A garment tells us so much about a person, society, history and culture. Everyone has a relationship with clothing, one way or another. A piece of clothing comes as close to the skin as possible, and thus can carry our personal stories and our identities. It can transport us to places we never imagined, can express ourselves into a multitude of infinite possibilities, while still moving around in the real world – connecting to our daily lives, concerns and questions. This duality between fantasy and reality, is what most fascinates Amsterdam-based Lisa Konno, a fashion designer who breaks all the traditional structures of fashion. Her work, like the clothing in our world, travels freely into different realms, from documentary, ceramics, to performance and much more. For her fashion is a way to speak to the imagination, open-up a conversation, creating connecting and telling stories.
In our globalised world, our identities and cultures are in constant flux, fusing with different places, people and colours. Along the way, we find new references to expand our stories. The documentaries Nobu and Baba, made in collaboration with filmmaker Sarah Blok, are stylised portraits about immigrant fathers in the Netherlands. Drawing from her own Dutch-Japanese background, Lisa explores cultural identity, belonging and what it means to integrate into a country. The collection that Lisa created for the film Nobu is inspired by both Japanese and Dutch cultures, and for the film Baba, she was inspired by Turkish and Dutch backgrounds. These portraits show a deeply personal and multi-sided views on migration, purposefully magnifying stereotypes and clichés.

Today, we talk to Lisa on a sun-drenched terrace in Barcelona about cultural differences, fathers and daughters, the craft of good collaboration, finding your own voice, and the importance of telling new narratives to create space for lightness, beauty, optimism and humour.
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I’m so glad that we are meeting each other today. How are you doing in these strange times?
I’m doing well! There have been challenging moments for sure in the past year. Lots of exhibitions and events have been cancelled, which has also created some financial difficulties. But now things are getting back on track.
I discovered that I’m way more patient than a few years ago. In the past, I would have gotten more stressed about this insecurity, nowadays, I have a different mentality. I’m happy that my practise is stable enough to sustain a difficult time like this. I think if you're a recent graduate it will be more impactful. Also, an advantage is that my work is interdisciplinary, the projects and outcomes are always different – sometimes they are a collection, a movie or an exhibition. I’m not dependent on only fashion shows, I can adapt more easily to what’s possible.
What I find interesting about your work is your ability to develop yourself from a background in fashion to an artist in many different ways – documentary, ceramics, performance etc. Your work has stepped out of the structures of fashion and has become something very interdisciplinary, like you've just said. How did this process come about?
Indeed, it has been a process. I studied fashion design at Artez in Arnhem, the Netherlands. Here I received a very classical training to become a designer. After a few years of studying, I thought, I don't know if I want to be part of the fashion industry. Ethically, it didn’t sit right with me; the fast-pace of the industry, the impact on the environment and the bad working conditions. In hindsight, I’m really glad that I studied fashion design because I've learned a skill. I know how to make clothes, draw patterns and knit. I decided to continue with fashion, on the condition that when I work for myself, I would approach things differently – with a consciousness to sustainability, recycling, and to raise awareness to the subjects that I think are important to show in the industry.
At the beginning, my work was still very much connected to the fashion system. Even though I didn’t produce on a big scale, I still participated on Amsterdam Fashion Week and worked within a more traditional structure. That’s different now. When I started making the collection about my father, Nobu, which was about migration and cultural identity, I was like, can I do that? I was suddenly doing something else, different from the practise that I was growing.
Now I’m really glad I went into a different direction with my practise, because I have much more freedom in my expression. The audience also moves along with this change, they accept it from you and expect it, you are in control of what that expectation is. 3 years after graduating, I broadened and explored my work further. When I worked with film for the first time, I could see the potential in the medium, my work became freer and more extreme. Fashion always stays the central aspect, even though I work more as an artist than a designer. It’s always connected to clothes and textiles.
Would you call yourself an artist rather than a fashion designer?
I’m not sure.
Maybe you don't need to label yourself either.
I find it difficult. Sometimes people call me an artist, sometimes a fashion designer; of course, I am both. It's funny, the expectation changes with what you call yourself. You have more freedom when you call yourself an artist because the expectation is that people will look at your work in a different way.
