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.
Within the context of a public event, clothes help to endow the wearer with a greater sense of themselves. You find yourself behaving differently when wearing a costume and you are often less inhibited. The costume helps to give you a new persona to project yourself from. With a ritual, a simple black robe does the opposite and is often worn as a form of anonymity. I find elaborate robes project ego and when working in a ritual context the will needs to be focused on the job in hand.
My mother died a couple years ago at one hundred and four, and she had macular degeneration. But she could see in her periphery and she could always see me. We’d go walking together. She loved me being green. I’ve had a long life and have been through a lot and have my design studio and this and that. But when people see me they just see the Green Lady. That’s fine.
‘Every Congolese child is a sapeur. You shouldn’t ask when I became one. The point is that I’m still one. Some practice a bit and others practice deeply. I’m very deep in it. For us, clothing speaks. Fashion in general is out of fashion. One day it’s enormous rings, the next day they’re gone. La sape is beyond fashion; it’s like the earth. You’re born dust and you die dust. You’re born and we lose you as well.’
You’re not allowed to fail in fashion – especially in this age of social media, when everything is about leading a successful, amazing life. Nobody today is allowed to fail, instead the prospect causes anxiety and terror. But why can’t we celebrate failure? After all, it helps us grow and develop. I’m not ashamed.
I have been going to Jerri’s Cleaners since I moved to New York in 1993. I maintained a friendly but detached relationship with the staff there for the first twenty years. Then a serious stain threatened a favourite pair of trousers and the relationship changed. Through several rounds of – ultimately successful — experimentation, I gained a sense of the lengths to which a true professional will go to avoid failure and please a customer. Recently I invited my dry cleaner over to discuss his working method.
Yui and Takaharu’s designs feature almost no colour. One project, the Roof House, is all sandy wood, topped with a sloping gray roof. In their own lives however, colour is a defining characteristic. Yui wears almost exclusively red; Takaharu blue. The objects they share are yellow. Their daughter, fourteen, wears yellow, too; their son, eleven, wears green.
A hat tells the story of what you do. If you’re a bull rider, different hat. Barrel racer, different hat. I wear a cutter’s crease, which is for cutting horses – it’s an event. The only difference between a cutting horse and a cattleman is a dimple here on each side. Then there are the hats that we call a Kmart, Walmart special. Some people from out of town come here with those cheap straw hats, it’s kinda like a heehaw hat, comical. But we like it. They’re trying. They’re proud to have it on.
Poets hate the fact that I have a persona because poets aren’t supposed to have one. You’re supposed to be yourself, authentic, natural in T-shirts and jeans. To me it’s all show business. My whole poetic oeuvre is made up of falseness, inauthenticity, appropriation and plagiarism, so if I was trying to pass that off as an authentic persona, it would be contradictory. So I’m playing my role as a poet as much as they are playing theirs. My role is ‘inauthenticity’ and theirs is ‘authenticity.’ It’s all a construction.
There’s like, a hundred different grades of industrial wipers. The best kind of wipers were made from men’s underwear, called gansies. For jeans, nowadays it’s all about torn this and torn that, but thirty years ago pair of jeans with a hole in the knees used to be cut up and sold to the Navy. You’d clean your machinery with these wipers. Looking for vintage is like looking for a needle in a haystack. One year the Japanese want over-sized printed T-shirts, the next year they want super small ones. The dredge of the industry for one period was men’s polyester pants. Those used to sell for six cents a pound. Ten years later, those same pants were worth $15 a piece.
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.
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.