The CSM graduate celebrating black womanhood through Whitney Houston lyrics
Drawing on her own experiences of feeling misplaced, Feben Vemmenby makes clothes that might not look ‘right', but will catch your eye all the same.
Photography Liz Johnson Artur
Rules in fashion are made to be broken, as the extensive family tree of industry enfants terribles proves. The latest to follow in this proud genealogy of sartorial disobedience is CSM MA Womenswear graduate Feben Vemmenby, with her final collection It’s Not Right, But It’s OK, shot here by Liz Johnson Artur, and styled by i-D’s Ibrahim Kamara.
“I just thought it would be a funny way to approach things, Whitney Houston's been such a huge part of anyone's life growing up,” she explains of her chosen title, taken from the late great’s 1999 hit. But more than a tribute to a musician who touched the souls of so many in her time, it’s a fitting epithet for the young designer’s approach to fashion making. “Throughout my collection, I clash prints in a way that might not be considered ‘right’ or typical,” she explains, “and I do the same with fabrics too. In one look, for example, I might combine mesh and wool. I like to play with fabrics that aren’t ‘meant’ to be together, but the result is OK in the end.”
The particular look she’s referring to is a royal and navy blue pinstripe skirt ‘suit’, with its quirky lapels, fuzzy buttons and broad uneven stripes that seem to be hand-painted, or goofily squiggled on. Yet, despite the comic distortion of visual details, it nonetheless appears perfectly tailored -- until you take a closer look, that is. “It's actually a print on a one-size mesh top,” the designer explains, extending her subversion of expectation and perception to the actual garments themselves.
As wryly humorous a take on a business staple as it is, its commentary is more pointed, and poignant: a meditation on the bodies that have traditionally been excluded from the fashion canon. She calls the ensemble ‘the Dorian Corey look’, a toast to the Harlem ballroom matriarch who in Paris is Burning underlines the significance of the now-renowned ‘executive realness’ runway category. “In real life,” Corey says, “you can't get a job as an executive unless you have the educational background and the opportunity. In a ballroom, you can be anything you want. You're not really an executive but you're looking like an executive.”
“That’s why I chose to make it a one-size top in stretchable mesh, to communicate the idea that anyone who wears it can be an executive too,” echoes Feben, going on to comment on the exclusionary body politics that condition the fit of, particularly high-end, clothes. “I can't usually fit into a really nice suit,” she says, “It wasn't really made with someone like me, someone with hips, in mind.” Elsewhere in the collection, this experience translates to a tailored satin suit, its bust and hips accentuated out of line with the slim-fit norm. “It's a suit for a black woman, which is why the bust and hips are are highlighted,” she says, “It's an act of confrontation -- it’s me saying: ‘I belong here, other black women belong here, and this is a suit we can wear.’”
A holistic vision of black womanhood permeates the collection, whether in the print of a nude Nina Simone on a jersey dress, carefully overlaying the body of the wearer to trompe l’oeil effect, or in the hand-crocheted bead bag depicting a still from Eartha Kitt’s widely distributed monologue on her refusal to compromise for a man’s demands. It’s in this and many other respects that Feben’s work confronts the assumptions that condition perceptions of black women. “I really wanted to challenge this idea of a black woman with a voice being perceived as angry. I'm so sick of being classified as this aggressive person because I have a point of view’,” she explains. “It's so important to use your voice in whatever way you can.”
That’s not, however, to say that her celebration of black female strength is entirely antagonistic. On another bead bag, we see a crocheted version of a photo of her mother, shortly after her arrival in Sweden from Ethiopia by way of Pyongyang, Feben’s birthplace. “Whenever I go to visit my mum in Sweden, I go through photo albums -- it’s how I begin my research. In handcrafted house-decoration, doilies and wall-hangings are really popular, especially among grandmothers,” she explains. “I wanted to take the approach with beads, and translated some of my reference images. This is one of my favourite photos of her, and, as I'm looking at strong women throughout the collection, I styled it with the pinstripe look.”
To articulate her blend of political commentary and autobiographical perspective, Feben turned to the work of the Surrealists, as well as contemporary painters like Chris Ofili, alongside her own compositions. "When you start researching the history of galleries, and art more widely, you quickly realise there aren't many people that look like me. So I decided to make my own paintings, and look at my own history,” she explains, referring to a fuschia boned canvas gown that resembles an abstracted face. “It's basically a self-portrait. Growing up I felt like I didn't belong, because I didn't have blond hair and blue eyes -- I had braided hair, but all I wanted was to be able to push my hair behind my ears like the blonde girls,” she says, describing her approach as a means of catharsis, of coming to terms and reclaiming her painful memories of misplacement. A similar thought process yielded a pair of knee-high turquoise boots with a facial profile for a heel.
As deeply personal a collection as it may be, its message is one that resonates far beyond the parameters of a particular race or identity. “I think that even if you're not a black woman, you can still relate to my work. Everyone has felt uncomfortable in their lives, and I think it's very important to make people feel uncomfortable, to confront people with things they don't want to talk about, says Feben. “It was so important for me to place my experiences at the heart of the collection. In a surreal, comical way, it’s my way of saying: ‘It's not right but it's ok, I'm gonna make it anyway.’”
Campaign and lookbook imagery
Photography Liz Johnson Artur
Styling Ibrahim Kamara
Hair Virginie Moreira
Makeup Quelle Bester (for campaign). Ammy Drammeh (for lookbook)
Casting Chloe Rosolek
Videographer Ethan Hart
Writer Feben Vemmenby
Producer Yasser Abubeker