Get to know the unisex fashion brand centred around inclusivity, diversity and social responsibility.
“Fashion is becoming more democratic,” designer Tolu Coker tells HUNGER. “The future of fashion is whatever each individual makes it for themselves.” Tolu’s eponymous brand aims to showcase her identity throughout her work by embracing dual heritage and cultures; reconstructing the black identity within the western world by adding personal prints, embellishments and personal old polaroid photos of her family, with some pieces being inspired from extracts from her Father’s diary.
More than just a fashion label, it serves as a creative outlet for the youthful expression of political reform, changing social and economic climates and new emerging identities. Originally from Nigeria, the West London-based designer, illustrator and textile designer’s work oft features reworked denims, recycled leathers and re-used plastic and lace scraps, paired alongside striking and daring silhouettes and a playground of textures. We caught up with the new designer to know, named as the winner of the autumn/winter 2019 Merit Award by Fashion Scout, to talk frills, fashion and future gains.
Hey Tolu! Can you talk me through the inspiration for your SS19 collection? What was on your mood board?
I’m a very intimate person so I tend to work in sketchbooks or make films instead of just mood boards. Family photos. Photos ranging generations back. Diary extracts and an entire documentary that I filmed over the course of a year with my friend George Robinson, following the lives of 4 people in London and Paris. The collection was about their identities, their childhood, their vulnerable, untold stories and black heritage young people growing up in a Western world.
I also spent time going through old family videos. My father was a huge documenter and social activist – he kept a record of almost everything! He rallied and was involved with the Black Panther Party movements in the UK. Not many people know those stories but they used to rally at Hyde Park, hold demonstrations and fight for justice in their communities. Now that I’m older, I’m so grateful he did because its given me so much inspiration and so much to unpack. He literally left archives of knowledge, information and a different perspective and narrative of history as his legacy. I discover something new every time I rummage through his goods, and I feel like his archives were planting seeds for me to seek higher knowledge. I’m really learning about my identity and deconstructing my social conditioning through sharing stories and experiences with others. It’s incredible how much you realise we all have in common!
Originally from Nigeria, you’ve lived in Spain and now currently reside in London – how does your mixed heritage feed into your designs?
The craziest thing is that when I think about ‘culture’ I don’t really relate that to nationality or locality anymore. I think that way of thinking is quite obsolete. Culture is more about family and community. So many different cultures exist in Nigeria and my parents built their own culture. It’s a fusion of locality, faith, experience and simple navigation through different societies. I’m British born and bred, but my parents came from Nigeria. They were huge givers and doers in the community and it shaped my entire childhood and upbringing. My dad co-founded Saturday reading schools for children on my estate and also taught most of the guys how to drive. I grew up on a council estate and still live there till this day, but I went to boarding school in Horsham from the age of 11 – 16. We really didn’t have much financially growing up, but my family were really resourceful, socially and politically engaged and part of a close-knit community. We’re all quite creative and hands-on, probably because we had to be. That’s where my love for intimate relationships, personal stories and craftsmanship comes from, and its the root of all my work. I was raised on the value that you need to build communities around you. So ultimately that’s my culture.
I grew up with a lot of my cousins, who were mostly male and it made me really free, expressive and I guess you could say ‘tom-boyish’ as a child. Most of them live in America now, in Atlanta, about four generations. We share the same complex experience of growing up in Western society under parents who were raised in Nigeria, but nobody really tells or recognises the complexity and depth of those stories. You’re either British or Nigerian. But in London, I don’t feel quite British. In Nigeria, I’m not quite Nigerian. So what and who are you? What if you’re both and none at the same time? I guess that’s me and so many others, and it’s made me realise there is so much more to identity than nationality.
I feel so privileged because my life experience has given me such great scope, insight and understanding into so many different kinds of people and their stories. I feel like I’ve experienced different worlds and universes in a short amount of time. I listen to people’s stories and I design around their values, memories and also the things they don’t say, but that I observe. I’m very print and illustration heavy because I use clothing as a canvas to communicate things people find hard to discuss in person. My clothes are sustainable in that I’m resourceful and reduce waste in my design process. I also take care with the craftsmanship and intricate details, so a lot of my textiles and pieces are slow, investment pieces for people who appreciate these elements.
When was the moment your first wanted to become fashion designer?
It was when I was around 13 years old. Before that I wanted to become a lawyer because I’m obsessed with justice, or an architect because I liked to draw and I heard that you could make your own home and a lot of money, so as a child, it stuck. I never studied art through school, I just loved illustrating and observing people so I did it in my free time. I went to boarding school and started illustrating personalised caricatures of people and putting them on hoodies and t-shirts for some extra money. I was shocked how much people really took to it. My headteacher even bought one as a gift for his wife! It was such a great feeling and I thought, I’ve found my feet here. The rest is kind of history.
What are some of your earliest fashion memories?
