TJ Sawyerr: the visual architect shaking up the fashion industry

11 mins
26 Apr 2023
TJ Sawyerr: the visual architect shaking up the fashion industry

TJ Sawyerr creates beautiful visual worlds full of purpose and narrative

image Vicky Grout

words Megan Wallace and Rhys Thomas

To celebrate our first birthday, woo has curated a list of our ones. The people in our wooniverse who are redefining fashion, music, clubs, culture and much more.

At 20, you could feasibly argue TJ Sawyerr has worked more careers than most people do in a lifetime. Writer, model, creative director, stylist, creative consultant, photographer – the Londoner has and continues to do it all. Album covers, magazine covers, fashion shows, exhibitions, it’s all the same to TJ, who can generally be considered someone who tells stories through images.

The prolific and unrelenting energy from TJ (who speaks to us while getting into an Uber on the way to work, busy!) is weighted with a lot of purpose too, though. He wants to change the world, he wants to show stories people don’t get to see, and to give opportunity to those who don’t generally get to follow their dreams.

It’s all very impressive, isn’t it. And yet, TJ is a young man of humility. He’s always looking to improve, to learn, to grow, and to dare to dream beyond where he already is. This is just the beginning for TJ Sawyerr.

"I saw modelling as an opportunity to basically be paid to shadow the best professionals in the game"

Describe what you do in your own words.

First and foremost I’d describe myself as a storyteller. That developed while I was at school studying literature. I developed a really strong interest for writing and then kind of fell into this fashion and arts media world, initially as a model but then as someone who uses visual means to communicate personal stories and I suppose, shed light upon narratives that are under-covered in modern media. So yeah, I'm fundamentally a storyteller through visual means, and that involves creative direction, styling, photography, as well as small elements of writing.

And how would you describe what you do to a date?

Goodness, this is actually a problem I do have. When people ask, I just say that I work in fashion and media. I’d frame it as a sort of creative consultancy thing, maybe I just say I’m a photographer or a creative director through fashion and music. I try not to bore people…

How did you get into your chosen career?

I developed curiosity for fashion when the streetwear scene in London was booming, in 2017. I got into Supreme and started going to drops at the Soho store – trying to make some cash but also getting social fulfilment and knowledge by being able to spend time with older kids and adults who have seen more than I have and know more about the fashion business than I do.

One day, in the queue outside Supreme, I was fortunate enough to be scouted by a modelling agent. Instead of taking modelling as a more passive hustle, I took the opportunity to basically be paid to shadow the best professionals in the game in terms of photographers, stylists, directors. So I took it as a learning opportunity to pick up skills, ask questions, I was always vocal on set trying to learn as much as possible. A few years in, I felt confident enough to start creating my own stuff off the back of the network I had and know-how I’d been able to reap.

Are there any upcoming projects we should look out for?

I’ve been trying to get into working on more brand-led projects as opposed to music recently, and I have a project coming up with Converse which is shot in Achimota, in northern Accra, Ghana. My dad went to school there. We also went to Jamestown, and are also going to Tema, a city on the east of Accra. We’ll be mainly working with schools, youth clubs, and people’s homes. It’s a charity-led community campaign which is to do with trading unsold Converse for a portrait of the person wearing the shoes. It’ll be compiled into an exhibition, hopefully a book. It’s exciting, and has a positive, impactful edge to it.

What’s one thing you'd like to see change in the world? And is there anything you do that you think helps that change along?

I’d like to see more people who come from where I come from being able to infiltrate and thrive in this freelance creative world. I think it’s seen as an unsustainable and pretty inaccessible field of work, and in many cases it is, because of the foundations of the industry. But I think something I do that helps the change is that I show that youthful perspective is desired and that it’s become a bit of a commodity. There’s a huge avenue for young people to rise to acclaim within a lot of these traditionally older and more established groups of people who tend to run the show. There's a capacity for more of us to be entering the conversation and bringing value to the table. Essentially, the further I’m able to go, the more of a path is forged for the next generation of people from marginalised backgrounds. Especially without taking more generic routes like going to university or whatever.

What's the one thing in your career you're most proud of?

I directed Reuben Selby’s AW22 show last year at fashion week, which made me the youngest person to direct a main schedule show at any international fashion week. I also walked in that show, so was the first to direct and walk in a show as well. Those ones that are a first, a record in the books, is always a nice tangible way of solidifying a legacy and stature. It was also the biggest thing I had done at that point, it’ll live in the memory for sure.

And what's one thing you would do if you were Prime Minister for the day?

I’d be really interested in pushing for widespread government-funded internship programmes, across all industries. For example, a partnership with the British Fashion Council to implement multi-year paid internships, with incentives for companies to take on interns and then keep them on because the government, for example, pays half their wages for as long as they’re in that role. I feel it would create a strong grassroots programme to actually nurture the skills of these interns instead of just… locking them in a room with a sewing kit all day.

