One to Watch: Casey ‘iCON’ Billingsley – Creative Director at Motown Records

One to Watch: Casey ‘iCON’ Billingsley – Creative Director at Motown Records

casey billingsley
Casey styling Keri Hilson for a movie premiere.

You know the saying “talk about it, be about it?” Well, there are few people I can think of right now who embody that ethos more than Casey ‘iCON’ Billingsley. I don’t remember how Casey first got on my radar, but I do remember that the first things that I noticed about him were his wit, his faith and his egoless vision for success.

While having and committing to a vision for your life does take a healthy bit of ego and confidence in your abilities, I noticed that when it came to Casey, he wasn’t afraid to put himself out there and throw the crumbs of his dreams ahead of him knowing that one day it would lead him to where he wanted to be.

The crumbs in this instance would take the form of tweets, tumblr and instagram posts and probably countless other gestures of faith that weren’t public. For example, Casey might tweet a photo of a celebrity with a caption that he’d love to work with her one day. And then, a few months later, voila, he’s styling that person for a red carpet or event appearance.

This style of determination and ambition helped him build a client list that includes Keri Hilson, Cassie, Solange, Eva Marcille, Shanell and others. It also helped him catch the eye of UPMG President Ethiopia Habtermariam who recently brought him on as the new creative director at Motown Records.

I caught up with Casey to talk about his new role, his ‘iconic’ nickname and to get a little bit more insight into his career journey so far.

H+S: How did you get the “iCON” nickname?
iCON: I attended college in the Atlanta University Center at the illustrious Clark Atlanta University and as a freshman, I was nominated for the Style ICON Award at the annual AUC awards and I won. So people started calling me “iCON” as a dig, because many felt that I didn’t deserve the award because I was so young. And the name kinda stuck. Who wouldn’t want to be called an icon?

H+S: You recently accepted a position at Motown Records. Can you tell me a little bit more about that? 
iCON: Sure. I’m a creative director at the new Motown Records, which basically means bringing artist development back to the label. It took a lot of work and relationships to get to this point and I’m so thankful for the opportunity. I’ve been working with several producers and their artists for years and one day I met Ethiopia Habtemariam who at the time worked in the Urban division of Universal Music. We built an amazing friendship and she’s mentored and introduced me to several industry elites. Earlier this year she was named president of both Urban publishing and the new Motown Records and she [brought me in for this role].

H+S: Which artists at Motown will you primarily work with?
iCON: Right now we have an amazing roster of new talent such as Mila J, Kevin Ross, Sonna Rele, Stori  and Candace. We also have veteran acts like Neyo, KEM, Erykah Badu and Stevie Wonder.

H+S: Prior to joining Motown you worked as a freelance stylist. Was that always your career goal? Or, did you decide to forge your own path due to a lack of opportunities in the industry?
iCON: Initially it was. I desired to just style people and make them look amazing. But I soon realized that it was SO much more involved than just making them look good. It made me study all of the things that went down behind the runway, red carpet, the music video and the photo shoots. The planning, the choosing of the aesthetic. We are the people that are really responsible for the reason your favorite artist looks the way that they do. The creative directors [and stylists].

H+S: How do you build your client roster?
iCON: Honestly, just speaking things into existence and nurturing relationships. Following up. Being witty (it works!) and actually becoming friends with [prospective clients]. I have very personal relationships with everyone that I work with. We go out, eat, drink. I even lay down next to ’em on couches and beds and we talk and cry about life. It’s real. I love all of my clients as friends.

Keri Hilson attends the screening of 'About Last Night' (Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
Keri Hilson attends a screening of ‘About Last Night’ (Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)

H+S: We’ve been connected through social media for a few years now and I’ve noticed that you used to tweet about the people who you wanted to work with and feeling stuck. Now, you’re posting photos of yourself with these same people. What moves or steps did you take behind the scenes to start turning your vision into reality?
iCON: Ha! Well it was all about speaking things into existence and literally praying and then putting myself out there. Reaching out to these people. Figuring out who knows who and then showing my work. Sharing my vision for that particular person. I have literally just closed my eyes, swallowed my pride and reached out; that’s what got me in.

H+S: Was there a pivotal moment that catapulted you onto their radar? Was it a word of mouth thing? Or, was it just a gradual grind?
iCON: It was definitely a gradual thing. I’ve never been the type to have people clap for me before the curtains open. God’s timing is everything. I’ve learned that no matter what time my watch reads, it’s all about his hour. I’m learning to seek him more and more on this journey because anything worth having takes time.

