I came across one of Taiwo’s creations a few months ago at the Black Blossoms exhibition held at the University of Arts London. I was coincidentally listening to Frank Ocean’s Pink + White when I saw displayed her feathered clutch bag with synonymous colours. Taiwo Sonekan is a London based womenswear designer that designs clothes using print with embroidered accents. We met up to talk about her path into working with fashion and textiles.
How did you get into textiles?
I graduated three years ago at the London College of Fashion with a Fashion Textiles foundation degree. My course was predominantly focused on textiles with occasional pattern cutting classes. I wanted to know more and learn how to make clothes so I taught myself how to construct garments through reading books and experimenting with friends. With my previous collections I made all of the pieces myself but could only make simple shapes and let the textiles do all the talking but with my current collections I hired a pattern cutter to make more complex shapes.
Is your aim in designing clothes to let the textiles do the talking?
By far! I much prefer for the textiles to do the talking but when I have to make the clothes myself I can’t spend as much time working on designing the fabric.
What did you specialise in at LCF?
Mainly print based textiles. I was taught how to embroider, embellish and laser-cut too. In my second year I decided to focus on print. Before picking my course my aim wasn’t really to work in textiles; I saw a course name with the word fashion in it and found out on my first day of attending the class that it was actually a fashion textiles course. By the end of my educational years I fell in love with textiles.
So after studying what did you do?
My intention was to study for three years and not two but I made that decision when the government increased uni fees so it was too expensive for me to complete a full degree. I joined the course after my A Levels and spent a lot of the two years catching up; normally you complete a one-year art foundation before joining a degree course.
I really wanted to complete a full degree but after failing the bridging process which is a fast track way of getting onto the third year I decided to work on internships and volunteered for a charity called Blind Aid assisting with art and fashion textiles. Volunteering there inspired my A/W16 collection Another Sight. I worked with blind people to see and learn how much they use and depend on their other sights. I used that collection as a project to get on bridging the second time but failed again. My course leaders asked if I wanted to give it another go but at that time I was fed up and had enough. It left me emotional. My twin sister cheered me up and said the world’s my oyster and that I can actually do what I like. For a split second I thought I didn’t want to work in the fashion industry but quickly came back to my senses because deep down it’s what I love! It’s funny because in the beginning of uni I didn’t want to be a fashion designer. I wanted to be the head of the textiles department for another designer. After speaking to my sister again I decided to travel and ended up in New York.
What did you do there?
Luckily I have a lot of family and a friend there so I had support. I contacted loads of companies and asked for internships. I was supposed to intern at Alexander Wang but the day I was due to start they couldn’t take me because they had too many interns. I had a back up internship that was with Grungy Gentleman. They were a smaller brand so I was exposed to a lot interning there. I helped with the preparation of fashion week and did a lot of PR for them. I was given so much responsibility and I was the only intern there that knew how to use Photoshop so I made the invitations too. I had a lot of different creative skills and they were really impressed with me; they asked me to stay longer so I extended my ticket. It was an amazing experience and I came back thinking, “yeah, this is what I want to do”. Watching the boss work really made me want to be my own designer.
When I got back to London I thought about going back to uni to study another degree but I decided not to. I might go back to education but only to study Couture fashion so I can learn more about the craft of embroidery and embellishments. What I’m doing right now is basically the foundation of my career as a designer. Couture is my bigger dream.
That makes sense to me for someone in fashion textiles to want to aspire to that level.
To me it’s all about the textiles. The textiles have to speak.
That’s the starting point. You work your way out from the fabric, to the buttons and the trimmings other designers tend to work their way in.
I’m so happy I made that mistake of joining a textiles course. You can always pay someone to make your clothes but once you’ve got the textiles down it’s yours; your signature. The more time you spend on working on your textiles the more amazing it looks. I’m textiles obsessed.
A simple tunic shape for example can be made beautifully with embroidery or a good print. Once you know how to print whether digitally or through screen-printing you have those skills locked down forever. Where I’m at now in my career I find creating printed surfaces easier to produce. I want to use more detailed embroidery in my work but I need the right resources to be able to reproduce my designs in a cost efficient way, as it’s more expensive to produce.
