If you start talking fashion with Nel Schneider, their face will light up and they’ll start explaining some of the fashion rules they love to break. The most important one? Never be afraid of colour. 

The stylish non-binary 32-year-old Trinidadian has lived in Toronto since 2018 and only began showcasing their bold outfits and head-to-toe drip on their Instagram account in 2019. Since then, they’ve put their love of sneakers on full display while also making time to star in campaigns for Scotiabank and Nike Toronto, while documenting, as they put it, “the joy of putting pictures together.”

When they’re not serving up looks for the gram, they’re busy with their 9-to-5 in advertising managing clients. But the creative is much more than a force in fashion. They are also showing up for the LGBTQ+ community to address issues reaching beyond Canadian borders and breaking down boundaries in the sneaker world.

We caught up with Nel over Zoom to talk about staying creative during COVID, carving a path for other LGBTQ+ people, and of course, their passion for cool sneakers.

Hi!
I don’t know if I mentioned this, but currently I’m not in Toronto. I mean, I live in Toronto, but I’m just traveling right now. I’m in Trinidad. So when you asked if we should do the call, I thought maybe not long distance.

What are you doing there right now?
I migrated to Toronto in 2018. And I’m sure that’s not like a super original story for you, since Toronto is such a melting pot and made up of so many different people from around the world. So I sort of took the opportunity of work from home, a.k.a. anywhere, to come back and spend some time with my family before the inevitable return to the office.

Yeah, no, definitely make the most of that time. That’s the best way to do it. I’m jealous. I feel like Toronto is so boring right now. 
If there’s any consolation, Trinidad and Tobago is still pretty closed up. I know that Toronto has been re-opening slowly. So we’re just behind by like, I would say a couple of weeks. I’m not, you know, living by the beach right now.

Fair enough. I guess we’ll just sort of get into it if you just want to tell me a bit about yourself. So your age, and what you do for a living. I know you’ve got a following on Instagram, but I’m sure you have other stuff that you do as well.
So, obviously, you know, name is Nel and I just go by Nel only. I’m 32 from Trinidad and Tobago and I migrated to Toronto in 2018, just kind of moving for a few reasons. One just to be in a space that celebrates and allows much more career options for young people with creative minds. And you know, there’s a lot of opportunities and communities that you can sort of explore. When you grow up and live on an island it has its own massive list of pros, but to say that we have a developed industry around creative people, it isn’t as developed as I would have liked it to be. So just in terms of opportunities, and then the larger piece of moving to Toronto, because LGBTQ+ rights [have] not just the legislation is not just in place, it’s also celebrated, right? So that was a big marker for me. 

Trinidad and Tobago still is very, very behind in terms of legislation, gay rights, things like that. In terms of where we are at, we as Trinidad and Tobago, it’s still a place of… we just passed the decriminalization of homosexual activity. So it’s super behind and in terms of looking to the future and looking at building a family and having those rights. Toronto is the place, and I’m super happy to call Toronto home now. I’m really proud of being part of such an open, inolved community. 

So I know I have that Instagram thing going on, I can get back to that. But what I do for 9 to 5 is manage client accounts in advertising. Oh, so I have an opportunity of being on the side of putting the ads together. And then in my own time, you know, my hobby, my passion is being a creator. I’m sort of on two different ends of it, you know, nine to five doing the client side, and on my own time creating myself. I’m super into sneakers, [I’ve] always have been very, very into streetwear as well. And you know, I try not to have my Instagram focus too much on just sneakers because for me, it’s the head to head head to toe thing, right? I’m into the haircut and the jewelry and the styling and eyebrows. Everything. Every every piece of the aesthetic of the head-to-toe look and sneakers is part of that, for me, although I have this deep obsession with sneakers, it doesn’t just sort of end there. 

Nel Schneider holding a sneaker
Image via Nel Schneider

Was there any sort of moment that kind of sparked your interest in fashion and sneakers?
I grew up with a single mother and we didn’t have a lot of disposable income to purchase sneakers, and certainly not the brands I deeply admire, like Jordan and Nike and things like that. So as a child, I would remember just looking around at everyone’s feet all the time because I was super obsessed [with] seeing sneakers and I was always in awe of people that had the newest thing. That wasn’t me, I wasn’t that kid, I didn’t have the newest thing. 

