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.
We generally have five appointments a day that happen every ninety minutes. Before each appointment we begin with a brief discussion with the bride: her style, her venue, number of guests at the wedding and her budget. We breeze through this in a few minutes because, most of the time, once the bride comes in everything turns upside down anyway.
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.
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.
It is a well-known fact that if you go shopping with a particular item in mind, you’ll never find what you were looking for. The pursuit of love, similarly, is more a game of luck than design; the partnerships we form in life begin in inauspicious circumstances, and expectations never fail to give way to different kinds of realities. When reflecting on the expression of masculinity through dress, the lens through which women see their boyfriends, husbands and lovers is a useful refraction then, and one which illuminates how vital one gender is in the making of the other. So to better understand the complexities surrounding how we see men, I met five women, aged between seventeen and eighty, and asked them to speak about their significant other’s clothing.
That day, I started a campaign with my parents to obtain a Totally Hair Barbie, even though up till then I’d only had a few basic dolls, one Skipper and many hand-me-down Barbies, since my green-party parents were not very enthusiastic about the American ‘teenage fashion model’ with pink plastic accoutrements. Once I got one, the best thing to do was go over to my neighbours’ house, where two of those dolls lived with the two girls, and add mine to their pair, so we could play with a Total Hair extravaganza set of three dolls, twisting the different strands and braid them together in a sort of octopus-like hair situation.
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.
A conversation with three generations of quinceañera
The young quinceañera is seemingly always in a ball gown. She is in pink, green, blue or other pastel colour, festooned and bejewelled, and with a large skirt that sways in a way that affirms the hooped crinoline underneath. She is beautiful and brimming with excitement for her impending journey into womanhood. Her mother typically accompanies her, helping her with her dress and fixing her hair just so as the photographer captures the moment in front of a city’s landmarks.
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.’