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At art school, you are pushed to call yourself something, I've always had trouble with that. I think you can be many things and there’s a strength to that, to get to know yourself in different ways.
Yes, but I think my practise will always be related to fashion, even if it’s in an indirect way. That still gives me some kind of structure, even if it can be very broad. As long as there is some kind of form of humanity, body, or textile in it – it can be anything.
It’s such an advantage that you have these skills, because it gives you freedom to explore many things.
Absolutely, it’s necessary to have some central stable basis that you have mastered, from there you can pivot and detour. When I collaborate with for example with a filmmaker, we both have our expertise, this way we can complement each other.
Through clothing and aesthetics, you make us think about issues that we are all connected to as human beings. The clothing becomes a carrier to tell a story, and unlike fashion – it is timeless. When did you discover that you wanted to touch deeper layers with your work?
It comes from my passion for clothes and fashion design. Why do I do this? Because it gives me a sense of purpose. If you don't want to put more products on the market, then it is for that reason that all other art forms appeal to you. That it can speak to the imagination, tell a story and create connection.
What do you think is the value of textiles as an artistic medium to tell stories?
The strength of fashion is at the same time its weakness. Because you can look at fashion with a practical eye, like ‘I would never wear that coat.' At the same time, the added value of textiles are more applied and more accessible, because it is close to the skin, literally. A painting is less accessible, on the wall it stays more in the realm of art. Fashion is clothing, and clothing moves around in the world. It relates more to reality, but at the same time is also lives in a dream world. Whereas a painting only relates to that dream world.
Your films Nobu and Baba are portraits of immigrant fathers in the Netherlands. Your own Japanese father is the subject of the film Nobu. In the films, together with director Sarah Blok, you investigate what it means to leave your native country behind and create a home in a new place, and to integrate well there. How has your perception of cultural identity changed through this research?
It has become more personal. On the one hand, you see a lot of overlap. It doesn't matter so much what culture someone comes from. The mere fact of moving to another country has a very unifying effect and also brings the same struggles and characteristics. Even though it's different for everyone, one group has a harder experience than the other. But there are still many similarities because of the displacement.
Mainly, I started looking at cultural identity in a different way. As cultural identity is so personal; for some people it's really significant to them, for other people it is less important. It is a kind of puzzle, a collection of someone's life. The manifestations of this are very different and personal to each person: for one it is the food, for another the clothes or the language.
Do you think you always maintain an outsider's position when you settle in a new place?
Yes, I think so. No matter how 'integrated' you are, you always maintain an outsider's position in the sense that even if you're not seen that way, you can't get rid of the fact that you look at that culture from a different perspective. If you have not grown up in that culture, then it is not natural for you. No matter how much you have become accustomed to it or how much you have adapted to it, it is always different from being born somewhere and growing up in that country.
How has the Nobu project impacted your relationship with your father? Did you get to know your father in a different way? Did the project strengthen your relationship?
I started asking my father questions that I would not have asked at the kitchen table. Director Sarah Blok was also there, and she looks at things from a different perspective. We have been good friends for 15 years, and she knows my father very well. But of course, she has a more distant view on things. We had prepared the questions together, and we were going to present them in front of the camera, without my father knowing about the questions. It definitely created a different impact than a normal conversation, but it didn't really change the relationship with my father.
The film highlights it slightly differently and it also shows me that the obstacle of language is not that important. This also translates very well to people who watch the film: a small discrepancy between a child who is completely immersed in that culture and the father, who is less so, that that is a thing but doesn't have to be a problem. Their relationship is still loving and it goes beyond language.
Baba in particular has a strong poetic character. It made me think about what it means to leave your country behind and start again. The meaning of the old life as opposed to the new life; the faces, the colours, the smells of remembrance. What do you think is the power of remembering and passing on the past? Also in relation to the next generations living in that new country?
