It’s June 1st, meaning it’s officially the start of Pride month festivities. As you go about your days during Pride month, we often see brands changing their brand logos to rainbowed emblems and selling pop-up capsule collections in support of LGBTQ+ inclusivity. However, the question becomes, are these timely rebrands genuine allyship or performative campaigning? Saks OFF 5TH isn’t performing and is clearing the stage for queer dancers and artists to take center stage for their 2022 Pride campaign.

The discount designer retailer collaborated with The Phluid Project for a second year on a gender-neutral capsule collection for Pride month. The LGBTQ+ organization and non-binary brand works to amplify the voices of marginalized communities, challenge dated ideals, offer resources, and provide clothing and accessories that aren’t gender-limited. Saks OFF 5th plans to donate 100% of their net proceeds, up to $100,000, from sales to the Phluid Project.

Paige Thomas, President and CEO of Saks OFF 5TH, stated, “We believe fashion is deeply personal and an important part of self-expression. Pride represents freedom and equality, which goes hand-in-hand with our commitment to creating an inclusive world where everyone is valued for being their authentic self. Our Pride campaign and ongoing relationship with the Phluid Project are two ways we can drive meaningful change for a cause that is important to our customers and our team.” Further emphasizing that Saks OFF 5th stands in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community and is looking to make meaningful change both during Pride month and not.

With the focus of this capsule collection being the intersection of both queerness and the art of dance and performance, it makes sense for the pieces to further spotlight movement. Through the lens of the campaign video, we can see vibrancy in color, fluidity of the apparel in non-conforming styling, and confidence in owning who you are through both fashion and beauty. Phluid Project founder and CEO Rob Smith explains, “The collection this year is grounded in movement, phluidity if you will. From the formfitting, stretch fabrics to the loose cover pieces, this collection empowers and encourages us to move and to move forward with progress and inclusion.”

The importance of the Saks OFF 5TH and Phluid Project’s partnership is the right to celebrate universal love and authentic self-expression. Their campaign video highlights that even without representation, you don’t have to ask permission to be who you want to be. Embracing who you are gives you back your power. They brought together a diverse group of dancers and performers representing the LGBTQ+ community through life, dance, and music.

Essence caught up with the Saks OFF 5th campaign talent Cortney Key Taylor, Mila Jam, and Harper Watters on their perspective of identity, representation, self-expression through fashion, and their legacy.

Cortney Taylor Key

Cortney Key Taylor started dancing at the young age of two and knew once she reached college that she wanted to dance for the rest of her life. She attended several summer programs to get into shape and started dancing low-level ballet. Even though she had a career halting foot injury, she persisted. Cortney has been mentored by several well-respected teachers and prides herself on moving up the ladder and perfecting her skills. “As a black student. I needed somebody to take me under their wing. I wanted to be seen as a dancer and not for all the other things I had going on. Not my colorful hair or tattoos. I just wanted to dance.”

“Once I realized I was a lesbian, I felt liberated. I started dancing differently and started to blossom into who I was. I even noticed this transition impacted my style. I started dressing in more flamboyant and colorful pieces,” she exclaimed. Cortney described fashion as being an outlet for her and another way that she could express herself in combination with dance. “I try to take looks that inspire me and recreate them with a ballet element. I’ll add my pointe shoes to an outfit and try different poses. I’ll even wear swimsuits as my leotards. I try to add my own flair to looks I recreate, but I do this in a feminine way. I love being a girl and wearing skirts and dresses, but I’m not afraid to gender-bend.” Cortney continues,” I want to show girls that they can be feminine, lesbian, and do ballet.”

When asked about her thoughts on the Saks OFF 5TH collaboration, she said,” I was honored, truly. I was in a space with Mila Jam, Honey Balenciaga, and Harper Watters. To be recognized on that level meant so much to me. I see myself in those spaces with people like that. I was there representing my part of the Pride flag and my passion for ballet.” She goes on to state,” Everyone is special. You never see two stars piled up on top of each other. It’s enough room for every star to shine in the sky. And what’s beautiful about that is the sky looks better when all the stars are out. I was honored to be a part of this campaign alongside these amazing people.”

