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.
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.
I felt like an outsider because I wanted to be a part of that group but I couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t go to Biarritz, I couldn’t go to Gstaad, I couldn’t go to St. Barts or to the places where rich people go to have fabulous luncheons and dinners, but I could afford to buy some cheap taffeta and make a ball gown and go to the clubs where those people went, and walk into them like I owned them.
Prison literature and theory often focuses on the oppressiveness of the system, the callous discipline enforced on the prisoner, the strict rules which often seem arbitrary in their focus and the often patronising attitude of the authorities. We often assume that prison is an environment so infused with control and discipline that the inmates have no choice but to bow to the authorities. This is of course not the case. Prison life is full of upturned collars and resentful squints, as well as a myriad of other ways to subvert the rules, however slightly.
In a way, we’re just bags, full of spirit, and then somebody puts a label on and you get out there and you push the product. I’m just the container you know, that’s all I am. I learnt that from Joan Crawford. But I feel like a perennial; they planted me in the right soil and I just keep coming back year after year. I serve a purpose, you know me – I’m just a flag pole. People put their flag on me and I fly it proudly. That’s part of being a model. Beauty is my goal: to find the most beautiful things. Whether it’s inside a person, or a flower, or a place, or the clothes they wear, I try to find the most beautiful thing I can in the moment. I have this needle inside me like a compass that says, ‘due north, follow your star, this way, this way!’
People expect clarity of vision from a designer; a lot of people come to fashion for reassurance. Sometimes people just don’t know what they want so the role of the designer is to say, ‘This is what’s good for you.’ But I’m a very intuitive designer, I don’t always know why I do what I do so when people rush up to me after the show to get my references, I don’t always know what to say. I don’t work with grand concepts, I’m interested in cutting, sewing, draping, structure and silhouette. I’m a dressmaker. I’m inspired by gestures and movement. The way a woman zips up the back of her dress, the way she rides a bicycle, or talks, or smokes. It takes time for me to digest and conceptualise what I’ve done. But as a designer you get that one moment – the show – which is over in fifteen minutes, and then you have another ten minutes to explain yourself to journalists afterwards. The idea of success in fashion today doesn’t always allow for someone like me: I doubt a lot, I’m not always sure. It’s normal; I think most people are like that. But the system isn’t set up to integrate it.