When you think of New York, there are many things that come to mind.
For some, it’s the iconic touristy locations like Times Square and Central Park. For others, it’s the city’s vast cultural offerings, from it’s hip-hop origins to its notability as one of the biggest fashion capitals of the world.
But for native New Yorker Ayanna McNeil, her association and memories of the city are deep-rooted in its vast diversity and creativity.
“New york culture is so diverse. I think it’s similar to any major city like London or Toronto where it’s truly a melting pot of different cultures and I think that has influenced a lot of my work,” she says over Zoom.
“Being exposed to the diaspora – whether it’s meeting Black people who are from Ghana or Jamaica or the UK – has been great for me as a creative because it’s allowed me to make sure that when I am speaking to the Black experience, everything is as nuanced as possible and I think New York has given me that perspective.”
Ayanna was born in Brooklyn but raised in Queens and Long Island to Jamaican parents. “My dad is an awesome videographer and he’s really into history,” she adds.
“I spent a lot of my time reading as a child and that’s where the passion for writing comes from. As for my mum, she’s a businesswoman, so she helped me to be organised and structured growing up.”
Being raised in a Jamaican household meant that the Caribbean island had a heavy influence on Ayanna’s upbringing and her creativity.
“I didn’t listen to American music until I was like 13 – I wasn’t listening to Hip Hop at all in my house it was straight Reggae,” she laughs.
“It’s kinda awesome to think that this small island has impacted pop culture so greatly and it influenced a lot of my work.”
Surrounded by a creative and entrepreneurial family, Ayanna was constantly inspired by the things and people around her and developed a specific interest in writing and fashion.
“I naturally gravitated to telling stories through writing and dress, but I realised early on that being a fashion designer wasn’t for me,” she says.
“I remember having a class in high school and a college rep told us about these jobs that existed in the business of fashion and I realised I could work at a company where the job was to track and predict trends or buy for my favourite retailers. It was like a whole new aspect of fashion presented itself.”
This lit a spark in Ayanna and following graduation, she studied fashion merchandising in college, where she would later start her own media platform.
“While I was a junior year in college, I was taking a media course where we had to write a lot of articles,” she recalls. “It made me realise that I’d love to pitch one of them to a media outlet and I did and got commissioned for it.
“Midway through the edits, they asked me to cut the article down because they said people don’t read things of a long length anymore and they wanted to cut it to something really low like 250 words and I was like ‘no I can’t.”
This made Ayanna realise that she wanted to create a space where she could tell long-form introspective stories and she launched Brainwash on January 1st 2016.
“The first year was awesome in the sense it was new, so everything felt kind of magical,” she says. “I wrote everything myself and today we have a pool of people who have written for the site, a solid team of people I work with weekly on different elements and now it’s a whole thing.”
The platform aims to amplify Black and brown voices across the creative industry, celebrating photographers, writers, artists and more within the diaspora.
Since it’s launch four years ago, the platform has grown exponentially. They launched a special print publication, ‘Forward’, which profiled predominately Black women in creative industries, started their first fashion podcast ‘Off The Rack’ and this year they launched their online shop Brainwash Club, selling products from young Black and brown designers.
“What we do at Brainwash Club is work with young scrappy kids who make cool products and want to sell them,” she explains.
This shop features emerging businesses like fashion and lifestyle brand Sadé | Shaniya to South Carolina-based vintage boutique Ancien Vintage.
“We work with these smaller brands and help them to market and sell their products on a platform where they don’t have to worry about things like shipping.”
Brainwash Club’s commitment to highlighting Black and brown designers speaks to the Black fashion renaissance we’re experiencing today.
From brands like Farai London and Telfar, to Hanifa and Kai Collective – numerous black-owned fashion brands are experiencing success and we’re seeing a much-needed shift in the fashion industry which Ayanna says is overdue.
“I think the fashion industry has been behind for a long time and it’s like if you’re in you don’t talk about how to get in,” she admits.
“It’s an elitist industry in the sense that if you didn’t study at Central Saint Martins or Parsons School of Design it’s like you’re just this girl who makes Instagram clothes.
“It’s been great to see that mentality kind of shift and to see Black brands be innovative and creative with the resources they have and be celebrated for that.”