Mai Lucas is an independent spirit that travels the globe in search of the beauty of every day life. She is drawn to the people whose souls live and breathe on the streets we cruise and the sidewalks we strut. For more than twenty years, Lucas has been documenting the look of urban style as it finds itself moving from continent to continent.
The Parisian native has made her name in fashion, magazines, and advertising, working for clients including Bouygues, Liberto, Comme des Garçons, Xuly Bet, and Vania, and photographing celebrities including as diverse as Amy Winehouse, Celia Cruz, Dwyane Wade and Tricky. Lucas has also been photographing music festivals such as AfroPunk, as sources of culture and pride that transcend the more capitalistic expressions of music for the youth in the twenty-first century.
Lucas sits down with The Chic to reflect on her passion for style as it is most intimately expressed by the people who step in front of her camera lens. The Starter, as Lucas named herself, has had a hand in shaping the look of the world by giving us an intimate and emotional space to gaze upon the beauty of the human race.
Of her first foray into photography, Lucas recalls, “When I was young a friend of my father had a Canon camera and wanted to get rid of it. My father took it and gave it to me. I started taking photographs when I was fourteen years old. It started out with photographs of my friends at school. I became the official photographer for the youth of my generation.
“I went to the School of the Louvre and started freelancing for magazines when I was eighteen. I was hired to illustrated an article on Hip Hop and graffiti for a men’s fashion magazine because most of my friends were in the local scene.
“When you grow up, you become aware that everyone has a personality; photography is one of the ways to capture people as characters. It’s like a movie. ‘This one looks like a queen, this one look like my hero.' I wanted to be able to show the diverse people around me to the world.
“When I started doing photography, I was going to nightclubs. I was hanging out with brand new Hip Hop artists, some dancing, some rapping, and I gave them pictures to use for their album covers. At that time, my pictures were in every hands. Magazines were calling me for pictures of my friends. When I started as a professional, I worked in fashion photography. It was in fashion, and not music, that people saw my talents.
“I used to hang out with everyone in the fashion world in my personal time. People like Serge Kruger, Jean Baptiste Mondino, fashion models Tanel and Christine Bergstrum, and hairdresser Julien Dys…. Actually, before I was a fashion photographer, I was a stylist assistant for Gigi LePage and Maida Gregory. I used to take pictures backstage at the fashion shows, like Azzedine Alaia. I was the jewellery assistant for the Karl Lagerfeld runway shows when I was eighteen.
“At the time, I was always at Les Bains Douche, one of the classic Parisian nightclubs. I started photo assisting for Nick Knight when he was doing a catalogue for Yohji Yamamoto, and later assisted Satoshi and Stephane Sednaoui. These were all my friends in fashion.
“I am really interested in people. I liked looking at magazines like i–D and The Face, where you had models who did not look like models at all but like real people. I was very attracted to the idea of showing real people in fashion.
“At the time I was working for a men fashion magazine illustrating articles for their magazine. I received a call from Vingt Ans magazine. It was a teen magazine. I told them I didn’t want to work only with models, but also with real people. They agreed. I worked with the stylist to cast them from people we saw on the street.
“Vingt Ans didn’t have any barrier of color. I could do a shoot with mix origin people to illustrate one article. Or I could cast a shoot where everyone was black. It didn’t matter. I found the people, and we decided to write about them, rather than come up with a story idea and cast people to fit the mold. I was free to do what I wanted. I did this for five years every month.
“I also created the look for the magazine Nova, a style that they never left. It was all about having fun being alive and real.I was never obliged to take a model I didn’t choose. I liked to have people laughing, smiling, dancing, and singing on my photos.
“I also started working with WAD magazine, and that gave me a space to develop my own work. I could produce a fashion shoot the way I wanted to. I could be artistic. I could show Asian, black, and Arab people. I could put mix street fashion with real fashion. I remember my photo agent told me, ‘You are always in advance.’ This is because I always experiment.
“I remember I was watching a movie called ‘Marock’. It was about rich teem culture in Morocco, people who were living close to Europe and not as much in the Arab ways. There was a shot of a young woman in her home during the 1980s She is in her bedroom and her wall is filled with pages from magazines—which are my pictures!
“In a way my goal has worked. I wanted to make the people of the street into stars. I wanted to give them exposure before they even became famous. People like Ben Harper who I saw on the street and photographed a year before anyone knew who he was. You can feel that with some people; they shine.
“I am often hired to do something with an artist or fashion company in the beginning. I create the look and when it becomes successful, they hire a big name photographer for the next shoot. I’m a starter.
“I remember one day, I was speaking with a good friend, the photographer Andrew Dosunmu. We had worked together in Paris for the same magazine. About five years ago he called me and told me he was going to film some episodes of a South African famous serial about the ghetto. When they met, they showed him pictures and let him know this was the vibe they wanted for the style of the show. He told me, ‘You won’t believe it but it was your photos!’
“Seventeen years ago, two producers from South Africa came to my office. I had just gotten back from Nigeria where I was photographing Femi Kuti and his father’s nightclub, The Shrine. I gave them some pictures, and I never heard from them again. From everything I have heard of the show, the producers did a great job.
“I’ve decided to accept my position as being part of the link of success, of being part of the truth. I start with truth and reality, and it inspires people.
“I began coming to New York when I was eighteen, and I’ve been coming every year since then. I began photographing for Vibe and working with people like Ziggi Golding, Janene Outlaw, George Pitts ,and Meshell Willems from Tommy Boy. I was friends with the French Hip Hop crowd and fashion in Paris, the downtown fashion crowd like Maripol, and Brooklyn hip hop crowd in New York, and it gave me my vision of the space where America and France meet.
“For me, chic goes with harmony and realness. It’s like a puzzle, all mixed together, and it looks perfect. It fits the person. Someone chic is someone that is the beauty of people. There is something personal and special about that person. It is having a balance of what you create for the eyes of other people.
I want my photographs to say, ‘This woman chose these clothes to fit this situation to make her shine. She has personality and she uses fashion to improve her own style. All of you: Look at what you can do with fashion to look great yourself! And inspire others.”