Interview by Yinsey Wang.
Beatrice Korlekie is a British-born Ghanaian designer who has built her brand Korlekie on principles true to herself. Today, her label Korlekie is known for its luxury and intricacy, but also for embracing new technologies including 3D modeling. She is passionate about celebrating and paying homage to her heritage, supporting sustainability initiatives and channelling storytelling in her pieces, which in themselves are not just works of fashion, but also works of art. Her garments and collections are versatile, but they also focus on the wearer – Korlekie prioritises the understanding of the woman behind the dress and craft to design something spectacular.
In this exclusive interview for Amber Magazine, Yinsey Wang interviews the talented and passionate designer on her brand’s development, how sustainability fits within her business and her tips for other BAME designers looking to follow in her footsteps.
1. The name KORLEKIE means 'Queen Of Eagles' heralded by the Ga-Adangbe tribe in Eastern Region, Ghana. Can you tell us a bit more about the Ghanian heritage of the brand and your relationship with such heritage? Why did you decide to start this brand and did you always have an interest in fashion?
I was born in the UK and as a result, I never got to experience the fullness of my Ghanaian heritage. However, I have a family who is very deeply rooted in their culture. For these reasons and also, due to my general hunger to know more about my heritageI decided to name the brand “Korlekie”. My family is quite flamboyant and I have always been surrounded by the rich textiles and colours of Kente. I believe this is where my natural love of handcraft and surface design comes from.
I decided to start Korlekie because I believe I have something different to offer. Away from the seasonal trends, I want to offer a piece of timeless craft that will be cherished, not just as a fashion item, but as a piece of art to be admired.
I did not always have an interest in fashion. I started with fine art and slowly the passion grew into fashion when I realised that I wanted to create more 3D forms of wearable art.
2. Sustainability is important to KORLEKIE and you support a vast array of social projects. Please tell us why you decided this would incorporate this feature in your brand philosophy.
Naturally, as a crafter, sustainability is actually part of our process. It spans from the heavy labour-intensive work to working with small groups of people who harness the understanding of heritage craft (that is otherwise going extinct due to fast production methods).
Because you deal with people on a first hand basis, you develop closer relationships with them. You begin to understand their issues and what they hope to achieve through you. This automatically makes them your responsibility and they essentially become an extended family. Whatever I do in business, therefore, becomes more of a passion to succeed because you want the people you work with to succeed alongside you. This means they can continue doing what they love and building a sustainable future for themselves and their family.
The sustainability and social projects were incorporated quite naturally into the brand philosophy based on the genuine passion to seek and implement new handcraft ideas and the preservation and development of these skills through slow fashion.
3. The Nubuke Foundation collaboration incorporated Ghanaian Kente fabric and aspired to raise awareness of the beauty of African textiles. Can you tell us a bit more about how this project came about and what motivated you to give back to Nubuke?
I wanted to develop pieces in my collection that experimented with the diverse weaving techniques of Kente cloth through fashion. Kente is the traditional cloth of my home country, Ghana, and I wanted to find a way to incorporate this cloth usually used for special occasions and royalty as a new ongoing textile that could be used in my collections. The project was set up so that sales of the Kente-formed garments would contribute to the continued success of Nubuke and support the Kente weaving industry. Nubuke is a great art and cultural foundation that is supporting the African community, contributing and preserving arts for future generations. As a British Ghanaian, it makes me feel closer to home and part of something. It is my heritage as a Ghanaian and I want to give back not because they need it, but because I need them.
4. Black representation in the UK fashion industry is severely lacking but with individuals such as yourself, this is contributing to creating new opportunities for others and changing the face of the industry. Do you see change happening over the years that you have been active and do you have any guidance for any other designers looking to follow in your footsteps?
Representation is lacking and there is still a lot to do. We are seeing a surge of black designers who are breaking though into the mainstream and this is encouraging. My guidance to any other designers looking to follow in my steps is to be authentic. This is because text books at school telling you to develop a customer profile is part of a curriculum that is heavily influenced by Westernised-thinking and does not necessarily work the same way it would work for a BAME creative business. It is tough to get noticed but that authenticity also offers opportunities to re-think and re-develop towards a different type of audience that is more likely to appreciate your craft and the uniqueness that you bring to the table.
5. I love all your collections, but my favourite has to be Ophelia. Why were you intrigued by and inspired to create a collection based on Ophelia? What were components of her character or story that appealed to you?
I am big on storytelling and that has always been a main medium of inspiration for me, hence the short films I have developed.
As a kid, I read a lot and I was big on fairy tales and so naturally, reading Hamlet and coming across queen Gertrude's monologue of Ophelia's death really made an impression on me. It was really beautiful in the way Gertrude describes Ophelia's garment and how she was surrounded by the garlands of flowers. Seeing the painting by John Everett Millias fuelled my curiosity to try and recreate the artistic beauty from the colour palette, the decadent embroideries and the floral details surrounding Ophelia.
6. Your work is often informed by your interest in light and dark themes, mixed together and in contrast with one another. Chiaroscuro, for example, is a collection that has been informed by this. Can you let us know why these elements interest you?
I am quite a pensive person and really love fairy tales. There is a misconception of fairy tales being quite "happy" when in actual fact they are quite dark and what they would call cautionary tales. I like that juxtaposition because it makes people think beyond the beauty. It's similar to when I create a garment. It's about beauty but it's also about the method, the time and expertise that's gone into crafting the piece - that is the real beauty.
Also, a lot of the light and dark influences come from literature that I have read such as Edgar Allen Poe, such works pose a sense of dark wisdom which has another kind of beauty to it.
7. It is your desire to understand the woman behind the dress and craft something truly spectacular. If you could choose any woman, living or dead, to design for, who would it be and why?
I have had the opportunity to dress some amazing women and there will always be a list of others I would like to dress. Yes, it is my desire to understand the woman behind the dress but to truly gain an understanding, I need to start with me. Why? Because, I want the opportunity to showcase beauty from my eyes and be authentic.
8. What are your hopes and dreams for your brand going forward?
To be a brand that lasts beyond today and offers meaning beyond what we can make.
Written and interviewed by: Yinsey Wang
Designer: Beatrice Korlekie
Photographer: Anomalous Visuals
Photographer (last image only of Beatrice): Sophie Green