Kai-Isaiah Jamal on how they created their groundbreaking NFT with ES Magazine

·6-min read
 (Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones)
(Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones)

‘This is so hot!’ Model/poet/activist Kai-Isaiah Jamal has emerged from the changing room, smile and eyes both widening as they gaze in a mirror. They’re right. The look is indeed hot, both metaphorically and literally. Leather Loewe trousers sit over a knitted Prada bodysuit, a Gucci harness snakes from the hips to the neck, leopard print swoops down from the exaggerated, get-out-of-my-way shoulders on an archive Jean Paul Gaultier coat. Just one more finishing touch and Jamal is ready for their 129 close-ups. A form-fitting headpiece dripping with gold tops off the outfit, a surreal crown for a rebellious fashion ruler. ‘Wow,’ says everyone in the room in unison.

We’re on the outskirts of London at FBFX’s headquarters, a place where cutting-edge special effects costumes are made for films such as Guardians Of The Galaxy and Wonder Woman. In the middle of a room lined with mannequins wearing costumes from those movies stand rails of Technicolor pieces from the world’s most coveted designers. Those 129 close-ups? They’re courtesy of FBFX’s 3D body-scanning studio, where Jamal will soon face the blinding flash of 129 lightbulbs as cameras focus on every inch of their body. Intricately angled around a white podium to help create a 360-degree shot, each camera’s images will then be processed by computers to render a 3D model of Jamal. Once that’s done, the masterminds behind Björk’s ethereal visuals, Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones, will turn Jamal’s 3D scan into a breathtaking work of digital art, suspending them in a phantasmagorical dreamscape that rivals the work of Hollywood’s best animators. And that’s not even the best part. Even more tech wizardry will turn the artwork into an NFT cover image for ES Magazine, the first of its kind for a British fashion or lifestyle title, which will then be auctioned off for the Evening Standard’s charity partner, The Felix Project.

Richard Quinn embellished top, POA; embellished trousers, POA (richardquinn.com). Givenchy wedge shoes, £766 (givenchy.com) (Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones)
Richard Quinn embellished top, POA; embellished trousers, POA (richardquinn.com). Givenchy wedge shoes, £766 (givenchy.com) (Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones)

This isn’t Jamal’s first time in FBFX’s body-scanning studio. The 25-year-old was here just six months ago shooting a campaign, which saw them rendered into 3D statues, now displayed in the windows of flagship Louis Vuitton stores around the world. ‘It’s a weird thing,’ they say. ‘We’re used to seeing ourselves in the capacity of a photograph, but you never really see yourself in 3D.’ In the public eye as a poet, model and trans-visibility activist, Jamal is acutely aware of how they and their body can be perceived. ‘I thought it would be quite triggering, but actually, I think [seeing myself in 3D] alleviates that anxiety. In some ways, I’m in control,’ they say. ‘It’s kind of like an out-of-body experience. There’s so much to write about it.’

Archive Gareth Pugh SS19 jumpsuit; Archive Gareth Pugh SS18 neckpiece and arm pieces from red patent body cage; red foil jumpsuit (garethpugh.com). Elissa Poppy gloves, £65 (elissapoppy.com). Lucile Guilmard clogs, POA  (@lucile_guilmard) (Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones)
Archive Gareth Pugh SS19 jumpsuit; Archive Gareth Pugh SS18 neckpiece and arm pieces from red patent body cage; red foil jumpsuit (garethpugh.com). Elissa Poppy gloves, £65 (elissapoppy.com). Lucile Guilmard clogs, POA (@lucile_guilmard) (Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones)

Poetry was the outlet that led to the south Londoner’s self-discovery, an instrument of expression while coming to terms with their identity. Studying Romantic poets such as Coleridge and Keats for GCSE taught Jamal the power of metaphor, which has become instrumental in the way they dismantle the gender binary. As a teenager, they discovered the world of slam poetry online, for the first time seeing black and queer people take up space in an often impenetrable corner of literature. ‘Being able to find people who came before me, who write in a similar way or about similar things, encouraged my passion,’ they say. Now, Jamal provides that same service to their 71,000 Instagram followers.

‘Being able to say, “Today, my gender feels like an untied shoelace,” instead of “I’m dysphoric” means that dysphoria doesn’t become a buzzword,’ they explain. ‘Because we find language [to describe specific circumstances], especially queer people, and that is then weaponised against us.’ Think of terms such as ‘non-binary’ and ‘woke’, which started life as tools for progression and have since been ridiculed and turned into dirty words by political opponents. ‘We’re positioned as the “snowflake generation”, making up new pronouns and this, that and the other, so I’m always careful.’

