“Activists, entrepreneurs and celebs including Notorious B.I.G.’s son, C.J. Wallace, say equity and inclusion must be at the forefront of any legal marijuana business.”
This also applies to the fashion industry.
In 2008, “Project Runway” saw one of it’s most promising contestants to date: Korto Momolu. The Arkansas-based designer wowed the judges by using her Liberian roots to create awe-inspiring look after awe-inspiring look. Momolu finished runner up on season five and was invited back for two All-Star seasons. More recently at New York Fashion Week SS20, Korto unveiled her collaborative line with Woman Grow – a woman-run organization focused on furthering women in the cannabis industry. She turned heads for using sustainable products in her designs like hemp and cork.
We spoke to Korto Momolu about her time on the popular Bravo television show, what it’s like being a designer based out of Little Rock, Arkansas and so much more.
Moises Mendez for HUEISH (MM): Let’s start out with the basic questions. Name, age and occupation.
Korto Momolu (KM): I am Korto Momolu, I’m a fashion designer and I’m 45 years old.
MM: Great, thank you. We’ll jump right into your time on Project Runway. Was your experience different than what was televised? Were there some things that were particularly difficult?
KM: I really do feel like what you saw was a very edited version of my time on Project Runway. There’s a lot of things you don’t see a lot of things that can be captured especially like emotions. It was tough for me. I had a family and was married, still am and my daughter at the time was four years old. So a lot of the emotions that come with being a mom and being away from my daughter in an age where reality shows weren’t the norm. I couldn’t really explain to her, “Hey I’m gonna be gone for six weeks to film a reality show.” I kissed her goodbye and I literally prayed for the best.
KM: Sometimes we had to retape scenes because maybe the emotion they wanted to create wasn’t there. My thing was if you came in and that’s how we felt, well that’s how we felt. But now we have to redo things and be happier and more excited, but I’m tired. I’m sleep-deprived, I don’t want to be excited right now. I just want to get whatever this is done. But overall, this experience changed my life.
MM: During your time on the show, who would you say was your emotional support?
KM: Definitely my cast-mate Jerrell Scott. We became close friends in probably like the third episode. I thought I was going home, boohooing to myself and he comes over and asked what was wrong. I told him I thought I was going home and he was like “Oh girl, calm down you’re fine!” and we’ve been friends ever since.
MM: I see that you’re based out of Little Rock, Arkansas. Tell me some of the pros and cons of working out of a city that is not a known fashion capital like New York City or Los Angeles.
KM: This is not a known fashion capital, but we do have a lot of fashion things that are going on here right now. Because of my experience, especially and resources, I can’t just get up and go and find what I want fabric wise or sourcing wise, I always have to give myself a leeway of a week or two with clients to make sure I’m fulfilling their needs. It is a part of the struggle but I’ve gotten used to it and gotten able to know how to work it and make it work for me. But on the flip side, I don’t have to be in the sea of 10,000 other designers all of the time.
KM: For jobs, I’m usually the first name that comes up. If anyone needs anything in the fashion arena, I always get the job, so that’s a blessing. I’m sure a lot of people think I’m crazy for being here and still being here. But I don’t want to work environment where I have to get up every day and beat myself to death just to be in it. It’s also been great for my family. It’s one thing that a lot of designers may or may not have, but they come first, my design career comes second. It’s important for me to never make them by casualties of my career and my life.
MM: Was there a time where you were confronted with a bias towards your identity in the fashion business?
KM: Oh yeah, it started on the show. Being African and being a designer, my aesthetic is always going to reflect on my culture. The very first actual challenge we did, I wanted to have her makeup kind of reflective of like African culture, having tribal gods and the line on the lip. Immediately, this makeup artist who looked just like me told me, ‘Oh no, they don’t like that. They frown on that.’ I said, ‘Frown on what? Me being black or me being African?’ He said, ‘Well I wouldn’t do it.’ It felt like I couldn’t be who I am. But it was throughout the show, but in the end, they finally embraced it. I see my culture everywhere now!
