As a little kid, Amsterdam-based fashion designer Bodil Ouédraogo enjoyed creating new spaces, a new world, which resulted in DIY dollhouses, for example. Later on, she understood the power of fashion, which she refers to as “the art of dressing up,” to create those spaces. Today, after graduating from the Rietveld Academie in 2019 and working in various projects where fashion meets art, she’s still creating spaces where freedom and her personal vision are front and centre.
Last week, Ouédraogo presented her project Porte de la Richesse during Amsterdam Fashion Week, an emotional and political performance piece celebrating Black identities and calling out institutional racism and white privilege. “Black people have been calling out racism for generations. We shouted it in the streets. We put it in our writing. We put it in our music, in our movies, in our shows. We put it on stages. In your institution. And you danced, you laughed, you clapped. But you never heard,” the voiceover said at the beginning of the performance.

Born to a Dutch mother and Burkinabé father, Ouédraogo’s mixed heritage has always played an important role in her life and work. “I think I always felt an urge to represent myself as someone from the African diaspora,” she says. And after these past months, which she defines as “traumatic, exhausting and extremely tiring,” even more. Today we speak with her about identity, fashion, how in-depth research informs all her projects and how is she navigating these turbulent times.
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Bodil, you graduated in Fashion Design from the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam last year. But how did you first get interested in fashion? Were you a creative child?
I think I was a creative child, yes. But no, I didn’t focus on any specific practice; I enjoyed creating new spaces, a new world. I loved making my own dollhouses, for example. I think fell in love with fashion when I started to understand that I could create those spaces through the art of dressing up.
As you were a student and graduated recently, I guess you still approach fashion design from a more artistic and creative point of view rather than ‘practical’ and economic. Are you afraid that, in the future, you may have to compromise part of your artistic freedom in favour of sales? How are you navigating the working world as a post-graduate?
No, I’m not afraid. It can be hard to find the right balance in both commissioned and personal work. For my practice, I find it important to do in-depth research, which may not immediately result in commercial opportunities, although until now, these works have gotten me to other more commercial works.
I think it’s more about the balance you have to find for yourself. In my case, I don’t see my work in fashion as just creating a collection, but rather I think of all the outcomes possible after doing my research. At the moment, I’m working on a film dance performance about a specific garment for fashion week, so this work won’t be commercial.
You’re based in Amsterdam, a richly cultural city. As it’s not one of the four main fashion capitals, we find brands that are more artsy or more alternative in my opinion – from Ninamounah to Hardeman (Sophie Hardeman studied at the Rietveld Academie like you), to Reconstruct Collective, Das Leben am Haverkamp or emerging designer Mai-Gidah. How would you say the city and its people influence your approach to fashion design and creativity? 
My surroundings have definitely influenced my practice. Precisely the way I place and connect myself and my identity in relation to the city and what happens here.
“My work is informed by the connections I find after thoroughly examining different cultural aspects that on first glance seem to be far apart. What drives me is finding a way in which they can complement each other so as to create unfamiliar styles,” you say. How do you translate thorough research and personal introspection into clothes that other people wear?
Well, my work progress is informed by these methods of thorough examination of different cultural aspects that at first sight seem far apart, but I don’t necessarily see this in what other people wear on a daily basis. Sometimes I do see people’s style, their appearance, in a way that is very cross-cultural and shows creativity in mixing their background in relation to the place they are in now.
Part of this research is about your origins and identity. Born to a Dutch mother and Burkinabé father, how was your upbringing like? Did your father teach you about Burkina Faso’s culture as a child, or do you believe you’ve grown more ‘Westernized’ and now feel like you need to reconnect with your African roots?
I think my father definitely taught me through his norms and values. I did go to a white primary school, a white high school and a super white art academy – I think in the Netherlands, all art academies are super white. But I think I always felt an urge to represent myself as someone from the African diaspora – not through the eyes of the white society I live in but through our ways, our eyes and my connections. That is the biggest challenge.
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You’ve teamed up with photographer Laila Cohen and model Tyvanni Osaheni to present your collection; both of them come from a bicultural background like you. How has it been to work with two other women who share common personal experiences? Do you feel they could understand your work better than other people?
For sure. I even think it’s necessary in order to create something interesting and honest. I always try to work with a team whose members understand each other on such level. Otherwise, the collaboration won’t be easy or successful. Also, there are more than enough people in the field who can understand you. Perhaps you have to search harder sometimes, but then that is what it takes.
I think the only time I didn’t work with such type of team was during my studies when I had to work with a teacher who didn’t understand it at all – this was mostly when studying fashion design at ArtEz, and way less during my studies at Rietveld.
These past months, various countries and societies have been discussing racism, colonialism, and white supremacy. How have you been living these past months personally?
It has been traumatic, exhausting and extremely tiring.
As Covid-19 has changed the world forever, what challenges are you facing as a young creative right now? What are your future plans?
I am planning to go back to West Africa again, which is gonna be difficult and probably postponed. Besides that, there is always enough to do here.
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