We first interviewed Kenya Hunt at a GRACE Talks event in London a year ago. Little did we know what 2020 had instore for us. The next time we spoke – in the middle of a pandemic that touched every single person on the globe – the world would look very different...
When we spoke last year, American in London Kenya Hunt had just left ELLE UK where she was deputy editor to move to GRAZIA UK as the fashion director. This month has been an incredibly big one for Kenya, she has been promoted to deputy editor and she has also just published her first book, Girl: Essays on Black Womanhood, a collection of original essays on what it means to be black, a woman, a mother and a global citizen in today’s ever-changing world. Kenya looks at how black women have never been more visible or more publicly celebrated. But for every new milestone, every magazine cover, every box office record smashed, the reality of everyday life remains a complex experience.
Now, there’s more. And yes, as you can tell Kenya is incredibly dynamic, ambitious and passionate about making a difference in this world. Kenya is also the founder of R.O.O.M. Mentoring, which advocates for greater diversity within the fashion industry by providing a supportive network for some of the many talented aspiring designers, journalists and image-makers of colour London has to offer. She also sits on the British Fashion Council’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee and is a mother of two.
Kenya is our guest on The Grace Tales Podcast this week and I’m so excited to share an edited extract of our conversation with you here. As always, we talk about it all today. Childhood, career, motherhood and more.
Find out more about Kenya at kenyahunt.com | Purchase Girl: Essays on Black Womanhood | Follow @kenyahunt
Kenya Hunt with her children
You grew up as a classically trained dancer and clearly you have an incredible work ethic. Do you think dance is where you learned your discipline?
My mother was very strategic with that and encouraged me with all the ballet lessons when I was quite young. I very clearly remember her saying that it’s great for discipline, poise, confidence, courage, and all those things. Now I’m well into the throes of adulthood and looking back retrospectively, I can definitely see how a lot of the lessons that I learned as a young aspiring dancer have carried over into my working life and also my parenting life.
I want to go back to when you left your position as Deputy Editor for Elle magazine to go to Grazia where you are now the fashion director and take over as deputy editor in January. Do you welcome change in your career?
I do enjoy change. I tend to get bored quite easily and it’s growing with age. Social media has a lot to do with that. In my field, we’re constantly consuming information and things are always changing. When you’re working in a responsive way to the news cycle, things change so radically and quickly, especially now. I’ve learned over the years to not only embrace change, but welcome change. It’s just the new normal.
You completed a graduate degree during your first maternity leave and recorded a radio documentary during the second. You wrote about how, “For most women, having a baby inspires an instinctive need to slow down, for me, it’s the opposite. During both maternity leaves, the realisation that I had a small human to care for spot to me a primal desire to take greater risks, push myself and try different things.” I’m interested in how becoming a mother changed the way you approached your career for the better…
There’s something about having another person that I’m responsible for that really inspired me to think through the bigger picture in terms of my purpose and also what I would be leaving behind for them. Also making a living as well and being able to provide a life for them that allows them comfort, opportunity and all those things that a parent wants their child to have.
With both pregnancies, it definitely heightened my sense of wanting to drill down what my purpose is, and really fulfil that for the sake of my kids. When you have babies and children, your time becomes so precious. When I was on maternity leave, I was conscious of that impending end of mat leave and returning to a life where I wouldn’t be around them 24/7. I wanted to make sure that anything that I was doing away from them really counted for something. It’s something that I can be proud of and excited to share with them and something that they would learn about, and that would hopefully trickle down in some way and help make their lives better as well.
I have a lot of friends and I have met a lot of women who say things like, “Aren’t you really tired?” Or they did when I was on mat leave and working on these projects. Some of them would just look at me with horror like, “Why are you doing this? You should just be sitting in bed and lying down.” You do what feels right for you in the moment and what works well for you. I had a fairly straightforward mat leave experience in that I didn’t really have any complications, so it just worked out that the time I had off allowed me to do those things as well.
What do you remember about those early days of motherhood?
I just remember feeling so out of control and at a loss. We spend so much of our lives navigating our professional lives and feeling in control or trying to get to a place where you feel in control. Then you have this person and it’s just so messy and not clean and so hard to control. I remember with my first son I just was so out of my comfort zone. I wasn’t that person who wanted to babysit other people’s kids and who would melt when I’d see lots of babies in passing. It wasn’t my wiring. I felt like I was really learning from scratch.
I remember one night where he was screaming his head off within that first month. I wasn’t sure if he was getting enough milk from me and I just remember that feeling of helplessness. We ended up getting help from a lactation woman and a midwife who helped me figure out how much milk he was taking in. I remember feeling so exhausted and so incapable of troubleshooting what sounds so basic in theory, which is feeding your child from yourself, from your own reserve of milk. It all felt so complicated. We kept hitting all these new stages where there were real learning curves. They would settle, then there was a whole new learning curve, and then it would settle. My oldest is now eight and even now to this day, I keep hitting these periods where it’s like, “Oh my God, there’s a whole new learning curve. I don’t know how to tackle this.” It has been really quite a learning experience because I’ve never felt so out of control in a lot of ways.
