Shea Coulee & Scott Studenberg
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2017 Master of Style: Emil Wilbekin on Style and Inspiration

Emil Wilbekin

Emil Wilbekin enjoyed a storied media career before founding Native Son, an organization created to inspire black gay men to create fellowship and celebrate, in his words, “who we are.” Galvanized as a student by hearing James Baldwin speak at his university, Wilbekin discovered the power of using his platform during his tenure as Editor in Chief of Vibe, which catered to a community not typically seen or celebrated in the media at the time. “A lot of that has been the inspiration for Native Son because it’s about creating our own platform so we can see each other, we can speak to each other, but we can also talk about the cultural nuances that are relevant to us,” he says. “When I created Native Son I had to dare greatly to believe that I could inspire and empower these men, and that I could make a difference by doing that.” Today, Wilbekin’s mentorship is shining a spotlight on a new generation, including Dustin Ross, co-host of the podcast The Friend Zone, and Memsor Kamarake, a fashion editor and stylist, both of whom joined Wilbekin for this Master of Style shoot.

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“I’ve loved dressing for as long as I can remember. I had the distinct fortune of having a mother who was all about style — she was wearing Halston and Givenchy dresses to drop me off at school. But what was really important about my mother was that she was a working mom. She was a lawyer with a Ph.D. in sociology, and a master’s in music, but she always looked amazing, so I learned from her that you could look great but you still had to do the work and be excellent at what you did. Style is about being able to walk into rooms and be seen and respected. I would describe my style as classic man meets James Bond meets Harlem Renaissance. It’s about, How do I move through the different parts of my life with ease and comfort and what makes me look good and feel good at the same time? I learned when I was an editor in chief that my days were so busy that I didn’t have time to think about what I was going to wear so I created my wardrobe to be foolproof — black, white, navy blue, a little charcoal, a little khaki, and I try to give pops of color. The other thing that’s classic for me is white jeans — I wear them in the summer, I wear them in the winter. I don’t believe in rules around fashion — they exist to be broken. Style is about how to express the way that you feel.”

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“As an editor and activist, one of my inspirations is Gordon Parks, a train porter who picked up an issue of a magazine that was left behind by one of his passengers and started to do photography as a result. He was the first black photographer to shoot for Vogue and went on to be a very powerful writer and filmmaker. Most people know him from creating and directing Shaft, but what was great about Parks was that he was never boxed into anything and he was always about storytelling.”

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Emil Wilbekin with Next Native Sons Dustin Ross and Memsor Kamarake

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Photography by M. Sharkey

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