Upending the status quo: Meet Gabriella Karefa-Johnson, the first black woman to style a Vogue cover

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Gabriella Karefa-Johnson wears glasses, a blue checked coat with fluffy cuffs and collar, a pink bag, cropped pants, white pointy shoes, a t-shirt with a printed picture depicting Mona Lisa, during London Fashion Week February 2020 on February 17, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Edward Berthelot/Getty Images)
Gabriella Karefa-Johnson wears glasses, a blue checked coat with fluffy cuffs and collar, a pink bag, cropped pants, white pointy shoes, a t-shirt with a printed picture depicting Mona Lisa, during London Fashion Week February 2020 on February 17, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Edward Berthelot/Getty Images)
  • There are many firsts to be had in the fashion industry, but we're well on the way there.
  • And New York-based stylist and editor Gabriella Karefa-Johnson is among those leading the pack, having become the first black woman to style a cover of Vogue - the January 2021 Paloma Elsesser cover.
  • It turned out to be the first of five back-to-back covers she would style for Vogue, including pioneering women such as Vice President Kamala Harris and poet Amanda Gorman.

The fashion industry is far from diverse, and every time a woman like New York-based stylist and editor Gabriella Karefa-Johnson steps into spaces that are previously not reserved for people of colour, the needle of equality moves closer to where it ought to be. 

Hence, the fashion universe celebrated when she became the first black woman to style a cover of Vogue with the January 2021 Paloma Elsesser cover. Other Vogue covers followed back to back including, US Vice President Kamala Harris,Gigi Hadid for the model’s first solo coverSelena Gomez and Amanda Gorman.

"Oh, how widely my Sierra Leonean grandfather, my grandmother, and all of my ancestors must be smiling. How chuffed they would be to see a symbol of our heritage celebrated in this way," the stylist posted on Instagram when the Gorman cover was unveiled. 

Gabriella Karefa Johnson, stylist, editor, fashion

New York-based stylist and editor Gabriella Karefa-Johnson’s mission is to upend the fashion industry’s status quo, in her own inimitable, infectiously upbeat way. Image supplied by Pressroom


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According to Teen Vogue, Gabriella has fast become one of the most sought after stylists in the world, but this wasn't the case just over a year ago when the pandemic started.

She was stuck at home trying to figure out how to do her job without being able to do her job in person, so she took five months off to regroup. When she came back, it was then that the magic began as she found herself behind major covers like the iconic Garage cover starring Mary J. Blige, Lakeith Stanfield for Interview, and Billie Eilish for Vanity Fair.

It is undeniable, being responsible for putting together looks for such major brands is daunting and hard work, but Gabriella shared with The Cut that she makes her experiences on set enjoyable.

"There is this expectation of a certain coldness and self-seriousness, but I find that the best pictures are taken when everyone feels entirely at ease and comfortable and like they can actually be themselves, rather than fulfilling some expectation of what they should be in a work environment," she said, conceding it can become complicated, especially with all the young black collaborators that she works with and the extra layer of consideration of respectability politics.

"I think, in a way, we're shaping a new kind of system in which there is some sort of capital to being yourself and being playful and having fun," she told The Cut.

"At the end of the day, who wants to create work under duress?"

READ MORE | Greta Thunberg uses Vogue interview to slam the impact of fast fashion

Gabriella started her styling career at Vogue, and in 2017 she joined Garage magazine as fashion director before returning to Vogue. 

She recently styled the Pandora Wearing Occasions global muses and shares her captivation with jewellery.

"I only have one ear pierced, so whatever I put on my ear has to really make a statement. It has to be vibrant and full of life," she said in her Pandora campaign video.

"I'm obsessed with kinetic jewellery; jewellery that moves with you, that announces when you walk into a room. Ever since I was a kid, I've been obsessed with charm bracelets. And I only have one ear pierced, so whatever I put on my ear has to make a statement. It has to be vibrant and full of life."

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Information courtesy M-Sports Communications. Sources:  Teen VogueThe Cut

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