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Dirty Collabs: Sarah Nsikak, Clothing Designer
The Brooklyn-based designer Sarah Nsikak makes beautiful, one-of-a-kind pieces. As a first-generation Nigerian-American and driven by her love of textiles, she created the brand La Réunion to celebrate the vibrancy of African culture, reclaimed beauty, and “togetherness, color, joy, and inviting ones self back to what was always there all along.” Handcrafting pieces from recycled materials sourced from New York-based designers and sourcing vintage fabrics, she says, “I've only ever made things out of waste, and I think it’s amazing that doing so is celebrated today in so many different and very important ways.”
Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up?
I am a first generation American, and my Nigerian parents were able to come to this country because my dad got a student visa to study engineering in Oklahoma. That's where I grew up, and I moved to New York in my early 20s.
What kinds of things did you like to do as a kid?
I played every sport possible, but I've always had an evolving interest in art. I learned to sew at a very young age when my grandmother spent a few years in the states with us. I would learn later how formative and invaluable my time was with her, and I always wish I could have dinner with her today and draw from her wisdom again in a new way.
How do either of those things tie into your life today?
My athletic years were so important because I learned about being a sacrificial team player. That's what it is to be a part of a small business, especially when coming from a place of ownership. My love of art has been a common thread throughout my entire life, and it's definitely the reason why my art practice has become the centerpiece in my life.
Tell us about your work and what your day-to-day looks like.
I come into the studio around 9:30 every day and work on various different projects until around 7. My days are never the same, and I have a small team now that I work closely with as they support my company. Some days have to be spent just catching up on emails while directing some of the women who help make La Réunion possible.
How did La Réunion come about?
I created the brand because there wasn't much out there that celebrated Africa from an African perspective, and certainly nothing being made in the most environmentally responsible way. I was getting disillusioned by all the white companies traveling to Africa and creating work with artists there, but neglecting to really celebrate the history of the artistry or to help destigmatize Africa. I wanted to reclaim our stolen stories and share more of what has yet to be told.
What is your approach to conservation and sustainability?
I am devoted to using only excess and waste from other designers to create wearable art that will fit the wearer and stay with them for many years to come. I make very few units in efforts to avoid overproduction, and most of it is made to order. I also spend a lot of time and money on scouring damaged vintage pieces that otherwise would be rendered useless. I mend, patch stains, and incorporate them into my projects.
Why does sustainability matter to you?
As a black person, you don't have a choice about things mattering to you. Seeing fast fashion companies continuously dump their excess and waste on brown and black countries makes me burn with anger at the little value that these places and these people hold in the mind of the white world.
Today while working I thought about how sustainability wasn't a word we discussed at home, but it was inherently built into the way we lived. We didn't have a lot of money (though I didn't realize that as a kid) and my immigrant parents raised us to use, reuse, and recycle everything even if it means reusing paper towels or disposable utensils. I was always shocked by sleepovers where my friends were throwing everything away, and shamed by trying to clean things deemed trash after a single use. The word sustainability has been a buzz word in the last few years, and I've had a hard time with the way people misconstrue it and use it flippantly. I've only ever made things out of waste, and I think it’s amazing that doing so is celebrated today in so many different and in very important ways.
What kinds of things make you hopeful for the future of our planet?
The rise of urban farming and the very slowly increasing access to fresh produce for brown and black neighborhoods across the country.
In what ways do you feel you have a role to play in re: to the future of sustainability?
Anyone making things, which inherently creates waste of some kind, has an obligation to do so thoughtfully and with intention. There should be a lot of care to close their own circle. We always offer repairs and adjustments on garments made by us, and we even allow for individuals to send us fabric of their own to use in custom pieces. My role isn't different from anyone else's: thought and consideration for the planet and my brothers and sisters living on it before making and/or consuming.
Any advice you have for others around being environmentally responsible?
It's best to simplify things and to avoid going down a spiral in contemplation about the state our planet is in. This can quickly lead to nihilism (I know from experience). Doing what you can to avoid overconsumption, skipping plastic, and buying less stuff are all small ways to lessen your environmental impact.
Photo: Ritche Jo / @ritchiejo via Vogue