For Foreword South, an important part of the interview process is that we hold our conversation in a space where the Foreword subject feels most comfortable. For some, it’s their home or workplace, for others, it’s been a park. When Maacah Davis suggests that we conduct her interview over Sunday brunch, I immediately recognize her to be my kinda person. So on this particular Sunday, Megan and I pack up (our iPhones) and make the trip down I-65 to Avo & Dram, a stylish bar in Mountain Brook, Alabama.
When I ask Maacah to define her occupation, she responds, “General doer. If it needs to get done, I do it.” I soon learn that means that she does everything: she is the creative director, publisher, and editor-in-chief of belladonna magazine. Her brainchild is Birmingham, Alabama’s first fashion magazine, which launched in July of 2014. “Basically, my hybrid title means that I not only come up with the concepts to make the final product happen, but I direct the team, curate and book the shoots, assign writing assignments, facilitate interviews for my writers, and after all of that is said and done, I actually lay out that magazine. I do the physical task of putting it on the page and making sure it’s published and print ready.”
If that sounds huge, it is.
Many people are sure that print is dying. But when Maacah opens the pages of belladonna in front of me, I am getting nothing but life. She has brought several copies of the magazine to our brunch, and I hold my breath as I am confronted by black and brown fairytale princesses on sets that look magical, models in hijab, and articles about where to find ethically made vegan clothing and overcoming your fears. There are no ads in these magazines, which is an intentional decision. “I’m all about visual cohesion from the beginning to the end. As you’re flipping through, I want you to feel like you are reading one giant story. It’s a series of editorials and every issue has an overarching theme.” Advertisements from outsiders would disrupt this cohesion, and until Maacah can have creative direction over how ads are positioned in her magazine, she’d rather do without them.
Relying on a tenuous familiarity of InDesign from her high school days, Maacah taught herself how to lay out a full magazine from cover to cover. “It’s cool that we’re working on industry standard software, but we have no idea how to use it. Using it for a high school newspaper and using it for a full publication… completely different. I was really self-taught.” Before seeing this magazine, I thought a good example of self-taught was those hilarious collections of pinterest fails. belladonna makes being self-taught look like a full ride scholarship to FIDM.
As I stare slackjawed at the pages of the Fairytale Issue (Winter 2015), Maacah delineates her process: “I call our magazine our creative playground. It’s for me to experiment, as well as [belladonna’s] creatives. I’m like, I don’t know if this will work, but I’ll try it. That’s our model with shoots, partnerships, ideas, grants – we don’t know if it will work, but we do it anyway.”
Although Maacah reminisces with a cringe on her fashion choices in high school, she has always been confident and creative, which she attributes to her childhood. She was born in Cameroon, a country in West Africa. She lived there until she was three years old, and then lived in between Nigeria and Ghana until she was 10, when she moved to Birmingham. “[Moving here] was a culture shock, because it was Alabama, not because I wasn’t used to traveling. I’ve been traveling my whole life. But Alabama is quiet and Birmingham is a city that goes to sleep. Culture and politics here are completely different. But I lived.”
“[Moving here] was a culture shock, because it was Alabama, not because I wasn’t used to traveling. I’ve been traveling my whole life. But Alabama is quiet and Birmingham is a city that goes to sleep. Culture and politics here are completely different. But I lived.”.
Now she is proud to call Birmingham home, because she sees herself as someone who can contribute to growth in the city. “I am in a position to help change Birmingham and make it into what it is going to be in a few years. I feel very useful here in a way that I wouldn’t feel in other places.”
Useful is an understatement. Maacah’s magazine is making space where there previously was none. Not only is belladonna magazine Birmingham’s first fashion magazine, it’s the first black-owned fashion publication to be released nationally in years. What prompted her to create this publication amidst the inertia of the local fashion industry?
“The thing about belladonna is that it was a happy accident. It was me being really petty because these photographers were online saying it was really hard to find photogenic models of color in the South and I was like ‘….Hold my beer.’”
these photographers were online saying it was really hard to find photogenic models of color in the South and I was like ‘….Hold my beer.’”.
