RVA Magazine #39 is on the streets now! In this article from its pages, Humble, Richmond’s longtime muralist, clothing designer, and model, reflects on his journey from starving artist to modeling for professional shoots in the desert.
Listen to the Radio RVA Podcast Interview with Humble here.
Humbleness isn’t exactly a native concept in the fashion world. In the popular mythos of the “Starving Artist,” there’s rarely a tenement devoted to bedless clothing designers sleeping on a pile of blankets and ambition. But then, Richmond’s Kyle Harrell — better known as Humble — doesn’t quite fit in the glossy fashion box hawked by Hollywood scripts and reality television.
That’s partially because Humble is a catalyst of artistic vision. Muralist, model, clothing designer, and event coordinator, he takes creativity as an articulation of Creative Class culture. He brings disparate sources of inspiration together into an identifiable expression of experience and taste. But the Virginia Beach native didn’t grow up on aerosol dreams or lofty runway aspirations.
“The goal was to go to VCU, because I wanted to be an engineer. As soon as I got here, though, the culture was crazy. So I thought, ‘Fuck engineering. I don’t wanna do that,’” he said. “I started [studying] psychology and religious studies. I’ve been in Richmond for 11 years now, I fell in love with this city. We were hosting a lot of events, so I kind of got stuck here. ‘Stuck,’ not in a bad way — I just love this city so damn much.”
It wasn’t just Richmond’s underground music and art scene that kept him here, but the culturally-inclusive environment that encouraged Humble to carve out a name for himself by way of social immersion.
Humble says his interest in art came about in a Van Gogh and Spirituality course at VCU. And it wasn’t so much the coursework as boredom; one day he started drawing portraits of his classmates. By the time he graduated, he found his priorities shifting.
“Eventually that became obsessive. Around that time, I was married,” he said. “I had been playing around with the idea with her, that I wanted to make art. And she said, ‘You’re too smart to make art. You could do something better.’”
The two had a falling out, and Humble spent 12 hours a day in the VCU library, pulling down books and drawing everything he could get his hands on. He also found himself divorced and living in Section 8 housing.
“Art was the only thing I had that was inspiring me to get up and do something,” he said. “It was a pretty depressive point in my life. It was tough, but it was for the better.”
Around that time, Humble found commiseration and mentorship in Navid Rahman, an illustrator and muralist willing to share in poverty and inspiration. He moved into Humble’s apartment, where the two slept on the floor and practiced drawing.
“That moment in time was definitely pivotal. Navid had just gotten out of a relationship. He was an artist as well,” Humble said. “In fact, I call him my master. He took me under his wing. So [he lived with me] free of charge… We’d wake up every day and just draw. He taught me a lot. He [wasn’t afraid to] say, ‘Yo, that looks like shit. Do it again.’ He’s definitely one of my best friends.”
Humble began to reconstruct himself from rock bottom. He emerged from a landscape of broken relationships and bank accounts, as a designer with credible life experience and a compelling narrative arc. None of this would have happened without Rahman, who brought him in on a mural project for the Lamplighter on Addison. The two spent the better part of a week pulling all-nighters while putting the piece up in the bathroom.
“I would work a double at Alamo, drive across that damn Leigh Street Bridge, and we’d stay up until 6 or 7am, then I’d go back to work,” Humble said. “It was all his art direction and style. I was laying down lines, but that sparked something. It lived in the space.”
That project was what made Humble decide to take his work in a larger direction. Together with Rahman, he strived to find more work and create a portfolio as a foundation for their careers.
“From there, I started reaching out to mad people. At the time, I didn’t know how to paint. I had never played with color,” he said. “We were doing black and white stuff, and that’s when I switched to painting. I met up with Chris Tsui, who owns Fat Dragon and Foo Dog. He set us up on our next piece, which ended up being huge.”
Up to this point, Humble had never touched spray paint. He and Rahman mapped out a mural spanning the side of the Fat Dragon building, and improvised their vision for it. They completed it with little more than a mental image and an electric lift.
“We didn’t really know what we were doing at the time. Chris was cool about it, too,” Humble said. “We did a giant anime dragon on that wall. It’s different, and not a lot of people are into that. From there, our next gig was Foo Dog. We did the patio; the giant anime girl with chopsticks and the dragon coming out. That was the start of it — so our street art and painting, in general, has gone about five years strong.”
It was during this formative whirlwind of creative development that Humble began designing and manufacturing clothes, on an almost-literal shoestring budget. His target demographic consisted of the Richmond skate and music scene denizens who attended his parties. He saw it as a way to make money from his art and promote his work.