I’m in a constant state of figuring it out as I go along and being okay with that. Whereas, before I very much prided myself on being really prepared all the time and being organised and being achievement oriented. Not to say that preparation, organisation and achievement is not important, but there are certain things that are out of your control – this year has really heightened that. I’ve learned to roll with things more.
Your book, Girl: On Womanhood and Belonging in the Age of Black Girl Magic, launches this week and is a collection of essays on what it means to be black, a woman, a mother, and a global citizen in today's ever changing world. In your own experience, what does it mean to be all of these things?
It means a number of things. One thing that I wanted to drive home with the book is that black womanhood has always been a very nuanced experience. I really wanted to just look at black womanhood through the prism of my experience as an American expat living abroad in the UK, because I feel like I have come of age professionally and as an adult with the rise of identity politics, watching that conversation pick up steam, and seeing it centred and oriented around like certain places and corners of the world.
My experience living abroad really impacted my understanding of my blackness and womanhood and the intersection of those two things. I also invite some of the women who I know and admire or women I’ve admired from a distance to contribute to that conversation. It was really an interesting experience because it covers the past decade.
Go back to 2010, so much has happened since then. We’re looking at the rise of social media, the dawn of Brexit, the Obama years that then transitioned into Trump and the Brexit era. There was a lot happening in the background and throughout it all, we saw black women becoming more visible, particularly towards the end of that decade, where we’re seeing all of these incredible milestones and wins. At the same time, there were just so many hurdles and roadblocks. I really wanted to explore how we consistently advocate for ourselves. We’re consistently in this position of having to advocate for ourselves and celebrate ourselves in a world that consistently does not.
“ We're consistently in this position of having to advocate for ourselves and celebrate ourselves in a world that consistently does not ”
You wrote the book before the Black Lives Matter movement came to the forefront of every single news feed around the world, following the tragic murder of George Floyd. How does it feel to be publishing this book right now?
We were all watching it unfold and living it and responding to it in our own ways offline and online. I just remember, I kept going back to the book and revisiting bits and calling my editor and my agent, because I had this strong urge to keep adding to it. I ended up writing an epilogue that largely looked at the idea of parenting a child in the age of Black Lives Matter, and also my personal reaction to it.
There’s a lot of beauty that’s coming out of this moment. It’s also just one of incredible heartbreak as well. We’ve never seen anything quite like this and so many people from all over the world recognise the brutalisation of black lives and engaging with it and discussing it, but also engaging with it on social media so publicly. The downside of that is that it can oftentimes feel like a box ticking exercise, very performative and quite hollow.
As someone who is naturally an optimistic person, I’ve spent the vast majority of these past few months viewing it with a real feeling of hope and optimism, but then also there is a sinking feeling that even in this conversation, black women are still having to fight twice as hard, to keep ourselves visible in that conversation, advocate for each other. It has been more than 150 days since Breonna Taylor was murdered in her bedroom and we’re still having to fight so hard to keep her name present and out there. We still haven’t seen justice for her.
You're the founder of R.O.O.M. Mentoring which advocates the greater diversity within the fashion industry by providing a supportive network for some of the best and brightest, aspiring designers, journalists, and image makers of colour London has to offer. Tell me more about what you felt was missing in the fashion industry when you arrived in London and the work that you're doing through R.O.O.M…
When I moved to London, I was immediately struck by how homogenous the fashion industry is here, like just spectacularly so. There has definitely been real progress, but there is still a way to go. When I moved here and I first began covering fashion shows, I was struck by the fact that there were so few people of colour in the room. And I’m not just speaking about black people, but I’m just meaning anyone of colour, whether that person be black or Muslim or Asian or indigenous descent.
I wanted to do what I could with the platform that I had to help change that, because I grew up in New York having witnessed the power of grassroots action and change. When I started in New York as an editorial assistant, fashion was just as homogeneous there. Diversity was a real problem, it still is, which is obvious based on all the conversations happening on both sides of the Atlantic and the fashion industry. When I started in New York, most magazines only had one or two people of colour on their staffs, if any, and the runways were the same. If you saw one or two black models on the catwalk, it was quite a big deal.
When I moved to London, I started the mentorship program when I was at Elle. I joined Elle as acting content director on a mat leave contract. Then I became fashion features director all in my first year there. During that first year, I just remember thinking, “Okay, I’ve got this position and this great title, so I want to use that to help pull some other people up with me and also help nurture people who might be in similar circumstances in which they’re the only person, the only black woman or black male, or Muslim person or Asian person in the room, and just need some extra help navigating these circumstances.”
We’re a tight group. We number about 56, and that’s as big as we can afford to be right now. We meet via Zoom. I don’t promote it much. I do it because it’s important to do, and I just want to meet a need. It has been great to watch the students and graduates who have come through progress and thrive and do really well on their own. I hope it ultimately leads to these young talents getting jobs and actually moving up the career ladder and staying there, because oftentimes we see students entering the schools and schools with staffs that are overwhelmingly white and then getting on the career ladder and joining companies or navigating industries that are incredibly white and then dropping off after a certain point and having trouble progressing and getting to the senior ranks and higher. I just hope that we get to a place where we’re mentoring, but then we’re also giving people jobs and promoting them and paying them fairly and helping them achieve real equity in these industries.
