"I loved growing up in Bed-Stuy. I mean, Brooklyn was so different back then. I went to school in the city, and I very rarely had friends sleep over and stuff because their parents would be like, ‘You can’t go to Brooklyn.’ It was dangerous, but then it was also like—I mean, my parents created a really nice environment for my siblings and me. My mom was a hippie—my mother was Goop before Goop was Goop. Like, I grew up vegan, and she used to make my clothes for school. Weirdly, there was this channel on cable that would play fashion shows, and my mom would have it on all day. Every single season, she’d be like, ‘Fashion week is coming on.’ Oh my god, I wonder if she remembers that. I also have this distinct memory of reading magazines on the floor of my sister’s bedroom. It was Cosmo, and Vogue, and Essence—I still love magazines, but now I read Dazed, i-D, Mastermind, 032c, Self Service, and Gentlewoman. My parents were always encouraging me to read and open my mind, but when I saw those images I was completely taken to a place I had never gone before. I think that really cemented that I wanted to be a part of fashion.
I was so excited to go freelance, but now I kind of wish I could assist again, as a reset. For me, it was like being a fly on the wall. I think with all the people I worked with, I got a 360-overview of what it’s like to be a stylist. Under Jessica Diehl [at Vanity Fair], I learned the importance of having a clear vision, but also how to work within the structure of a magazine. With Nico [Formichetti], it opened my eyes to a world of creativity that I had never seen. I felt like I belonged more with those scene-y kids than at Condé as a black girl. Working with Alastair [McKimm], I officially developed my taste. I just love the way he edits, and his approach to creating an image. He had assisted Edward [Enninful] for a few years, so he knew what it was like and treated his assistants really well. It’s a relationship. And then I went to Giovanna Battaglia. I loved, loved, loved working with Gio because we would always build these crazy sets—it was storytelling. That’s what I want to create, the same thing. Gio really participates in fashion—sometimes I’ll wear a full look to set, but my ideal would be like, a full The Row piece. I like Jacquemus, Céline when Phoebe [Philo] was there, Prada. Dries is so good. That’s my look.
I think makeup was really what drew me to fashion magazines. I would look at the faces first, and then look at the clothes. In high school I had hormonal acne, and I was always wearing like, poorly-matched Revlon to cover it up. Now I keep it very minimal. I’ll do a primer, either the Smashbox matte one in the summertime, or Charlotte Tilbury Wonderglow. I don’t really like to use a heavy foundation, so I’ll use Skin Tint. Depending on the coverage I want I’ll mix it with one pump of Stellar in S21—before Fenty came out, it was the only brand I saw at Sephora that had a wide range of shades. Then I’ll do Touche Éclat, but I have to use two shades, 5 and 6.5, because it’s not perfect. That’s a brand where like… Touche Éclat’s been around for decades now, right? And you still have like seven shades? You’re doing bad. But the formula is so good for under my eyes. For concealing a breakout or a dark mark I’ll use Kevyn Aucoin’s Sensual Skin Enhancer in SX13. It’s really heavy, and because the rest of my makeup is so light, I can’t really use much. Benetint gives me the most natural glow, and it’s super old-school, which I like. Then I’ll do highlighter. I’ll either use Fenty highlighter in Trippin, or Giorgio Armani in 10, or MAC Strobe Cream, or I’ll put the Charlotte Tilbury back on. I’ll use my fingers so it warms up—that’s one of the tricks I learned being on set—and then dab it on. For my eyebrows, I’ll use Tom Ford’s Brow Sculptor, which I really like because it has this little sharpener on it, and then Eyeko Brow Gel, and Boy Brow in Black. The Eyeko one helps them stay in place—because my twists kind of hit my face, they can get messed up. Boy Brow just adds more color, and blends things. I use Lash Slick with a primer from Lancôme just to make it last longer. If I’m going to work, I’ll do a minimal Gen G lip. Like is my absolute favorite—it gives me a super natural color.
