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Every wonder who had a hand in creating those ads you see for Banana Republic? Kimara Mitchell is an award-winning creative director and designer with a background in art direction, design thinking and brand strategy. She's worked for brands such as Banana Republic, Adobe, San Francisco Zoo, Stanford Graduate School of Business, Wells Fargo, Anthem, BMW and more. She is currently at Banana Republic Factory leading brand creative.
She has a blog, j'adore couture, that chronicles her personal style and gives us a peek into the life of a Black-professional woman who dares to buck trends and inspires women of all ages to wear what they want.
MJ: How would you describe what you do to someone not in the industry?
KM: I create the visual language of a brand. When you think of a brand like Nike or Apple, you can immediate tell someone else their iconography: the swoosh, the rainbow apple logo, “just do it,” compelling imagery. I work with brands to figure out what that visual language should be, from photography, signage, digital, social, and collaborate on editorial on bringing it to life.
MJ: What is the difference between an art director and a creative director?
KM: It really depends on the company and responsibilities. In my case, because our team is so small, I am a little of both. But I also report into the Global Creative Director of Banana Republic. We have to show up as one brand, so I work with him to make sure Banana Republic Factory has a unique point of view, but one that still feels like Banana Republic. In a larger company, a creative director may oversee art directors that are in charge of specific categories or areas. A creative director for a magazine, for example, guides the overall visual feel, but individual art directors will contribute stories to the magazine.
Kimara Mitchelle on the job
MJ: Tell us how you got your start.
KM: I came into the industry in a very roundabout way. I’ve always been inspired by cities, and when I went to college, my original major was civil engineering and urban planning. Once in the program, it wasn’t what I thought it would be, and was feeling stuck. I always used my free electives to take creative classes, and an Illustration professor told me about Communication Design. I took a summer seminar at Parsons and learned more about what that was: design, art direction, producing shoots, visiting printers etc. I changed my major and after graduating college, I started working at advertising agencies and design firms in Philadelphia. But I’ve always loved fashion and looked for a way to merge my love of fashion and love of design. I moved to San Francisco to go to graduate school, and continued working at agencies, but also started my blog and art directing shoots on my own. After interviewing for multiple jobs within the company, I finally got a job at Gap Corporate and moved over to the Banana Republic team 7 years ago.
MJ: What inspires you and your creative process?
KM: I’m really inspired anything art and design. Fine art, architecture, interiors, graphics, product. It’s important to me to be constantly reading, learning, watching, gathering inspiration. I have a moodboard in my apartment that I’m always switching out with things that are interesting. As much as I find inspiration online (like through Pinterest), I also love tearing things out of magazines. I like to say I’m half digital and half analog when it comes to my process. I still sketch ideas, and usually walk around with a datebook. For me, since I work for a brand, it’s always about how something can create awareness, get someone to go to a store or our site, drive sales. Asking questions earlier on is key. When I’m doing editorials, it’s more about telling a story. In both cases, you want to constantly evolve and try new things so you grow as an art director.
Click here to see the True Hues campaign
MJ: You have so many amazing projects, can you tell us about one project that you're especially proud of and why?
KM: We launched the True Hues collection earlier this year, a collection of tanks and slips in a range of skintones. I concepted a shoot and cast a range of BIPOC women that worked for Banana Republic and Banana Republic Factory and celebrated their backgrounds. All the key players of the shoot—photographer, stylist, art director, hair/makeup, and models—were women, and the team’s collective energy created a feeling of sisterhood on set. Most of the women had never met before the day of the shoot, but there was a great shared bond having been part of the experience. As part of the campaign, there was store signs, website assets, Instagram & IG Stories, and interviews with the cast. The launch was so successful that more products are being added for Spring 2021. It was nice to not only see the product resonate with customers, but also feeling like this was something for a women like me, of a darker skin tone.
Kimara Mitchelle multitasking on set
MJ: As a woman of color in the industry, why is Black representation and inclusion important from the perspective of an art director?
KM: When I was younger, reading fashion magazines, there was maybe one or two models that looked like me, and definitely no black editors, photographers, etc. Black Americans have $1.3 trillion in buying power and the BIPOC population is only growing. Yet they are underrepresented in design. Magazines don’t have Black editors, brands don’t have Black executives. Brands leverage Black culture, but don’t Black talent to execute. Companies need to do a better job of hiring Black employees, and then nurture them when they’re in the room. I’ve been the only Black person in meetings, and it’s isolating.
MJ: How can a non-person of color in your industry practice true allyship?
KM: It’s really all about creating opportunities. I was on a shoot recently, and the fashion assistant told me that in her seven years of doing shoots, she had never worked with a Black art director and I was so shocked. I was lucky enough to have a non-POC mentor who really encouraged and taught me, and gave me the chance to concept and art direct shoots. He told me to trust my gut and my voice. Black creatives have a unique point of view and
MJ: If you had to give one piece of advice to a young Black creative aspiring to follow in your footsteps, what would it be?
KM: If someone tells you no, or a door closes, there are lots of other doors. Or create your own. Find other creatives, both BIPOC and not. Concept and art direct your shoots on your own to build up your portfolio, connect with creatives through informal interviews, build your network. This business is all about the relationships you cultivate and you can use that network when you’re looking for new opportunities or you need creatives for a project.