Fashion designer Abdul Koroma was born and raised in Freetown Sierra Leone and educated in London. Koroma is co-owner of the London-based fashion house and design consultancy Modernist. The brand, which has shown its collection at London’s Fashion Week, is know for it’s clean lines and precise tailoring.
This interview was submitted by Tiana Evans, a frequent submitter to this blog.
Tiana Webb Evans: What was it like growing in up in Sierra Leone?
Abdul Koroma: I had a privileged childhood. My Dad managed the oil refinery and my mother was a midwife. I remember spending Saturday mornings at the refinery playing in the boardroom and the typing pool. Sending Telex messages! After school I’d either go to my Grandmother’s or to the hospital with my younger sister, running around empty wards playing ‘doctor and nurse’.
I was a quiet child and preferred reading or writing stories to sport. I was also obsessed with Legos. I remember there being a huge coffee table in the playroom and I used to build cities. At the time I wanted to be either a pilot or an architect.
Freetown is on a peninsula so we’d spend weekends at the beach or the Aqua Club with friends from school, having adventures in the marina. I have nothing but fun memories.
TWE:How was art and design present in your life as a child? (I read about your grandmother can you tell me more about her work).
AK: My grandmother was one scary woman! She was quite dark and originally came from North Africa. She had this deep, booming voice and was never afraid to speak her mind. She was a tie-die expert. What she did bore no resemblance to tacky 70’s flares. They were incredibly intricate in their design and came in all sorts of jewel-like tones. They were more works of art, really.
TWE: When did you decide to become a designer?
AK: It’s funny, I went through a phase of sketching dresses as a child but it never occurred to me that I wanted to be a fashion designer. The concept didn’t really exist as it does now. I remember Naomi Campbell’s first shoot for British Vogue. She was so beautiful. My awareness of fashion really started then but it wasn’t till I went to art school in London that I knew that this was what I really wanted to do.
TWE: What originally attracted you to architecture? Why did you switch to fashion?
AK: I’ve always like structure and plans. The two fields are closely linked but fashion is more emotional and spontaneous. You have an idea, you try it out, you see the results. Architecture proved to be too hypothetical. Most buildings never get built and when they do it can take years for them to be completed.
I guess I’m too impatient! I need instant gratification. Having said that, fashion’s moving too fast now, eating itself from the inside.
TWE: Describe your aesthetic.
AK: One of my tutors at university said it best: “You work is apparently simple until you take a closer look and realize that it isn’t what you thought it was.” I like things to look effortless. For me I like the juxtaposition of the womanly against the masculine. Tailored classics revisited contrasted against the apparent simplicity of draping that skims the body. I hate tight and clingy. Or cliche elegance. I like it when things are slightly skewed. Imperfect.
TWE: There is a historical relationship between modernist and African design, especially when it comes to patterns/textile design. How does this relationship inform your design?
AK: To be honest I’m too close to the mirror to really see the reflection. I’m more drawn towards a Japanese aesthetic – early Rei Kawakubo or Yohji, the Belgian Martin Margiela and the German, Helmut Lang. I prefer darker colours – greys, black, blues. Utilitarian. It’s more about texture or tones of one colour. I’m not a big fan of pattern – it has to be discreet or abstract, say like a Han Hartung sketch or the Rothko Seagram Murals.
I see myself as a designer first. I’m sure there’s an influence in my love of geometric cutting techniques and draping but there really isn’t anything ethnic about what I do. I once did a collection based tribal costume but the idea was to do a resort collection set in a disused factory. Atypical. It’s about taking things out of context.
TWE: I read that your graduation collection was inspired by mathematics can you tell us about how that relationship expressed it itself in the clothing?
AK: My portfolio had 5 collections in it. Each one was inspired by a mathematical symbol: -, =,≠, x. The catwalk collection was inspired by ” +” and it was basically about combining all the other four collections. I studied math and science before going to art school so I’ve always thought in a mathematical way. I like the way a flat form can change when worn. It gives you constraints to work against. There’s a certain logic to it.
TWE: Modernist is known for it’s clothing. Does your studio design anything else?
AK: We’ve designed cushions woven out of bands of elastic, head pieces, faux wigs made out of ribbon… Our clothes tend to be quite refined so we have fun with the accessories. We like subverting glamour and sexiness. We’ve done well with our gloves, especially the opera-biker glove that was used in a M.A.C. campaign.
TWE: From whom do you draw your inspiration?
AK: There isn’t one person in particular. For me it’s more about an attitude or personality rather than a specific person. I take a lot of photographs and this forms the core of my research. It allows you to took at things from a different perspective. Whenever I find a vintage garment I like I turn it inside out so my take on it will never be literal.
TWE: Who are your style icons?
AK: Charlotte Rampling, Marianne Faithful, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Leslie Feist – bad girls, really!
TWE: If you didn’t live in London, where would you live? Why?
AK: Paris or New York. Paris because I absolutely adore it. New York because its energy is very similar to that of London but more distilled.
TWE: What companies do you envision Modernist collaborating with in the future?
AK: Who knows?! The projects we’ve worked on recently are ones we never thought we could do. We like to challenge ourselves, get out of our comfort zones.
TWE: What does your studio currently have in the works?
AK: There are some interesting things coming soon. Watch this space!