Lena Waithe is an advocate for creatives, adamant about finding and supporting new talent. Which is why, as I was planning our L.A. Brand Stars cover shoot, I knew we needed to work with a team that really meant something to her.
I wanted to meld who I think she is as a person with the concept for the photo shoot—for her to look effortless, natural, elegant and not over-produced. To capture her strength and determination but still be intimate and candid. We would be in Los Angeles, but we wouldn’t scream that we were. There would be texture, the palette would be muted yet saturated, and we’d shoot in natural light. And I wanted it to be shot on film, to give the images depth and a real vibe.
The best person for the job? Lelanie Foster. She’s one of a handful of black photographers—along with Andre Wagner, Campbell Addy and Awol Erizku—who shot the marketing for Queen & Slim, Waithe’s upcoming movie. All of them were handpicked by Waithe and the film’s director, Melina Matsoukas, who collaborated on how the film would be promoted.
“Before we shot a single frame of the movie, we talked about how we wanted to market it,” said Waithe. “We both agreed we wanted all of [the photographers] to be black. We wanted to capture this journey through a black lens.”
Because Foster had been on set of the film for three months in New Orleans—and shot the promo photos for Waithe’s new BET show, Twenties, airing next year—she came into our cover shoot already bonded with her subject.
“I am just a fan of her photography,” said Waithe. “It’s not hard to see she has a great eye and a unique outlook on the world.”
“Lena is the kind of person that, if she believes in you, she really believes in you,” says Foster, who began her career doing photo production for legendary photographers Steven Meisel, Patrick DeMarchelier and Craig McDean. “She will do whatever to support you, push you and create spaces for you to exist.”
Read Lisa Lacy’s cover story: Lena Waithe on Why LA Was the Perfect Place to Make Her Dreams Come True
Together, Foster and I discussed possible locations. We wanted something that had a lot of atmosphere but wasn’t stereotypical L.A. We landed on a very bright and beautiful oasis of a house in Highland Park. There were banana trees, a multilevel backyard and a wide-open field with bare-branched trees in the back. It was perfect. (Thank you, Barbara Lamelza, for letting us use your beautiful home.)
For wardrobe, I asked Waithe if there was a designer or brand she was passionate about that embodied “Lena.” She suggested Patrick “Fresh” Henry—a Memphis native who has been making custom suits, bags and track suits under his brand, Richfresh—who she had just hired full-time.
Waithe had come across his work on Instagram through one of her followers. “Oh, God, she slid into my DMs,” said Fresh, whose clients include Draymond Green, Deshaun Watson, Anthony Anderson, John Legend and even Iman. “I’ve been following Lena for a while, and she reached out and is like, ‘Yo, you’re killing it. I gotta get this product on me.’”
“I did,” said Waithe. ”I loved his leisure wear and his suits so much. I figured I wanted him dressing me all the time. His suits are impeccable while still being fun and fly. And his leisure suits are swaggy and waterproof.”
Waithe gave Fresh full creative control. “He’s so great with unique colors and patterns—I just tell him to go for it, and he does,” she said. They agreed the color would be a soft green, and Fresh paired it with a magenta stripe down the pant leg and a deep-purple pocket square. Usually, Fresh needs about two weeks to produce a garment in his Los Angeles factory. But for Waithe, he completed the suit in four days.
The morning of the shoot ended up being perfect. The house was airy, tranquil and open. Waithe’s usual grooming team, Dominique Evans and Rebekah Aladdin, were on hand, as was Fresh. “I’m just real passionate about my product and about the way it’s viewed,” he said. “Things had to fit properly, and things have to look appropriate. This is a big moment for her, and I got to make sure that my expertise and my OCD works to her benefit.”
As I had hoped, Waithe and Foster worked together seamlessly. “I never really asked for specific poses,” recalled Foster. “Instead, I followed her lead. I stopped her here and there when I wanted her to redo something. I looked for moments where she felt regal and moments when she felt chill and unguarded and completely unconscious of me being there.”
The crew played a mix of songs by Kendrick Lamar, Whitney Houston (one of Waithe’s favorites), Chance the Rapper and Solange to set the tone for our shoot. (You’ll find the playlist on Spotify.)
For Foster, photographing Waithe was similar to photographing for Waithe, in that she felt that she had her trust and confidence the entire time.
“As an artist herself, she understands what I need artistically to make the shoot happen successfully, so she ends up being a true asset and ally on set because she’s just in my corner the entire time and so calming and reassuring,” Foster said. “The support she has provided me—especially as a black woman, a woman of color, in an industry where we are mostly invisible and overlooked—is truly invaluable, and I’m forever thankful and deeply indebted to her! Never have enough words for her!”