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Poet Cleo Wade on Fashion, Politics and Pushing for Progress

Instagram's favorite poet opens up about the philosophy that drives her writing, activism and her relationship with fashion.
Cleo Wade for Aerie. Photo: Aerie

Cleo Wade for Aerie. Photo: Aerie

Whether or not you recognize Cleo Wade's face, you probably know her handwriting. Wade's short, affirming handwritten quips are seemingly inescapable on Instagram and have ballooned the poet's following to include everyone from Yara Shahidi to Reese Witherspoon to your mom. Wade's words, which are often centered around love, often become the regram of choice on holidays (i.e. her note to men on Father's Day) or after a national heartbreak (i.e. following the death of Aretha Franklin). But as feel-good as her messages are, they don't shy away from the political, whether that means challenging the NRA or telling Americans to "vote the change they want to see in the world."

As much as her career is built on words, Wade also traffics in the world of the visual, and has long had a penchant for fashion specifically. Having worked for M Missoni and Halston in the past, Wade now collaborates with Gucci, Tiffany & Co. and more as an artist and influencer. Her latest fashion linkup is with Aerie, where she joins the likes of Iskra Lawrence and Aly Raisman as an "#AerieREAL role model" in one of the brand's unretouched campaigns.

We caught up with Wade on the phone to chat fashion, politics and how to push for progress in an imperfect world. Read on for our more from our conversation below.

How do you feel about being in front of the camera? It's not necessarily what the average poet is known for.

It's not a place where I feel so comfortable. I really feel that my sharpest tool in my tool kit is my writing. Every time I [get in front of a camera] I am afraid, but I do it anyway because when I was growing up, I didn't see people that looked like me in the media being celebrated in campaigns, or being highlighted for not only what they do, but the space that their body holds in the world. 

As a young black girl in Louisiana, I really infrequently saw anyone who looked like me as a role model. And so every time I'm afraid to do that or I'm asking myself "Should I just stay home and write?" I have to remember her. Every time I get in front of a camera, I do it for the eight-year-old version of myself so that she can see herself in the world because I know that she's alive in so many young girls today.

What are your criteria when you're looking at fashion brands to partner with?

My business partner and I never say yes to any project where we don't see the impact. I would never do something for my own personal visibility alone. I would never do something for money alone. We always weigh the time and the impact and how we can contribute to the social causes that are important to us through any partnerships we do, whether that's a fashion brand or any other brand.

I very rarely get called on to purely be a face and not be someone who works in community with the brand or comes up with ideas for how brands can be more deeply involved in their customers' lives to make them happier.

What about Aerie made you excited to partner with them?

Yara [Shahidi] is one of my girlfriends. Having seen that she was a part of the Aerie family — it's kind of like when you meet a friend of a friend and you're like "You must be cool if you're friends with my friend." And by cool I mean fun and morally and ethically aligned with things that we believe in, which to me is the ultimate way to be cool. 

I started looking at the company and the training they do for their employees to make sure that they know how to emotionally handle when a woman may be in a dressing room body shaming herself, and how inclusive their sizing is and how they don't use retouching. I had a big crush from afar. 

And then when I actually got to work with them, I fell so madly in love with everyone. It wasn't that they just worked to create imagery they thought was important, but they knew the value of what it stood for, and they were so passionate and proud to be a part of creating a new way for young girls to look at images of themselves. Which is so incredibly needed in our current times, for girls to feel freer and happier and safer in their own skin.

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Cleo Wade for Aerie. Photo: Aerie

Cleo Wade for Aerie. Photo: Aerie

You've talked about the impact brands have on their customers' lives. Is the impact that they have on the people who make the clothing or the environment also something you research before you work with a brand?

It's definitely something that we consider. It's really hard to find any person who's perfect. So we look for where the ambitions and goals of the company are — the strides they're making to be better or more sustainable, or kind of move in that direction. Because there are so many brands that have their heels so firmly dug into the ground, and they're not interested in it at all.

I think a lot of brands are getting better every year to see that they make an impact, whether that's just consumer self esteem or whether that's the environment or company morale.

Do you think fashion can have political power?

Every industry has political power because anything that has organized groups of people has the ability to challenge the status quo. Fashion has a very unique space in politics because its form of storytelling is art, which I think has a lot of entryways that appeal to people. We have an amazing ability to take that and use it as an organizing tool.

Is there any tension for you in walking the line between art, activism and commerce?

I'm a kind of progressive person, tried and true, and I will never say no to being able to gain 20 feet, even if I want 40 feet. And I will definitely never say no to 20 feet forward if it means that if I didn't have to take 10 steps back. 

I don't think that change always has to be incremental. But I think that we get into a really dangerous space when we think that if we want to make any type of change, that it can only look this one way that is perfect across the board. I think we're all fighting the good fight for a better world, or at least I try to align myself with people who I know are doing that. 

We're fighting something that we want to win. I obviously don't think we need to betray our moral compass to do that, but I think that we have to make it as inclusive as possible. I don't think that standing on a moral high ground makes that possible because it's a refusal to acknowledge the way the systems are working, and I think it's also a refusal to acknowledge that people and structures are imperfect.

Has your relationship with fashion propelled your career as a writer and thinker forward, or do those feel like separate things to you?

It's helpful for women to feel that we can embrace all aspects of our personality and what excites us. A lot of times, we try to compartmentalize things like fashion away from ourselves because god forbid someone take us seriously if we have red lipstick and a fun outfit on. Historically, that's something that we've had to fight against.

Fashion is something that I have enjoyed ever since being a young girl thrift shopping in Louisiana. I feel that to try to make it lesser than my other interests is not helpful for me in accepting my full self. And I think that for anyone, our greatest goal is total self acceptance.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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