Behind every successful woman is other successful women helping her to look and feel like the best version of herself. A couple weeks ago, AfricanFuturist extraordinaire Nnedi Okorafor made her red carpet debut at the 70th Primetime Emmy Awards, where she and Executive Producer George R. R. Martin, promoted her upcoming HBO series, Who Fears Death, based on her award-winning book.
She walked the red carpet in a stunning silk dress adorned in hand-painted art. Knowing Nnedi’s affinity for incorporating art into her fashion, we had to dig deeper into the story behind this wearable work of art.
The dress was designed by Therez Fleetwood. An established stylist, she has dressed the likes of Angela Bassett, Vanessa Williams, and Yolanda Adams, and others. As for the beautiful print on the dress, it was hand-painted by artist V. Kottavei Williams.
We spoke with both women at length about the vision behind Okorafor’s Emmys dress and their thoughts on fashion, science fiction, and black femininity.
Thank you, ladies, for taking the time to do this interview. Walk us through how the two of you connected with Nnedi Okorafor.
A past client of mine tagged me in a post from Nnedi Okorafor’s Facebook page, which said she needed a beautiful formal dress in 3 days! Kottavei and I had worked on a few fashion art pieces that we were looking for the right person to wear. I submitted several dresses to her, but I really pushed the fashion art piece because I felt the artwork was so powerful and that it would resonate with her creative spirit. It is one-of-a-kind and hand-painted created as an exhibition piece.
Wow, what an amazing thing to emerge in 3 days! How did you two come up with the shared vision and design for Nnedi’s dress?
We had this dress in our archives waiting for the perfect person to wear it. Nnedi has all the spirit of what this dress embodies just by nature of who she is. She’s powerful, warrior-like and regal. I don’t think anyone else could have worn this dress as gracefully as she did. She owned the dress and wore it well. It did not overwhelm and wear her!
When this dress was designed, we were inspired to pay homage to the strength, creativity, passion and beauty of women. The women that Nnedi writes about in her books all encompass these qualities. It was like the universe aligned us all in this perfect creative collaboration.
Indeed, how remarkable that the dress was practically waiting for Nnedi! Therez, tell us more about the style and shape of the dress, as well as the choice of fabric.
The silhouette of the dress had to be designed in a way that the shape could highlight the artwork. I choose an A-line (soft triangular) shape which symbolizes courage, strength and passion. The bra-like top added the perfect bit of sexiness to the dress. I used 100% silk as the canvas for Kottavei’s artwork because this fabric is not only luxurious, but also very sturdy.
Beautiful choice of fabric, and the beadwork on the dress is stunning! Tell us more about what inspired the design and the use of the cowrie shells.
Kottavei, will often times incorporate different symbols or words into her artwork. There are several circles on the dress that represent life cycles and the moon/nature. As a fashion designer, my aesthetic is World Couture where I incorporate hand-beading and embroidery on most of my garments. I used wood beads, in various colors and created this circle as well as cowrie shells to pay homage to our African culture.
Kottavei, let’s talk about your use of color in the painted image: the brown, yellow, blue, green. What tone were you trying to convey with this color palette?
The earthy tones of the dress were chosen to reflect what is found in nature. We are not separate from it and I work to include colors that were grounding and connected to the earth.
Beautiful. I observed that on the front of the dress, there is white text against a blue background. Can you talk about what it says and why it was featured on the dress?
Sometimes I will incorporate text into my work using it as another texture or a place to quietly journal leaving a part of me with the wearer. It replicates my sketchbook which is a combination of concepts and written life events.
Going back to the essence of this dress and how it was perfectly suited for Nnedi, elaborate more on the imagined spirit of the woman painted on the dress and how you see that same spirit in Nnedi and her work.
I have read ALL of Nnedi’s books. The woman on the dress is the spirit of the wild, succulent women in all of us. She is the warrior spirit that can rise up in any woman if we allow her to. She is quietly powerful and quietly present. My name, Kottavei, is a derivative based off the Indian goddess Kali and means “warrior goddess of victory”. If anything, I believe I placed a bit of that warrior spirit that is me in the woman gracing the dress.
Thank you for that moving imagery, Kottavei. Therez, you have gained international renown for your Afrocentric fashion. Tell us more about your relationship with the African continent and how that inspires your fashion.
I first became influenced by African culture from a dream I had as a teenager. In the dream ,there was a celebration; people dancing, rhythmic drumming, bright lights and beautiful African print fabrics. I had no idea at the time that this would be the catalyst to my career in designing African clothes, but that energy and joyful feeling is what enhanced and sustained my creativity as a fashion designer.