Baba's daughter, Serin, says in the film that her father's old life always feels like a fairy tale. Her father's childhood is unknown to her, so then recounting those memories can feel very fairy-tale like – the magic of an unknown land. Baba is also a bit more melancholic, he reflects and looks back more. Nobu is lighter, my father had less of a tendency to look back, he has the attitude of ‘that's just how things turned out.’ Baba has that much more in the way he talks about his life and memories, that's also a cultural thing. Turkish culture is more poetic, also he is a musician so he shows more emotions and feelings. Japanese culture is the opposite, it’s much more about suppressing feelings… They are very different in that respect, which is also reflected in the choices we have made in the film.
That makes it very interesting that they are so different.
Yes, exactly! Nobu has a different tone, it'smore light-hearted and funny. The collection is also lighter, brighter in colour. Baba is heavier, more melancholic, more poetic. Which is also evident in the choices of colour and form – it's more vague, as well as the way of filming.
That scene in Baba in front of the canvas with the print of the family in Turkey really touched me. Baba, his daughter and grandson are standing in front of the canvas – the three generations together. It's very beautiful how the contrast between the old and the new life was so visible. How the past is passed on to the next generations. I read that there will also be a third father story in the trilogy? Is there already more clarity on this?
We are working on that now. We have started a more extensive research process and are talking to many fathers and daughters. It's really nice to go into people's homes and get to know those fathers, to go through family photo albums and to really get to know that person. This third film is going to be longer, for television, so it will be nice to work with a different format. It will probably take a long time, because with the pandemic, everything is much more delayed. 
Are you specifically searching for a different kind of story and culture?
Yes, we would like to make a storyline about one of the former Dutch colonies for example Suriname or the Dutch Antilles, as that relationship is interesting. But we have also spoken to fathers from Eritrea and Rwanda. Also mainly to show the diversity of the different cultures living in the Netherlands.
That connection to colonisation seems fascinating to me because the link with the Netherlands was always there. It’s interesting to learn more about that perception and how it changes.
Yes, exactly.
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It was so beautiful to me when Baba tells his daughter that life is not black and white, and that he wants to see all the colours in life. To me, this says a lot about the richness of identities, of colours, that we all carry within ourselves. People often have a singular image of someone, while in reality we are all made up of a plurality of stories and backgrounds. What is the danger you think, of a singular story?
The danger of a single story is that you start to generalise very quickly, which has a polarising effect and creates prejudices. The reason to show the multiplicity of colours a person possesses, is the reason why Sarah and I wanted to do this project in the first place. We didn’t wanted to paint a generalised picture of ‘the migrant,’ like an umbrella-term, as if it’s one type of person.
We wanted to show different people, who have so many colours, rich stories and reasons ‘why’ someone is here and how integration is so deeply personal. Maybe one person is highly 'integrated' but doesn’t speak the language, or another does speak the language but belongs to a subgroup and is not 'integrated' at all in other ways. This diversity, is much richer than you often see. We wanted to show that through very personal portraits. Otherwise you start talking about people’s lives with distance and you create a black and white, one-sided image.
I also think that by focusing on something specific, it touches something universal. People can recognise themselves in a person, in a story.
Indeed, often when you make something very personal, you can see the common ground between people. If you talk about the 'Japanese migrant,' you think, I have nothing to do with that, why is that interesting for me? If you make it very personal, you recognise yourself or your own father in that person.
From the checkered shopping bag in Baba to the pink Dutch raincoat/kimono in Nobu, I think it’s an interesting paradox how, through the clothing, you enlarge stereotypical symbols and cultural differences and clichés, and, at the same time, you raise consciousness for new narratives. What do you think is the power of art to tell new stories and show other perspectives?
In my opinion, you can use those clichés precisely because that very often increases the awareness of them. For example, that Baba is purposefully dressed in a Turkish carpet, makes us think of Orientalism. But at the same time, Baba comments on the fact that he’s wearing this carpet. It creates a consciousness and it also becomes a bit of a joke when you magnify those clichés. There are many nuances in art, about how to approach a subject. Instead of approaching the subject with figures and facts about migration, sustainability, etc., (we have been beaten to death with those), we want to show a different perspective.
I find it very interesting how your films are a mix between documentary and fiction/fantasy, and at the same time fashion films. They are stylised portraits with depth – where there is room for beauty, lightness, humour and optimism. This sensitivity sketches a multifaceted portrait of a person, full of colour and life – that goes beyond just a migrant story. What is the power of colour and optimism to tell a story about someone that on the other hand could have been heavy? What is the strength of fantasy?
