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The founder of Fortie Label doesn’t consider herself as rebellious, yet her main inspirations are badass strong women who achieve whatever goal they set to themselves. Actually, one of her referents (and possibly an inspiration for the name of her brand) is Forty Elephants, a girl gang who caused terror during the 19th century in London by robbing and punching those who opposed them. But she canalizes her nonconformist spirit in a more peaceful and creative way: fashion. We talk with her about the importance of fighting for what you want, her contemporary female muses and friends, and how she’s ready to start a new chapter: designing menswear.
Your brand explores and shows how cultural norms that still exist can be torn down. Have you always been a little bit of a rebel?
I wouldn’t describe myself as a rebel, I wish I could claim that title! (Laughs) I think I just stick to my guns and have strong opinions that reflect in my work and my brand’s aesthetic and ethos. With Fortie Label I’m always exploring different parts of black culture and different ideologies within femininity that constantly interest me.
You say that the strong women in your life inspired a lot of the stuff you do now. Who were they and how can we recognize them in your clothing line?
I’m inspired by strong women of all kinds: mothers/single mothers, CEOs, bosses; just badass females that know what they’re about, own their shit and don’t let society’s norms of what it means to be a woman or ‘normal’ ideals of femininity run their life. My mother inspires me even though we’re polar opposites and most likely wouldn't wear my rather ‘daring’ pieces. However, she took on the role of mother and father in my life and is constantly evolving in her career and her story despite her age, race or gender. She’s much like me in that way.
The first ever collection was inspired by the Forty Elephants, who were a gang of strong badass females in the 19th century who would rob, steal, punch the opposition with diamond ring clustered fists, stuffed stolen fur jackets under their petticoats and reeked havoc on the streets of London whilst playing to their advantage between masculine and feminine roles. This for me is the perfect example of wild, slightly unhinged, complex yet fierce and fabulous woman.
Who are some (other) female idols of yours that you look up to?
I look up to many women that I grew up admiring such as, of course, those in my family, as well as my talented close friends like Rachel Foxx and Mowalola Ogulensi. I’m drawn to the female icons from my life such as Marie Antoinette, Lil Kim, Nicki Minaj, Fran Drescher and Maxine Waters.
In this photoshoot with Javier Ruiz you show different connotations of femininity. Can you explain a little in which directions you wanted to work here?
With this shoot I really just wanted to play on instinct. The model is one of my closest friends, confidants and muses, Ambre Halewood. So it was easy to get a certain mood and vibe from her without having to direct too much. I always like to play with masculinity and femininity contrasting and juxtaposing gender norms as well as exploring sexuality in my work. To me, Ambre is the perfect Fortie woman because she represents that modern day tomboy who represents my idea of beautiful, all woman. The set and vibe was kind of wild and rugged but the clothes are pretty – yet tough – so it all gelled together quite nicely.
Also, the location was meaningfully chosen. How did you guys come up with it?
To be honest, my friend Liam Aldous, who works for Monocle, suggested us to use this park. I don’t know much about it but I heard the revolutionary female mayor of Madrid was making it a point to revitalise the parks and social activities in Spain, so it made sense to us collectively.
The model wears a wig and in other pictures her real short hair. Some poses are very sexual and other’s more passive. What did you want to portray here?
I wanted to portray the duality of women and how there are so many sides that need to be explored and expressed. I wanted Ambre to wear the wig on and off in order to show that feminine versus tomboy look, and how it’s all one expression.
You told us that the model is not wearing makeup in any of the shots. Who decided to not use it and why?
Truthfully, the shoot was very impulsive so we didn’t think makeup was a necessity. Plus we wanted Ambre to relate to the nature surrounding her in an authentic way. Her face is so pure, anyway. She is the embodiment of the Fortie women.
Do you let your commercial pictures be retouched and edited, or is that something you completely reject?
That’s up to the photographer. I don’t mind as long as it’s true to the concept or the theme.
Would you say that getting a bold cut does something to a woman herself or the way she is seen by her surrounding? And have you ever had one?
I think a bold cut such as Ambre’s definitely changes a woman’s attitude, vibe and confidence as well as the way society views her. I have never shaved my hair, as black hair is so strong.
The models you and your label have worked with are very diverse. And we are hoping to see more of that. Do you think the industry is changing for the better in terms of accurate representation?
I think the industry is changing for the better but there’s, like all things, still so much work to be done – as most things with race and culture today. I see some of my friends such as Campbell Addy, a fellow person of colour in the fashion industry, who has set up his own modelling agency called Nii Agency, which is representing all kinds of beautiful women and men of colour challenging diversity. Or my friend Rhea Dillon, who casts many great shows with diverse models in her selections.
However, powerful black models such as Naomi Campbell, Jourdan Dunn and Leomie Anderson make a point to highlight the fact that there are still so many issues in the fashion industry regarding black women. Therefore, there are clearly strides that need to be taken.
Essie, on a personal level and in a wider context of today’s society, what does femininity mean to you?
Femininity to me means balance. The ability to be both. Women in society take on so many roles and I think the ability to be all things to all people is feminine, that’s sexy, and most of all powerful. I don’t think you have to wear floaty skirts and pretty dresses to be feminine anymore. I think the tomboy of today is famine, you can rock a tuxedo jacket with sky-high heels, or you can one day do masculine one day do feminine and still remain feminine.
Very colourful, shiny and well-shaped clothes are what you have presented so far. Is that what the brand's apparel is all about or are there other things in the cooking?
The brand is very much about innovative pattern cutting mixed with more mundane streetwear silhouettes. It’s all about the juxtaposition, I love to explore themes that clash and create a somewhat harmonious outcome, so we shall see. Stay tuned.
Would you ever consider doing a menswear collection?
I want to do menswear, it’s something that I’ve always wanted to explore. I have a lot of male friends that ask me to do a man line, so next season I’m definitely looking into it.
What projects that we can know of are you working on?
Just working on a new line and on some collaborative projects as well as a fashion film that I hope to release early next year.

Julius Pristauz
Javier Ruiz
Essie Buckman
Ambre Hazlewood
Liam Aldous
Styling assistant
Rocio Alvarez
Photographer assistant
Alejandro Cascallana

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