Stylist Corey Stokes on making it, and making a difference in fashion

“We tend to forget the fashion industry is not just pretty pictures, it’s a business,” says Corey Stokes in the palatial Brooks Brothers headquarters. Sporting a navy blazer with marijuana leaf elbow patches, he’s not typically whom you’d imagine traipsing the halls of the near 200-year-old legacy house. In an era where heritage brands are struggling to keep up with the digital age, as senior ad stylist, Corey’s role is expanding the label’s old-school appeal to a younger clientele. But despite that millennial lens he filters through, he’s a traditionalist when it comes to making it in fashion.

Corey epitomizes the old-school adage of hard work paying off. Starting at the ripe age of 20, he whittled his way up the editorial world at street culture magazine Complex and the commercial quarters of Brooks Brothers. Like many young creatives, Brooks its the bread and butter that sustains growing his own consultancy brand. From a small-town Michigan boy to a big-city tastemaker, he describes his success with grace and humility above all. He’s still figuring it out – like the rest of us – but to the beat of his own drum. Rather than fixating on social media and trendy brands, he pours himself into the people and projects he believes in. Here, we talk to Corey about navigating the industry with integrity, and making it “more than just clothes.”

COOLS: How did you get here?

Corey: I’m from Flint, Michigan and studied journalism in school. I did a sophomore year summer internship in NY on a whim and landed at Complex [magazine]. [It] was going more digital, so I continued working with them at school. I went back a second summer and never left. I dropped out of school; I was learning much more than what I could in book. Journalism was changing, rapidly. Blogs were blowing up; magazines and publications were turning to the web. You couldn’t keep people’s attention anymore with these long form stories. What I was learning in class was totally different than what I was learning at this magazine. I went from intern to fashion assistant at Complex and still freelance writing. A friend of mine at Brooks Brothers said they were looking for a sample coordinator. I was like, cute, two checks. Let’s do that. Anything to make it so I could be like hey mom, I’m working.

I started at Brooks when I was 21. I was a baby. They were investing in ecommerce and I moved up pretty quickly from sample coordinator, to assistant stylist, to men’s stylist, to doing both men’s and women’s. And at that point it was just me doing that for about two and a half years. Just when it was getting stale, Complex called and the editor I was assisting was moving up and wanted me to take his place as Market Editor. I went back to do a 360 revamp of the print magazine. Best time of my life. I did that for about a year, and then Brooks Brothers hit me with a more creative position. And I was like, “Great.” At this point, I was starting to build my freelance career, so it gave me the flexibility to do both. And it was more money. I love Complex, but editorial will never pay like commercial. It’s fun, but I needed a check. I don’t regret it. I think I made a very smart decision. Now I’m here at Brooks as senior advertising marketing stylist.

COOLS: So you’ve just been going back and forth between the two companies ever since?

CS: Yeah. I do a lot of outside freelance projects now. I’ve worked with a few personal clients here in New York. Kitty Cash, a DJ here in New York. The actor Shameik Moore from The Get Down. Recho Omondi. Because of this job, I can take side jobs where I’m personally invested. Whatever feels right to me.

COOLS: And how was navigating the retail and editorial worlds?

CS: Outside of Complex, I’ve never been interested in being an editorial stylist. I get the idea of wanting to make pretty pictures, but I’m just too much of a realist. Stylists aren’t making money shooting these stories, it’s from the corporate clients that they’re too ashamed to talk about. I enjoy working with brands so much more. I love the challenge of taking a brand that has an identity, and constantly renewing it in each collection. I love that process from a concept into execution.

COOLS: What’s your aesthetic? What brands do you gravitate towards?

CS: I’m a very simple kind of person. When I was Market Editor at Complex, you just get so much shit. So I started wearing a uniform of white shirts and jeans. It’s the idea of not anti-fashion, but it’s more about style. I refuse get caught up on all these cool trendy brands that are just making clothes and don’t know what they’re trying to say. I try to work with clients that have a vision. They’re trying to say something more than “I wanna look cute.” What are you trying to tell the people about you? That’s what’s important, and a lot of people don’t realize. So I try to step into the position of not just a stylist, but also a consultant. Making sure that we’re thinking deeper than just clothes.

“I refuse get caught up on all these cool trendy brands that are just making clothes and don’t know what they’re trying to say. I try to work with clients that have a vision. They’re trying to say something more than “I wanna look cute.” What are you trying to tell the people about you? That’s what’s important, and a lot of people don’t realize. So I try to step into the position of not just a stylist, but also a consultant. Making sure that we’re thinking deeper than just clothes.”

COOLS: What’s you deeper message?

CS: I’m very vocal about me being that gay black men in an industry like this, in a place like this. Making sure that it’s all-inclusive, making sure that we’re a part of the conversation. I’m here because I feel like I’m making small steps to changing a situation where it could be really bad. I am the only person here in those conversations, otherwise it wouldn’t be thought of at all.

COOLS: What does diversity in fashion look like to you?

CS: The lack of, first and foremost, so many publications are failing. Vogue’s supposed to be the leading women’s fashion magazine, and the darkest girl on the “Women Rule” cover was still light. But then you go across the hall and there’s Elaine at Teen Vogue, and it makes me so happy. It shows that our generation is having a huge impact on the shift. We’re definitely carrying the baton. Find the message you’re trying to get across that resonates with a group of people, and foster that relationship. Focus on what’s true to you, the people that are true to you. The people who love you or your brand for what it is, they’re the ones who are gonna support you. You can get featured in Vogue and everything, but if your fan base doesn’t read Vogue, it doesn’t matter. 

“Find the message you’re trying to get across that resonates with a group of people, and foster that relationship. Focus on what’s true to you, the people that are true to you. The people who love you or your brand for what it is, they’re the ones who are gonna support you. You can get featured in Vogue and everything, but if your fan base doesn’t read Vogue, it doesn’t matter.”

COOLS: Do you use social media to expand your platform?

CS: The industry is too oversaturated. Everyone’s doing the same thing and wants you to see their work. I get that, promote yourself. But I don’t want my Instagram to feel like a fan page. I have a voice, and I want you to know what I’m saying. This is probably why I don’t have thousands of followers. I’m not just taking cute pictures of myself, or posting everything I put Kitty in. Every job I do is not on the Internet. That’s how this industry moves, and I just refuse to go with it. It shouldn’t be like that. I’ve definitely gotten passed on jobs because the other stylist has more followers. And it’s like huh? That means nothing. I try to not get caught up in the numbers game. It’s very easy to compare yourself with your peers, and we need to get out of the mindset. Everyone posts their best selves, not our worst, the struggle, or the journey. We’re like “look at this finished project, it looks so great.” If you get caught up on looking at everyone’s finished project, you get so disheartened. I’ve been thankful to have the support of people in my corner that let me know that I’m doing something right. If I didn’t have that support system, I would be sucked into that envy. But no, I’m just doing me. I’m still figuring out where I want my career to go. I’m definitely not one of those people who’s like “Celebrity stylist. That’s me.” I like to say I’m a creative consultant. In a way that I love being a part of a creative collaboration, whether there’s an individual, a brand, a publication. We’re creating something that’s more than just clothes.

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