As belladonna gains momentum, we ask Maacah what keeps her going and what she sees in belladonna’s future. “It’s funny that you ask that because I started it because of that comment: ‘You can’t find beautiful models of color in the south.’ The more I kept doing [the magazine], I realized the easiest part of this whole publication was finding beautiful models of color. That’s not the issue that needs to be addressed. If you’re not casting them, that’s a personal problem. It’s not that they’re not there, it’s that you don’t want to cast them. That’s a problem I can’t fix. The bigger problem is ‘Where is the fashion industry?’ So slowly, the magazine started trying to address that.”
From beginning as a stunning clapback to photographers claiming they couldn’t find photogenic models of color, belladonna is now tackling the issue of forming a strong fashion industry in Birmingham in part by being deliberate about the sourcing of their concepts for their publication. Their layouts are high quality and are styled to compete with the likes of the high fashion magazines we see on market shelves all the time. The lack of institutions to support a true fashion industry in Birmingham limits what Maacah and her staff are able to showcase in the pages of belladonna. Maacah is serious about the standard she needs to meet to be a competitive fashion magazine, and that means that she can’t always outfit her models in pieces from everyday boutiques.
“I like making beautiful things with beautiful people. And I like making sure they have what they need to make things. That’s all it boils down to.”
In such a demanding role, I am envious of how effortlessly Maacah seems to exude the essence of Carefree Black Girl. But it’s clear that she isn’t simply a socialite who just happens to enjoy fashion. “What surprises people is that I’m not plugged into a lot of the social or creative scenes. I’m a homebody; I don’t actively flit about in the city. The way my introversion is set up, we’re not doing that.”
Maacah’s ability to identify and unite people who care about fashion prove that she is a deliberate business woman developing a solution to a large problem. Maacah is in the planning stages of creating a fashion incubator to eliminate barriers to entry for serious designers who want to mass produce clothing but just don’t have the resources in Birmingham, Alabama. This incubator wouldn’t be for hobbyists. In the same way that Maacah and her team are serious about their craft, she wants to work with designers who have shown determination to create in a city that doesn’t currently foster that creativity.
Maacah reflects on her own motivations for expanding her work in the fashion industry, “This work was very organic. I’ve always been creative, artistic. I like making beautiful things with beautiful people. And I like making sure they have what they need to make things. That’s all it boils down to.” She speaks with admiration and appreciation for her team, the group of creatives around her who help to make belladonna happen.
As we indulge in the most divine scones, I am curious to know how she takes care of herself in moments where her projects or plans don’t work out. “I mostly eat about it and go from there,” she says, laughing. Good thing we’re in a brunch spot. “But seriously, I try to give myself space to process. Are you familiar with the term l’esprit d’escalier? It’s a French expression for “staircase wit”: when you think of a clever comment after the moment it would have been relevant. My entire life I’ve felt like I have staircase rage, which is when the anger comes way later. I haven’t decided if that’s a personality quirk or flaw.”
We’re not the first people to be intrigued by Maacah’s story, and we won’t be the last. I watched her TEDx talk on being critical of media that fails to represent black women, and was arrested by the way she spoke to the little girl in me who searched earnestly to find a mirror in the pages of Elle, Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar to find herself looking back – and failed. I ask her what her number one hope is in the fashion industry as a whole.
“It’s interesting. I don’t know if I have a hope. When I was younger, I used to say 'I wish fashion would include me.' Now that I'm older, I'm just like 'Do you.' I'm not into knocking on doors anymore. The fashion industry is going to be what it is. I’m going to do what I need to do to adapt to the audience and the market. I don’t hang anything up on it anymore.”
We end our interview in the most appropriate way possible: Maacah climbs into the backseat and guides us to Linn Park for a photoshoot. There, she effortlessly slides into her role of creative director: she shows us how to handle the camera, conscious of height and horizon, angles and sunlight. In some sleight of hand, she’s both behind the camera and in front of it at the same time. For a brief moment that afternoon, I felt like a real model.
As an adult, I’ve grown past looking for mirrors in the media I consume. But I’m shocked to find, when I open the pages of belladonna, faces just like mine staring back at me.
"When I was younger, I used to say 'I wish fashion would include me.' Now that I'm older, I'm just like 'Do you.' I'm not into knocking on doors anymore."