For some people, the drive to create and follow their passion is unquenchable. It flies in the face of convention, safety and sometimes even survival. New Orleans brothers Brennan and Zachary Manuel have had opportunities to make a more stable life, but they both chose to follow their hearts and pursue their dreams in fields where very few artists succeed.
For them passion and art is synonymous with living.
“I find actual victories in the failures,” says Brennan when asked why he chose a career in fashion over a law degree. “Anything else would be a slow death.”
CREATE. Even if you are criticized.
CREATE. Even if you lose stability.
CREATE. Even if you lose respect.
Making a living from art has spawned a thousand tropes, memes and cautionary tales parents use to warn their children about being a “starving” artist. But when your dad is New Orleans jazz staple Phillip Manuel and your mother Janice Manuel has a background in structured government work, the opportunities to follow your heart become more realistic.
“We are fortunate to have been cultivated in the arts,” says Brennan. “Every program that was available, our mom put us in and gave us the structure. We had both perspectives with a parent in the arts and a parent with a career in government.”
The brothers says when they were children it was common to hear their father learning jazz standards in Arabic or Portuguese as the great baritone prepared for international tours with jazz heavyweight Terrance Blanchard. Their mother also found programs, camps and internships that allowed them to pursue creative outlets.
Their hard work is now realized. Older brother Brennan has launched a successful clothing line, entitled “6 a.m.” and younger brother Zachary has had his film work nominated for an Academy Award.
Zac: The Storyteller
Zachary graduated from Ben Franklin High School in 2007 and also attended NOCCA for a concentration in media arts. After graduation, he received a scholarship to attend the prestigious private school Chapman University in Orange County, California.
What would seem to be a golden opportunity to study at a film school in the epicenter of cinema, turned into a source of problems for Zachary. The structure of the film school proved too cumbersome for the 19-year-old.
“At 19 and 20 years old, I didn’t appreciate that at the time,” says Zachary. “There was an awful lot of time dedicated to structure. At NOCCA we were allowed to create whatever we wanted and then our instructors would go back, review and talk about our structure and motivation.”
He came back home to New Orleans and attended the University of New Orleans’ film making school for about two years before working at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC). He then co-founded The Greenhouse Collective, which is a “ collection of artists, technicians, storytellers and dreamers” that develop and produce short films, features, music videos and commercials.
Since that time, Zachary has been a prodigious storyteller with work that rivals many independent movie companies. As a cinematographer, his credits include ‘Cover Me’ (Rotterdam International Film Festival; Prospect 3, New Orleans), ‘Like’ (Field of Vision, SXSW) and ‘Alone’ (New York Times OpDocs, Sundance 2017 Jury Award Winner, Best Non-Fiction Short). Zac’s films include ‘In The Garden,’ ‘The Clock,’ ‘Thelema,’ and ‘Painted Lady’, which have played in competition in festivals worldwide. His work has appeared on The Washington Post, MTV, Billboard, Stereogum, and Pitchfork.
This all culminated with his work as director of photography in the documentary “Time.” The film follows Sibil Fox Richardson, who fights for the release of her husband, Rob, who is serving a 60-year prison sentence for engaging in an armed robbery. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival where it won for “Best US Directing Award” and then it was nominated by the Academy Awards as “Best Documentary.”
“It was a dream come true to work as the Director of Photography on a project that was nominated for an Oscar,” says Zachary. “I worked with an incredible director and it just validates you and your process, that you don’t have to make a film a certain way. People try to put constraints on you, but film is a very new art form. It’s only been around for about 100 years. We can still expand that language.”
Unlike his father who sings and receives instant gratification when he finishes performing a song, Zachary must wait months and sometimes years before learning if his work is well received.
“You grapple with that,” he says. “I’m currently working on a project called ‘Blood Thicker’ since 2016. It has dictated my trajectory. I poured five years of my life into a documentary.”
The documentary follows the sons of legendary New Orleans’ rappers BG, Juvenile, and Souljah Slim as they work their way through the rap culture and industry.
In reference to Juvenile, who rose to national stardom by chronicling the harsh street life of New Orleans, the project explores how Juvenile’s son has enjoyed some financial stability because of his father’s successful career, moving him away from some of the very hardships and street life his father rapped about. As a result, the son’s art expresses a different reality than his father’s experiences.
Zac says he is struck by how much Juvenile is “just a dad who wants the best for his son” and not just an iconic gangster rapper.
And that “nuance” is what other people need to see as they view people of color as we tell our own stories and experiences, says Zachary, adding that it creates a better, more varied experience to show that Black people are not monolithic.
