Here at Fashionista, we're passionate about covering all the ways that the industry is changing for the better. That's why we wanted to honor the forces working tirelessly to reshape what it means to work in fashion and beauty. With our new annual series, Fashionista Five, we'll be doing just that by highlighting (you guessed it) five people whose work we've admired over the past year.
Five years ago, Raisa Flowers was let go from a retail job at Urban Outfitters. A young student with an uncertain future, she saw the setback as an opportunity to reflect on how she really wanted to channel her energy. She'd dabbled in makeup from the age of 13, creating looks for her friends and for occasions like weddings, and sought it out as a means of self-expression — something for which her Catholic school uniform didn't allow much room.
Professionally speaking, though, Flowers had been rejected an estimated six times when she'd applied to work at a MAC store. (She had a nostalgic affinity for the artist-beloved brand, having visited its counters regularly with her mom growing up.) So makeup, for Flowers, "was always something I was interested in, but I didn't think it was something I could pursue as a career," she says. It was during that moment of career reassessment and post-layoff self-reflection in 2014 when she decided to attend a four-day course taught by makeup artist Priscilla Ono, now notably the global makeup artist for Rihanna's Fenty Beauty, and an artist the singer herself keeps in heavy personal rotation.
"After that, my passion for makeup really expanded. I was super inspired, not just by her technique but because she was relatable to me," says Flowers of that initial encounter with Ono, which she credits for having spurred her career path in the beauty space. "She had blue hair at the time and is plus-size, too, so it gave me the feeling that I could also show up and do these things."
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Fast-forward half a decade to 2019, and in her mid-20s, Flowers's accomplishments in fashion and beauty are as prolific as they are enviable: She's walked runways for Gypsy Sport, Maison the Faux, Nicholas Kirkwood — a show which qualified her as the sole plus-size model to walk in all of London Fashion Week’s Spring 2019 season — and at Savage x Fenty's much-lauded debut Fall 2018 runway presentation in New York.
Backstage, Flowers has assisted on Pat McGrath's elite makeup team for labels like Calvin Klein, Coach, Tomo Koizumi and Anna Sui, as well as at many of the legendary artist's launch events for her eponymous brand, Pat McGrath Labs. Kelela and rapper Junglepussy rank among her regular celebrity clientele; her makeup artistry has graced the cover of Paper. As a model, Flowers has appeared across campaigns for Chromat, ASOS and Nike. She was recently dubbed one of three "beauty disruptors redefining the New York underground" scene by Vogue; a certain other reputable fashion site named her a member of the next generation of backstage beauty pros back in 2018.
Flowers is an Aquarius, the astrological sign often associated with weirdness, originality and alien-ness. It seems no coincidence that these are descriptors she would readily embrace, wanting to bring her own brand of beautiful strangeness to the fore and to mainstream brands. A self-described "club kid," Flowers is a constant chameleon, often relying on colored contacts, neon hair, a rotation of wigs and her ever-present nose and lip piercings to change the way she presents herself to the world. But she's also leaned into more natural, glow-y makeup lately, wanting to put forth an "ethereal" approach to beauty (as she did in the look she concocted for this shoot) and show that Black women can — and do — embody that aesthetic.
"It's all based on my mood. Some days I want to look super pretty. Some days I want to look super edgy. Some days I want to look crazy and wild. I feel comfortable in [those looks], and they make me feel like I can express myself. I'm kind of quiet sometimes when I’m around people, but my look can be bold, and it can overwhelm people and take over our conversation in the room. I love that," she says.
All the while, she's made it a constant underlying mission to lift up marginalized people and pay her successes forward, advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, for people of color, for plus-size folks and for anyone who feels like they've been overlooked or underestimated by society.
"So many young girls, especially young Black girls, don't get to see someone like me [represented in fashion]. I'm alternative, I have piercings. I'm plus-size, I'm Black and I love to be myself. If someone wants to cast me for something, I always think, 'What if a young girl who looks like me sees this?' I always want it more for them and more for the ability to change people's mindsets. Even if someone doesn't like it, or doesn't agree with it, they still see me out here doing it." That visibility is something Flowers considers carefully with every career move, knowing that her actions and influence carry a certain power.
While she shies away from being dubbed a "role model" or "activist," Flowers also makes it a point to be an advocate and an arbiter of propriety while she's on set, whether working as a makeup artist or model. "We've gotten to a point where speaking up is better than shutting up. When I see someone doing something that I don't think is right, I call it out," she says. "If someone's touching someone without consent, that's important to me. If Black models are getting their hair ruined backstage, I care about that." She holds those around her to a certain standard, and it's one she imposes on herself throughout any project, too. "I work really hard, I've trained and taught myself to work with everyone of any skin tone; I'm still learning every day how to work with different skin tones and undertones. I want the people that work with me to also be learning all the time, too."
Flowers knows being assertive on set may make her vulnerable, but it's a risk she's willing to take. "A lot of models don't feel that they can speak out on things, because they're afraid they're not going to get jobs. I definitely put myself on the line for not getting jobs, but we're all humans, and we need to be treated with respect and feel comfortable on set."
Inclusivity is something Flowers prioritizes when choosing the creative teams with which she works, often seeking out other people of color with whom to collaborate. "I love working with other people of color. If you're going to shoot Black women or Black people, you have to know how to light them correctly. The photos have to make sense on them. It can't be basic, it has to be super high-level."
In an image-obsessed industry that's increasingly singular as social media unites the world and perpetuates narrow notions of "ideal" makeup or appearance, remaining uninfluenced and unfazed by trends isn't easy, but Flowers manages. "I don't follow a lot of makeup artists and artists in general [on social media], because I feel like it overwhelms my mind. When you see someone doing a lot of stuff, you're like, 'Oh, shit, am I doing enough, am I fulfilling my purpose?’ I start comparing myself to other people," she says. "So I do look at art and other makeup, but I try not to stress myself out or overwhelm myself with it."
Flowers also acknowledges the inherent frivolity that can accompany working in fashion and beauty, and she's up front about the implications of living a life so focused on outward appearance. "I'm super vain. I love vanity! Not even in a bad way, I just love to get my nails done, I love to do my hair. I like to look good." And yet, she weaves her own type of selflessness into her self care, self-examination and self-expression. Yes, she changes her outward appearance on the daily, inspired only by her own whims and mood — but she also does so with the intention of inspiring others, especially other people of color or "alternative" people who society and fashion have traditionally relegated to the fringes or fetishized and trivialized.
As for her professional goals for the future? Flowers wants to one day appear on a billboard in SoHo and in a Fenty campaign. And the way things are going now, those dreams may not be so far off.
Photographer: Jeremy Grier/Fashionista
Assistant Photographer: Adrian Martinez
Makeup: Raisa Flowers (featuring Pat McGrath Labs)
Hair: Latisha Chong
Styling: Raisa Flowers (featuring ASOS; earring by Johnny Nelson Jewelry)