I have visited several African countries, including; Ivory Coast, Senegal, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Bostwana. What I learned was that there is so much beauty throughout Africa and so much of the culture to experience from the terrain, the music, the art, the fabrics, the food, the music.
And we see that this passion and love for African culture and fashion has led you to have an illustrious career spanning about 30 years, where you have dressed celebrities such as Angela Bassett, Vanessa Williams, and Yolanda Adams, Queen Latifah and En Vogue. What have you enjoyed the most about dressing so many prominent black women for awards shows?
I enjoy dressing all women. Celebrities are fun because in this age of social media it allows the perfect opportunity for exposure. What I enjoy most about dressing these prominent women is that my design aesthetic resonates with who they are and that and that they feel regal, confident and sexy wearing one of my designs. love what I do, and to be recognized and appreciated for my work is all that I can ask for. My goal as a designer is to create cloths that make women feel confident, empowered and self-expressed.
Let’s talk about Nnedi’s literature. What does it mean to you? Do you have a favorite book that she’s written?
I just became aware of Nnedi Okorafor this year when I received her book, Binti, as a birthday gift. I never thought about reading AfroFuturism Sci-Fi before I read this book, but I am so glad I discovered her. Binti was so beautifully written that I immediately became a fan!
When I read “Who Fears Death” I found her page on Facebook and asked her to write faster because I was not ready for the book to end! I see SO much of myself in her characters and descriptions. About half of my artwork is focused around Black women and afrofuturistic influences that feel otherworldly. Her writings feel like holding a mirror up to myself and seeing all the light, joy and creativity that I am. It makes me want to continue creating with the knowledge that some little Black girl or Black woman will “see” themselves in my work reflecting something within themselves. THAT’S what Nnedi’s work does for me. I look forward to meeting her in person one day.
It was mentioned earlier that this is not your first collaboration. When did you both begin working together?
It’s a funny story how Therez and I met. When I was graduating from college at Virginia Commonwealth University, I only applied 2 places. One was for Mattel, Inc to design barbie’s wardrobe and the other was to Therez Fleetwood because even back then I admired her work so much. Fast forward 20 years, we’re both living in Atlanta, Ga, met and became fast friends. We worked on our first project of art/fashion collaboration about 3 years ago and have done others since. We just completed a presentation at Art Meso, and international fashion show given in Atlanta yearly to advocate bringing international designers to local platforms.
A recurring theme throughout both of your bodies of work is a positive representation of black womanhood. Can you both tell me why this is meaningful to you?
Black women are celebrating ourselves in a way that is so powerful and uplifting. There is a sisterhood happening around black women that has picked up momentum in the past couple of years… and I love it! We are more empowered, self-assured, creative, and supportive – so being an integral part of this movement, as I express and share myself with other women through fashion design, is what keeps me inspired.
In my personal artwork it is always my intention to tell the narrative of women but ESPECIALLY BLACK WOMEN AND GIRLS. Oftentimes we are visibly invisible and hidden in plain sight only becoming noticed in the negative or if we forget to do what is required. People often ask me what I see when I look in the mirror. I see an artist first, a woman second and a person of color third. Because people see the opposite, that is not my problem. Self-perception and self-awareness are everything. There must be stronger the representation of Black womanhood, placed publicly and presently regularly then the more normalized it will become.
Can we look forward to any collaborations between you and Kottavei in the future?
Kottavei and I are actively seeking sponsors for a world-wide project that we are working on as we continue to take private orders for clients who want bespoke fashion art pieces to add to their wardrobe.
The art/fashion presentation will come to fruition in late 2018 or early 2019. We are currently seeking investors to enable this upcoming art/fashion collection to travel the world from South Africa to Thailand and beyond. In the meantime, we are accepting commissioned art/fashion pieces that are custom and hand painted for the wearer. We know that clients who choose to wear works created by us will always be walking works of art themselves.
Thanks Therez and Kottavei for taking the time to chat. I wish you all the best in your future endeavors.
We are excited for Nnedi’s upcoming series and believe that this is the first of many Emmy appearances. If you want your own custom wearable masterpiece, reach out to Therez and Kottavei and follow them on social media.
KOTTAVEI’S CONTACT INFO:
Instagram | @Kottavei
Facebook | www.facebook.com/kottavei
Twitter | @TheRealKottavei
Email | [email protected]
Phone | 404.308.6545
THEREZ’S CONTACT INFO:
Instagram | @TherezFleetwood
Website | therezfleetwood.com
Twitter | @TherezF
Email | therezd[email protected]
Phone | 214.815.9325