And they’re all from diverse backgrounds.
On Tuesday, artist Theaster Gates and Prada Group revealed inaugural awardees for the three-year collaborative program shaped to support designers of color — across fashion, footwear, jewelry, culinary, visual and fine arts, as well as architecture and product design — and to amplify their work.
The aim, at least in part, is to nip in the bud the trope of pipeline problems in finding creatives of color.
“The Experimental Design Lab is important because it demonstrates that there is more than one way of being a designer and that extraordinary design talent lives in communities of color, despite the underrepresentation of us in the fashion industry. We are designing every day,” Gates told WWD. “The Experimental Design Lab will become both a platform and a pipeline for exceptional Black and brown designers to be acknowledged for their brilliance and considered for creative opportunities at the top levels of artistic collaboration.”
Fourteen designers from around the world were handpicked “for their extraordinary creative potential” by design leaders including Prada co-creative director Miuccia Prada and the late designer Virgil Abloh before he passed. And to Gates, having Abloh included was key in helping to carry on his legacy. “What Virgil achieved for young designers of color — both on the street and at the highest levels of fashion — set a new standard for inclusion guided by mentorship and love in an industry historically dominated by exclusivity,” he said. “It was a blessing and an honor that he had a hand in nominating our inaugural cohort. I couldn’t imagine a better way of ushering in a new chapter for designers of color.”
The designers will receive financial support to further develop existing endeavors or for new and innovative projects, as well as access to a kind of creative think tank designed to foster further creative development. The Lab — a partnership between the design and manufacturing arm of Theaster Gates Studio, Dorchester Industries, as well as art and neighborhood transformation platform Rebuild Foundation (also founded by Gates) and Prada — sits on Chicago’s South Side, and annual activations in New York City and Los Angeles will allow the design cohort to present their work to leading organizations.
“Although the cohort is global in both reach and relevance, the focus on cultivating a strong design community on the South Side of Chicago sets this program apart. More than half of the designers in our inaugural cohort are either from or currently reside on the South and West Sides of Chicago. It was incredibly important to me and Mrs. Prada that aspiring designers from underrepresented communities had access to public programs involving our awardees and that our awardees could share their work locally and globally,” Gates said. “At the same time, the core of this program is anchored by a sharp focus on collaboration and convening.
“This cohort is interdisciplinary. The cohort is intergenerational. The cohort unites designers who care deeply about the integrity of their practices and the impact of their work,” he added. “This program is artist-led and artist-occupied, allowing us to bring in fresh perspectives from what were formerly adjacent creative industries and expanding what it means to be a designer.”
Prada is there to support the mission.
For Catherine Sarr, whose fine jewelry brand Almasika has already seen major wins (her pieces have appeared on former First Lady Michelle Obama and actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas and in numerous glossy magazine spreads), being named to the cohort is another. And one she said proves what authentic support for creatives of color looks like. Already, coming off the heels of the cohort’s first in-person retreat on Chicago’s South Side last month, Sarr said its collaborative energy is having an impact.
“I was surrounded with people who were doing beautiful work, impacting the society on an everyday basis, quietly,” said Sarr, whose career includes years at DeBeers. “I left our first retreat just wanting to do even better in the world.”
Almasika, whose name is a melding of the word for diamond in Swahili (almasi) and gold (sika) in many West African languages, is on a mission to bring African roots to fine jewelry through things like the use of cowry shells in designs, which are a symbol of prosperity and spirituality on the continent, as well as in other parts of the world.
“I think it’s beautiful to be able to connect with different cultures and this is when you realize that we have so much more in common than things that separate us,” said Sarr, who plans to use the Experimental Design Lab opportunity to further develop and tell the stories she feels haven’t been told through fine jewelry.
Tolu Coker has her own stories to tell, too. The London-based fashion designer who’s weaving African and diasporic histories into the fabric of her pieces and turning clothing into an artistic canvas, said the opportunity to be part of this cohort will allow her to expand beyond fashion’s confines.
“Fashion as an industry has its way of operating and has its calendar, its timetable. It’s got a structure that has been there for generations and generations and I think having the approach of this program allows me to tap more into the multidisciplinary areas of my practice,” she said. “I don’t think of fashion as a commodity or purely the aesthetic part of it. I always think about the role it plays in telling our stories, how different clothing plays a part in representing different identities, how clothing can be a form of artifact, a form of documentation.”
Coker’s recent fall 2021 collection, dubbed “Soro Soke: Diaspora ’68,” (meaning “speak up” in Yoruba, a language spoken in West Africa and primarily Southwestern Nigeria where the designer’s parents hailed from), was, as she explained, “a byproduct” of race-related conversations that sprang up in the U.S. after George Floyd’s murder and in Nigeria among the End SARS protests (against police brutality and calls for disbanding the country’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad). It was also a nod back to a time in 1968 that wasn’t entirely dissimilar from what bubbled up in 2020.
“While we were having this big global conversation, it was the question of who has a monopoly on the conversation of what Blackness is, whose Blackness matters, who gets to control the narrative of that?” Coker explained. “So as much as I guess I’m a designer, I think it’s also being able to be of service and be a facilitator of certain conversations that perhaps people wouldn’t be as open to having if we weren’t using a different creative medium.”
As part of the cohort, Coker hopes to grow her namesake brand in terms of both reach and production capability, as well as to continue to support the educational hub she’s built up alongside her studio, where students come to do placement programs and get references for internships that will lead to good jobs.
“This project with Dorchester is really a way to show talents, full stop,” Sarr said. “When I left the room with all those creatives, I came back and I said to my husband, ‘I just spent the day with amazing people’….I know that one of the keys is to say and to show that there’s no pipeline issues, there’s talent, it’s out there and you need just to be open to various forms of talent.”
As Gates added, “While this cohort is an impressive display of extraordinary creative potential, I hope it opens doors for an entire generation of rising designers and encourages leading corporations to invest generously in their ideas, their work and their practices. The Experimental Design Lab will broaden the scope of design, bringing more talent under the umbrella of what it means to be a creative person, and demonstrating that there has never been a shortage of talent, only a shortage of amplification and opportunity.”