Don’t pine for the past; fashion is built on the brilliant dreams of what comes next. When gazing into your crystal ball, how do you envision fashion’s futurescape? Will we attend fashion shows in hovercars whilst clad in Apple’s latest "smart jewellery”? Will our clothing contain self-cleaning sensors that keep our whites looking as bright as the stars of tomorrow? Will our waist trainers do more than keep our figures looking snatched? What if they spoke and told you how on fleek you were? For fashion darling Bobby Kolade, front man of his supersonic, supersaturated and totally standout brand, the future of fashion exists not in the ethereal but in something earthier. It has a canon of upstart fashion designers. It has an impressive supply of materials. There’s a fresh flush of fashion weeks. Africa. Fashion’s hottest centre. After the release of his anti-gender, anti-fashion calendar showcase Spring/Winter 2019/2025, we went to visit our favourite prince of prints in his busy Berlin studio to talk Grace Jones, Grace Wales Bonner and Bowie. With ambitions, curly blonde locks and a smile as sweet as pink lemonade, get to know the one and only Bobby Kolade.
Your manifesto is “curiosity instead of fear… disbelief in definition… and pride in imperfection.” What does this mean exactly?
That was what I was trying to say in regards to our current collection. I was referring to a particular type of person, the BK person who is spontaneous and curious and isn’t interested in perfection.
I understand that you interned at Balenciaga and Margiela in Paris. Why did you not start your business in France?
I went to Paris when I took two years out from studying at university in Berlin, before I graduated. I was bored with doing the same things over and over again at school – it is located in the deep North East and there is absolutely nothing happening there. I felt that I was losing touch with what was happening in the world. Having spent time at Balenciaga and Margiela, I realised that I wanted to complete my course after all, and launched the brand with my graduation collection. So it’s something that just happened organically – it wasn’t very planned.
In fashion, Paris is known as the city of haute couture devotees, and also for taking a longer while for things to catch on. Your silhouettes involve baggy sweatshirts and oversized jackets. Do you feel that your designs fit in with the reigning Parisian shapes?
I was determined to work at Balenciaga and Margiela: I had big ambitions of learning from them. Margiela was about concepts and the Margiela attitude; there was always this prevailing frame of mind. I spent most of the time cutting up vintage jackets and drinking wine. At Balenciaga it was the technicalities; nothing is impossible, every fabric can be worked into any shape. It’s crazy, that atelier is killer. I don’t know if our shapes are trendy or if they fit in with what’s happening in Paris, I don’t really consider this while working on the collection. Presenting in Paris in the future? Yes, perhaps, but we’ll continue producing in Germany and working in Berlin.
We use the phrases ‘bubble-up’ and ‘trickle-down’ effects in fashion to explain theoretically the flow of stylistic influence in a given hierarchical society. Your brand is included in the new wave of designers incorporating specifically urban locations for fashion exhibition. Does this bare any relevance to the dramatic shifts we are seeing in urban landscapes today?
If anything, it’s an anti-attitude towards gentrification. We like showing at spaces that are somehow still authentic to the Berlin we know. The fashion industry is huge, and you want to be different and to create a different experience. The show format is not new; it’s so obvious, so the location can make the experience different. Especially in a city like Berlin; which is quite a virgin when it comes to fashion weeks. It’s a location heaven for shows or presentations.
Can one still define fashion, then, in terms of “high fashion” and “underground culture”?
It’s hard to define high fashion or underground culture. How can underground culture survive in today’s Instagram-paced world? And the term high fashion sounds a bit out-dated, so is there low-fashion and middle-fashion? There’s also contemporary, young, diffusion… And who does decide, anyway?
Why did you title your showcase Spring/Winter 2019/2025?
It’s obviously AW16, but the title of the collection is Spring/Winter 2019/2025. This happened completely spontaneously; we had to fill out a form for Fashion Week and they asked us for a title. I completely forgot what season we were working on. We’re currently finishing the production for the summer collection, selling the previous collection, and maintaining social media for both collections. I keep getting newsletters from stores about summer collections that are available in January 2016. So the title is a comment on the delivery cycle; do seasons actually matter? Is it not just a matter of sales? I ask myself: does the average consumer actually know what season they are buying?