And in Trinidad we don’t have that Nike distribution, we don’t have the Jordans and we don’t have the larger stores like Foot Lockers and Sport Cheks and things like that. So the entire market is what you would call a reseller’s market. If you did have a pair, it would be this amazing thing, because it’s not for sale in this country. So it was super hard to get. And for years, I think that I was kind of starved of the ability to engage in that sort of retail experience. When I started traveling, I really had an opportunity to go to the stores and you know, yes, I lined up and all of that. I sort of fell into it more deeply because what is that they say about the forbidden fruits? [Laughs.]

Now, partly because of COVID, there was a time last year where I was just like, ‘look, I have all these clothes’ because I didn’t stop buying shoes and clothes. It was retail therapy. For me, it was that escape, I couldn’t go anywhere, I was fortunate enough to still be able to keep my job and have my career. So I had that income that I wasn’t spending on traveling. And I just thought, I’m just going to keep buying the clothes and shoes that I love. One day, I looked around, I’m like, I have all this new shit. I started just styling myself, putting the clothes on, putting the shoes on, going out there with my tripod and taking my pictures. You know, it felt a little bit shallow, that this was something that was bringing me so much joy, but I realized that whatever it is that has taken us through this pandemic is okay. This is what I leaned on to carry me through the pandemic. It’s sort of, I want to say, paid me back because there’s a bit more attention on me, but it wasn’t contrived. It was like, I love this, I’m gonna fall into this as much as I can and hope it brings me joy by being able to put these pictures together and put them out there. It has come back to where people are sort of celebrating it, which I deeply appreciate.

“For me, being celebrated in the space is recognizing that there was maybe a pinhole that I squeezed myself through, and my focus is widening that hole as much as I can, so that other members of the queer community can just sort of walk through.” 

Definitely. I’ve seen it with the comments and stuff, everyone’s always like, “Yeah, you look amazing.”
And that’s testimony to the community, too. I’m not a passive Instagram user, either. I’m there under everyone’s posts, as well being like, “Yeah, you look great. Love this pair. Love this outfit.” It’s such a strong community in Toronto, of female-presenting individuals that are into the streetwear, into the fashion, into the sneakers. I have found that that community has welcomed me, adopted me, and celebrated me, which is amazing to be a part of.

Branching off of that, why do you think it’s so important for the LGBTQ community to really be breaking boundaries in that space? I feel like, for most of us traditionally we think of it as like a straight male-dominated thing, when I think of sneakers, that’s what pops into my mind. It’s so great to see that that’s changing now.
I think the industry or the scene, whatever you want to call it, is still very dominated by heterosexual men, right? We have a lot of male collaborations that are held in the highest esteem and the highest regard within the sneaker world. We have a lot of male athlete collaborations. So there’s a lot of that, and I don’t necessarily think that that needs to be lessened. But I think that we sort of need to heighten the representation of women, non-men, the queer community, non-binary people. And as you said, it’s sort of like breaking boundaries. But at the same time, we want to be normalized. I don’t always want to be the first in a space. That sort of says to me that we’re not doing enough, we’re not moving the needle far enough. For me, being celebrated in the space is recognizing that there was maybe a pinhole that I squeezed myself through, and my focus is widening that hole as much as I can, so that other members of the queer community can just sort of walk through. 

We don’t have to be remarkable to be accepted into this community. You know, for Pride Month, specifically, I felt there’s been a lot of attention on me. I’ve done one or two major campaigns, and that is amazing. That’s great. But I want to see more inclusion of the queer community beyond Pride Month, and at different levels as well. It’s amazing for us to be the face of campaigns or for us to be leveraged in advertising, and print or social. I love seeing different faces, bodies and ethnicities represented. But for me, a more potent thing is are we, in your organization? Are we holding senior level positions? Are we behind the storytelling that is meant to benefit us? Are we the ones that are coming up with these Pride campaigns and collections? That’s super important to me as well, because on a surface level, you can include diverse human beings in your campaign, but are we accountants? Are we attorneys within your organization? Are we on a managerial level? Are we in the boardroom? Coming back to it being groundbreaking, I just want it to be normal.

“I think I might I exist as a form of activism, when I show up in a space that is heteronormative, that is predominantly white, that is not inclusive of the Black community, the Asian community. I think I am showing up as a form of activism.”

