23-04-2014 | By Biki John

Interview with designer Bobby Kolade

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Bobby Kolade entered the fashion industry as a force to be reckoned with; in 2013 he launched his eponymous label and won first prize in the Start Your Fashion Business contest which was organized by Berlin’s Projekt Zukunft. His debut collection ‘Things Fall Apart’, originated from Ugandan and Japanese traditions, and received positive acclaim from both the press and industry alike.

Kolade’s second womenswear collection, 39, which launched earlier this month at the Galerie Patrick Ebensperger in Berlin, is a dynamic and diverse assembly of looks featuring 56 different textures. Tough fabrics like nylon taffeta ‎was bonded with wool then crunched, ironed and crunched again to create an irregular surface, while unpredictable Ugandan bark was combined with more manageable fabrics like hand-woven cotton cloth from the south of EthiopiaAnd yet, all in all, this eclectic ensemble of textures creates a harmonious and detailed collection that is bound to appeal to the unique, curious and modern woman.

Πwas delighted to get some time with the emerging designer to find out more about the man behind the ever-experimental and burgeoning brand.

Œ: Tell us about your journey as a designer thus far?

BK: I studied fashion design for a few years at the Weißensee Kunsthochschule, Berlin and then realized I needed a change of pace and scenery.   So I went to Paris and did internships with Balenciaga and Maison Martin Margiela.  I stayed in Paris for about two years and then returned to Berlin to finish my course.  The final collection I presented for my course actually ended up being my debut collection, Things Fall Apart.   After winning first prize in the Start Your Business contest, in which I presented that very collection, I decided to spend some time working out how I wanted to position my brand in the market. 

Œ: Did you feel any pressure to come to a decision time-wise?

BK: No I  didn’t. The key element to my journey as a designer is time.  I decided to take my time in all aspects of my company.  When I was in Paris, I got caught up in the quick rate at which things happen in the industry and the cramped time schedules were intense.  I also felt that in that rush, several elements of the process got overlooked or didn’t have the time to fully develop.

During Paris Fashion Week last September, I actually showed my debut collection at Berlin Showroom to test the response, and it was very positive and encouraging.  However, after my internship experience in Paris, I decided to stick to my plan and continue building up my company slowly.  That was one of the main reasons why I came back to Berlin, the city has a much slower pace.

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Œ: You launched your second collection in Berlin a few days ago, how come you decided to release it in April and not during A/W Berlin Fashion Week which was in January 2014?

BK: With the institutional deadlines the fashion industry sets, one of which is fashion week, there is a lot of pressure to deliver adequately on time.  But I’m not too keen on the Berlin Fashion Week dates. For instance, Berlin A/W fashion week is roughly about two weeks after New Year’s. This is not the best timing for me because three months before a show, I devote myself 100% to the collection, making my social life very restricted indeed.  My friends know at that time they can’t reach me, I’m out of order, so to speak…

Œ: You have a kind of ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on your life… (laughs)

BK: Exactly! (laughs) Creating a collection is a very personal process for me, so imagine having to do that during Christmas season and New Year’s when you are supposed to be hanging out with friends and family.  I chose not to do that, hence why I released my collection after January.

Œ: That’s a great attitude to have, but playing devil’s advocate, don’t you think presenting your collection outside fashion week limits the press and exposure you might otherwise have?

BK:  Well, so far the press have been very supportive and understanding.

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Œ: In your debut collection ‘Things Fall Apart’ you experimented with the African fabric bark cloth.  Does your second collection, 39, feature more African fabrics?

BK: Yes it does, I used hand woven fabrics from the south of Ethiopia as well as Ugandan bark cloth.  With each collection I do, I definitely want to introduce a new fabric from Africa.  I also think that in the huge fashion market we have today, African fashion does not get the weight of attention it deserves.  My dream is to show the people who make these beautiful handcrafted fabrics, the potential of what they are making, and the value of what they have, be it in Uganda, Ethiopia or whichever African country.

Œ: Would you say your choice of African fabrics springs from your Ugandan upbringing?

BK: Not really, I use those African fabrics simply because I find them beautiful and I know they are fabrics that a lot of Berlin designers won’t be using.

Also a lot of the time, one sees African fabrics (e.g. Ethiopian) used in a tribal context, so with my collection I aim to show a modern outlook in how to use these fabrics.

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Œ: Why is your second collection called, ‘39’?

BK: Because 39 pieces of fabrics were sewn together to make each jacket in the collection.  The jacket is perhaps the most complicated piece of clothing to produce, but it’s still my favourite garment of all time.

Œ: Tell us about your inspiration for your collection?

BK: Well, there were lots of inspirations but the starting point was the woman’s back.  I wanted to create pieces with the idea of showing as much back as possible.  Reason being, when I worked in retail, I always found the moment when a woman comes out of her dressing room and turns to look at her back in the mirror truly beautiful.

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Œ: From looking at your two collections, it’s clear to see that you view the Jacket as an essential part of a woman’s wardrobe, can you expand on that?

BK: I absolutely love jackets! A jacket is an outerwear piece that works for every occasion and style. Whether you are going to the office, party or just going for a walk, a jacket just works.  One of the reasons jackets feature so heavily in my collections is because I believe they truly reflect the style choice of the average Berlin woman.

I don’t know if you noticed but there wasn’t a single dress in my recent collection and that’s because I think there are way too many dresses showcased during Berlin Fashion Week, which doesn’t really reflect the style of the average Berlin woman.

