LAMINE KOUYATÉ – OVERCOMING OBSTACLES
By Philippe Pourhashemi
Although African designer Lamine Kouyaté is currently being discovered by a new generation of fashion-conscious boys and girls, the talented founder of XULY.Bët has, in fact, been showing his work since the early 1990s, a decade that retains special appeal for fashion connoisseurs. Kouyaté returned to the Paris calendar last year – right before the pandemic started disrupting our world – and I was lucky enough to attend his comeback show, featuring the likes of Michelle Elie, Rossy de Palma and many other friends and models that he has cherished for years.
What makes XULY.Bët stand out as a brand is how open it is. Kouyaté clearly believes that designer fashion can be democratic and creative at once, despite the fact that the industry itself is often seen as an elitist and segregated milieu. Season after season, the designer manages to keep his clothes upbeat, approachable and unpretentious. Although Kouyaté takes his craft very seriously, his vision of fashion remains lively and entertaining.
A visionary figure since the launch of his brand, the Mali-born Paris-based designer has been one of the first to embrace upcycling methods and promote ecological awareness, as well as the dynamic and thriving energy of streetwear, making his shows uplifting experiences.
We caught up with Kouyaté to evoke the positive spirit of his collections, his take on contemporary fashion and why he thinks the industry still has a long way to go before claiming to be inclusive.
What made you feel like coming back to the Paris calendar last year?
I don’t think I ever left Paris in my mind, even though I lived in New York for a while. When Trump got elected in 2016, I started asking myself serious questions and felt like it might be time to leave. It was a bit complicated to set up things here at first, but I wanted to return to Paris because it was my creative home and the place where I discovered fashion. All the people who truly fascinated and inspired me happened to be there, too.
Were you rejecting New York at the time?
Not at all. I love New York and the city has great energy. We actually have very good clients there and a faithful following, too, but Paris remains the place where you get to make more of a creative statement as a designer.
Your brand boomed during the 1990s. Are you nostalgic of that decade, like many others in fashion?
I’m actually not a nostalgic person, but it’s true that I’m still attached and quite close to the friends I made during that time. Fashion has to be current, and designers can’t ignore what’s going on around them. In that sense, XULY.Bët has always been about hope and looking forward, offering a constructive and upbeat vision of the future. Nevertheless, it’s true that I miss the naive mindset of the 1990s and how people seemed to meet and mix more easily than today. It felt like there were no boundaries, and in Paris people were also interested in what was going on in the suburbs for instance. There was a desire to collaborate and live together.
Upcycling has been one of your signatures since launching the brand. Were you guided by moral beliefs or was it a necessity, too?
I wanted to broaden the vocabulary of fashion, but had this keen awareness of the problematic relationship between the industry and ecology. Upcycling does belong to our identity, but today people understand it more, whereas it was more difficult to convince buyers at the beginning when we were doing one-off pieces. Of course, it’s more complicated commercially, but we have been approached by Desigual recently, asking us if we could do something with their leftover fabrics and stock, which does stand for the concerns of our times.
You’ve always pushed diversity in your shows, which was a big statement when you started out. Were you aware of the industry’s racism then?
It’s true that my shows were always diverse and I was using more POC models than anyone else. Designers were influenced by black music and culture, but in the end you didn’t see that many black girls on the runway, besides Naomi and a few others. When we cast Michelle Elie, who did her first show with us, nobody wanted her.
Your shows are always joyful and fun. How do you create that kind of energy?
For me, a fashion show remains a moment of generosity and we want our models to feel like themselves, adding their own sense of style and personality to that live moment. It’s about asserting their character, instead of trying to conceal it. Shows can be magic moments, but you can’t calculate any of this beforehand.
Your prices are affordable and quite democratic for a designer brand. Was that a deliberate decision on your part?
XULY.Bët wants to be a democratic brand, even though what we do isn’t cheap either. Certain pieces take more time to develop, and that’s reflected in their pricing. The idea of fashion garments as status symbols does not interest me at all, and our clients range from chic bourgeois ladies to trendy kids who have saved up for a pair of leggings. It’s not about class or money, but more of a mindset and an open attitude. The idea of overpriced t-shirts and extortionate sportswear feels quite obscene to me.
How would you define your own style?
There’s a radical and assertive sense of femininity in my work, and I look at the body and clothes in an unrestrained and playful way. There are no constraints, and a form of transgression as well. I want my brand to be life-affirming and celebrate joy. Coming from a minority myself, I feel that my clothes should assert who we are and celebrate that difference. We’ve been invisible for way too long.
It’s about revealing your personality to the world, and it’s interesting that you find inspiration in workwear and uniforms. They also highlight the individuality of the wearer.
Several discussions have started in the industry about privilege and race. How do you feel about it?
The problem in fashion is lobbying, and the fact that supremacy does not leave much room for designers like me. Decision-makers and leaders must share their power now, or we will remain ostracized. Ninety-five percent of the people we are dealing with in our work are white, middle-aged men. I mean, XULY.Bët sells everywhere, regardless of social, racial or economic backgrounds, but it sometimes feels like certain people do not take that into account, even though they find the styles and ideas inspiring.
Having diverse runways is clearly not enough. It all feels a bit cosmetic to me.
There are preconceived ideas, for sure. We did this great collaboration with Nordstrom in the US recently and it was great to see that they understood the commercial potential of what we do. There are so many African designers no one has even heard of and whose work is not celebrated, because traditional media are not that interested. You see them more on social media actually. Without openings and enhanced visibility, the idea of African fashion itself cannot grow or flourish.
How long do you think this is going to take?
It’s going to take a while. Several attempts have been made by prominent brands, but it does feel opportunistic for the most part and not exactly sincere. I mean, I remember when Galeries Lafayette did a corner for African designers, and more than twenty brands were packed into ten square meters. It was pathetic, you know.
Sounds like there’s still plenty of work to be done.
Yes, there is, but it’s about survival and global welfare in the end. We’re only going to get out of the challenging times we’re in if we finally start to work together. The pandemic has affected everyone, but we are lucky to be a smaller structure and to source our fabrics and suppliers more locally than others. In fact, our business is growing and we’ll keep up the good work.
Mali-born Lamine Kouyaté is the founder of fashion brand XULY.Bët, which he launched in 1991. After several years spent in New York, he returned to the Paris calendar last year, earning commercial and critical acclaim.
A fashion writer, consultant and stylist, Philippe Pourhashemi was born in Tehran and grew up in Paris. In 2005, he graduated with a PhD in Cultural Studies. He works as a freelance coach for several brands in Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Holland and Kazakhstan.