In a business that is all about swag cool, people often fall into two categories: those that try to be and those that are. Director, designer and party producer Vashtie Kola definitely falls in the latter category. From directing videos for Solange, Kanye West and Good Charlotte to designing her trendy Violette clothing line, the Albany, NY native is known as much for her rocking weekly parties like Friday night’s Open at Santos as she is her undeniable sense of style. I recently chatted up Vashtie about her video work, styling and how she balances it all.
Tell me about the name Vashtie.
It’s found in the Bible. Queen Vashti was married to the King of Persia in the book of Esther. She was very beautiful and the king took advantage of her and wanted her to be seen all the time. She was pretty much just used for her beauty and, at one point, when he wanted her to appear naked before him and his friends. I’m not sure if that’s the correct story but this is what I’ve been told. She refused, he dethroned her and then Queen Esther took her place. Queen Esther then freed the Jews and got much more fame and praise. A lot of people that I meet who are of Jewish descent, especially women, telling me that she’s a heroine figure. But others see her as a bad character in the story. But the name is Hebrew and it’s also Persian. In Hebrew it means “bread” and in Persian it means “lovely.” And my background is a mix of Indian and African, and my mom has told me that Vashti is the name of an Indian goddess. I haven’t really found much fact on that, but supposedly I’m named after an Indian goddess named Vashti.
You came to New York to start studying film. Did you always know that you wanted to be a filmmaker?
Well, when I was little I was always drawing, painting and making things. And I knew that I always wanted to grow up and be an artist and do stuff with art, but that wasn’t until I was like 10 or 11. I’d always been obsessed with the movies, but around the time of 10 or 11, I was really immersed in MTV and music videos. I mean I love music. I don’t have a musical background, but you know music and film being fused together, just began to really attract me. So I got obsessed with music videos, and I knew I wanted to do film at that point, but it was just trying to figure out what the beginning stages of that would be. So when I was in high school, I was still taking lots of art classes, photography and doing fashion stuff, but I think it was my junior year or senior year, I started applying. I applied to a lot of schools, a couple schools in New York, a couple in Atlanta actually, just like art schools, and I just wanted to go so bad to school, to art school and leave Albany that I didn’t even visit SVA. I knew that I wanted to go to SVA because I had met with a couple people from the school and I had studied about it and I thought that would probably be the best for me. I was also applying to NYU at the time which I’d been told that I wouldn’t be able to touch a camera until like my third year or something crazy like that.
Yeah I went to NYU actually and I had a lot of friends who were filmmakers and I heard it’s not nearly as hands-on.
Right, so I mean as much as I wanted to go to NYU because it’s such a great school all around. Just to have that on a resume would be amazing but SVA just being more my style of being in the trenches and learning as you go. But yeah I didn’t tour the school; I just went to the interview. I didn’t even know if I’d be living in a dorm, I just knew I wanted to go. I ended up at SVA. That’s how I ended up there.
What led you from SVA to Box Fresh Pictures?
I was at SVA for 5 years. I did an extra year for cinematography even though my major was directing. I just wanted to be a little more well-rounded on the technical end and all that. So when I graduated school, I traveled a little bit and when I came back to New York, a mentor of mine, Grace Miguel, was starting a production company called Box Fresh. She was interested in looking for people who were new directors that didn’t have much of a resume, who were just interested in starting that had the potential of being great directors. So I was one of the first of them — Anthony Mandler, who now is like a very huge director but at the time he was a huge photographer, and I were the first.
What was it like working with Anthony?
It was definitely a learning experience. Being so young at the time and coming into my own as an artist, as a director, you want to understand what it is to be an artist more and so you shadow these people. Anthony was one of these people that I shadowed. Just to see his approach to carrying out a vision was interesting. His techniques were definitely different from mine but learning how disciplined he was very great for me. So I think that was just really good, being young and being open to learning new things. I think once you get to certain point, you’re probably like, “Oh, I don’t need to learn anything else, I don’t need to go further, and I’m good on my own.” But even now, I’m just still always trying to understand how to be better at my craft, so it was good to have him there because he’s a genius. I mean the way that he looks at a picture and the way that he looks at an object is really great and I learned a lot of great techniques from him.
In addition to directing, you still seem to have picked up a lot of other side projects. Tell me a little bit about the things I know you’ve gotten into in terms of styling etc.
The styling happened quite naturally as like everything I’ve done. I mean the film thing was definitely something I’ve always wanted to do and studied and did my work with, but the styling thing… I had assisted stylists during my time in school. People might not understand me outside of New York because I think they don’t understand the dynamic that while you’re in New York. I mean you can be waitressing and then on set of a movie and then acting and doing all these things at once. But so while I was in school, I was just doing odd jobs and I was assisting a stylist and started to understand that world a little bit more. And I think I’d been asked to just do a couple projects from people that I know, so it wasn’t so much of me like advertising as a stylist; it was just like, “Hey, I need help, so can you help me?” I mean that’s how those kinds of jobs happen. As far as the parties, the parties also happened quite naturally. The first party I did was with my best friend Oscar which we started about three years ago. We were bored, like hanging out, talking about what kind of parties we’d been going to and he and I, we always go to our friends’ parties and other parties in the city, and we just wanted to create a party that was a fun place for everyone, some place where you could go and not be judged on what you were wearing or a place you could go and not feel like the pressure of having to be cool, just focusing on music and having a good time. And he and I shared a love for the era of late 80s, early 90s, so we definitely wanted to just play music from that era. We just invited our friends and through that lots of other people started to come and we got a lot of press, from the New York Times to i-D magazine, we got just a really great following which was cool. And through that I met Q-Tip over the years and he’d been doing parties here and there on his own in the city and he asked me to help him with his party and partner up and we started a party at Club Love a couple years ago and we just moved it to Santos about a year ago and now that party is called — and we do that every week, every Friday at Santos.