Œ: True. Having seen and enjoyed your show, some of my favourite parts were the moments we were treated to sharp outbursts of colour in the collection. Was that a conscious decision on your part?

BK: My process is very intuitive and going into my second collection I hadn’t planned to use bold colours. However, once I started working with my team, their influence directed me to use more colours this time around; so it just sort of happened.

Most of the bold colours in the collection were created by the team, for instance the yellow raincoat was the result of us dyeing wool by hand and then painting it with two coats of a rubbery yellow substance—similar to cleaning gloves in a bid to imitate a ‘Friesennerz’ raincoat.

The heart of the collection was to experiment and manipulate fabrics by ourselves.

Œ: In this collection we see the first use of accessories; what was your reason for doing so?

BK: The idea of introducing clutches came from me thinking of the process a woman undergoes when she’s getting dressed.  After a woman has put on the bulk of her outfit, she naturally looks for what to add to complete her outfit.  I was also very lucky to have designer, Malin Bernreuther collaborate with me to design the bags.

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Œ: What kind of women do you see wearing your clothes?

BK: Women who are curious.

ŒWhich celebrities would you like to see wearing your clothes?

BK: If I had the choice I’d jump on the bandwagon and opt for Lupita Nyong’o. She’s beautiful, comes from my neighbor country Kenya and the thing I love most about her is that she’s an African woman who’s proud of her short Afro.

Œ: As a new designer, you were lucky enough to win first prize in the fashion contest Start Your Fashion Business which awarded you 25,000 euros in prize money. However, what would you say are the main challenges you’ve faced as an emerging designer in a constantly growing market?

BK: The biggest challenge for me is production.  I’m trying to create a product that is luxurious and for me that means the product has to be made in the hometown of the designer or the team.  I believe the closer a piece of my clothing is made to where I live, the more control I have over it and the more personal my relationship is with the production.  This is my belief, unless the product being made has characteristics that are intrinsic to another particular country.

I know this is a naïve way of thinking and therein lies the challenge.  Because more often than not it can cost ,for example, up to four times as much to make a garment here in Germany, as opposed to a neighbor country.  And sometimes the quality in that other country can be just as good, so it’s a challenge to not produce it there.  It’s also a challenge to understand the market, educate the market and stick to your principles.  I hope I can maintain my beliefs in the future.

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Œ: You moved to Berlin in 2005, what would you say are the best attributes to living in Berlin?

BK: I love the lakes, the parks and the space.  Berlin has lots of space!  I also think the city is decentralized which means as the years go by, I still keep on discovering new parts of it!

Œ: In these times, as well as being artistic, creative and business-orientated, fashion designers have to be social media savvy.  How much attention do you put into increasing your social media profile as a designer?

BK: That’s a brilliant question because that’s something I am very occupied with right now, as I oversee all social media aspects of the business. Originally I was very anti-social media because I thought it wasn’t the right platform for a luxury product.  Luxury products are supposed to be about time, it’s about holding and feeling a beautifully made product in your hand, but my opinion is slowly changing because you do have to move with the times.

Œ: Where is your design studio based?

BK: Wedding

ŒWhat does it look like?

BK: Good question, because I never let photographers or journalists into my studio!

Œ: But, why?

BK: My studio is a very personal space because my small team and I spend so much time there; it’s our own little world!  The studio is situated on the top floor of an old factory building; typical Berlin (laughs). So it’s always nice and bright in there.  We also get to see the planes take off and land in Tegel airport.  The best part of it is that the studio faces West; the sunsets are beautiful.

Œ: What kind of music do you play to keep the groove going in your studio?

BK: That’s also a good question because I make sure there’s always music playing. I cannot have silence in there!  Recently, Erykah Badu has been on non-stop, I have every single album! Lil’ Kim, D’Angelo, Kelala and Jessy Lanza also get lots of play time

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Œ: Can you tell us of any collaborations you have worked on with other artists or musicians recently?

BK: My show was a melting pot that showcased all the different artists I’ve worked with over the last few months.  That’s probably one of the main reasons I work in fashion, because it gives me the opportunity to work with all these talented people from different walks of life. I worked with illustrator Uli Knörzer, who is working on a series of drawings of performing artists we love in Berlin. This season, I am not doing any campaign shoots as such, so this illustration series is me saying, “Enough of fashion photography and let’s introduce more fashion illustrators.”

I also collaborated with designer Malin Bernreuther to make the bags. The shoes featured in the collection are by shoe designer Mats Rombaut and they were 100% vegan. It’s really not easy to find vegan shoes that actually look good, so I was very happy we found him! His label is called Rombaut.

Œ: How do you like to unwind?

BK: Oh, that’s a tough one. Do I unwind?…(laughs)

Œ: I like that (laughs). Finally, what are your future plans for your brand?

BK: Well I’m working on my online store which should open very soon and pieces from the second collection will be available to buy on there. As yet, no retailers stock my clothes. After I presented my first collection, there was varied interest from buyers but I decided to hold off as, in my opinion, the product was not ready for the market. I want to create a luxury product and brand and I want to take my time, so I am proud of the results. My aim is to grow my brand at home in Germany, and then expand to Europe, and then who knows…

www.bobbykolade.com / follow Bobby Kolade updates on facebook / illustration: Uli Knörzer/runway photos: Jens Kowall

*Biki John is an experienced editorial and communications professional with strong marketing knowledge, specialising in the creation of digital and print content (both visual and editorial) for emerging and established brands.  Her diverse clients include Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, Lipsy, F95 Store, Arise, JNC, Husk, Push It and singer VV Brown.