To the Moon and Back With Off-White

For proof of Ibrahim Kamara’s rare gifts as a fashion stylist, look no further than the March issue of Vogue Italia, with its remarkable portfolio of a transformed Gisele Bündchen. Transformations are what Kamara does best, not only remaking supermodels but also honing the vision of designers like Riccardo Tisci, Erdem and Virgil Abloh. Now, he is about to debut his most ambitious transformation yet: himself.

On Thursday morning, stylist turns designer when Kamara stages his official debut as “art and image director” of the late Abloh’s Off-White. The title masks what is essentially a creative directorship.

No surprises, Kamara is skittish. “Ultimately I can cheat with styling. I can twist the jacket and make it look fab. But I can’t cheat with design. Yes, I feel a little bit nervous because it’s the first time I’m conceptualising, but I’ve told myself I’m gonna be emotionally detached from everything for now.” When I spoke to Kamara last week, he hadn’t yet seen all the clothes together, so he hadn’t started the styling process. “I’m going to go into this collection like it’s for the first time and I’m going to just reimagine it.”

Although it’s not exactly like he isn’t already thoroughly enmeshed in the story he wants to tell. He previewed the core concept in Off-White’s last pre-collection. It’s an arcane extrapolation of Kamara’s urban observations. Constantly travelling around for magazine shoots as he is, he’s extremely reliant on delivery services. “They make things move, they make things work. Everyone’s delivering something, receiving something.” Kamara is also a sci-fi fan. He began to dream about what a delivery service to the moon might look like.

Pre- was called Lunar Shipping. This new collection is Lunar Delivery. Expect some silvery spaciness. But also look out for outerwear details abstracted from a terrestrial delivery guy: the straps, handles and zips of his bag, the metal chassis of his bike, the black rubber of the bike tires, maybe even a tail light transmogrified into the heel of a shoe.

“And when you’re delivering something, you’re following a map, so there’s a lot of map interpretation in our fabrications, in our linings, our jacquards,” says Kamara. “I’m really taking apart this delivery concept then I’m putting it in a different universe. I’m obsessed with clashing ideas to form a new subculture.”

That iconoclasm has always been a signature of his styling. And Kamara’s West African roots have often added another rich layer. When he goes back to Sierra Leone, he is struck by the strangeness of the red earth. “I was born in the poorest area of Freetown, all around us were houses made of corrugated iron. We call it ‘pan body’ and when water hits it, it changes colour.” You can see it in Kamara’s Off-White: red earth, rusted iron, and the tones and the textures of the textiles he remembers growing up, now transmuted by technology.

Abloh freely lauded the almost umbilical connection he felt with Kamara in their collaborations. “It’s like ruining a great Renaissance painting to rein Ib in.” He also famously left a mountain of unrealised ideas, so you could fairly say there has been plenty of spiritual guidance on offer since his death. But this time, Kamara truly feels he’s flown solo from start to finish.

Of course, there are hold-overs. “V had a conceptual way of thinking that I’ve kept in how we approach making clothing, and we’ve also kept that child-like sensibility and curiosity.” But when I ask what differences we can expect to see, he answers, “An American point of view has a sense of pop culture in a lot of the references, and I didn’t come from a pop culture sensibility. I grew up around craftsmanship. So I maybe bring an African flavour. And also, America has a very streetwear sensibility. I love the realism of streetwear, but I also embrace a sense of chicness, and a merger of realism and fantasy. I look back to my classes at St Martins. You really think beyond where you come from.”

Hence that Lunar Delivery idea, which would seem to tap fair and square into Afrofuturism. “That’s instant,” Kamara fires back. “I’m obsessed with science. I’m obsessed with the galaxy. I’m connecting it as well with my African roots. I’m always going to reference where I’m from. Whenever I go home, I feel like it’s the new world, it’s what’s next. There’s optimism, there’s hope, and there’s so much beauty. If you throw Sierra Leone into American thinking, it becomes a whole new conversation.”

Add to this his enduring faith in punk as an incitement to twist ideas and make new connections. “There’s always going to be a sense of clash at the core, which I think is Afrofuturism, too. We are questioning everything, which is a big part of Off-White. It has punk thinking embedded in its DNA.”

“I don’t want to just do a jacket that has been done before,” Kamara adds. “I want to have a twist on it. I want to shake it up a bit, turn things upside down to see how they look, what volumes they create. I guess my styling experience also ignites that urge to play with garments. To push one thing until I’m really sick of it, until I don’t want to look at it anymore.”

As I said, a master of illusion like Kamara can play tricks in pursuit of a single editorial image, but creating a collection of clothes that must live beyond the moment is an entirely different scenario. Never mind that it is also going to be open to interpretation by his stylist peers. That will be a novel experience. He’s steeled. And there’s another first in store for him. “Usually when I style shows, I give everything but ultimately I don’t need to come out because it’s someone else’s vision. This time it’s completely my vision from scratch.”

And so?

”I think I’m gonna come out. Just me.”

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