Continuing his silent protest, Colin Kaepernick declined to be interviewed for his GQ Man Of The Year cover story. Instead, the magazine talked to activists and friends of the athlete, like rapper J.Cole, director Ava DuVernay, activist Harry Belafonte, and Women’s March co-organizer Linda Sarsour about their relationship with Kaepernick and protests. When planning out the look of the images, Kaepernick and the editors wanted to pay homage to iconic moments of athlete activism in the past. And according to Rachel Johnson, the athlete's longtime stylist, Kaepernick requested the clothes he wore reflected the spirit behind the photo portfolio.
“He wanted to wear designers of color and/or designers who were women,” Johnson tells Refinery29. The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback’s reasoning? “He wanted to give an opportunity for designers to be featured in the magazine who wouldn’t normally be, especially for a cover shoot of this magnitude. That was was the direction that he gave to [GQ’s creative director] Jim Moore and I.”
From there, Johnson reached out to designers she had worked with before and knew Kaepernick liked. “There are not a huge pool of Black designers to choose from honestly, you know, it didn’t take very long to put our list together,” Johnson explains. From there, her office worked with GQ’s team to start the pulling process. “I reached out who I knew, they reached out to who they knew, and we all did research as well to see if there were other designers who weren’t on either team’s radar.”
One label on Johnson’s radar was Harlem Haberdashery, who created the leather blazer the athlete wears in one of the images. “I love the fact that it’s all black clothing, I think that’s powerful,” Shay Wood, who co-owns the Harlem-based store with her husband Guy, tells Refinery29. “I knew we were doing a leather blazer but I didn’t realize the impact of the image until I saw him in it and I was like wow, that’s such a black panther statement. I love the collaborative effort [between the stylist, GQ, and Kaepernick], he was making more than a fashion statement, it’s a political statement.”
But for Kerby Jean-Raymond, the designer behind New York-label Pyer Moss, it was a statement he wasn’t sure he wanted to make. “Rachel is a friend of mine, and [she] has always pulled from [the brand] for Colin in the past," he tells Refinery29. "She wanted the “They Have Names” shirt and I was like I’m not making those anymore. Even though I had them in stock, I was just like I’m not going to bring those back out.”
The designer was hesitant because back in 2015, when he created the initial “They Have Names” shirt, he also did a New York Fashion Week show around Black Lives Matter, and felt he had been “ostracized for a little bit and was like a pariah in the industry." He explained: "It took me awhile to get back to this level, and I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers. I just wanted to keep doing my social justice work on the side." It took some convincing but once Jean-Raymond agreed, the race was on to beat the clock, creating a new design for Kaepernick that read "Even More Names."
He continued: “I was actually in surgery while this was happening but it was thankfully one of those surgeries where I could work. It was weird but I was putting the graphics on, that’s why the "Gray," in "Freddie Gray" is misspelled because I was telecommunicating with my team back at home and I was in California so they were working with the screen printer and everything was moving so quickly, we had to do it in a day.”
“It was very difficult [to choose the names], that was the hardest part about it. I wanted to use names that weren’t on the last shirt, so just from 2015 to now and the number is just exorbitant." So Jean-Raymond selected the most egregious acts of police brutality, filling up both the front and the back of the shirt. But don’t expect to be able to pick up the t-shirt at your local retailer. “People are just commodifying different things and I don’t want to [be] another peg in that wheel of white corporate culture essentially owning and commodifying activism." He explained, "That’s why I’m making a conscious effort not to sell the shirt. It’s just a protest piece.”
The shoot was the perfect backdrop for it, too. “It was amazing how it all came together. It feels surreal. I’m proud of how it's being received," Johnson said. "I’m thrilled we were able to feature designers who would have never gotten this look before. There were designers [that] when I told them they made the book, they cried over the phone. I’m like damn, I guess I should go buy [the magazine] right now and actually look at it.”
That would certainly make two of us. GQ’s Man Of The Year issue is on newsstands now.