That’s the thing. It’s 2021. This shouldn’t even be a conversation that we’re having anymore, because it should just be, period.
There’s much resistance to it. I try not to focus on that, I try to focus on the forward movement, and the positivity, and the celebration of the fact that we are moving forward. But I try not to let that also sweep me up and recognize how much further we have to go. 

I love that. I wasn’t entirely sure, but I’ve heard that you’ve just done some advocacy work, if you want to just tell me a bit about that.
I’ve never actually called myself an activist. I think I might I exist as a form of activism, when I show up in a space that is heteronormative, that is predominantly white, that is not inclusive of the Black community, the Asian community. I think I am showing up as a form of activism. So that being said, I’m a spokesperson for the first ever public slash private entity advertising campaign that is focused on Pride. So it’s the first ever private campaign by any organization, public or private, in Trinidad and Tobago, which is Scotiabank Trinidad and Tobago. 

Yeah, actually, I was going ask you about that because I saw on Instagram you’re in that campaign. How did that come together?
In terms of activism, specifically, the way I have chosen to sort of approach it with this video is I want to be part of this movement, I want to make sure and lend my voice and my platform to a campaign of this nature. So to have a bank, which is huge in this country, the very first out of the gate, to have a campaign alongside, you know, my trans sisters, and my other queer members of the community is absolutely massive. It is something that is going to cause some discomfort and I went into sort of knowing that and, to be very honest, I expected a lot of discomfort and a lot of resistance. But now, I find it largely very positive. I went to a fruit store a few days ago and I was buying a watermelon. And it’s a husband and wife team that owns the store and they said, “We saw you on TV last night. This is great.” These two human beings from a rural part of Trinidad and Tobago that potentially has never had this conversation about the queer community before! And they were super positive, very happy. And I feel like that’s what I do it for. 

We have many different parts of our society that are accepting and are open, but still not having any sort of conversations. It’s still a sort of a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ And for me, that’s not enough. My DMs are super open, I’ve always made sure that for any queer people that follow me, that look up to me, that want to have a conversation about what my journey is, and how that potentially can could impact theirs. I’ve always been super open with that. There have been many that have come before me that have been that facility to me. So I think it’s about passing it on. When we have the conversation about activism, because I think when you are a queer person in this 2021 coming from a Caribbean island, and trying to move forward in a in a corporate space in Toronto, your existence is exactly that.

I think with so many things now, it’s a matter of showing up and being who you are in the world. It seems like it is so radical. It shouldn’t be, but for a lot of people, it definitely is. And now I have to ask, what is your favorite pair of sneakers? Do you have a dream pair that you want to get your hands on?
I’m going to say the Jordan 4 and 5 “Sail” in the Off-White colour with Virgil. I really, really love those pairs. I don’t have either of them and I would really love to have them. I have a bit of a sad story around why I don’t have one.

Oh?
I thought the Sail 4s were in women’s sizing, I hit an eight W, which is women’s, not eight M, which was in my head, and I ended up getting the wrong size. Being the human being that I am, I didn’t resell them for a super high price to be able to fetch my own pair. I just sold them at a normal price, so I couldn’t afford my pair. 

Oh no! I’m sorry.
I also absolutely refuse to pay thousands for a sneaker that retails at $220. I kind of really love Off-White and Virgil and the collaborations that that he does. I feel like it’s different and it’s kind of deconstructed as a sort of, like messy DIY. I’m a fan, I’m not gonna lie. And then of all time, I would really really love to own a pair of Air Mags. I think of Back to the Future and the story and I mean, I think when we were kids looking at a dark film, it was like a futuristic thing. It blew my mind. I would love to own a pair but I don’t think I would ever put them on my feet!

Just put them in a glass case on the wall and stare at them.
I mean, I wear my sneakers. I think they’re art for my feet. 

I feel that way about clothing. If they just sit in your closet, who’s gonna see you out there looking good?
Yeah. But the Air Mags [are] going on the wall. [Laughs.]

Not too long ago, you were in a Nike Toronto campaign as well. 
What I thought was quite remarkable about that particular campaign was that they reached out to me outside of Pride. That tells me that they’re normalizing normalizing queer faces. I think that that is incredible, to do a campaign like that. It’s a dream for me, coming from the Caribbean, never having direct access to, you know, a Nike store until I was in my early 20s. It’s an absolute dream come true.