I understand why higher labels have high price points with embellished clothing. I recently had to increase the prices of my clothes because a stylist took a couple of my pieces to London Fashion Week and told me that I had priced them too low. I looked at how long it took me to make stuff and considered the process in creating my clothes like dying all the Mongolian fur and buying all the leather. I’ve had a look into my demographic again and market it towards a certain type of clientele. I’m focusing more on being consistent now.
What types of textiles do you work with now?
Print and basic embroidery; I want to perfect my embroidery skills later on down the line. I work part time at Westminster Kingsway College and assist with art and design there. I teach teenagers that have been expelled from secondary school due to bad behaviour. There are only so many hours in the day for me to work and keep my brand growing.
Would you ever teach textiles?
I wanted to and even applied to start a teaching course but realised it wasn’t my calling. I don’t want to take on another career. You only live one life and I know I want to be a fashion designer. There’s so much responsibility that comes with being a teacher, I won’t have time for myself. I’m only assisting and already there’s a lot of work and lesson planning involved in that.
How did you get into the Black Blossoms exhibition?
The exhibition organiser Bee Tajudeen works at UAL and wanted to highlight the work of black fashion and art students so she emailed me and asked me to be part of the exhibition. My first collection was about black women not feeling beautiful and secure in their skin. She picked a bag from that collection and displayed it as part of the exhibition. Bee felt that my bag empowered the idea of black women.
Would you ever exhibit your work again?
My dream place would be to exhibit at the Victoria and Albert museum or the Metropolitan in NY. The V&A was the first fashion inspired museum I visited. I loved the history of art and textiles there. It broadened my creativity and made me aware that textiles can be used for more than just fashion.
Does your experience of working with textiles influence the way you shop for clothes?
I’m quite a minimal dresser and I will wear a few of the things I’ve made but I don’t design with me or my personal style in mind. I’m quite bland and don’t really wear much colour maybe a bit of pastel but that’s about it. I guess working in textiles has made me want to buy longer lasting clothes. I ask myself “will I have this for a long time?” I also want to be able to resell clothes if I no longer want them.
You told me you have a twin, is she in fashion too?
Not at all; she works in Law. Growing up I never really said I wanted to work in fashion but my family could tell. In the Yoruba culture for parties and celebrations we wear geles and I used to get towels and wrap them on my head for fun. My little sister was my mannequin; I would dress her up and make her wear sunglasses too. I used to take pictures of her in my “looks” with my old camera. It took me a while to own up to wanting to work in fashion because it’s not really seen as a career in my culture but my mum asked me around the time of taking my GCSEs and I told her I didn’t want to be an accountant. She went to my parent’s evening at school and saw how important it was to me so she bought me a sewing machine for Christmas and said she’d support me all the way as long as I took it seriously.
So now you’re working part time and on your brand. Do you find yourself being more motivated when you have less time to do things?
Yes! With my Young and Beautiful collection I made the prints months in advance but started the actual sewing three days before the photo shoot.
I totally understand. I work much better under tight deadlines because it gives me adrenaline to complete something with a short amount of time.
Those were my joys of being a fashion student.
I never ever made it gradually to a deadline.
Have you visited any countries that have inspired your work?
My current collection was inspired by a trip to Rome. I went to Vatican and fell in love, it was really breath taking. The architecture to me was really beautiful and rich. I called my collection We Knew Romans and wanted to try and recreate the beauty within my clothes to share with other people. I go to Nigeria once a year and will base my next collection on the textiles I see there. I want to be careful that I don’t go down a narrow route of just being an African designer. I want to appeal globally. I have a passion for so many things. I was born in Nigeria and I’ve lived in the UK for 19 years I wouldn’t say I’m British because I’m Nigerian. I have love for all cultures. My past collections have been based on different topics and I like the option of learning about everything. Even when I eventually do a Nigerian influenced collection it might not even look Nigerian as such. I want to share messages in my work.
Would you ever go into menswear?
Not really, if I did it would probably end up looking like masculine womenswear. I’d go into making clothes for little girls. I want to take my time and walk not run.
It’s not a race and in all honesty what’s the rush?