with me that mean a great deal to me, and she brought her camera. It was us," she wrote.

James also shared that, during the shoot, she and Casteel had important conversations about the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police officers in May and the 15 Percent Pledge, which challenges brands to dedicate 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses.

"Thank you for seeing me. Thank you for supporting me," the Brother Vellies creative director concluded. "Thank you for being the woman you were destined to be in this life. You are brilliant. And thank you to @voguemagazine for taking this leap with us too. Things are changing. I am changing. We are changing. I love you"

In a press release, Casteel explained that, ultimately, her September Issue painting has many depictions of hope. Despite the tragedies happening all around us in the year 2020, "the sky as being full of endless possibilities," she said.

"A lot of hope lies within that. The two birds next to her are a moment where I think of flight—the opportunity to move into new spaces. Most of the windows have the same blue that is in the sky. I like the idea that the hope of the sky came inside this urban building-scape, that whoever occupies that space within is also seeing the sky. I think about her foot being pressed against the ground. I purposely chose this active foot that feels like it’s propelling her upwards into the world above her—she’s stepping into the space of real possibility. Those are some of the things I thought about in making this portrait as it relates to hope and all the things that can exist beyond where we are right now. To create a better future, not only for ourselves but for those we love and those who will come after us.”

Vogue's September 2020 issue is available on newsstands nationwide on September 1st.