Arts Post
Posted at 10:16 AM ET, 09/29/2011

Artist Explained: Korto Momolu

Designer Korto (cu-toe) Momolu (mo-mo-lu) will grace the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art when she showcases her Sankofa collection in a fashion show at the fall installment of Africa Underground this Friday. Although Momolu resides in Little Rock, she is “always in DC,” and has always joked about getting a home in the area “...because I’m always there. I’ve gotten a lot of love. I’m actually coming full circle - the first event I ever did after I got off Project Runway was an event at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art, so that’s kind of crazy that three years later I’m coming right back - coming back home. So that’s fun.”

In this interview, the Liberian-born Project Runway alum talks with Arts Post about her involvement with the skills teaching organization Amani Ya Juu (Swahili for “higher peace,”) which led her to create the special line, and what she learned from having to “make it work.”

Model Ludie Senatus in a design from Korto Momolu's "Sankofa" line. (Photo by Stephanie Matthews)
Probably after Project Runway, [I’ve done] about five [collections], and the Liberian one is probably my sixth. And that kind of wasn’t for a season it was just one I did for the [Sankofa Fashion Show] we did in Liberia. So the one you’re gonna see Friday was like an extra bonus collection. It’s probably one of the only ones I’ve done that’s been completely all African fabric and 75% - 80% of it was bought in Liberia. [The show] was really inspired by this foundation called the Amani Foundation. And they contacted me about doing this show in Liberia, starting [the organization’s new branch] Amani Liberia. They had already [opened] one in Kenya. So what it is is they take women and some men and kind of train them in the fields of design, other venues as well - like computers and give them other trades, but this focus is on design, teaching them sewing skills, teaching them how to make things with things that are right there in their area to be able to provide for their families. You know, a nontraditional career, ‘cause in Africa, tailoring is something that’s very male-dominated. You don’t really see a lot of female tailors. If women know how to sew, it’s just basically for sewing for their children not for like a career, to be a designer. So it’s actually different to focus on that and have me as the headliner to say ‘I’m doing it, and I’m a woman, and I’m Liberian, and it is possible you can do it.’

The collection was based in three parts, kind of telling the story of the women ‘cause Liberia went through that huge civil war years ago, and these are the women that are now running their households. Their husbands are casualties of the war, their children are still in school-age children, and they’re the ones running their households now. So we’re kind of giving them hope that although they went through all the stuff that happened in the war, things can get better. So it was broken down in three parts: the first one was just kind of devastation, separation. The second part was just kind of putting everything together, transformation; and then finally celebration. So, it just told the story of these women through clothing. So a lot of the stuff you’re going to see may seem kind of graphic or seem really descriptive and when you look at the garments, but they’re there to kind of tell that story. So when you see it you’ll get what I’m talking about.

I really tried to show emotions through clothes. It was really kind of hard to do that - never had to do that before, but it worked out. It was actually very challenging but I’m really happy with the collection that came about....It told the story, and when the women actually got the clothes in Liberia when we went to do the show, some of the women saw it and they got it right away and they were like, “Oh my God, I want to wear that one ‘cause that’s my story’ and it made me feel good ‘cause I didn’t know if they were going to get it, and I didn’t want to offend anybody, but they got it, and they actually wanted to wear their story literally on their hearts and their sleeves to say ‘This is what I went through, but now I’m going to be going through so much more because of what I went through I can transform and celebrate now becoming something bigger than I ever thought I could be.’ So it’s a really touching story, and I’m glad that Amani, they’re actually gonna come to the show on Friday as well, help me to be a part of it.

[The organization] contacted me. Actually the lady that put everything together, Stephanie Meyer, she was a fan of the show and as soon as they said they were doing [another branch of the organization] in Liberia, and they needed a Liberian fashion designer, she was like, ‘Well, there’s only one that I know.” So she contacted El’Jay, my manager and we just put it altogether. And I hadn’t been home in 23 years and neither has El’Jay, so together it was almost like it was a homecoming for both of us, to be able to do this project, and be able to be there in such a big platform. And I never thought to return after 23 years and go back as a known designer internationally and be able to share my gift. But, it’s been an emotional year, it’s been a crazy year, but we were able to do that in May. It was very successful.
HANDOUT PHOTO: Model Sarah Kessler in a design from Korto Momolu's "Sankofa" line. (Photo by Stephanie Matthews)

I [designed the line] in two months. It was crazy, but we made it happen. For 25 pieces it’s a lot, even if you do one look a day. [You] have to sit there and figure out how to take something like assault, a rape and turn it into an outfit. So, I think that took more time than anything - figuring out how to tell the story, how to make it look like a story. And for people to feel the emotion and for the models to be able to wear the clothing - feel emotion and convey it through their demeanor. They really got it. Like when they came out, you saw it and you felt it. So hopefully we’re going to talk to the models as well wearing the garments Friday, to kind of tell the story so that when they come out, they convey the same emotion that needs to come out when they hit the stage.

