My investigation, my work, my trajectory speaks, I hope, to a generation of young black people who need to know that there’s an open space for them to occupy too. But it’s a work in progress. I’m an autodidact, an explorer, and often I’m an amateur too. My career in that sense is an investigative exploration. It’s about how to be a black thinker in white spaces; it’s about inserting the black canon in art history books. It’s about being a black voice that matters beyond the fringes. I want to be able to look back at my life and career and know that I left some inanimate objects behind, yes, but also a logic that changed the mainstream.
Irene Silvagni died on March 23 after a long illness, but throughout her long career she was one of the fashion industry’s many éminence grises: one of those rare few who spoke fearlessly about fashion, as she saw it.
“Fashion designers have traditionally been men and their employees women, starting with Worth. And at the risk of sounding simplistic, male designers do often exercise power over their female employees by being callous or cruel; there is nothing new under the sun there. Women always have a second life that men don’t, family and children that perhaps help to bring some balance. I think there is something about this industry that attracts people with very strong egos, male and female, and that can unleash a sort of hysteria at times. Fashion designers are ‘artistes’. There is something about all types of creation that is about putting a piece of yourself into your work, and that can be very draining.”
We practice what we call ‘security with a velvet touch.’ We stay in the shadows. The PRs check people in, and most of them don’t know what they’re doing but that’s another story. Anyway, we stand behind the PR people. If we see them lingering with an individual, we might catch the individual trying read the guest list. People do that you know – they can read upside down. If we see that one of these PR persons is taking more than a minute or two with someone, then there’s usually a problem. Basically, we play the bad cop. But we always try to give people a gracious way out, like, ‘Sorry you’re not on the list, obviously there was an issue with your invitation, maybe you didn’t RSVP in time?’ You never say, ‘Oh get outta here,’ even though you want to. But you can’t, because like I said they cry very easily and you never know who they know.
How many miles of endless asphalt haven’t I covered in these shoes, and in how many cities? This pair of nondescript sneakers that sustained me for a year while I visited doctors, being prodded and poked, legs in the air and feet in stirrups, learning to inject myself until my belly and ass were both bruised and painful, messing up right at the end and having to do it all over again, hoping wishing yearning for a baby. It’s a highly intimate story, out of sight mostly, the one about becoming a mother through artificial means. Being fertile is to be productive, abundant, creative – being barren feels shameful. You need comfort, tenderness, compassion, so you look for it wherever you can: in people, in your environment, in the objects that surround you and hold you. My sneakers did their part by letting me forget that I was wearing anything at all on my feet, one less thing to worry about.
Fashion can be so… come si dice… autoreferenziale. Self-referential? It’s crazy to me that a creative director should use a stylist for example. That’s my job! It’s time to challenge those old rules. Imagine, in twenty-five years of working in fashion I only once interviewed a black design applicant, and she was American. Can you imagine? I think I’ve seen hundreds of white, Western designers over the years, but diversity is still really rare. Why? On what level are we failing? Is it about access to education, or about class or is it about bias on behalf of head hunters? Or the brands themselves? Traditionally fashion has been an exceptionally racist industry; being black meant exoticism, bananas and Josephine Baker. We know better now, but systems take a long time to change.
Moving between continents and cultures like I do requires some skill when it comes to dressing. I remember once, six or seven years ago in New York; the first day I went out wearing a kaftan people wouldn’t stop staring at me in the street. And the ones who stared the most were other black people. I felt so uncomfortable, I just turned around and went home to change. But in Nigeria you can get more money wearing trads actually. If I have a meeting in an office I’ll put my trads on and hold my mobile phone in a particular way so as to command power. When I’m dressed like that, I hear ‘Yes sir yes sir yes sir!’ You really get treated differently depending on what you wear in Lagos. If the police stop you, and you’re young but wearing trads, you’re much safer.
Growing up, I had no consciousness of gender but at a certain point in school we were separated by it, at gym class, at lunch, at home ed. I was always getting put back, like, ‘No you have to go with them.’ Clothes went with that, and so did hair. I always rejected those conventions and it culminated into… It was a whopper. It was homecoming – I didn’t want to go with a boy, but I felt all this peer pressure. It was a blow-up situation. I literally had a panic attack in the changing room, putting on dresses – my first panic attack. Everything but my conscious mind was saying no, no, no. I did get a dress – velvet, with lace at the bottom – but I got completely loaded to deal with it all and I ended up getting suspended. I still have a hard time standing in the women’s section in a store with my friends or girlfriend or whatever. I still carry that ‘I’m in the wrong place’ feeling. Like, I shouldn’t be here.
A Conversation with Mohammad Saeed
‘Clothes are very important because people always look at what you wear. They don’t think about who you are, they only think about what you wear. I don’t like it, but I accept it. When I dress up, to go to a restaurant or to work, people look at me well, but if I’ve just woken up and haven’t made an effort they will judge me. They look at me like I’m bad. I don’t really like my clothes now, but I have to wear what I have because I’m living in a camp. I have clothes in Syria, in Turkey, in Greece, everywhere. The only clothes I miss are the clothes I was wearing when the bomb struck and I was hurt. I asked my mum to save them, and she did. One day I will come back for them.’
A Conversation with Abdul-Wahed Daaboul
‘All my clothes were taken: my jacket, a T-shirt that my best friend gave me before I left Syria with “Lamborghini” written on it. They were my favourite clothes. When my backpack was stolen I had to buy everything new: I bought a jacket and a pair of jeans for €50. In the camps they gave clothes away for free but I couldn’t take them. I don’t know why. Maybe because I had some money, and I felt I should buy my own clothes. There were so many others without money; they should get their clothes for free, not me.’
A Conversation with Bushra Al-Fusail
‘I only have a few things from home now. One is a cotton scarf, it’s black with a red stripe. In Yemen I would have worn it to cover my hair, but here I wear it around my neck. I have a silver necklace too, with a dark red stone. I wear that a lot, though I often take it off when I work with the Yemeni community here in New York. They are often simple people, and they’re not used to seeing a Yemeni woman without an abaya or a hijab. Many Yemenis don’t want to change, even when they’ve left Yemen. The Yemeni community in New York is very strict, so I don’t want them to identify me as Yemeni necessarily. It’s funny: I’m so attached to Yemenis on the one hand, but I also want my space.’
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.
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.