The women I’ve always admired, beauty-wise, are heavy into liner. Plus, my strong suit is my eyes, so I like enhancing them. My eyeliner that I wear every day is Givenchy Magical Kohl in 15, which is brown, but I have it in black as well. I do it along my lash line, and on my waterline—I still love that look, just a little bit. And then I have a Smith and Cult liquid liner which is really nice. If I’m going out, I’ll use the Shu Uemura eyelash curler and then do a little wing tip. It works for me, but I feel like it’s so ‘90s. If I’m going for a look, I’ll use Kevyn Aucoin black eye gloss. Or I’ll do a lip—it’s either a red, or a gloss. Lipstick Queen lipsticks last so long—I’ll use Brat Pack or Black Tie, which is deeper. For gloss, I like this Givenchy one in 07, or this random brand Beauty Is Life one, or Gloss Bomb. I might do a little contour with Nars Sculpting Multiple in Playa Flamenco and Oahu, but it’s very light. I like the way it blends, and it’s very natural.
My skincare has changed drastically from when I was younger—I used to use Neutrogena scrub, or St. Ive’s. When I was growing up I spent all my money on makeup, and as I got older, I was like, ‘Oh, why don’t I just put all that money into a good skincare routine.’ I feel like maybe in the last two years I’ve gotten a good handle on it, and my skin has been really good. I wake up and I cleanse with Tammy Fender Cleansing Milk. It’s really gentle, but I still feel like it’s cleaning off what I did the night before. If I’m feeling lazy I’ll just do a quick wash with a cleansing water from Huxley. Bioderma hurts my eyes, and it makes my skin really tight after. I use P50, but I use the sensitive one. After that, I’ll either use Tammy Fender Bulgarian Rose Water—it’s kind of pricey, but it’s so nice. Next I’ll put on a vitamin C serum, because it’s supposed to be good for hyperpigmentation. I use this brand Kypris—when I used to work at Net-a-Porter the director gave it to me, and I just stuck with it. It makes my skin glow, and it smells amazing. Then I’ll use Tidal by Sunday Riley, the hyaluronic moisturizer, and then on top of that I’ll use an oil—usually Herbivore Lapis Oil. The Tidal is sometimes too moisturizing—I can’t use it in the summertime. I’ll use a prickly pear oil I get at Credo Beauty for my eyes that’s in a rollerball, and that’s it for the morning.
After the day, I’ll come home, wipe my face off with cleansing water, and then use an exfoliant. I made my own scrub recently—I’m a Girl Scout Troop Leader, and I had the girls make their own beauty brands. We made scrubs with coffee, brown sugar, coconut oil and essential oils, and I had a label maker, and I had them create their own names and put labels on them. It was actually really good! I cleanse with Kat Burki Ocean Cleanser, and then maybe do a mask. People think Glamglow is really cheesy, but I like it—when I do Glamglow I don’t do an exfoliator or anything, because it already has what I need. Aztec Secret Clay I’ve always used since I was a child. I’ll mix a little Manuka honey with it, too. My favorite mask is Masque Vivant, but it smells like yeast, it’s disgusting. If I do a mask, then I’ll tone again, and I’ll put on oil. But if I use retinol, I won’t put anything else on. Tazorac wasn’t my first introduction to retinol, but I thought if I’m going to use it, I might as well get it from a dermatologist. I go to Derma Di Colore, which is a practice that specializes in skincare for people of color. I grew up not using sunscreen, because my parents didn’t believe in in, but I have to use it with the retinol. I like Supergoop.
My hair routine is an interesting process. For so long I permed my hair, so when I finally went natural it was like me getting to know my hair again. My parents were so against me getting a perm—I fought with my mom tooth and nail. What I didn’t want to have to explain to her was that my natural hair made me an outcast. I was insecure, and that’s what I needed to survive. When I got to high school, she was like, ‘Alright,’ and did it for me. It was fine, but the maintenance of it was poor, and my hair started breaking off like crazy. I wish [the natural hair movement] had happened earlier, because maybe I wouldn’t have hurt my hair. It went through so much damage, and I went through psychological damage, too. During summertime, I couldn’t go into the pool like I wanted to, and I dreaded humid days because I was scared my hair would pop up and I wouldn’t look a certain way. I think back to my younger self, and I’m just like, ‘OK, I want to apologize to you.’
