By Ian Taylor
As expected, Tempe Fashion Week provided a fantastic show full of thought-provoking designs, striking models and even a few unexpected performances. Each collection was masterfully showcased by a calculated display of models strutting the runway one after the other. Though the vast variety of clothing styles and design choices were a notable element of the show, what stood out the most was the diversity of each talented designer. The worldwide influence behind each collection was apparent in both the styles of the pieces as well as the faces of those who created the collections.
It was a refreshing sight, especially in such a westernized and white-dominated field. To see so many different faces standing proud behind their collections was inspiring and hopeful for generations and trends to follow. It gave the show a collective sense of purpose, that not only was this night dedicated to debuting striking looks and spellbinding designs, but this was also a chance to break down barriers and bring new influences and cultures into the limelight that have been sidelined for far too long.
Out of the many diverse collections shown that evening, one that stood out significantly was the new West African menswear line from Senti Designs. I unknowingly saw previews of Senti’s display before the runway show because I had seen some of the models walking around with specific symbols painted on their faces. Luckily, I had the opportunity to interview Senti’s stylist for the evening, Sydni Rose, and I was told about the inspiration behind the signature look.
Ian Taylor (me): So, Senti Designs. Would you mind giving a quick breakdown of what you guys do, what your mission is?
Sydni Rose: Yeah, so, Senti’s designer is Emeka, he’s amazing. His home country is Nigeria, and he wanted to bring a fashion-forward twist to the Nigerian culture. We’re seeing that a lot in fashion, right? We’re breaking down these norms and bringing in cultures and exploring and expressing them. So, he kinda saw the market for that, and he wanted to do that, so tonight on the runway you’re gonna see symbols from his home country in the makeup looks…
Taylor: I think I already saw someone with something on his face.
Rose: Yeah, they’re really cool. All the clothing is made in Nigeria, so it was shipped out here for the fashion show, everything is done in his homeland, all the inspiration comes from his homeland, and so just bringing that here…especially after this huge movement for bringing in and calling in cultures and giving them the credit that they deserve, but also what we’ve seen with the black and brown communities and the cultural appropriation that’s been going on for centuries, and re-highlighting those designers. So for him to bring that back home in this time when the world’s reopening, I think it’s a fresh, new idea that people need to see, and I think it’s gonna be really exciting.
Taylor: So would you say he’s taking the power back?
Rose: Yeah, one thousand percent he’s taking the power back, and he’s doing more than that because I don’t think the power was ever lost, it’s just that the power was getting the wrong credit. So it’s really just putting the name back out there and representing who he is, where he comes from, and what that culture brings to the fashion world and what it can bring, and in a way that’s sustainable and locally-made in his home country by small manufacturers, which is all things that we wanna see going forward.
Rose also delved into the cultural influence backing the models’ makeup designs when prompted by my co-interviewer, Hayden Larkin.
Rose: I know from the conversation we had, he expressed that he was just really excited to represent his culture through his designs, and this has been a huge love for him in a lot of ways and a huge learning experience. When we were talking makeup looks, for instance, at first we were just talking about abstract makeup, and I was like, “No, let’s add, like, do you have symbols that you could send us from your home country that we could put into the makeup?” Because I don’t want to westernize what he was going for, I wanted to keep it true to him, and he was like “Yes, that’s what I want.” So that’s what he was going for.
Larkin: Kind of actually creating that Western melting pot.
Rose: Right. Right. One thousand percent.
Taylor: So it sounds like you’re a pretty essential link in his crew if you were able to suggest something like that.
Rose: Actually, I’m not. I’m just very open, so when I got assigned to him as a stylist, we were talking ideas, and he’s very new to all of this, and he’s very humble, so he was open to feedback and ideas, and I threw that idea out there, and he was all for it. We also played with fun jewelry, you guys are going to see pearls tonight, gold, leather.
Larkin: You mentioned Western influence, you see that a lot with Haider, Wales Bonner, Celine…so when you’re bringing in the Western influence, do you mean “Western” as in Americana western or just the western world?
Rose: Western world. The western world, whether we like it or not, does lead the fashion industry, and that doesn’t mean that we’re getting all of our ideas from the western world, because that’s definitely not the case, but it does lead fashion movements across the world. So when we brought his designs here, we were playing with them, and we wanted to give them a flair that could ignite the flame. We wanted something that, if someone isn’t from Nigeria or doesn’t know his culture, they would still see his look and say, “That’s high fashion and I want that.” It says something and it speaks for something without being too abstract or not digestible, and that’s what I’m about. And we still went abstract, we just did it in a way that’s digestible for someone who maybe doesn’t understand what he’s trying to do so that they would be curious and kind of open up that conversation.
Taylor: So do you think he has the potential to make a big impact on the fashion scene? I think in general, not a lot of people consider Nigeria to be a high fashion hub, but it sounds like he’s really starting to lead the charge for that particular thing.