KM: When white designers use my culture, it’s genius, but being African I have ownership of that. It’s really unfortunate that you can’t celebrate who you are and everybody has a problem with it. But when somebody who doesn’t look like you, it’s kind of misappropriating culture then it’s fine.
MM: What are your thoughts on outrage marketing in the fashion industry? For example, Comme des Garçons with their cornrow wigs and Gucci with the blackface sweater. I wouldn’t say there’s a good side to this at all, but do you think there’s a positive side to it at all?
KM: I think there’s a way to do it, where you can pay homage and celebrate [a culture]. But I think the way it’s done, it’s been kind of like a slap in your face. When you are making the decision to use somebody else’s culture, where there’s a very thin line between celebration and disrespect, you have to have people from that culture onboard. I feel like those decisions are made because we are not present. I really believe that one of us would’ve been like ‘Uhhhh, nah this isn’t a gonna be a good look. Maybe if we did it this way.’ People just doing things that do it because they like it. But no one’s thinking, well, how does it look from the other side of the street? So that’s when you start to think, ‘Well then maybe they are doing it to be disrespectful because they’re not changing anything.’
MM: Do you think their apologies are sincere or do you think that they’re more to lessen the blow of what they actually did?
KM: I think it is just to kind of make it blow over. Then they go on to say, ‘Okay, well we’ll go on and hire Dapper Dan,’ someone who they respect in the industry and create this initiative and maybe that’ll make everything go away. I think those people should’ve been hired years before and have already been on board so that this didn’t happen.
MM: I do sometimes believe that there are people of color on these decision-making boards who agree that they should do this to spark outrage, therefore getting more people to see this collection. Do you feel like that’s the case?
KM: Yes. That could be another thing as well, let’s push buttons, but I just think that they’re pushing the wrong buttons at the wrong time. This is a very sensitive time for race relations across the board. So this isn’t the time to be kicking people while they’re down. This is the time that like Google, and you know, so many other companies are taking these opportunities to say we love you, we celebrate you. And we’re going to show you know, we appreciate you, we appreciate your business. We appreciate your presence and what you’ve contributed to this Earth. So there’s a way to do it as a way to not do it.
KM: There are so many things you could do in fashion, but blackface, why do blackface? Why is that the one thing that won in the conversation? We’re not only not present in these boardrooms and are present in these people’s lives.
MM: For you, would you label yourself as a black business or a woman-owned business? Do you believe that works against you, why or why not?
KM: Honestly, I usually don’t put any of those titles. I’m a designer, and then you know, yes, I’m an African designer, I’m a female designer, I’m a black female, like all those other things come after that. I always say like, I’m a great designer, the fact that I’m African is just a bonus. I would still be a great designer and those other things wouldn’t change me from being a great designer. The fact that I’m a woman that helps me to be a better designer for other women. The fact that I’m an African woman helps me to better create things that are African-inspired for my clients who want something different and new.
MM: One thing you’re most known for is your place in the cannabis field and using sustainable fabrics like hemp and cork. Tell me why you feel it’s important for people of color to find their place in the cannabis field.
KM: Claiming a place now is helping the narrative. We haven’t benefited from this industry in a positive way. It’s always been negative because the majority of them who are incarcerated right now because it’s cannabis are my people. So I think now with that and all the stuff that’s changing, it doesn’t make sense that the same people who put them there are now benefiting from the things that, two, three years ago we were being incarcerated for so I think definitely for them also, even the playing field, you know, if these people are going to be released, help them to get into the industry, the legal way teach them you know, so they don’t have to go back to their old ways and doing all that the illegal way.
KM: Finding a platform where we can have a voice. This is not just selling stuff in a dispensary. This is farming, there are a lot of black farmers now that are losing crops. So this is another form of a crop that they can invest in and help to ensure that their businesses continue to grow. So I think we need to really figure out how to get into this industry and make it work for us and find products that we love to use that we can add cannabis to it to help in so many other ways as well and look at the broader picture, you know, not only about the money part of it but really how can they help us as a people?
We asked Korto more questions! To read the rest of the interview, click here to read on Econistas.
Moises is a full-time freelance writer based in New York City. He graduated from the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. He reports mainly on arts and culture.