Intensity can sometimes come across as standoffish, and photographer Yuki James is certainly intense, but in his case it translates to warmth and openness, even in moments of deep focus or challenge. On the afternoon of his photo shoot for our exclusive FILA BNY Sole Series capsule collection, a summer thunderstorm rolled in just moments before he stepped onto the Coney Island beach to capture the first look. Seeking cover inside a boardwalk bar blasting a remix of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” Yuki calmly embraced the spontaneity the inclement weather brought to the day.
Known for his boundary-pushing portraits that challenge mainstream notions of gender and beauty, Yuki was a great fit for capturing the cross-genre appeal of FILA. The Italian brand dates back to 1911 and rose to popularity in the ‘70s, thanks in part to athletes like tennis star Björn Borg. It then managed to segue to cult streetwear status in the ‘90s. In the past few years, it’s evolved yet again, honing in on its retro-meets-modern aesthetic and even branching out to the luxury realm, as evident in the exclusive 5-piece Barneys New York collaboration. Meanwhile, Yuki started off as an editor and stylist before picking up photography a few years ago. His emotive portraits marry a bold sense of otherness with a familiarity that’s achieved through intimacy.
For this assignment, Yuki tapped model/stylist/muse Christen Mooney and headed to Coney Island to capture the collection. Scroll on to get to know the creative’s unique point of view better through both his words and his images.
The Window: What drew you to the fashion industry? Was it on your radar growing up in Alabama?
Yuki James: I always loved fashion growing up but never thought to pursue it professionally. I essentially fell into it after being in New York for a couple of years, when I took a freelance job assisting stylist Lori Goldstein for a Zac Posen show. From there, I climbed the assistant ladder, assisting legends like Jim Moore and Brana Wolf until I finally became an editor myself at V and VMAN.
How did you transition from stylist/editor to photographer? Were you always into photography?
I always appreciated beautiful images and was involved in the creation of them as a stylist and editor, but photography itself wasn’t something I necessarily wanted to do. Nor did I have any extra interest in it over other forms of art. Then, on a whim, I decided to take an introductory photography class at SVA and something just clicked—my vampire eyes were opened, so to speak. Divine inspiration, or maybe it’s just how I do most things in life—randomly and without strategy.
Your photography nods to fashion but also sits within the realm of art, with you having shown at the National Arts Club. What audience do you hope to capture with your work?
I’m interested in humans and human nature as a whole. Anyone who has emotions is my target audience.
What do you love about portraiture? How do you approach your subjects to make them feel comfortable and get them to open up?
Portraiture is people-watching on steroids. You get to pick your favorite people, openly observe them, and then capture them for posterity in the way that intrigues you the most.
What kind of subjects are you drawn to?
I’m drawn to anyone who identifies as ‘other’—no matter what form that otherness comes in.
What drew you to this FILA collaboration? Tell us about how you conceptualized the shoot.
The idea of marrying my personal aesthetic with something as universally appreciated as classic athletic wear was a new challenge. FILA feels modern and fresh, but with a grounding vintage base note that’s comforting. I wanted to capture that essence while adding the subtle ambiguities that I appreciate in life.
How did you cast this?
I’ve been wanting to work with Christen [Mooney] for a while. His carriage and personal style make him someone people look to for inspiration, and I knew he’d bring his own fresh air to the project.
You’re known for shooting in very environmental locations—how is shooting outside (like for this shoot) different from your studio work?
It’s very different. Indoors I have a lot more control, but I can also get lost in the technicalities. I wanted this story to have a certain life to it. Shooting this on a rainy day at the beach, which was unexpected, required us to be malleable and let spontaneity drive the process.
Where do you want to take your photography next?
I want to shoot different types of people—people that I don’t have immediate access to and whose lives are foreign to me. If I’m nervous or even scared, I usually produce something unforeseen and authentic. It also levels the playing field between me and the subject. Ease and predictability are things I instinctively avoid, for better or worse.