Fashion designer Mansour Badjoko wa Lileko on making real clothes

In this candid interview first published in our February-March edition, emerging Brussels-based designer Mansour Badjoko wa Lileko talks ideals, reality and how the fashion industry is racist, sexist and classist.

Mansour Badjoko wa Lileko by Lisa Lapierre

How and when did fashion first start taking an important place in your life?

I started paying attention to what my friends were wearing and how it affected our lives when I was 12 years old. Then, in high school, I discovered skate culture, gabber culture, sneaker culture and it was a new world, with new codes and references to explore. It left a strong mark on me and developed an interest for how people communicate through clothes – the language, the culture, the syntax behind fashion.

How do you differ from other upstart fashion imprints?

Honesty and transparency. I’m not doing this for the fame, prestige or fortune. I’m driven by an ideal: buy less, buy better. I think our generation deserves better clothes: made ethically, with great care for the environment and people. We deserve goods that will last for more than two months. I just try to design products worth buying.

At its core, what would you say are the founding principles of your studio?

Besides timelessness, great quality and craftsmanship, our central concern is our clients.

We design for them, we respect them and we listen to them. We give them all the information necessary to make a committed purchase. Today, buying isn’t as insignificant as it used to be. Buying is voting, and clients are supporters.

How would you describe your aesthetic?

Minimalist, realistic and inclusive. It’s important to represent and include as many people as possible. Not everyone is a rich white man or woman who lives in a western city. The world is wide and connected now, and I design for that world.

How would you describe your work ethic and approach?

I’m not into fashion show pageantry but in the reality of a product: I design and produce clothes that will be worn by real people. The fashion industry is a system that produces a lot of waste and thrives on exploitation. We try to have a strong work ethic and stir away from that traditional business model. We produce all of our clothes in Europe, with severely monitored factories. We try to work with high quality organic fibers: cotton, wool, linen and eco-conscious dye and finishings.

Why, in your view, is it important to develop a unisex clothing line?

The notion of gender is changing right now. Our generation is challenging definitions of what feminine and masculine is, to finally build something new. Clothes don’t really have gender.

On the crowd-funding page you launched for your debut collection, you stated, rather ambitiously, that your aim was to establish new standards in the fashion industry.

The fashion industry is a racist, sexist and classist industry. Why do so many brands think that Caucasian is the only desirable complexion? Why are there so few woman or people of colour involved in key roles in the industry? Why is the only enviable lifestyle to be materialistic and rich? I find this quite disturbing and I want to change that. I want to provide a safe environment and include everyone. Also fashion is an opaque business, where prices are created artificially by marketing campaigns. We want to be transparent: our customers deserve to know how a piece is made, by who, where and how much it costs to produce.

Which individual played a pivotal role in who you are and what you do today?

It is going to sounds really cheesy, but my Mom is probably the person that influenced me the most. She always believed that we could do anything, me and my two sisters. She pushed us to follow our hearths and be true to ourselves. She raised us in the belief that everything is possible. And I think it is a wonderful mindset to raise children and young adults on: not be cynical or negative, always find something positive to do, find a solution, get moving, be busy, work hard and you’ll succeed.

As a child, what was your dream?

My dream was to heal people, to make them feel better. And I hope it is what I am doing today. I hope I can make people feel beautiful and powerful.

What does success look like to you?

Success is ultimately freedom. The ability to do what you want on your own terms and to be responsible for your own choices.

Implicating customers in the creative process can be somewhat time-consuming. How do you plan on making good on this promise, whilst still retaining control of the creative process?

The advantage with internet is that everybody has a power of influence. The power structure is slowly shifting. My job is to make it seamless for our customer to interact with us. We have to listen to our customers, we have to involve them in our decision making. And it is easier today than ever before, thanks to social media: Twitter polls, Google hangouts, meet and greets.

When designing a collection, what would you say are your inspirations?

The inspirations are usually a bit abstract, it is usually an emotion that I try to make people feel: powerful, beautiful, dangerous, confident. I’m always intrigued by communities and groups that create their own codes and rules. I try to replicate that, build an alternative world, a sense of belonging, tinted by utopia.

As an emerging fashion designer working in Belgium today, what would you say is your biggest challenge?

Getting the help we need when we need it. Unfortunately we don’t have a strong and powerful organization like the French Federation of Couture, the British Fashion Council or the Council of Fashion Designers of America to help and nurture young talents. We have three small entities with three small agendas and it is such a pity, because we have great fashion schools but no perspectives.

Mansour Badjoko wa Lileko (1986) is a half-Congolese, half Belgian fashion designer from Brussels who graduated from E.N.S.A.V. La Cambre in 2009 and went on to study at Institut Français de la Mode in Paris.