I really hope that we see real change. And I do feel like brands and businesses and companies, everyone is so accountable now and all eyes are on everyone. And I think the conversation is so open. Now it's more open, I think, than it's ever been. And I really hope that that leads to serious change and action...
I completely agree. I’m hopeful.
What does it mean in your words to be anti-racist?
I was interviewing Clara Amfo about a month or so ago, and she said something that really stuck with me. She said this whole conversation around Black Lives Matter… She said she doesn’t care so much about what people post on social media in terms of white people and people who are not black, it’s more so about what happens when we’re not in the room. When you hear someone say something that is discriminatory or wrong or out of place, or you see something that’s wrong, well, how do you respond then? What do you say then?
That’s very much how I feel. I think that’s a good way of thinking about what it means to be anti-racist. If you’re sitting at the dinner table with your extended family and you hear a relative say something that’s just completely not right, how do you respond? Or if you’re in a shop and you see someone treated unfairly or being profiled or being followed, how do you respond? Or if you see a woman being profiled by the police on the street, what’s your response there? Or someone being treated unfairly at work?
It’s great to engage and pay attention and to post things on social media, but there has to be more than just a hashtag or a black square because that’s definitely not going to do anything. It’s really just about your actions. What are you doing to help achieve equal rights for black people in your life? What are you doing to recognize the privilege in your own life and the ways that you have benefited from racism, essentially, or that you’ve benefited from inequality? It’s very much about your action in what you’re doing offline not social media.
I'm interested in how you handle the cycle of newness? Because for example, you jump on Instagram and there's product, after product, after product, or someone wearing green outfit. Always you're made to feel like you need X, Y, and Z to be a worthy person. And I used to work in fashion magazines and so I was very used to the cycles of the fashion seasons and something being old and out of fashion. Working as a fashion director, how do you grapple with that constant cycle of newness?
It’s interesting because when you’re surrounded by so many clothes, sometimes you can become desensitised to it and it loses its value. I remember when we were in the office, the fashion cupboard would be heaving with bags, shoes and clothes – so many clothes – and it was so fun to look through. At the same time, it almost loses its value because there are just rows and rows of them sitting in the cupboard, and they’re all new, all new season and all shiny and all really beautiful. You can become desensitised to that.
There’s this journalist, Lauren Sherman, whose work I love, she wrote a piece when I was at Elle about the gateway purchase, and that first purchase you make that opens the flood gates to luxury spending. It was just exploring how you go from thinking 100 pounds is expensive for a bag to not batting an eye at spending 10,000 pounds for a coat or something. What is that emotional experience like? I do think when you’ve worked for fashion magazines, like you and I have, there does become a point where your point of view and your perception of it all can become a bit skewed because we’re so used to the trends cycle and seasons.
With me, I always just question everything in terms of what it means for the health of our future and the planets going forward. While at the same time, not undermining the fact that fashion does have a real place in our life, and it can do a lot of good. People have lost patience with fashion because they view it as being this world and industry that’s gotten it wrong for so long. It’s exclusive, it has been out of reach to people of colour, women of size, women of a certain age, or women who have disability. It’s been so insular. On top of that, that it has this massive carbon footprint. A lot of people have just simply lost patience with it.
That said, there are so many productive conversations happening right now – a whole new wave of people who are actively driving change. I think that’s a really beautiful thing to see, and I hope that we get to a place where five years from now, we can look back on this and think that was the beginning of something real and tangible, and that helped create some real positive change.
“ When I started in New York, most magazines only had one or two people of colour on their staffs, if any, and the runways were the same. If you saw one or two black models on the catwalk, it was quite a big deal ”
I want to finish by asking you what your favourite chapter in the book is?
That’s so hard to nail down as it changes all the time, but my favourite chapter in the moment might be the last one where I talk through the notion of the ‘bad bitch’ and really make a case for just allowing ourselves to just be. We put so much pressure on ourselves to slay, or to knock all these balls out of the park and to be firing on all cylinders. As black women, a lot of the language that’s used to celebrate us, even, puts pressure on ourselves that can be so unhealthy.
I write about the experience of living in the age of black girl magic, but also looking at the trajectory of the term, and how it very much originated as a way of celebrating and shining a light on black women and allowing black women to feel visible in all aspects of their life. Then it very much became this thing that was associated with the superlative. The very famous, the ones who were just achieving these milestones and these wins and successes that were worthy of the kinds of headlines that you see on People Magazine, or in the news, or women who have hundreds of thousands of followers, or who are on the cover of September issues, or who are being elected into office, like major, major, incredible achievements worth celebrating, that we began to lose sight of the magic of the everyday and the “regular degular”, as I say in the book. The fact that every day that we wake up and manage to get our kids out of the house and to their summer camp on time or to school on time or every day that we manage to get up and get dressed is a win too. I love that chapter because I think there’s definitely a case to be made for allowing yourselves to just be, and to just be content with that and to free ourselves from the weight of subtext.