Growing up, were you always creative?
Yes! I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember. I explored all types of illustration, from realistic 3D portraits and manga to graffiti. I actually got arrested for graffiti in seventh grade, believe it or not. My mom recently told me that as a kid, I would just draw women and design different outfits for them. [Laughs] I guess I’ve been designing my whole life.
Was fashion also always an interest of yours?
I’ve always wanted to be a fashion designer. I actually had two fashion internships even before I started going to Penn; I worked as a design intern at Nicole Miller and at Narcisco Rodriguez. I worked seven days a week unpaid, because I was in high school. It was challenging but it really helped me clarify that there was nothing like fashion that I would work so hard for. I work harder and harder every day.
So then why choose Penn for school? Why not fashion school?
I came to Penn because I wanted a business background. Also, I don’t come from a family where I can afford to have only an art degree. If shit hits the fan, I do need a backup plan. I’m studying political science here, and that sort of encourages me to think about things critically. It informs my practice as an artist.
You’re a junior at Penn right now. What classes have you taken so far that have really influenced you as a designer and as a young adult?
Comparative Politics with Robert Vitalis introduced me to a completely different perspective of the world. It made me think more critically about things and more malleable to ideas. I also enjoyed Marketing101, because it taught me the business fundamentals I need to launch my own line.
If you weren’t a political science major, what would you study?
Philosophy. I like thinking through things that are nebulous.
I also know that as a college freshman, you landed an internship at Barney’s. How did this opportunity come about?
I was a buying intern in the Women’s Ready to Wear department, so I worked with advanced collections like Saint Laurent and Alaia. My freshman year at Penn, Daniella Vitale from Barney’s came to speak at Penn Fashion Week, so I asked her during a Q&A session: “What would it take for a young designer to get into Barney’s?” After speaking with her, she invited me to Barney’s, where I showed her my portfolio. I was wearing a necklace that I had designed, and she asked me to come back once more, this time with every garment that I had ever created and designed. Tomoko Ogura, the Fashion Director at Barney’s, reviewed my garment samples and gave me some strong advice. Essentially, her parting comments were that my designs were strong but she pointed out that I didn’t have the means, resources, or time to produce a full collection.
That must have been a tough to hear.
It really was, but she was absolutely correct. Since I had also designed necklaces, she encouraged me to start by pursuing jewelry and gave me an internship offer for the summer. I was very lucky to learn about quality, product, and how luxury merchandise is sold. During my internship as a buying intern, every few weeks I would bring in my new designs for my jewelry products, and Tomoko and other designers at Barney’s would give me their advice.
Not many people can call someone as respected as Tomoko Ogura their mentor. What an incredible opportunity.
I feel very lucky to have worked under her and at Barney’s. I feel like I have always been on the precipice of launching my career, and now with KHIRY, it feels like things are finally happening.
Let’s talk about KHIRY, your brand. Where does the name come from?
Khiry is my middle name. It is Swahili for “extremes in fortune and health.”
There are so many different elements to think about when creating a new line, let alone launching a new brand. How did you approach building your KHIRY brand?
I thought about what I wanted my contribution to be. This year was very politically-charged. A lot of the images that we were receiving from the news were of black people, like the Baltimore Riots or Freddie Gray. I felt like there was a void in culture for someone to really champion the black aesthetic as being beautiful and culturally-grounded.
What is ‘black aesthetic’ to you?
That’s what I’m trying to figure out. I don’t know. It’s hard to decouple images of black history, given the typically awful circumstances of most situations. An example I like to use is by looking at Dior in the 40’s. It was a new look: that tight waist and voluminous skirt. You see that same design with King Louis XIV. It’s like this cultural emblem that is proposed in history, innovated, iterated upon, and made contemporary by new generations. What I’m trying to do is see and identify what the initial cultural elements that are happening with black people around the world.
Can you give an example of some cultural elements that have inspired you?
It could be anything like a mask from west Africa, a silhouette from north Africa, a certain fabrication from Cuba. What does that look like? I’m trying to imagine a new history. If there hadn’t been a terrible tragedy that hadn’t befallen the black people, what would black fashion and jewelry look like if it had been able to develop? Essentially, I’m taking traditional cultural elements and bring them into the modern age.
Talk to me about the Khartoum silhouette. Where does the name and shape come from?
Khartoum is the capital of Sudan. And the name is inspired specifically by the Dinka tribe, who are Sudanese. They herd a specific cattle with beautiful curved horns.
What about your mask-inspired pieces? Where did this mask design come from?
I looked at different masks from west Africa. I saw an image of the Sleeping Muse mask by Romanian sculptor Constanin Brancusi. I felt that it represented what we typically associated with modernism and the unique inspiration, so it was like an amalgamation of the two
It sounds like you had to conduct a lot of research to find reference points for your KHIRY line then. Where did you find inspiration?
I looked at contemporary African culture. The music of Fela Kuti and the whole aesthetic of afro-beat in Nigeria was very informative because it felt very global, funky, and African. It felt culturally-specific but globally-relatable. Touki Bouki was also inspiring for how it almost mirrors the French new wave culture. It is very black and almost unapologetically-so.
Are there other contemporaries or artists that are also trying to use their medium – whether it is poetry or painting or music – to also further explore their African culture and essentially breakdown the conventional ‘black aesthetic’, as you call it?
Janelle Monae is fantastic; her afro-futuristic work has a close tie to what I am trying to do. There are some photographers doing shoots in Johannesburg right now as well. There’s definitely a cultural renaissance that is happening. I started KHIRY as a cultural project. It was a philosophical undertaking but it also makes good business sense. Black aesthetic has been so ignored for so long and you are starting to see it creep into culture. Just as Stella McCartney stands for British-ness and Ralph Lauren stands for American fashion, I want to explore what the African diaspora looks like.
Let’s say you get the opportunity to present your work at fashion week. What city do you think makes the most sense with KHIRY?
New York is supposed to be the place where cool and young designers are. But KHIRY is essentially subverting the idea of traditional French and Italian luxury, so maybe Paris or Milan.
What is your ideal travel bucket list? Would you like to visit Africa?
KHIRY explores the African continent but also the diaspora. I would love to go to Cuba and see how black people live there. I want to see what the culture is like. That said, I would love to go to Dakar, the capital of Senegal, and Lagos.
What designers should everyone keep their eye on?
Grace Wales Bonner, though she just got nominated LMVH prize so she is already quite relevant. Stella Jean is also very African-inspired and brilliant.
At the bar, what would you order?
Something light and tart. I like a lot of lime.
What music are you listening to?
Nina Simone and Art Blakey, especially the alum A Night in Tunisia.
And lastly, in your own words, how do you define beauty?
It is easier to define what beauty is not. Beauty is not exclusive. Beauty is not a specific look. Beauty is not a certain set of values. Beauty is not succinct and it is not singular.