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Ones to Watch: Zay Ali On Non-Binary Fashion & Staying True To His Roots

Dedicated to breaking all the rules of stereotypes, Zay Ali is the Philly-based artist disrupting the status quo of social media (and IRL) with fearless looks. We took a walk with Ali through his favorite childhood park to talk fashion and the power that representation of unconventional beauty has in helping define and highlight non-binary identities. Plus, Ali gives us his two cents on the best vintage in town and the difference between self-perception and others’ interpretation when it comes to identity in 2019, both online and off.

How did you begin styling and doing makeup?

I come from a family of artists. I didn’t necessarily know what I wanted to do in life, but I always knew it had nothing to do with corporate America. So I kinda got introduced to the art scene and I had goals of being a videographer, but I actually got a camera without video… so basically I started doing photography, then photography led to styling, then styling led to make-up, then make-up led to drag.

Where do you find creative inspiration for your looks?

Now, it has a lot to do with culture and where my ancestors come from. Digging back into my roots has pulled a lot of things out of me that I didn’t necessarily see or notice, but I think that correlates a lot with me growing up and understanding who I am as a person. I’m trying to bring those things back up now. So, yeah. I’m majorly inspired by where I come from, my roots, my culture, where I grew up, the hood, but my siblings and family the most!

How has growing up in Philly effected your art?

Growing up in North Philly is hard. Especially the parts where I come from. So overall I think it made me a fearless person. Walking down these streets you have to worry about getting shot, so walking in front of somebody in heels is nothing compared to what I’ve been through in my life. So yeah, it’s made me fearless, really. 

Most of your looks are a combination of thrifted vintage and designer pieces; do you have a favorite spot in Philly to shop?

Oh wow. Everywhere and anywhere. I’m a visual merchandiser as my day job, so I find a lot of looks at my work. I love looking for designer sales and going through beauty stores. Seriously anywhere that has quality for low prices, but I’ve been into spending coin on luxury things lately, so that’s definitely cute too.

You just earned a business degree—that’s fucking awesome.

It’s crazy.

Has going to business school helped you attain skills that help support your creative career?

Definitely. Business school has shifted my whole mindset. I chose to go to business school because I’m so free-flowing and I thought if I went to business school, I could apply structure and discipline to my work and do my art thing even better. It’s definitely given me the tools to do and know how to do exactly what I envision.

A lot of people discover you via Instagram where you share your style. Is it hard to maintain an original identity in today’s social media climate?

Honestly, no. I’ve always tried to make art no one’s ever seen before and a lot of times the best things have come from failed experiences. I’ll just build on an idea until I perfect it. I try to pull inspiration from my IRL experiences instead of scrolling through Insta and trying to emulate exactly what’s already been done.

Do you have a current project you’re excited about?

The thing I’m most excited for would be this online store I’m creating for people like me, for non-binary people, for individuals who never really fit in. I want to create a safe space in the retail world that doesn’t perpetuate any stereotypes or boxes that the retail world tries to put you in.

Now that you’re a post-grad, do you feel like you have more time for creative projects that you never had the chance to start?

Business school slowed me down a lot from doing what I wanted to do. I couldn’t go where I wanted to go. A lot of major opportunities that were presented to me, I couldn’t do because I had class. Going to school was a sacrifice I had to make to discipline myself to grow as an individual. So I’m extremely excited to finally invest 100% of my time into my ideas, projects, stories, and conveying emotions I’ve felt thoroughly. 

Any artists who inspire you that you’d love to collab with in the future?

Wow, yes. They’re all huge so I don’t know… they’re so big and cliché, but FKA Twigs, Solange, and Ian Isiah. I love the way they all convey their personal perception of life in general and how they share it with the world. There isn’t one side to their artistry or beings, it’s the whole thing or nothing; I think that’s why I’m so intrigued by them. Ian Isiah is super important to me because when I look at him, I can see he’s the same type of boy as me. It’s hard to explain, but when I came across him I was like ‘yeahhh he get’s it.’ I didn’t have any references of boys like me growing up and shit, I never even knew there was an art world for the longest. Seeing someone in the public eye, pushing the boundaries of non-binary culture in such an unapologetic way, can only formulate respect in my chest. So yeah, those three.

Earlier when we were shooting you really effortlessly described how you see your identity. Do you want to talk about that?

Yeah. I think the way people perceive people like me isn’t the way we see ourselves. People primarily judge people off the scratch surface and there’s too many fucking layers to a human being to do that. I’m starting to understand the many layers and sides to masculinity and femininity. The lines of masc and femme are bent on a regular basis, just people aren’t paying attention to it. We’re very much both; it’s not a physical thing for me personally. Sometimes when I get dressed it comes out masc and sometimes it’s femme depending on how I felt that day. I’ve gone through many changes and many more will happen. So many doors have opened for me and my happiness when I’ve been able to penetrate through mental barriers like, ‘oh I can’t where lipstick, oh I can’t wear eyeliner.’ The moment I push through those barriers, it’s like a whole new world for me to succeed, fail, learn and grow with myself. I just want to understand all sides of who I am and share it as much as I can with others without feeling completely drained. Social media can nurture that and taint it at the same time. You gotta balance it like everything else, same way I balance masc/femme. 

Images courtesy of Chloe Cusimano

Stay tuned to Milk for more disruptive fashion.

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