You don’t tend to think about it consciously. You go in a store, and if you like it then you buy it…
Exactly. So that made me think about whether there was a point to complying with the seasons if summer clothes are ready to purchase in January. It’s just confusing.
I noticed that you always incorporate something reflective into each collection: tinsel disco pants or foil shoes. Happy Shop even installed some disco balls for your showcase this season. Are there specific references in disco that influence your work?
Everyone at the studio worships Grace Jones, so there’s definitely something there. It’s also interesting to work with different surfaces; it’s a welcoming contrast. It’s nice to juxtapose hand-woven and unbleached cotton from Ethiopia with something reflective. You need depth in a collection.
What music did your parents listen to when you were growing up?
I have no idea; we didn’t listen to their music, we listened to our own.
Bowie famously said: “The tension (in Berlin) is terrific, and it forced me to re-evaluate my position in any given society.” Although the wall has been knocked down, do you believe that there is still a tension in Berlin? Do any of these tensions play out in your work?
I feel like Berlin is more conservative than it was back then. I’ve lived in and out of Berlin for 10 years now, I’m really afraid of where things are going. I want Berlin to grow and change, but I don’t want it to lose its freedom, spontaneity and fun. There’s a surprisingly young new wave of ‘Spießer’ growing. The people we deal with in our every day lives play a big role in the design process, whether it’s my friends or people in the clubs. There is a theory that many designers have to be extremely pro-something or anti-something to create strong collections. For example, if you live in a part of Berlin that isn’t particularly known for its very inspirationally dressed population, then it can trigger something in you to go against their look or provoke them by exaggerating their look.
Bowie also commented that: “I had to get to an environment that was totally different… So I thought of the most arduous city I could think of. And it was West Berlin.” What would you say the spirit is like in Berlin right now?
I don’t think it’s arduous, if anything it’s too slow and unambitious. It can be very grey but it’s the easiest place to live right now. It doesn’t have the pace that London does; it doesn’t have the crampedness and attitude of Paris. It’s very relaxed.
I saw you wearing a tee on your Instagram reading: Africa is the future. In what ways is Africa the future?
We were recently in Lagos and the energy there is infectious. Something is growing and you can tell it will be strong. There’s now Nigeria fashion week, Lagos fashion week, West Africa fashion week, Kampala fashion week… You’ve got cotton weavers, production facilities and an industry growing in Ethiopia. Something is happening.
We have seen designers using their fashion practice to respond to Africa’s visuality, such as Grace Wales Bonner. Do you think that Africa is getting the recognition it deserves in the European fashion scene?
We still have a long way to go. I love Grace Wales Bonner’s work, but it’s not about designers like her or me, who are partly African, sourcing inspiration and fabrics from there. It’s also not a European issue, it’s an African issue; how do Ugandans want to dress? What do people in Cairo buy? What do African designers want to bring to the conversation? Do they even need the recognition in a European scene? How can they help shape an industry?
I saw that you introduced some menswear pieces. Will this continue into your future collections?
The menswear jumper we released was a special piece, not from the current collection, but there are so many pieces in the new collection that look just as good on boys. If a boy feels like wearing BK then please, be my guest. I also think it’s interesting that you have a separate menswear fashion week and women’s fashion week, and that they are very alienated from each other. Does that mean that women and men buy at different times? Again, it’s very confusing.
Unisex clothing is obviously not a new concept. Do you believe that genderless fashion could ever become a reality, instead of something we see on the runway and celebrity campaigns?
Yes and no. Yes because it comes hand in hand with an open-minded, prejudice-free attitude. But anyone who doesn’t only make oversized stretchy clothes will tell you how challenging it is to get the fit right with certain pieces, so not everything can be generally unisex, it depends on the body you’re dressing.
But do you think it could become mainstream?
The bigger question is: what exactly is unisex clothing? Is Prince’s wardrobe unisex? Or is unisex dressing a queer thing? Is it drag? Is unisex men wearing women’s clothes or vice versa? In any case I don’t think it should become mainstream because it’s something special and being mainstream will destroy it.