Molly Goddard Kendi dress, £2,800 (mollygoddard.com). Bottega Veneta blazer, £2,230 (bottegaveneta.com). Prada leather derby shoes, £950 (prada.com). Tant D’avenir Cleopatra dark column necklace, £770; Mousqueton Acropole necklace, £1,068; Grande Medusa charm, £300 (tantdavenir.com). Gregory Kara metal lip grills, POA  (@gregorykara) (Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones)
Molly Goddard Kendi dress, £2,800 (mollygoddard.com). Bottega Veneta blazer, £2,230 (bottegaveneta.com). Prada leather derby shoes, £950 (prada.com). Tant D’avenir Cleopatra dark column necklace, £770; Mousqueton Acropole necklace, £1,068; Grande Medusa charm, £300 (tantdavenir.com). Gregory Kara metal lip grills, POA (@gregorykara) (Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones)

Jamal’s outlook certainly caught the imagination of Du Preez and Thornton Jones when they came to create this magazine’s unique cover. Working closely with them and hairstylist Eugene Souleiman (the genius behind that gold headpiece), the pair have crafted a hallucinatory glimpse into the poet’s mind, ‘a landscape in a dream,’ as Thornton Jones puts it. Using gaming software Unreal Engine as their digital playground, there was no plan going into the project; once the 3D model was ready, they just let their imaginations run wild.

‘It found its direction through pure collaboration,’ says Du Preez of their creative process. ‘Everyone thinks [we’ll have] this big, premeditated, overly art-directed outcome. They go, “What’s your vision? What’s your mood board?” Mood boards are just a means to an end. [I like to] collect people, collect energy, and then put them in a space and collaborate — mix the paint, as such.’

There was one specific spark of inspiration, though: Jamal’s words. To accompany the NFT, Jamal recorded a piece of spoken-word poetry, which was then woven into a soundscape by James Lavelle. It’s a rumination on utopia, a concept that Du Preez and Thornton Jones interpreted as being ‘your own personal island’. The pair were already experimenting with similar ideas before they’d heard Jamal’s verse, so the stars simply aligned to form a creative supernova.

For Jamal, the NFT presents an opportunity to create something of greater permanence in a world where content has become increasingly disposable. ‘A lot of people have been introduced to me via my modelling, so if I am in this industry, I’m always looking at how we can create things with longevity,’ they say. ‘We live in a social media age in which we are so obsessed with short-term moments, so for me, archiving is really important.’

Harris Reed custom tulle dress, POA (harrisreed.com). Vivienne Westwood tutu  (vivienne westwood.com). Robert Wun satin trousers, £675; satin skirt, £1,215 (robertwun.com). Elissa Poppy gloves, £65 (elissapoppy.com) (Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones)
Harris Reed custom tulle dress, POA (harrisreed.com). Vivienne Westwood tutu (vivienne westwood.com). Robert Wun satin trousers, £675; satin skirt, £1,215 (robertwun.com). Elissa Poppy gloves, £65 (elissapoppy.com) (Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones)

But while trends change by the season on runways —and by the minute on TikTok — what Jamal may not realise is that they’re already irrevocably changing the fashion world. Their way into the industry came via Stella McCartney’s 2019 breast cancer awareness campaign, in which they featured and wrote a poem for, shining light on how the disease can impact the trans community. In January, they became the first black, trans model to walk for Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection. Four months later they starred in Calvin Klein’s Pride campaign. Visibility on that scale has a real-world impact; it inspires, it opens minds, it breeds hope.

Now that they’re established, Jamal’s mission is to ensure that trans and non-binary people are not only represented in front of the camera but in every other position, too. ‘There’s so much more progression that we can do [in the fashion industry] to create what could be a wholesome, inclusive, life-changing and global society-changing environment,’ they say, highlighting that, up until recently, they had never been photographed by a trans person. ‘Now, it’s about saying, “How can we take this further?”’

Artwork by Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones

Styled by Lisa Jarvis

Hair by Eugene Souleiman

Make-up by Mata Marielle

Stylist’s assistants: Raphael Del Bono and Maddy Havican.

Hair stylist’s assistants: Claire Moore and Mee Kyung Kim Porter. Production by Daphne Do at W&N Studio.

Post production: W&N Studio Digital. High-detail 3D avatar & clothing by FBFX Digital.

BTS Photographer/ production: Benny Johnson

With special thanks to FBFX

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