Now that I’m older, I’m proud to wear my hair natural, but I’m not one of those girls who knows their hair type really. I was literally just trying anything I saw on YouTube, or that a friend would tell me. I was putting all this oil in my hair—castor oil, coconut oil, jojoba oil, avocado oil. My hair was shedding, and then [the oil] would get all over my pillows and stuff—if it’s on my pillows, it’s not on my hair. I was breaking out, too—that’s when I started seeing a dermatologist. It was a mess. Then a hairstylist was like, ‘Your hair isn’t actually getting moisturized, the oil is just sitting on top of your hair.’ It’s funny, because I just had not put two and two together. Since I stopped using it, my hair has been much better, and I feel like I finally got a handle on how to nourish my curls and take care of my hair properly. I always dreamed of having a very edited beauty routine—sometimes I’ll get flip-floppy and want to try new things and get sidetracked, but I want to have my core products. My hair responds well to DevaCurl. I’ll co-wash once a week or once every two weeks, and then I’ll shampoo maybe once a month. They also have this detangler that’s really nice. Detangling takes maybe half an hour—that’s a lot to be in the shower. I also started using Virtue products, which are really good—I’ll either use their deep conditioner or Briogeo’s deep conditioner. When my hair is out, I’ll sleep either in two braids or two twists. If I’m really lazy, I’ll just put it up in a pineapple. And I sleep on a satin pillowcase. I have a bonnet, but I don’t really like using it—it’s not cute.
For most of the winter I’ve been wearing my hair in twists, because last winter my hair got so dry, and my scalp got so itchy. This year I learned my lesson. And now I just get up and go—it used to take me like three hours to do my hair, between drying and everything. I go to this girl Ashley Letang in Brooklyn, and she’s the only person I let do my hair. She’s incredible—she’s so gentle, and respects your edges, and is just so sweet. I love her energy, and I think that’s really important. I used to have this curly fro weave put in, and I got so many compliments on it, and with the twists, so many people stop me, too. Actually, I didn’t realize this until I had twists, but I feel like I’m on guard sometimes when people compliment me too much. Like, what does that mean compared to my real hair? When I took out my weave, I felt like people didn’t know how to react or something. And same with the twists, people are like, ‘Is that your real hair?’ This is extensions! You couldn’t possibly have thought it was my hair. I actually would prefer people not compliment me, which has made me more conscious about how I compliment people as well. If someone does something different, I don’t want it to sound like I don’t think they look good normally. They look beautiful either way!
Honestly, my nails are just genetics—my mom’s nails are so long. A manicurist on set said not to do water treatments, because the water makes your nails expand and that’s why polish chips. And I make sure they only file in one direction—that’s another thing someone told me on set. I go to Jinsoon to get manicures and pedicures. I love an almond shape, but they'll break. It’s sad. The only way I can do it is if I do gels, and I’ll go to Vanity Projects for that. I use vitamin E oil at night, and make sure my hands are super hydrated. I like the Kat Burki hand cream—it smells so good. I love her products.
I wash my body with Kiehl’s Original Musk, but I like unscented lotion. I’ll use Kat Burki, or I’ll use Rodin oil. I can’t stand dry brushing, but I’m trying to do it. I get this really nice therapeutics brush from Whole Foods, and the bristles are so harsh. It’s great for that, but sometimes I have to wet it because it’s too much. Stress also brings out these little red bumps, which is rosacea. I’ll use shea butter for that, or if I’m really stressed I’ll get acupuncture. My uncle does acupuncture, so I go to him, but the last time I went was when I was in college. I was super stressed out, smoking cigarettes and stuff, just so stressed. But I went, and my mood and my energy just changed instantly, and I could feel everything inside of me changing. Like, the taste in my mouth was different after.
You know where I got [Frederic Malle] Portrait of a Lady from? Jessica Diehl. She wears it all the time—we knew she was coming because we could smell it. I was like, ‘That is the woman I want to be.’ Ever since, I’ve never been able to stop buying it. So I use Portrait of a Lady, and I’ll mix it with Carnal Flower depending on how strong I want it to be. Or I’ll mix it with Tom Ford Tobacco Oud. I think patchouli’s one of the notes in Portrait of a Lady, so it kind of enhances that. If I’m going somewhere where I want to wear fragrance that isn’t a big deal, I’ll wear Byredo Velvet Haze. Or, life hack, if you use their hair perfume, it’s like the same thing as wearing perfume. Sometimes I’ll mix that with Armani Amber. I’m big on essential oils, and jasmine is my favorite scent. I’ve been wearing that lately—it’s really intoxicating and floral and sweet. I’ll mix that with Carnal Flower. But this is just when I want to have fun with fragrances—mostly it’s Portrait of a Lady. I love it, and I get so many compliments on it."
—as told to ITG
Tchesmeni Leonard photographed by Tom Newton on January 27, 2019.