Rose: Yeah, I mean, look, personally, I am so bored with what we’ve had in fashion. I think that it’s repetitive. You used to see a runway show and you used to have these designers that really challenged the norm, and it was different, and people hated it. But then other people would look at it and they would be like, “No, I love that, because it’s different, and it forces a different message, and it’s not like everyone else,” and that’s what we want. So I think the past couple of decades, fashion has just been, especially with the rise of fast fashion, has just been so repetitive. With what [Emeka]’s doing, he’s bringing in something that’s new, and that’s refreshing to see. Not only is it new, but it’s on par with the message that we want to see. People are waking up. They want to know who their designers are and they want to know where their clothes are coming from. They want to know what the message is behind the brand: Are they ethical? Does it say something? Is there bravery in it? Is there love? And that’s everything that Senti is. He hears what people want and I think he’s gonna bring it.
Taylor: So, you’ve mentioned the fashion community’s tendency to be intolerant of trying new things and really being experimental. Do you think personally that that’s a reflection of the Westernization of the fashion industry and America’s tendency to place people and cultures in boxes in order to be more crowd-pleasing?
Rose: I think it’s that. I also think that what we’re seeing with social media is that popularity is in more than ever. You’re pretty, you have nice things, it’s easy to replicate that and it’s easy to sell. You have something where Kim Kardashian wears something on the runway, and the next day, Shein has it ready to go. Everyone can replicate it. In a world that’s like that, and when you have such a high demand for everyone wanting to be popular, everyone wanting to fit in, the fashion industry has lost its spunk to say, “No. We’re not gonna give you what you want.” And instead, they took the consumerism approach, the money approach, and they’re like, “No, we’re gonna give you exactly what you want, and not only that, we’re gonna give it to you before you can even think about it so that when you think about it, it’s there for you in an instant.” It’s sad because fashion used to be something that was magical, and I mean, it still is in some ways, but it used to be something that, you know, you walk down the street one day, and someone would come out in something that you hadn’t seen before, or someone would come out in something and you’d be like, “Oh my god, that’s incredible.” And in today’s society, with everyone wanting to fit in and everyone wanting to be the next Kardashian, with social media and reality TV, it’s fake. What’s great about Instagram is that the biggest trend for 2021 is No Filter. Authenticity. We’re over the edited pictures, feeling bad about ourselves, feeling like everyone wears the same stuff as us, and we are dying for something original and new.
Rose had plenty more to say about the consumerist concentration that high fashion has been showing in recent years.
Rose: Designers used to make stuff not for the money. They used to make stuff because they loved making it. They saw something and they said, “I am so tired of people not making clothes that I would wear, so I’m gonna make something that I would wear that no one else will wear.”
Taylor: It was entirely about them, right? Not even in a selfish way, but in a way that’s like, “Hey world, this is me, take it or leave it.”
Rose: Right! And “This is my brand.” Now brands don’t do that. They say, “This is my brand and what can I do to my brand for you to buy it?” And people do. There’s a designer called Juliet Johnstone who does really cool hand-painted designs for jeans, tank tops, trucker hats, bathing suits, and zip-up hoodies. We’re seeing this huge movement of art moving into fashion and I love that because one thing she says about her pieces is that no piece is the same. Every piece is different. Who doesn’t love that? Who doesn’t love me owning a pair of Juliet Johnstone jeans and being like “No one else will have this exact pair. No one. This is my pair.” That’s what people want.
Taylor: So, you’re talking about how you don’t like the commercialization of high fashion, which I totally agree, but at the same time, I’m thinking to myself, if these high fashion designers start off pretty small but then start to gain a following and gain influence in the industry, do you think that there’s a point where they can balance authenticity and avoid commercialization but also get their products out to enough people?
Rose: If it happens naturally. But when you try to force an idea for the masses, it loses its spark. If you’re able to create something, and it’s authentic, and everyone wants it, and you give it to the masses, then you’ve done it in an authentic way. You never planned for that to happen but it did. The same thing happens in art. Leonardo da Vinci. He did the Mona Lisa and no one liked it. Everyone was like, “This is stupid. This is ugly.” Now, everyone knows Leonardo da Vinci, everyone knows the Mona Lisa…
Taylor: It’s arguably the most famous art piece ever.
Rose: He did something that was authentic to himself, and it went out to the masses, and it worked because it happened naturally. But when you don’t do it naturally and you go into it with the intention of making something authentic that the masses will enjoy, that’s pop music. I think as an artist, your objective should never be to make other people like your work. Now, that’s hard to say and that’s hard to do because as an artist, you want to be validated and you want people to love your work. But I think when you start making work with the intention of, “I want other people to love this,” it’s not for you anymore. You have to make something because you love it, and that’s all that matters. And if everyone else hates it, fuck ‘em, because that’s art, baby.
Hearing Rose’s impassioned commentary on the state of the fashion industry as well as the direction it’s headed in was an exciting precursor to the main show. Her promotion of Senti and the unique makeup looks certainly wasn’t in vain, as Emeka’s collection was one of the most unique and culturally significant displays of the evening. The simple yet symbolic makeup crafted a distinct signature look that individualized the collection even further. Senti Designs’ West African Attire is available through the website.