Is there any one thing you do on the regular to take care of your mental health?

I’ve always taken care of my mental health. I love what I do so that gives me all the social fulfilment I need. I never feel lonely, I have plenty of friends who I work with all the time. But outside of that, I like to play basketball, draw, and write in my spare time. The main thing is conversational introspection. I’ll sit down in my room and put on a voicenote and talk about how I feel and what’s going on at the moment – work stresses, social stresses, and just have a little conversation with myself which I can then refer back to. It means I have diary-style timestamps of the past couple years, and I can grow from it. Nobody else hears them, but staying in touch with my emotions and making sure I take that time out every now and then is important.

What's one lesson that changed your life?

… shit. There’s lots of valuable things I’ve been taught. The biggest lesson for me was the notion that you have to earn the right to say what you want to say and do what you want to do in this life. Across Covid, when there was the resurgence of Black Lives Matter and a lot of social issues people were being very vocal about, I felt strongly about being vocal on those issues as well. Going to marches, writing inflammatory culture journalism, and that was from the position of having goodwill and a sense of duty to do what’s right. But in actual fact I feel there’s a lot that I can do for portraying Black excellence with my mouth shut. In some ways, it might even have more impact, because it’s implicit. A racist person might love my work and feel emotionally connected to the work, I might hit their subconscious. Whereas they’re not going to read my essay on racism. So yeah, I decided instead of putting a target on my back, I’m working toward the goal of eventually having the autonomy to impact things on a tangible level. I think my dad said “walk quietly with a big stick” and “not to throw stones at a glass house,” two very generic sayings but two sayings that apply to me a lot.

"I’d like to see more people who come from where I come from being able to infiltrate and thrive in this freelance creative world"

What's one thing you want to achieve in the next year?

I would like to work on larger scale, international campaigns. I’d like to gain enough autonomy to bring my own unique angle to the table for commercial brands. I want the pedigree to be able to go to brands with an angle and have them trust me to execute my spin on their narrative. I’d like to work with a tech company like an Apple or Google in west Africa, not just to provide technology for people but also teaching people how to be creative with this technology – running workshops with young people, maybe even turning their work into an exhibition. I have a lot of goals over the next year, but I don’t really think in the timeframe of years. I’m just on the ride until it’s done.

How about one moment in your career that you will cherish forever?

Probably the first charity activation I ran, when I was 17. It was with The Basement and this charity called Key for Life, working with a large group of ex-offenders from my local area. We hosted them on a creative workshop day in Brixton, so close to home. It was effectively an employability workshop teaching these guys about design, marketing, commerce, social media. That was a crazy gratifying moment to be able to provide value and a new lease of life.

If you had a number one song, what would it sound like?

Uh, the chorus would be some soulful vocals – then I’d probably have melodic rapping in the verse. I’m saying this hypothetically, but I do have some songs exactly like this sitting on a hard-drive that’ll maybe never see the light of day. I’m definitely a music enthusiast. Perhaps that’ll come one day.

Who's your number one fan?

My younger sister, for sure. She’s been my rock, definitely my biggest supporter. She’s always the first to comment on my posts, I think she has the notifications on. She was always with me on my ideas even when my family weren’t as sold. But generally she is somebody I can see the very immediate impact, from a moral and confidence standpoint, that my work has had on her and what she now feels is possible and the routes she can take in life. She wants to go into law and become a defence attorney and is more confident that she is capable of doing that. I think I had a positive impact on that decision-making process and have been an enabling factor for her.

And who's number one on your speed dial?

It would be the small team of people I work with most frequently, I chat to them every day without fail. Issac, one of the main photographers who I shoot with. My parents live largely abroad now so I talk to them a lot more over the phone, a few times a week.

Name one person who's killing the game right now

There’s a lot of guys, someone like Gabriel Moses is the generic answer to that question. He’s from the same area of London as me and has shown how it’s really possible to transcend what life initially had planned for you. He came from humble beginnings and through hard work, grit, and raw talent has been able to ascend to being the hottest commodity of a man behind the lens. Certainly in the UK. I have a huge amount of respect for him and how he’s established his own visual identity and made things his own. He’s the single best portrayer of the Black figure in the game at the moment and has a true set of morals throughout his work. There’s also Nadine Ijewere, who was the first Black woman to shoot a cover for Vogue. She was a big enabler for me in my career earlier on, she shot me earlier on in my career as a model.

What's one piece of clothing you can't live without?

It’s definitely a white vest, that is the single piece of clothing. Anytime I’m on set, and I’ve been travelling to warmer countries in Africa, you’ll catch me in a white vest all the time. I have four or five of them in the suitcase at all times. That’s my signature.

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