When they reached out to me to be a part of this campaign and it wasn’t specific to anything to do with the queer community, I’d love to see more of that. Working with the Nike team was was excellent. The team who put the the shoot together was an entire female team. I was so impressed. Now the Nike team was mixed genders, but the team that was present at the shoot, there was a female stylist and junior stylist,  there was a non-binary makeup artist. There was diversity in the room [with] who is behind the lens of the camera. It was an incredible experience to be a part of.

That’s huge. I feel like, when people see something like that, you just see who is in the video. I feel like a lot of people don’t necessarily think about what goes on behind the camera and what goes into putting that all together. So to know that it’s just as inclusive beyond that, I think it’s so important for a lot of people.
Yeah, I think, to have the opportunity to be part of something and look around and recognize that this is not performative. You’re not the token queer person. 

Nel Schneider sitting in a corner
Image via Nel Schneider

What are some of your biggest rules when it comes to fashion?
My first thing is, buy what you like, right? Right now, with social media, we are largely consuming content, and there’s this pressure to buy what’s new, and what’s super expensive, and what’s hard to get. I feel like that is a departure far away from what you like. And I think it’s always staying tuned to what colours do I like? What shapes do I like? What sort of fit do I like. I certainly don’t just buy what’s hype or what’s exclusive. If I buy exclusive things, it’s because I like [them]. And I think that that’s key.

Another rule, pay attention to the fit. Recognize that different body types are well-suited to different shapes. I remember Jay Z saying once that he didn’t wear skinny jeans, an entire trend that has been super long lasting. That came and went and he never wore skinny jeans because he knows what fits he likes. I know what I like. I wear large T-shirts, and I’m a pretty small human being. But that’s because I like that fit. 

Don’t be afraid of color is another [rule]. Black is super sleek. You can take refuge in black. I know we have our days when maybe we’re not feeling like we’re looking our best, and we can sort of hide in black clothing. I hold space for black. But at the same time, I feel like black can also be a crutch. Try to break through that crutch and choose colorful clothing like oranges and bright colors. I always tell my friends, “Don’t retrofit what you’re buying into your closet.” So don’t look at a pair of heels, for example and think, ‘They’re bright pink, what am I going to wear that with?’ My advice has always been, no, buy the pink pair and then conspire around it.

That’s good! I always hear the opposite. It’s like, yeah, stick to your basics, they’ll go with everything. It’s fine.
Not for me. I have respect for basics as well. But I just feel like if I keep building my closet around safety, safe colors are the colors that I already have. It never expands. In order to expand the color palette of your closet, buy unsafe things like a bright orange pair of heels or boots, right. You’ll see you will start conspiring to style those boots and then your closet expands. Explore colour, it’s so important. 

Do you have any advice for any other LGBTQ+ creatives trying to carve a path in this space? What would that be?
First of all for us it’s more difficult within the sneaker streetwear world, it’s largely heteronormative. And I know it’s tough. It’s tough to get seen. It’s tough to get noticed. I think there’s much virtue in finding and building a community. I can’t tell you how many people that I have connected with, particularly in Toronto over the past year, that have lifted me up and celebrated me without ever even meeting me. Instagram and social media allows for that. So I think  in order to be celebrated, you have to celebrate. You have to go out there as well and find other creators like me or other women in the space, the other queer people in the space and celebrate them ‘til they return it. I think stick with it. I’m 32; I didn’t start liking sneakers yesterday. I’ve been liking sneakers all my life. And I have been loving streetwear culture, all my life. When we talk about getting your flowers and stuff like that, it comes, but you have to be in it for your passion.

That’s so good. Well, that’s that’s all I had. But is there anything else you wanted to add? Just anything you wanted to say?
Yeah. So I want to plug Makeway because I think that what they’re doing is so needed in the sneaker and streetwear community. We’re talking about a female-owned and run streetwear and sneaker store. For me, it’s the first of its kind that I’ve ever been to, and had the privilege to support. But also I want to talk about the human beings Shelby and Abby behind it, who I call the unofficial ambassador to Toronto. I feel like I feel like they do several things that are super important to the queer, female minority community. They support local within their stores. They support female creators, they lift the people with smaller platforms. They also try to create awareness and activism around specific things. For example, they just did something with The Invisible Majority. They tie their retail experience to many different initiatives. So that is super, super important. And I feel like the more we see stores like this popping up within the community, the better it is.