By Tracy Montes
Chicago has long been known as a home of architectural innovation with a rich history of spatial experiments. So it’s no surprise when its built heritage informs other disciplines. Enter fashion stylist and social justice educator Mycall Akeem Riley. Riley recently moved to Chicago from Minnesota, though his family has long ties to the South Side. Recently, while walking through the city’s financial district, he shared how the South Side, and the city as a whole, have inspired his fashion.
“I am enraptured by the architectural makeup of the downtown area. It makes me feel the energy and identity of the city, which is the same kind of energy that I aim to bring to my clients through the fashion styling process,” he says. “I do this by challenging styles that are bland and monotonous and incorporating bold colors and fabric patterns.”
Despite the freedom afforded by downtown’s architectural forms, Riley is quick to note there’s a difference in tone between his South Side roots and the Loop. “Walking by big businesses and establishments [downtown], I can’t help but notice so many people dress in similar suits and business casual outfits,” he says. “Why does it have to be like that? There is this sort of unofficial ‘uniform’ code that adheres to an idea of what a business casual/professional look is. But who gets to define what this ‘business casual/professional’ look is anyway? My hope is to see people, including young professionals and creative individuals, being free in their own style.”
Riley contrasts the staid business look with the influence felt by his family and the South Side. “Observing a lot of my black friends’ and family’s sense of style really helped spark my interest in patterns and bold colors. For instance, a lot of my creativity has been informed by observing my mother style herself and her home,” he says.
Mycall has gathered inspiration for his designs from black culture, intersectionality, black feminist thought, self-care and racial equity. This is why he says his styling practice is focused on the marriage between fashion and social justice. To him, style is a tool for liberation. “I am interested in hearing the stories that have been coming out of my client’s clothing, [and] I want to help them feel empowered by fashion,” he says. “I want to challenge stylistic boundaries and mix it all up. The process does not have to involve expensive clothing or impractical garments; my goal is to style someone using items that can be used many times and for more than one occasion.”
When styling clients, Mycall focuses on key questions that explore the power of power. His goal is to help his clients feel confident, bold and powerful throughout the styling process. This ensures that the final fashion piece serves the client and upset unwritten rules and assumptions within fashion. Riley’s styling approach is bold and disruptive, akin to the ways that the architects who shaped the city that he admires have historically disrupted and challenged preceding styles.
In addition to his styling career, Riley is a workshop coordinator at DePaul University’s Center for Identity, Inclusion and Social Change. The role has led him to engage with young students who are learning how to navigate the workforce. “Many of my students are applying and interviewing for jobs and internships,” he says. “They tend to emphasize how they have to dress professionally. They are concerned with covering their curves or their hair. I believe that hiding in the clothes you wear does not really show who you are, and if you cannot present yourself for exactly who you are, you will probably continue to hide in your work and the things you do.”
Riley celebrates style by using fashion as a tool for liberation. This sense of liberation is fueled by the inspiration gathered from the city’s architectural landscape, its dynamism, hope and struggle. Riley states that, “Each stylistic choice I make through functionality, structure and shapes translate into the sense of liberation I am after.” Much like an architect, Riley’s notion of liberation is echoed in the freedom to create, design and build through pushing the boundaries’ functionality and aesthetics.
To learn more about Mycall’s work visit mycallakeemriley.com.