One person with the answer, or at the very least offering up one beautiful multiple choice option, is seasoned fashion designer Korto Momolu. Rising to fame over a decade ago as one of the fan-favorite contestants on Bravo’s acclaimed series Project Runway, the Liberian-born fashionista has since grown into her own personal brand that’s primarily rooted in her African upbringing yet also dares to stretch beyond the imagination.
We saw it firsthand during her stellar NYFW presentation in the Financial District this past Saturday (September 9) at The Léman Ballroom. In collaboration with longtime haberdashery haven JOANN Fabrics, Momolu presented a collection that honored her late father with the debut of her first foray into menswear which even brought the theatrics with live dance sequences.
We got a chance to speak with Korto Momolu on the many aspects that went into designing this collection, and we think you’ll be pleasantly surprised in the way her mind worked in making sure every detail had some sort of significance.
Black America Web: We saw everything from mesh to seashells incorporated in the craftwork of this collection, and each detail has such a story behind it. Tell us more about where the inspiration came from.
Korto Momolu: Initially when I picked the fabrics from JOANN, my dad hadn’t passed away yet. At first it was about luxury; I wanted to create fabrics that felt luxurious and changed how people looked at JOANN Fabrics. Many people look at it as a brand for home crafters doing things around the house. I wanted fabrics that resembled what you get in Los Angeles, New York, Paris and Milan. When [my dad] passed, I ended up with these really dark colors that contrasted from my usual bright, big print and colorful aesthetic.
The use of lace was a reference to being in grief. Sometimes when you’re in it you’ve got to stay in it, but you can still ‘see through’ it all. A lot of the sleeves didn’t have openings to reflect that sense of having to sit in it for a minute. The cowrie shells were an ode to my dad’s era where they used those shells for money and currency back in the day. It ties back to a sense of wealth in ancestry and wealth in being raised as an African child. There’s so much richness in our culture, and I wanted to reflect the beauty of it for everyone to enjoy and not just us.
The opening piece with the leaves on it was meant to reflect me turning over a new leaf by going into menswear and being in a space I never imagined myself entering. Even though it can be grey, it can still get lighter and the fabrics reflect that. I was just trying to send messages throughout this whole collection.
The concept of “Ink & Ivory” is executed quite well in the design story, but what did giving that name to this collection mean for you specifically?
Well, anything that’s ink-based will spread and dilute with a darkness when introduced to water. However, after rain will always result in a new day. We’re all going through some sort of grief, but we have to go through it because it won’t stay that way forever. As ink spreads, it gets lighter and you start to see the texture underneath. We all have to grow, and it’s all part of the journey.
With the debut menswear collection being directly inspired by the memory of your dad, what was the one piece that really represents his legacy?
One of the girls who came out [on the runway] had on a blue jacket, and just the way it covered over her shoulders reminded me that he’s here with me. I feel that he’s going to bring so much as an ancestor now like he did when he was here. The jacket’s form showed that I’m still a part of him — still under him — and I can’t help but to be who he is.
Keeping African culture rich in my designs is something I’ve always been proud of, and I thank him and my mom for keeping it so tight with us when we left Africa. Some people lose that when they move from where they’re from, but for me it’s something that’s grown stronger being that we didn’t always have the opportunity to go back home. I’m so thankful they pushed that.
For the young creatives looking at this collection and becoming heavily inspired, what’s the biggest message of guidance that you can leave them with?
I think it’s important to know that you can create beauty from anything. I said it during my show, but a lot of people think everything has to be perfect and along the lines of “I have to live in New York or LA” or “I have to have a manufacturer.” You just have to do it! Whatever it is that you want to do, at least get it started. Sure you can aim for perfection, but the journey won’t begin until you officially start. Show people that you can go down the street of your neighborhood to a store like JOANN and get things that look the way they’re supposed to from a quality perspective.
I went to the JOANN location right around the corner from where I live [in Little Rock] and made beautiful clothes using fabrics from designers that I love, from Badgley Mischka and Reem Acra to Jason Wu. All these designers carry fabrics with this chain! I also created a fabric online through their website, creating my own print. Even if you don’t see what you want, you can still make what you want. It’s simply inexpensive access.
Long story short, you have no excuse! [Laughs] You’ve just got to go do it. Start, and the rest will follow.