Fantasy pulls a viewer into a story. It excites the viewer and goes beyond mere information. A fashion film is often purely about aesthetics. On the other hand, in documentaries aesthetics are sometimes avoided, it is seen as a trick. I think there is a lot to be gained in the middle. When you add fantasy to a documentary, it can stimulate the imagination. Sometimes in a documentary, something is not said but as the viewer, you feel that something is going on. Or someone can say one thing but means something else. Art and styling can be a way of bringing something to the surface without literally having to tell it.
For example, in the film Baba, Baba stands in front of a huge pile of tax letters. Baba can tell us that he has completely succeeded in life, but we know that he sometimes ignores the fact that the has problems, like money issues, with which his children have to help him and take care of him. This is a way of saying something with a wink, and letting him react to it. In my opinion, this works better than pushing something on someone. Things that are not said are still being made clear to the viewer, in a more poetic and indirect way.
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Yes, an image can be aesthetic and have a strong content. 
You really feel it when aesthetics are grounded in content. When the image is visually strong, it only adds more value. But you also feel it when the content is added later and the aesthetics are only based on what is beautiful. I also notice this with the development of the third film.
Sometimes a producer asks if I can make sketches for the collection beforehand. But I have to be very strict about that and say no. For me, it is necessary to first do the research, to get to know the person. Only then can I start on what those visual expressions could be, because they have to fit with the person’s life story. I cannot make a collection about Suriname and add the person to it later. The power is to let it grow from the person, from the research. It is also much more surprising that you need that to be able to do something. It creates a framework, that goes beyond what is beautiful.
Goodwill Dumping is a confronting documentary in which we are forced to face the facts and consequences of our bizarre textile trail. In a science fiction-like way, textile creatures reappear from the mountains of textile waste in Africa. In what way do these kinds of textile metaphors inspire you? And how can such a metaphor be a catalyst to tell a story?
I read articles about that trace of the textile industry, and it seemed very interesting to make a documentary about it. This is so clearly a story about the clothing industry, and there are many documentaries about that, but not in which the clothing itself tells the story. That seemed to me the added value, coming in from a different angle. The metaphor of those monsters that come to life, they show us what we have created – an alien-like world that we don’t even know about.
So much happens outside our reality that we are not conscious of.
Yes, exactly, I also wanted to make a film about the negative sides of the industry but also to create a place for the beauty and imaginative nature of these clothes and how they can be an expression of a fantasy.
You made Nobu and Baba in collaboration with Sarah Blok and Goodwill Dumping with Teddy Cherim. What do you think is the power of a good collaboration?
A good collaboration is about sharing responsibilities and being complementarity to each other. It’s important to have the same purpose when you work on a project together, to know why you are working on it. It’s also very much about trust, and seeing the added value of each other’s work. It’s important to have the space to be able to give each other feedback, to feel like you can give criticism. But at the same time feeling free to express yourself in your part. If these elements are clear, then you can only empower and help each other.
With Sarah we have known each other for so long, that we have a blind trust. If I don’t agree on something, then I can just talk about it with Sarah. It is difficult to find a good cooperation. If it doesn't work, it can be very intense and can completely drain you. But good cooperation can bring a lot! It can bring forth an interaction, an exchange of ideas. One person has an idea, then the other person has an idea. This way you add value to each other.
It’s not about measuring each other’s tasks, it’s best when the work-flow is more fluent. It’s also great to not be alone all the time. When there is success, you celebrate together and in the less pleasant or frustrating moments you can support each other. You understand each other, because you’re in the process together.
How do you see this kind of collaborative projects grow in the future? Do you need the balance with solitude and your own projects?
Yes, I definitely need both. In addition to the collaborative projects, I have my own projects that I work on. It’s nice to have full control and not be dependent on all these external factors. The disadvantage of working together is that you have less autonomy. There are many people involved in making a film for example, it takes a lot of time. The balance between the collaborative and my personal projects is important and I really like it this way. When a collaborative project comes to a standstill, I can continue with my own projects. Then you don't stand still and you're not so dependent.
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