I hope that by looking at me and seeing that I went through the same things [the participants] did, even though I wasn’t physically in Liberia for the war, I still felt the same pain. I went through the same things, I lost the same family members, and I still made it through. And being a woman and being at the top of my game, when it comes to African designers, sometimes all we need is that one person that says “Well she looks like me, she’s just like me and she did it. And I can do it, I can possess those things.” And I actually went and talked to them, we touched hands, and just to let them know that it’s real and I’m real. And being hands-on with them- I was very hands- on with everything with the show, from the hair to the makeup that they did - everything was very hands-on. So when you make it personal like that and you promise that you’re not just going to do this one show and disappear, that, ‘No I’m coming back’ to see their progress, [I promised] to come back and to show them how to do accessories, to add a little extra to what they do already, and you know once you make that promise you have to keep that promise. And I think that’s my goal - to make sure that I keep the promises I made, but also keep encouraging them by going forward. The more I keep moving, the more they’re gonna see they’ve gotta keep it moving.

HANDOUT PHOTO: Image of designer Korto Momolu. (Photo by Cole Stevens)
You know, I’m really laid back and a lot of people always expect me to be really crazy at shows. I’m really calm and laid back. I always say “flow,” like a smooth mellow flow. And I want these models to come out when you see the clothing, to really kind of, as if they’re gliding...just kind of floating in the air, so people can really take in the look of the collection, because it is so graphic and it’s telling the story. I really want people prior to the show to kind of know a little backstory on it. And hopefully I’ll be able to explain that prior to, so they get it. Cause if not, you don’t get it and you just kind of wonder “Okay, what was she thinking when she did that, that outfit?” So hopefully I’ll be able to give a little backstory on it and really explain....Cause when you see it you’ll really be like “Oh my God, now I see what she was talking about.” So that’s the hope I’m going into - and people get in the frame of where these women came from, and where they ended up, and now where they’re going, the three--part story. So that’s what I’m hoping to achieve Friday, and just tell a little bit more about Amani and why we did the collection and encourage people to support Amani because the struggles continue - for funding, to make sure that these women get the things that they need to succeed and that we’ve kind of started the process.

I can work very well under pressure now. That’s definitely a given. You know with [Project Runway] it makes you - almost like it takes things out of you that you didn’t know you possessed until that time came. Like there were things that I did and things I had to do that I accomplished that I was like “Wow - I don’t know how I got through that, I don’t know where that came from,” but it’s like it was in me. They just brought the best out of me, and after you leave the show it’s like you can’t go back to the way you were as a designer before the show. I’m more of a draper now. I can actually get on a mannequin, drape an outfit, and go right to the machine without making a pattern, and just get to it.
In this Sept. 12, 2008 photo, the Project Runway designer Korto Momolu is shown backstage before presenting her collection during Fashion Week in New York. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Time management helped me out a lot, and criticism. You get criticism differently on the show. You’re criticized for what you do, what you don’t do. But you become really grounded. I know who I am as a designer and I know now that no matter what anyone says they can’t shake what I feel about my work. You can tell me all day that you feel this way - it’s not gonna change me because I know who I am. And I think the show forces you to realize who you are as a designer and stick with it, regardless of who hates, who loves it, you’re gonna still be true to who you are. So, I thank then for that much, and obviously for the exposure. If I didn’t do the show I would probably not be talking with you right now, so it has opened me up to the international market. [Project Runway] is showed in like a different country almost every month, and in America every week it’s on [the] Style [network], the season I was on. So, it constantly continues to open doors. So definitely you can’t - first, second, third place, fourth place - you can’t really beat that. It’s still winning, you’re still winning either way.

Africa Underground will be held at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art on Sept. 30. Tickets for the event are $25 must be purchased in advance at

By Erin Williams  |  10:16 AM ET, 09/29/2011

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