Each Maasai has about six outfits. Men wear robes – we call them shuka – in different colours and patterns. You can wear whichever colour combination you like, as long as there is red in it. Red is very important. I’m wearing two shuka tied together now. It has to be long, to cover the body but not so long that you can’t run in it. Would I ever wear Western clothes? Well maybe if I went to Europe.
Mine is a tricky position; I might be living with disability, but I am not a disabled person. I face the challenges only indirectly. The disabled one is my son, and no matter how close I am to him, I cannot feel the things he feels. I grew up in a world where disability didn’t seem to exist; it wasn’t in the media, and especially not in fashion media, and, at least in Italy, disabled people lived a rather secluded life – there was hardly anything around for them. When disability hit me with the force of a premature birth and an emergency C-section, I was forced first of all to dismantle my own stereotypes and taboos. But giving birth to a disabled child doesn’t automatically free you from your background of bias and ignorance: it’s even harder if you’ve spent half your life between glossy magazines and catwalks, where curvy is already big news, let alone cerebral palsy.
I came out of the era of the ‘60s and ‘70s. You had the Black Panthers, you had the Young Lords — they were like a paramilitary group. They were at odds with the status quo, with police. But then again, what we were trying to do was to provide public safety, so we were the opposite of gangs. In searching for a name, ultimately I thought that the group that seemed to have the most traction among inner-city young men and young women in the late ‘70s was the Hells Angels. They hated Black and Hispanic people, they were one-percenters. And yet young Black and Hispanic men idolised them. They were watching the B-grade movies, like Hells Angels Forever, in Times Square — you could get three flicks for five dollars — and they would emulate them. And I said, what’s the complete opposite of Hells Angels? Well, Guardian Angels. But still it didn’t matter: People thought we were a gang, thought we were vigilantes, thought we were Hells Angels, thought we were Charlie’s Angels. Everything other than what we were.
Fashion is popular because it’s a mystery. It’s the ebb and flow of the subtle things we propose as designers, and that people respond to like flocks of birds turning all of a sudden in the middle of the sky. That’s what makes it fascinating. It’s all about instincts and subtle references that certain people can grasp in a very vague way. It’s a pattern or code that is understood by a group of people at the same time.
In a plane of crisp sunlight that angles down through the door frame, and dissolves into rust-coloured shadows settling across the dark floor, unease spreads along the walls of this wooden interior. A woman in the centre hugs a small infant close to her breast. Next to her, another holds a child on her lap. To their left is a muscular man dressed in light yellow work trousers and a waistcoat: he watches them, his face expressively surly. Seated in a semi-circle the women stare intently at the stove, or let their eyes settle on something outside the room. They are dressed well in respectable printed cotton dresses, their sleeves billowing out from under stiff white aprons. Four white men – one in the background and the other three conversing in the doorway on the left – like sentinels, stand watch. And as they watch and we watch them, these slaves, neatly arranged on rough wooden benches, quietly wait to be sold.
As the service industry has taken over goods, the parameters of conspicuous consumption have also shifted. The ‘lifestyle experience’ is how architectural theorist, Brian Lonsway, describes the subtle aesthetic choices used to complement the interests of target consumers. And for spaces like Coal Drops Yard in London and Birmingham’s Custard Factory, where a creative, ‘edgy’ lifestyle is cultivated through its authentic-slash-heritage infrastructure, digital technology has been as essential as the buildings themselves. Embedded within these spaces then is a connection to the past and a lucrative, aestheticised placemaking that emphasises authenticity – an especially important factor in a digital, social media-driven age.
My mother has not held a job in nearly fifty years. This is not because she chose to be a stay-at-home mom or enjoyed independent wealth or relied on a man to dole out an allowance. She had four children from different fathers, none of whom contributed financially in any notable or legally mandated way. We lived with my grandmother in her once-stately New England home in a small Connecticut town in which we, as a familial economic entity, were ill-fitted at best. We were poor and happy. And my mother was jobless but prolific. She woke every day between four and five in the morning, made coffee and began to work. That is: to sew.