“Learning how to screen print, I started out in the bathroom at my house, exposing [prints] in the sun. It was chaos,” Humble said. “From there, I worked with RVA Threads, who had a screen printing studio in his basement. He took me under his wing and showed me how to do everything.”
When Humble went to Studio Two Three to start making clothing, the time came to find a name for his clothing brand. He still remembers the conversation with Rahman that would eventually define the company.
“Navid said, ‘You should call it Humble. People call you humble about the fact that you’re doing this, but you’re doing it low key. You’ve got talent, but you don’t really flash it.’”
While he was selling shirts at house shows, an underground fashion scene began to emerge. Separate from the institutional culture at VCU, these DIY designers developed a collaborative environment that led to an unforeseen shift in Humble’s trajectory.
“At Studio Two Three, that’s when my homie Chase Beasley (of Crud City) was kicking around. He was just starting up art as well; I was teaching him how to screen print. Earl Mack with Chilalay was in the studio. So we’re buzzing around, sharing ideas. We were doing underground fashion shows, building these runways,” Humble said. “It was crazy how much people were willing to put these things together. We had no idea what we were doing, because none of us were part of the school. Our fashion shows were ridiculous — but people showed up, and then we partied our asses off. That energy, now that I think back on it, was very, very alive. There was always something to do every weekend, and it had something to do with art, music, fashion. We were doing a lot, especially for that community at the time.”
During those early days at Studio Two Three, Humble’s interest in fashion deepened — until, as fate would have it, an opportunity presented itself at Lamplighter.
“I was sitting outside smoking a cigarette, and this blonde girl came up to me and said, ‘Hey, do you live in Richmond? You’ve got a good look. I would love for you to come by the studio and take some test shots.’”
Having never thought of himself as a model, he agreed to pose for a shoot to generate income. Without even knowing the photographer’s name, he eventually learned that the gig was for Richmond’s own Need Supply Co.
“I was nervous. I’m a humble dude, I don’t see myself in front of the camera. I still don’t,” he said. “It’s still always weird to me… But I went, and they started booking me all the time. They were flying photographers from L.A. to shoot me here in Richmond. And they were paying me out the ass.”
While modeling for Need Supply Co.’s lookbooks, Humble connected with modeling agent Giovanna Cordero, who transferred to the agency Modelogic shortly after. The two kept in touch when the Need Supply Co. shoots died down.
“I focused on my art career for a while, then Gio hit me back up to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this gig I think you’re perfect for.’ Ends up being Totokaelo. Super high fashion stuff,” he said. “I’ve been working with them for a couple years now, and they’re incredible. Eventually Modelogic got privy, so I got signed. I’ve been doing gigs in Baltimore, New York, down here. The money is insane. It’s what’s kept me in there — it’s given me a look at the fashion industry that I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. Seeing how things work, how to do photoshoots, garment instruction, what you can really do with fashion. It’s limitless.”
A few months later, a small company reached out over Instagram. They turned out to be Veilance, a subsidiary of the Canadian high-end outdoor clothing and sporting goods company, Arc’teryx.
“My agent calls me and she says, ‘Hey, they want to fly you out to Utah, pay for everything, pay you 4k per diem. You’ll be out there for four days.’ It was insane,” he said. “The first time I’ve ever been flown out anywhere for something like that, and we had private chefs catering for us.”
The shoot was staged in the middle of the desert, “where NASA tests land rovers for Mars,” Humble said. He was the only American there.
“There was a guy from Russia, an incredible model-looking dude. I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ There was a famous photographer from France that shoots futuristic technology stuff, and the whole crew is from Canada where Arc’teryx is based,” Humble said. “The hairdresser is good friends with Kanye. We’re all sitting around this table in the middle of the desert, sharing stories, and I’m just starstruck. I had taken a step away from clothing, especially creating, and over the past couple years I’ve been coming back into it through modeling, being re-inspired.”
True to his name, none of this has gone to his head. Humble’s plan now is to continue working with his community in mutually supportive, innovative ways; figuring out upon what great walls — both physical and allegorical — they may together make their mark.
“I see it metaphorically as walking through the dark with a candle,” he said. “You are the light. You don’t know where you’re going. You might be blazing the way, but mostly it’s a crapshoot, because there are no answers to any of this. There’s no methodology that will make you successful. Just keep working, keep your head down, keep producing dope shit, and help your homies as much as you can. Help everyone as much as you can. I think that’s a really big thing, working together in the scene.”
Top Photo via Humble/Instagram