The combination of the magic that permeates the air in New Orleans and Cleo Wade’s generous, open spirit made the day we shared in her hometown unforgettable, and to say it provided a snapshot into her world would be an understatement. In town on a Monday to shoot Cleo in Zero + Maria Cornejo’s Resort ‘17 capsule collection, our shoot fast-tracked an intimate window into our subject’s universe.
Before 10AM, we had already met Cleo’s mother, Lori Rockett, who was in her element playing hostess to Cleo’s boyfriend, brother, and five of her best friends—most of whom were still in their pajamas as they gathered in the kitchen to discuss plans for a wedding later that evening. By midday, we’d received a candid and colorful history of the French Quarter from her photographer father, Bernardo Wade. With his endless lore and not one but two keys to the city on display in his eclectic, art-filled apartment, we became pretty convinced he’s the unofficial mayor of New Orleans. (The fact that he wears a three-piece suit and Wayfarer sunglasses seven days a week only added to the allure.) By the time the shoot wrapped in the afternoon, we had accepted an invite to said wedding that Cleo was officiating, which promised to be the bash of the year.
“I always say I was raised by three parents: my mom, my dad, and the city of New Orleans. They all are such huge characters,” Cleo explains. Her mom kept an open door and instilled in her daughter a sense of female community, which is evident in Cleo’s ability to organize groups—from her art collective, Chez Conversations, to her work with in politics with groups like Emily’s List. From her dad, she learned how to own her art as a business, not to mention his flamboyant stylistic influence. “He has a pose, a suit, a hat, sunglasses. He always wanted to make live art in that way. It’s really emphasized my attention to detail, whether I’m making something or getting dressed for my girlfriends.” As for her city, “New Orleans is such a melting pot of characters and personalities that I never had a standard of normal.”
With so much happening that day, quiet moments between shots provided further insight into the work that keeps Cleo busy seven days a week. “I describe myself as a maker. I get up every morning and try to make things. Sometimes it’s on paper, and sometimes it’s on a wall. Every day I have the intention of building community with others through creating,” she told us after a few quiet minutes spent writing in her notebook during the drive to the site of one of her large-scale murals.
In a landscape that can easily feel contrived or superficial, Cleo’s earned nearly two hundred thousand Instagram followers who respond to the authenticity of her posts, which feature her optimistic, usually hand-written poetry. An artist first and foremost, she admits she was late to the social media game and has nearly 500 unread text messages simply because she hates being on her phone too much. “We live in a concrete world. There’s a reason we’re flesh and bones in a human body and sensitive to touch and eye contact—we can’t forget there’s a reason all those things exist. That being said, social media should be a tool to help us to connect more.”
The term influencer gets thrown around a lot these days, but Cleo’s capacity to engage her community via raw, socially, and politically conscious posts makes her exemplary among peers who fall under the umbrella term. “For me, it’s such an authentic expression—I have a lot of moments where I’m like shit!, should I be sharing this? It’s such a slice of my own vulnerability or it’s a very intimate statement, idea, or concept. I never write anything that I wouldn’t want to read or that I don’t think is good advice that I would give to myself,” she says thoughtfully. While a lot of people write to get out their emotional turmoil, Cleo feels a responsibility for the things she puts out there, and her goal is to make the world a lighter, brighter place. “We can do that by acknowledging darkness, but I don’t like to throw out dark clouds.”
It’s that message of positivity that resonates with so many of Cleo’s fans, including designer Maria Cornejo. “Cleo is so clever, politically engaged, and inspiring. I read her Instagram every day, and every day it makes me feel better about being a woman and about living,” says the designer, who reached out to Cleo to collaborate in the spirit of her New Orleans-inspired Resort ‘17 collection. Taken with the multicultural layers reflected in the city’s rich textures and colors, Maria wanted her collection to embrace the city’s unique, soulful sense of magic, and Cleo was the perfect muse. “She’s intelligent, which is so admirable, but she has joy too,” she tells us. “My clothes are intended to be lived in, to have fun in, and to make you feel good about yourself—that’s what Cleo’s work does too.”
The two decided to revisit the idea of the artist/designer collaboration. “We wanted to create a healthy ecology of support through women supporting women,” explains Cleo. Her poem “Strongest Flower” resonated deeply with Maria, and they decided they would sell the print at Barneys with 100% of the proceeds going to The National Black Theatre in Harlem. The print features the original, handwritten form of a poem that recently appeared on a billboard in the French Quarter and was written for the 10-year anniversary of hurricane Katrina. “It’s important to me that at the core of collaboration, it’s about celebrating relationships. I’m so proud and happy that Barneys understood what Maria and I wanted to communicate. It’s so exciting launching my prints in store for the first time—it’s a dream come true.”
After the shoot, we joined Cleo and her crew—all her girlfriends flew in for the occasion—for the Day of the Dead-themed wedding in the heart of the French Quarter. “One way I know I’ve attracted my tribe is that every single one of my girlfriends now considers New Orleans a second home,” she tells us before slipping back into the crowd of now mostly familiar faces. In the warm air under the twinkling lights, we suddenly felt a strong sense of community, with Cleo—twirling happily to the mariachi band—clearly at the core.
Print by Cleo Wade available at Barneys Madison Avenue or via email. Purchase inquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org