My earliest fashion memories are from my parents. My mother used to make most of the clothes that my older sister and I wore growing up and my father was a very stylish man. Portobello Market and this Saturday car-boot sale in Kilburn were places that exposed me to people and fashion, as well as the internet. Myspace, Hi5, Piczo and Bebo were the vibe back then. My family used to go to the market almost every weekend, both selling and rummaging through tons of second hand clothing, accessories and random goods. I observe people a lot, so I’d stare and analyse the way people were dressed, and make mental notes of the vendors I thought were most stylish! That car boot sale is legendary and full of so many memories. I used to try and pick out my own clothes because it was much more affordable than things on the high-street, so I knew I was more likely to get a ‘yes’ to my parents buying it for me. I’m a big haggler so I’d run ahead to my favourite vendors and haggle things down and then call my parents to pay for it – I was a bit problematic in that I didn’t get their consent before making a deal, even though it was their money!
Your forever fashion muse?
My dad. He wore what he wanted when he wanted and he did it with such confidence. And he did it on a budget. I think how he dressed represented who he was. I admire the fact that he didn’t adhere to what people thought and he was unapologetically himself. He was very much an icon and to this day, everyone who remembers him remembers that.
Does your work aim to challenge and combat ideas of gender conformity, if so how?
Anything you do which goes against social norms or routine, poses a threat to it or challenges it. So I guess I do, though it’s not necessarily intentional. When I design I try and strip back social preconceptions and just look at and focus on the individual. I don’t worry too much about gender conformity or trying to represent everyone in one collective vision. I struggle to see the relevance when we focus on fashion as a statement of one’s identity, as opposed to a commercial commodity. Society loves to categorise things which cannot really be categorised. Identity is so unique to the individual, so we need to just focus on that.
Personally what’s your relationship like with social media?
I have a very love – hate relationship with social media. I personally used to find it very toxic and disingenuous, with everyone trying to sell a pretty version of things and basically every other thing being branded. I think it gives a lot of false perceptions. I prefer real intimacy. I like to keep things real and raw and I find that you generally lose that in the digital vortex. If I had my way, I’d stay hidden away and just create and allow people to experience my work in their own way. But I’m increasingly having to put myself out there because my work is so personal and people buy into and connect with people – they want to know you, the person behind the work. And I’m understanding that and challenging myself in that way. I’ve only recently started posting more of the process of how I create and what inspires me, and people are really interacting with that. I’m starting to attract the right people and connect with people across the globe. So it can be a beautiful tool to share and connect with people that aren’t in your immediate surroundings. I don’t want for me, the person, to precede my work and the stories that need to be told because that extends way beyond my being, but I also can’t hide from it. Like if I wasn’t involved, those stories need to still be told and shared. I’m finding the balance though and its a learning process.
Your top Instagram must-follows?
I don’t have any really ‘must-follows’ apart from my mum (@olasapron) and brother (@adecokercola)- they’re so talented! My mum is an all-rounder (a chef, designer, superwoman) and my brother is a product designer and photographer – He’s so humble and doesn’t shout too much about what he’s doing but he’s so inspirational. He just has that eye, that flair for things. His vision is crazy. He’s been shooting a lot of my stuff recently. Not many people know, but we’ll be collaborating more.
Representation on the runway – do you think this is changing for the better?
I hope so. It’s difficult to tell because I don’t think that just casting black models or models of colour is necessarily true representation. Representation should be holistic, not just an aesthetic or branding tactic, because then it becomes novelty, trivial and disingenuous. We’re seeing an increase in diverse casting, but we still have teams of hair and makeup stylists who don’t consider or cater to them, and collections which fetishise diverse bodies, but neglect their stories and experiences. Some hairstylists still try and back-comb or hairspray afro hair, and use one shade of makeup for every non-white model. I think that’s an honest conversation that has to be had. What representation actually is and what it should look like. People, their stories, identities, nuances and cultures need to be represented properly, with consideration and respect for those who belong to those communities.
The models in your show are diverse, how do you go about casting?
Everywhere. Mates, Agencies, On the Street, In University Canteens, Social Media.
What are the biggest challenges young designers face today? Your top advice on growing your label?
Vision, Dedication, Persistence and honestly, FINANCE. I think the struggle story of rags-to-riches in fashion is over romanticised, and the real conversation is that many young designers, in fact, most young designers are exploited or experience it as part of their journeys Young designers are creating new cultures and really make a valuable social contribution, so it’s important that those who hold resources really, truly invest and support them, instead of running initiatives that serve the platform more than the designer. A lot of things are promised in exchange for exposure, but you can’t survive off exposure. You can’t invest and build and grow from exposure. And people know that yet they continue to set that as the standard in this industry. Young designers need access to resources, especially when the only resources you had came from educational institutions or charitable contributions. What happens after?
My biggest advice is learn to trust the process, trust your vision and don’t compare yourself to other people. You have to realise that not every ‘opportunity’ is actually an opportunity and you have to let people know what you’re worth. More than saying yes, saying no has really helped put me on the path I’m on right now. I’m not sure what it holds but I’m curious and I’m grateful.
Who would your dream person be to dress?
Lauryn Hill, Jill Scott or Erykah Badu. Their music moves my soul and there’s something about their femininity that I connect to.
The future of fashion – in one word?
What’s up next for you?
I’m working on several projects and have some exciting things happening later this year. Life is full of surprises though so you have to stay posted 🙂
5 February 2019