How do you balance it all?
It always sounds like a lot but I don’t know it’s just because I’ve been making stuff my whole life, it just feels natural to me. It definitely doesn’t feel too much. But a lot of it is discipline and the things that come on a schedule, like the parties are on a schedule so that’s easy to handle. And the styling, that’s on a schedule so that’s easy to handle, but the directing side is also a little bit more sporadic, you don’t know when a videos gonna come up and if someone’s sending you music from a label and I have to write [a treatment] to it, I don’t know if I’d get that video and most likely, it’s like a last minute thing where I write it and a day later I get it and then in two days we have to shoot. And that sometimes throws the balance off, but all in all, I just kind of, I’m working through it and learning the process but for the most part it’s not too hectic.
I first became aware of you via the “Us Placers” video. Tell me a little bit about that.
Well, at the time I was working at Def Jam. Grace Miguel, the head of the creative department, had been invited to basically re-work the creative department and she asked me to come in. She built her team, started hiring her own team of people and I was part of that, which I was fortunate for. I was there for a year and I was learning a lot and working very, very hard. I mean 12-hour days and no weekends off, just working constantly. And it was really great for awhile because it was such an amazing learning experience; it’s such a priceless experience really for a lot of people. But I was also suffering in a way as an artist because I wasn’t able to create anything for myself. I just didn’t have the time or the energy. I’d probably done one video during that year, just because I was so busy. And towards the end of it, I talked to my boss about leaving and doing other things, so then I started to really be able to think creatively. And at the time, Kanye’s mixtape had come out and I really loved a couple of the songs. A lot of the songs were beats from existing songs that I already loved anyway. I was really, really in love with the song “Us Placers” and I wanted to do a video for it. To make a video for a mixtape…first of all, that commission is probably the most impossible thing ever and you know, to get all those artists together anyway would seem difficult, so I just wanted to do a video that I could make and that I had control over. The idea of having kids just seemed fun. I mean, I love kids and I think those three artists embodied very useful characters. And I just had the idea or filming these street kids acting as them and using my own money and having my friends help out and just create something for fun, which really brightened up my outlook on what I could do once I was able to have some time for myself, so that’s how that started.
You also directed Solange’s “T.O.N.Y.” video. How did that come about?
I met Solange a couple months prior to that at the Nike 21 Mercer opening and she actually approached me and I was completely shocked that she even knew who I was. She just came up to me and was like, “You’re Va$htie, right?” and I’m like, “Um, yeah.” She was like, “Oh, I really love your work. I know what you’ve been up to and what you’ve been doing, and I really think that what you’re doing is cool,” which was such an honor because you never expect anyone especially on her platform to know what other people on my platform are doing. So through that we just started talking and then we exchanged information. She’d come to parties and stuff and we started to get to know each other and then out of nowhere, a couple of months later, she was like, “I have a project I want you to work on, and I’m gonna send you the information and then, let’s just get it going.” And that’s how that happened, pretty much.
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Are they any artists that you particularly wanna do videos for?
I’m friends with Lupe. I’ve wanted to a video for him. A video for Maxwell… there a lot of the people that I really respect. I love Radiohead. I think the ultimate video for me would be Bjork because since I was little, every video that she’s ever done has blown my mind. And I don’t know whether it was creepy and scared me or it was just beautiful, I mean her videos have a way of affecting me and inspiring me, so I would love to do a video for Bjork.
And any desired to do feature film stuff down the line or are you more comfortable or happy in the music video medium?
I love music videos, but when I was in school and even before that, I was in high school doing shorts with camcorders. And definitely in school too, the focus was more on film and shorts and features, so I’ve been trying to get back into that now. I’ve been doing a lot of writing so hopefully I’ll be shooting something next summer, just like a couple of shorts. I love to do music videos, but I’m definitely working out of that genre also.
Lastly, what advice would you give aspiring video directors?
Make sure it’s something that you want to do and love to do. I think a lot of it, it exudes some glamour or, you know, a lot of monetary incentive, but I think you just have to love whatever it is that you wanna do and not expect to be successful right away. I mean, I’ve been doing this for so long and I’m still working, I’m still going towards these goals and learning every day. So, just actually know that this is absolutely something that you wanna do and if it’s gonna make you happy, because in the long run, you know, you won’t bring yourself a lot of money or success if you’re unhappy. So, just make sure you’re happy and this is what you wanna do. And also, I would just say to make as many projects as you can, I mean, get together with friends, even if it’s your mom, have your mom help you. Don’t be afraid to tap into resources around you just because they’re not as fully educated on the subject as you are. When I did the “Us Placers” video, I spent my own money and I had my friends there helping me and dressing the kids and catering the food. I had all these people in my life that love me and care about me that were down to help me and be there for me. That was a really great honor to have that happen for me. And I didn’t expect the video to even take off. And that video, essentially, has no money value. I lost like $1,500 of my own money to make that, but still to this day it’s the one video that everybody asks me about, so when I’m going for, when I’m meeting with a label or an artist who wants to see my work, they’re like, “That videos amazing.” So I guess don’t underestimate the power of just doing small projects. And don’t, I wouldn’t, don’t do it for what you think the success will be, just do it because you love it.