Mila Jam

Mila Jam is a well-known recording artist, model and actress, and fierce LGBTQ+ activist. She describes herself as an artivist and explains that her art is her activism. Starting as just a parody persona, Britney Houston, Mila grew a following but felt she wanted to do more with her platform. “I started realizing, as I transitioned and came into my womanhood, how important it was to be visible because I didn’t have that growing up,” Jam states.

When asked about what representation means to her, she stated,” representation for me is exciting now because it goes from one acceptable experience to a plethora of diverse versions of that same experience. I’m just one version of what a black trans woman can look like. Whether she’s a trans-black doctor, lawyer, musician, actress, or anything in between, and being able to see ourselves on that level now as a fully realized conversation… I’m happy to see the celebration of unique experiences, non-binary, trans, gender non-conforming people’s experiences.”

Mila makes it appoint to speak about her struggles as a trans woman both within her music and her platform to give visibility and advocacy to those facing similar struggles. She states that even with her music that tries to uplift, big recording labels won’t utilize their platforms to push LGBTQ+ voices. “A lot of queer artists are emerging on our own accounts. We don’t see a lot of the big businesses coming in and supporting us. They touch on it. They may want to have a moment with you but nothing more. But we are your Alicia Keys, Britney Spears, and Mariah Carey’s. We are those iconic women, and we can also fill those arenas just the same way those women do.”

Music and fashion are at the intersection of where you will find Mila. She expressed, “I look at my identity as a coloring book. Fashion and music are the tools to add color to those pages. Fashion changes how you feel. If you’ve got something on that makes you feel good, it can uplift you. It’s empowering, and it brings people together in community.” “It was so exciting to be a part of the Saks OFF 5TH collaboration with the Phluid Project I felt it was merging my experience as a trans woman with style and a love for vibrant colors. I’m wearing pieces representing both the trans community and the trans flag.”

Harper Watters

Harper Watters is a current first soloist as of 2021 with the Houston Ballet, the fourth largest ballet company in the US and the highest-ranked black dancer in the company. He states it wasn’t an overnight success and that it all started around the age of four or five, doing dance routines in his living room for his parents. “I felt like I had permission to turn the volume up on who I was as an individual in the dance studio,” the dancer states. “I came out when I was 14. And that was a real pivotal time in my career because I was searching for identity and just coming into who I was. I was also searching for community, and I found that in dance.”

When asked how he overcame the trials and tribulations within life and dance Watters stated, “To be honest, it’s an ongoing thing. I don’t think that I can confidently say I have overcome. It’s ongoing.” He continues, “When I first joined the company at 18 years old, my biggest obstacle was thinking that I had to fit in. I had to be a mold of what I saw at the top… I had to subdue my natural tendencies inside of the studio. That of who I love and who I am as an individual. But now, as a 30-year-old, I have come into finding my voice as an artist.”

When asked his thoughts on being a part of the visuals for the Saks OFF 5TH and Pluid Project Pride campaign, he expressed, “This was the first campaign that I have been a part of that celebrated dance and its entirety. There were breakdancers, tap dancers, queer ballet dancers, and trans performers. The energy on set was just electrifying. I feel extremely honored to be a part of it because it’s history-making. Even seeing the production team brought together were LGBTQ+ from the director, the backstage people, stylists, and photographers, all a part of the community. It felt like a real collective and a conscious effort on the Saks OFF 5th.”

Harper left us off with the following when asked about the legacy he wants to leave. “When I leave this world, I’ll leave no regrets. Leave something to remember, so they won’t forget, “the ballet soloist quoting Beyonce. “It’s a very unique thing to call yourself a ballet dancer and to perform for people. I hope that when I leave the stage and I sashay away, it’s more colorful, and it’s more representative of the world that I live in off stage.”

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