After founding their brand Namilia in 2015, Nan Li and Emilia Pfohl’s careers have skyrocketed. Their rebellious, straightforward and unapologetic style has captured everyone’s attention: from vulva sleeves to their (in)famous ‘dickinis’, the messages they send down the runway are loud and clear. “For us, clothing is not just an aesthetic tool but a visual platform to proclaim our beliefs, conflicts and dreams”, they tell us.
But if you’re thinking of plain t-shirts with tasteless (and useless) slogans, forget about them. Instead, think of over-the-top productions, a really inclusive and diverse model casting, in-your-face feminist messages, and manifestos for every collection (aptly titled as My Pussy My Choice, Join the Resistance or Feel the Heat, to mention a few). With that in mind, get to know Nan and Emilia, who talk about activism, belonging, provocation, and success.
Namilia Metalmagazine 26.jpg
Emilia, Nan, first things first: how and when did you two meet?
We met during our BA studies in Berlin in 2009 and have been studying and working together since then.
Working together means that you must have a very strong/intense relationship. Was that chemistry always present, or has it grown as time passed by?
We decided to work together on a project during the second year of our BA and somehow always had this idea in mind to start a brand after we finished school. I think both of us only wanted to start a company as a team, and definitely, the most important thing for us is to be able to rely on someone and build something together. We both have our own areas of responsibilities but we do go over everything together and make pretty much all the decisions together.
You’re both German and are now based in Berlin but studied fashion in London. Why did you feel the need to move, and how do you feel the British capital has influenced you both on a personal and on a professional level?
The BA program in Berlin was really fundamental for us as designers but we always felt that it was necessary for us to further develop our skills in London and attend a more prestigious program to be more professional and seen on a global level after graduation. The MA at the Royal College of Art was perfect as you had the freedom to express yourself completely as artists but were also very closely connected to the fashion industry.
“For us, clothing is not just an aesthetic tool but a visual platform to proclaim our beliefs, conflicts and dreams.”
In your website, you define yourselves as “rebels, provocateurs, destroyers of false perception”. Designing vulva sleeves and ‘dickinis’ is certainly unusual – at least, that’s not what we’re used to seeing in runway shows. But where does this rebellion, this desire to break moulds and social norms come from? Where you already rebellious in your teens, or have you become more activist as you’ve grown up?
For us, clothing is not just an aesthetic tool but a visual platform to proclaim our beliefs, conflicts and dreams. We always try to project that revolutionary spirit of youth cultures into each garment we design, and we also try to redefine, empower and celebrate a new form of fun and youthful femininity. We grew up in a time where it was really uncool to identify yourself with a group or movement, and it was all about pretending to be as ‘individual’ as possible, and finally, this is changing. People are finding new ways to demonstrate it. Instead of going onto the streets, you can speak up via Instagram, where selfies and posts become digital flags and banners.
As you say, all your clothes and collections are clear demonstrations of your values and philosophy: from the first one, My Pussy My Choice, to the latest, In Namilia’s Name We Pray – Awomen! The names are powerful, but even more so are the manifestos that go with each of them. Why do you feel the need to express through these texts in addition to clothing? What other layers or meanings do you feel these manifestos add to the collections?
We treat every collection as the birth of a tribe of Namilia warriors, a new sisterhood. We think a manifesto strengthens that character of belonging and togetherness. Also, for our fans and especially new customers, we feel that it’s important to understand that there is a true meaning behind the pieces we create and that you become part of our tribe and the values we stand for when you purchase your first Namilia piece.
Namilia Metalmagazine 27.jpg
Some people may think that your work is purely provocative, that you do what you do to grab media’s and people’s attention. I do believe you go beyond that, and that your messages are strong, legitimate, and real – you tackle topics like the fetishization of Asian women or reproductive rights. But how do you balance the shocking factor with deeper messages? How do you convey these more meaningful messages without being undermined by the spectacularism of your designs?