The premise strikes a familiar tone as Zac also understands the experience of having a famous father, who can put him in a better position through his experience, connections and fame. “It shows a little more nuance to the Black experience,” says Zachary. “We have to change the way we look at Black youth using the lens of cinema. It’s a beautiful story.”
Selling his work, which primarily focuses on the intersections of politics and social psychologies in communities of color, can be problematic when pitching to studios that want to reach a broader audience.
“I’m in the rejection business,” says Zachary. “It’s a 10 to one rejection to acceptance rate. Because of this I had to reframe what I thought about failure. It’s a process of winning. I succeeded in creating a relationship. I succeeded in creating a connection. It’s a series of ups and downs.”
Brennan: The Fashion Maker
When you’re one semester away from graduating from Tulane University School of Law, most people wouldn’t stop to attend fashion and design school. But Brennan, who earned his bachelor’s degree in business from Morehouse College, chose to follow his creativity instead of the safe path.
After initially being wait-listed by the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, Brennan received a call admitting him to the international program. He immediately asked for a leave of absence from law school and had a conversation with his mother.
“Our mother just believes in us,” says Brennan. “She knew, ‘OK it’s happening’ and number two, she was pretty sure that I was going to eventually go and get the law degree because I had one semester left. I know (a standard) education is a generational thing, because education was the key to success for many Black families in the past.”
“Creativity is a muscle,” says Brennan. “And I felt that muscle begin to atrophy.”
So instead of finishing law school, he threw himself into the nuts and bolts of the fashion industry.
“I immersed myself in the physical aspects of sewing, pattern making, and what resonates with men,” says Brennan.
Brennan says he tries to emulate Karl Lagerfeld who famously sketches 100 designs a day before weeding out potential patterns for a fashion line. The result has been his own men’s fashion line that stems from an “East Coast aesthetic and West Coast sensibilities… bridged through modular, season-less pieces.”
“The concept started when I was working between fashion and my law degree. Grind over glamour. 6 a.m. is a time where you can wake up and reflect, or it can be that time to celebrate the fruits of your labor.”
Instead of catering to retail business, Brennan releases 6am’s clothing line as a limited seasonal drop on his website www.6ambrennanmanuel.com. Once the pieces are bought, there is no reproduction made. This drop creates a valuable commodity of art with each wearer owning a limited edition.
When investing in such a massive undertaking, finding funding and resources can be ultra competitive. But similar to his brother’s outlook, Brennan does not see rejection as an end to his artistic endeavors.
“I think when I’ve had that moment of failure,” says Brennan. “I never really engage with it. It’s not just about it not working. It’s just not working this particular way. I remember the article that Tiger Woods wrote and he says, ‘I learned something every time I failed. I just took baby steps’.”
One of Brennan’s success stories came when he received praise from future NBA Hall of Famer and current Utah Jazz minority owner Dwayne Wade for his clothing collection. Wade, who has famously pushed the boundaries of fashion for men, gave Brennan encouragement through his Instagram account. And Wade and his wife Gabrielle Union also wore shorts from Brennan’s fashion line in a photo shoot.
Brennan also won the “Grown-ish” Style & Design Contest, the Freeform-produced hit show and spin-off of “Black-ish”, starring Yara Shahidi, Trevor Jackson, Halle Bailey, Chloe Bailey and Luka Sabbat. The show features college students navigating life in the age of social media. Brennan’s styles encapsulated the youth culture and the pulse of pop black culture. As a result, his fashion label snagged $10,000 and his designs will be used in an upcoming “Grownish” promotional fashion shoot.
“The recognition validates things,” says Brennan. “It’s insanely gratifying. It’s like a high.”
Brennan hopes to expand his clothing line and community build. He would like to serve as a mentor to young men who may not see African-American men present in the fashion industry.
New Orleans Connection
Both brothers believe they owe much of their success to the creative mecca that they call home. According to Brennan and Zac, the only place that can produce such varied talent is New Orleans.
“I feel that New Orleans is so unique that it creates such unique individuals. We are a very warm people with such a joie de vivre,” says Brennan. “That resonates with people with such a rich culture of influences.”
“I’ve traveled everywhere and people remember anyone who they ever met who was from New Orleans,” says Zac. “I have never seen another group of people who are so willing to connect with other people.”
They also credit their success to their mother who found programs in filmmaking and fashion design—beyond the usual food, music and art for which New Orleans is known. Their careers in filmmaking and fashion have pushed the boundaries of what locals can achieve.
“We have to move beyond the way the world sees you,” says Brennan. “We have done that 100 percent.”