H+S: Even though your star is rising, you’re still a relative ‘newcomer’ in the fashion world that is small and heavily focused on relationships. How easy or difficult has it been getting access to fashion houses and retailers in order to have the best items for your clients?
iCON: Nurturing relationships and literally gaining friends through the process. The hardest thing for me is/was gaining that initial contact, but once that’s done the rest is up to me.

H+S: Lately, a lot of successful people have been talking about how important failure is on the journey to accomplishing major things. Can you talk about a failure you experienced that you can look back on now and be grateful for?
iCON: A failure. Hmm. Well, my friends and I worked on a girl group that we literally built with our own hands, minds and resources and than it all fell through the cracks. To this day it still remains heavy on my heart because we took nothing and made it something. I look back at it now and I see what God was preparing me for therefore I am thankful.

Some of Casey's editorial work.
Some of Casey’s editorial work.

H+S: We talked a little earlier about relationships. Do you believe that mentorship is important in the fashion industry?
iCON: Very much so! Wow. I could never repay the people that have taken me under their wing and sewn into my life like a seam in a Zac Posen gown. Unicorns such as super stylist Avena Gallagher, fashion mavens Patricia Black and Irene Albright, designer Mychael Knight, songwriter and producer Candice Nelson and of course music maven Ethiopia Habtemariam.

H+S: What’s the biggest misconception about your job?
iCON: That it is easy and all about just putting people in clothing. No. It entails a lot more than that. Communication and people skills are a large part of it. The most important aspect is actually having a knowledge of pop culture and past fashion references. It’s an ongoing learning process. You can’t get comfortable.

H+S: Do you have a mentor? If yes, who are they and how have they had an impact on your career?
iCON: At this very moment working under Ethiopia Habtemariam has opened doors with no knobs. That is how magnificent she is as a leader. She believes in my thoughts and choices as a creative. So to say the least she’s been a spring board [at this stage of my career]. I am eager to grow with and under her guidance.

H+S: What is your long-term goal or vision for your career?
iCON: To continue to walk in my light and allow it to touch as many dark and [dimly] lit places as possible. This creative director role is one that most companies could implement. I would love to get in with a prominent fashion publication one day. One of my idols is Andre Leon Talley so of course it would be an amazing feat to [work] alongside him one day.

H+S: Who or what inspires you?
iCON: Shapes, colors, architecture and beautiful women all take me to a place that I don’t wish to return from. As far as humans, all of the people I have named throughout this interview inspire me. I also have to include to my mom who’s been such a praying force in my life. When I have lacked faith she’s been there to fill my cup. And last but certainly not least I am fueled by Beyonce’s amazing work ethic and poise. Her reign is relentless. She is forever.

Tilda Swinton
Tilda Swinton is Casey’s dream client. (Francois Nel/Getty Images)

H+S: How would you describe your style aesthetic or philosophy?
iCON: It’s therapeutic. I always find myself tapping into my client’s personal feelings and meshing them with things and looks that elevate them not only aesthetically but also about how they feel about- and see themselves. Their esteem. I take a teaspoon of their desires and a tablespoon of mine and I mix. Why is my spoon bigger? Well, they hired me right (laughs)?   

H+S: You talk a lot on twitter about being a ‘life-stylist’. How do you define and/or embody that term?
iCON: Going back to what I said earlier, I find myself tapping into people’s personal lives and helping them cope with things mentally. My clients and I pray [together]. It’s never just about the clothes with me. I can honestly say that I care and if I don’t than I wouldn’t be working with them.  

H+S: What is the best career or styling advice you’ve ever received?
iCON: To listen. There is nothing new under the sun. It is always a way to revamp and to reconstruct what’s already been done. That is why it is so important to study pop culture and it’s references. That way you know [how to] take things to the next level.

H+S: What advice would you give to aspiring stylists who want to follow in your footsteps?
iCON: Remain relentless and ‘pray and DO’ at the same damn time. 

H+S: Name 3 women whose style you’re loving right now.
iCON: Solange, Rita Ora and Daphne Guinness.

H+S: Name 3 women who could use the ‘iCON’ touch in the style department right now.
iCON: Hmm. JoJo, Danity Kane and Janet Jackson. 

H+S: Who is your dream client?
iCON: This one is hard, because I have so many. But if i had to choose just one person it would have to be Tilda Swinton. 

To keep up with Casey ‘iCON’ Billingsley follow him on Twitter and Instagram @iCONTips.