Provocation comes from the Latin word ‘provocatio’, which means, ‘to challenge’. We think that it’s a natural urge and responsibility of every creative or in general young person to question existing rules and expectations in order to evolve and to shape the future you will live in. Our head of fashion, Zowie Broach, once said to us that we have to be like the avant-garde; originated from the French military language referring to the vanguard – the troops that advance first on the battlefield and thus first have contact with the enemy. That was a really inspirational and motivating statement and that’s what we still try to do in our work as designers as well. Since our work is very inspired and referenced by pop culture, there will always be people who think it is attention-grabbing and spectacularism. But we feel that, historically, this has always been the case with pop art, which some people don’t understand.
There’s something that sets you apart from other brands ‘fighting’ for feminism: you did it at the right time, just before this ‘new wave’ exploded (so nobody can accuse you of taking advantage of that), and you do it for real. You just have to look at your designs, which go beyond the ‘t-shirts with slogans’ trend (actually, usually made by women working and living in poor conditions). But what would you say makes you different from other brands (feminist or not, young or not)?
We think that the biggest difference is, as you said, that we are not using feminism as a pop movement to make money from it even if it doesn’t have anything to do with your ethos as a company. For us, redefining feminism and starting a conversation about the meaning of female empowerment is the core and driving force of our design identity. It has been like this since the beginning of our studies (almost nine years ago), when feminism was definitely not a mass cultural movement yet. But, of course, we think nonetheless that it’s a great time that the topic is being paid more attention to right now as there are still so many steps to be taken on this road.
Namilia is very young – you founded it in 2015 –, but you’re already in the spotlight. What would you say has been the top highlight of the brand so far?
Everything started when we won the VFiles runway award in 2015, and one thing triggered the next. We started to work with Kelly Cutrone, who has been a huge mentor for us and made it possible for us to have our own on-schedule shows during New York Fashion Week, which would be impossible for us to achieve at such a young stage.
“We think that it’s a natural urge and responsibility of every creative or in general young person to question existing rules and expectations in order to evolve and to shape the future you will live in.”
Even though celebrities like Rihanna and Cardi B have worn your designs, it’s clear that your clothing is not everyone’s cup of tea. As a young, alternative brand, what are the most important challenges you face?
It's definitely to be a hundred per cent confident about your message as a designer but then to be really flexible and fluid in your thought process on how to translate these ideas into the real world and to make sure that people understand your approach. Always question your relevance and be innovative artistically but also as a business person. In school, you get taught this very specific, sometimes old-fashioned idea of how to approach building a fashion business, and our biggest challenge has been to break out of that mould and find our own pathways that make sense for us personally.
Do you have any projects in the pipelines? In addition to working on your next collection, are there any other projects we should be aware of?
2019 will be a big year for us. The company is growing very fast and we really want to take the time to work on financial and business structures within the company to be able to keep up with demand. It’s still too early to talk about projects in detail but there will definitely be lots of news from us these coming twelve months.
Namilia Metalmagazine 2.jpg
Namilia Metalmagazine 3.jpg
Namilia Metalmagazine 4.jpg
Namilia Metalmagazine 5.jpg
Namilia Metalmagazine 6.jpg
Namilia Metalmagazine 7.jpg
Namilia Metalmagazine 8.jpg
Namilia Metalmagazine 9.jpg
Namilia Metalmagazine 11.jpg
Namilia Metalmagazine 12.jpg
Namilia Metalmagazine 10.jpg
Namilia Metalmagazine 13.jpg
Namilia Metalmagazine 14.jpg
Namilia Metalmagazine 15.jpg
Namilia Metalmagazine 16.jpg
Namilia Metalmagazine 17.jpg
Namilia Metalmagazine 18.jpg
Namilia Metalmagazine 19.jpg
Namilia Metalmagazine 20.jpg
Namilia Metalmagazine 21.jpg
Namilia Metalmagazine 22.jpg
Namilia Metalmagazine 23.jpg
Namilia Metalmagazine 24.jpg
Namilia Metalmagazine 25.jpg