If the TikTok algorithm has been good for you, you’ve probably come across Account Olivia Joans. Bright-eyed and playful, born social media star Olivia Joan Galli starts almost every video with a chipper, Hey, guys, before creating an effortlessly fabulous ensemble.
Typically, she presents three outfit options and lets viewers choose what she should wear in the comments, but over time, people have noticed that every outfit recipe includes at least one extremely lavish item. From vintage Prada jackets to Manolo Blahnik shoes, the 24-year-old’s wardrobe is dripping with couture.
On TikTok, Galli finally revealed that the items once belonged to her late grandmother, Joan B. Johnson, who co-founded Johnson Products Company, with her husband, George Johnson, in 1954. Their historic business provided hair care products like Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen. to the black community and became the first black-owned company to go public.
When we meet for coffee at Maman’s in Soho, Galli greets me with a warm hug while wearing a brown Louis Vuitton jacket. I mistakenly assume the item of clothing belonged to Mrs. Johnson and make a mental note to ask where it came from. They have an allowance for me, she explains to me later, blushing at my curiosity. It turns out the garment wasn’t her grandmothers or a product of Gallis’ shopping excursions. Instead, it came to her as a gift from the luxury retailer she now works for.
Although she’s made a name for herself online as a fashionable style guide, Galli isn’t your average influencer. When she’s not posting on TikTok, she can be found running around New York, armed with a camera and a list of shots, to produce photo shoots for her impressive clientele. Despite constant work requests from publications like Vogue and The New York Times, Galli remains humbled, even surprised, by her success.
I wanted to quit so many times, she admits. A career in the arts was a pipe dream come true for Galli, born of her determination and willingness to ignore her family’s concerns. I struggled because my family didn’t understand the arts. They were more financial and business oriented. So when I said to my family, I think I want to pursue art, my family said to me, why don’t you go to a real college and do student photography on the side?
While Galli studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and Parsons University, her siblings followed more traditional paths. They always make jokes [like], Oh were gonna have to put you up in our guesthouse, and now they’re like, we might need you to put us up! she says. I am the underdog.
With several great photoshoots under her belt and over 80,000 followers on TikTok, that tag might be overkill. Even so, Galli is more than ready to establish her own legacy. Below, we discuss Gallis’ professional journey, as well as his experience photographing his family and his accidental rise to TikTok:
On studying photography in college
When I started photography, I wanted to do editorial fashion. But then I fell in love with storytelling. It has always been difficult for me to express my feelings in writing and through verbal communication. Then, an outlet for me was photography, and I could express myself through an image.
At the Chicago Institute, they said, we don’t have [that], you have to go to New York. You have to go to New York young and do internships. Chicago just doesn’t have that, unless you want to do fine art. But if you want to do like New York Timesand magazines, and journalism, you have to go to New York young.
On capturing her grandmother’s essence
The last picture I took of my grandmother was with my grandmother and my mother. I had taken a picture of my grandmother almost two years before, around my freshman year of college and she looked so different. She didn’t need oxygen 24/7 and her face wasn’t as swollen because she wasn’t getting radiation. It fucked her up. She was able to walk.
Then this time, in the sophomore picture, she had to have oxygen and you can just see the pain she was going through. It was really emotional for me, because I was like, this is not the grandmother I remember. Then having my mother there too, in the same session, the two together. It was very painful and really difficult for me to do it, but it had to be done.
You can’t always document the positive things in life. You must document the real and the authentic. It’s the one that solidified for me that storytelling is what I want to do. I just want to document the reality.
On her first big photoshoot
My first project after college was with vogue. They said, we will send you two bags. You can photograph it whoever you want. I was like, Oh, this is really intense. They wanted it in the September issue of vogue. My grandmother died the previous year in September, September 6th. I was like, well, this is going to be the passing of a year. it fits vogue. I have to commemorate my grandmother somehow.
I found this portrait, a painted portrait of my grandmother, and I wanted to incorporate it somehow. I ended up having it just in the background, and the bags set up in my grandparents’ space, kind of showing black excellence and commemorating it as well.
On creating dynamic portraits of men and women
I just finished this really cool project with the New York Times, documenting my family. It was the first time I photographed my brother and my grandfather, and it was a challenge. When it comes to photographing women, I will go lower than them to put them more in a position of power, and I will do different angles and lighting to make them as powerful as possible depending on how I perceive them. So with men, I’m like, I don’t want it to sound really terrible.
So yes, I was relearning how to photograph men in a powerful way, but no, yes, I am a man. It was a challenge for me. It’s still, sometimes, intimidating for me, because it’s like, I don’t know, I love photographing women.
I have never seen a gallery display of a bunch of portraits of black women, of all ages, sizes and backgrounds. I feel like it must be a thing.
On his TikTok origin story
None of my friends were responding to my texts. I was going on a date with my ex, he wasn’t my ex at the time but, I just got these two dresses, and I was like, I don’t know what to wear.
Before that, I was posting really silly dance videos with my mom, like during quarantine, like we do. I was like, okay, just let me do a little TikTok. I might get three answers, I just need someone to tell me because I have to go.
I did and got lots of feedback. A lot of people really liked my style. I was like, wait, this is really fun. It’s also useful for me because I like to browse my TikToks and see the outfits I wore. Then I started having fun posting about dating my ex-boyfriend and going out for lunch, and just different things.
I already had a lot of my grandmother’s clothes. [In videos] I would say, Oh, these shoes are my grandmother’s. People started asking: Who is your grandmother? Can we see more clothes? It’s so cool that people are interested in her. It started to become the main focus, but now I’m trying to go back to choose my outfit [videos].
On merging his careers in social media and photography
I don’t know how I would do it. I spoke to a content creator, I forgot her name. I really suck at names. She said that when I prepare with my videos, I should tell a story, have a photo as a background as a green screen wallpaper, and talk about the meaning behind the photo.
I just don’t know how well this video would translate. Also, I like to have a separation. It’s interesting, my TikTok name is Olivia Joan, just my grandmother’s name and my middle name, then my photography is Olivia Galli. I feel like I have two separate entities. I have TikTok where it’s, like, an outing. Then photography is my job.
Sometimes I just don’t want to combine the two. I just want to have fun.
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