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Who’s HauTe?: Interview with Nigerian Womenswear Designers, Carmen & Selina Sutherland of Republic of Foreigner.

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Founded in 2010, Republic of Foreigner is a Nigerian apparel brand established with the aim of bringing out the spirit of freedom in all the ladies out there! Sisters,Carmen and Selina Sutherland, are the creative forces behind Republic Of Foreigner. Their designs are inspired by folklore, Afrobeat culture, vintage relics, and exude a mutual love of film, art, and design. HFA had a chat with the duo to learn more about them and the inspirations behind their work.

We always start with the corny bit of ‘getting to know you’. So pray tell, who are Carmen and Selina Sutherland? 

Selina: Who are we? Well to state the obvious, we’re sisters and BFFs. People say we’re quite different—but we find it funny because we share the same values, and generally like the same things. We also share this weird family humour that other people don’t get. If anything I’d say that Carmen’s the extrovert. She’s the friendly one with a bubbly, larger than life personality.

Carmen: Selina likes to think of herself as the calm and diplomatic one. She’s very cool and collected…on the exterior. Very few people know her true colours [Laughs]. Somehow our differences work for us. We’re both very creative, hard working, and confident in our own way. As far as our design relationship goes, we often work via compromise (like a marriage). What’s cool about us is that if I want white and Selina wants red, we won’t do either. We’ll do pink or a light orange.

Selina: We tend to find something in-between what we both want—and at the end of the day what we create is ten times better than what either of us had initially envisioned. ROF would not look the way it does if either of us weren’t 100% involved in our design processes. It’s a reflection of our relationship as sisters and friends—so a lot of chaos with a lot of love.

Did you always know you wanted to build a career in fashion?

Carmen: Between Selina and myself, we have many interests—everything from fashion and film, to history and politics. So I cannot say that either of us ever limited our scope of opportunity career-wise to any one particular field. Our Parents have always stressed the fact that in the world, your opportunities are infinite, so never limit yourself.

Selina: We’ve always had entrepreneurial spirits. I knew from a young age that I eventually wanted to work for myself, and I could probably say the same for my sister. I think we could have probably gone into any field we set our minds on—be it in retail, entertainment, or politics. We just happened to choose fashion as the first frontier.

Besides designing and managing ROF, what else have you got your hands on?

Carmen: Well we’re both extremely fond of film, so we dabble in screenwriting (though more as a hobby for now). We also have a creative branding and consulting company, Spark Creative, which runs alongside ROF. Besides that we have a few other non-fashion related projects we’re working on.

Selina: At the moment we’re both at Parsons, The New School Of Design in New York. Carmen’s studying Graphic Design with a background in Fashion Design and I’m studying Fashion Merchandising also with a background in Fashion Design. One could say we’re killing many birds with one stone. I honestly don’t know how we do it. Thank God for our Mother who runs the business with us. As you can imagine it’s hard work balancing two businesses and multiple projects with our rigorous school schedule. We’re lucky we’re hard workers and we have each other.

What do you love most about running your own label?

Selina: Is that a loaded question? [Laughs] Clearly the perks are (1.) you have no boss; (2.) you can set your own hours, and (3.) you do what you want. The down side to all that is that you have to work that much harder than everyone else around you. It’s hectic.

Carmen: I second that—the freedom to do as I please is wonderful. But it’s not all fun and games if you want to be successful. People don’t realize how much work we put in.

Let’s find out a little more about Republic of Foreigner. Interesting name by the way! What inspired the name and the label?

Carmen: The obvious influence for the name came from our heritage—on our dad’s side our grandfather was Scottish/Itsekiri and our grandmother is French/West Indian. And on our mother’s side our granddad was Yoruba/English and her mother is Yoruba. So from that we really wanted to explore and celebrate a place where diversity is appreciated.

Selina: The Republic Of Foreigner is also a sort of ode to globalization and the third culture kid. With so much travel and people constantly moving and relocating because of school, business, or family, our generation’s idea of “home” is sort of hazy. So the Republic Of Foreigner is a sort of playing field where we can interact and unite despite our many differences.

What’s the general aesthetic of the brand?

Carmen: That’s a tough question. As people, we’re continuously drawing from the past but forever changing. Change is good. So I would think that if you’re constantly changing, evolving, and drawing from the past your style should reflect this. ROF’s aesthetic is rather interesting in the sense that it too is constantly evolving while also drawing from the past.

Selina: We choose not to restrain ourselves by generalizing our visual influences—but we do seem to have a bit of a fetish for abstract prints and vintage clothes. But we also like simplicity. We like to explore diversity and that shows in our design aesthetic. We think of what a ROF lady wants—she likes excitement and change, but she wants ease as well; her person is forever evolving and her taste is forever changing. We have to accommodate this sensibility.

“She dances out the wilderness with colourful spirit, holds hands with love and chaos, in calm and light she’s always a diamond in a R.O.F”. Love the use of pun there! We are guessing that’s a R.O.F lady? In simpler words :-) , who is a R.O.F. lady?

Selina: Ladies in the ROF are wise and young at heart—old souls tastefully wrapped up in a new world. Not constrained by age and not followers. A ROF lady appreciates both tradition and change, and she sees beauty in the little things. She’s a lover not a fighter—a little bit of a hippie and a rock star in her own right.

Carmen: A ROF lady is an indie darling at heart. She appreciates and thrives on new experiences but never forgets where she comes from. She’s joyous and likes to be comfortable. She’s unpretentious and confident.

You have quite a few collections under your belt and we must say that we admire the artist representation of your work. You’ve just released your Resort 2012 Collection- Echizen, tell us a little more about it.

Carmen: One night (I think we were watching the Animal Planet), and a program about this beautiful but invasive type of jellyfish called Echizen comes up—in it, they spoke about global warming and its effect on this aggressive species as well as the negative effects it was having on Japan’s fishing industry. It drove home the point of why earth matters.

Selina: In a sense the Echizen best represented what we were trying to achieve with this collection. We drew from a lot of films and artists, as well as tones seen in nature (a lot of marine life). Movement and colour play a big role in the collection, as do graphic prints, textures, and trimming. We also made some historical references—think cowboys, gondoliers, and gypsies. We could go on and on because anything and everything can inspire our designs—from natural or industrial materials such as fabrics, wood, and metals to more literal, visual, and cultural inspirations—like 1970s rock stars and their girlfriends to characters like Emma Bovary or Scarlett O’Hara. If we see something cool or interesting we’ll most likely be influenced by it…

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We notice a lot of exciting stuff going on with your label most especially your accessories range ULTANATIV. You released its debut collection with your Resort 2012 collection. What kind of pieces should we expect to see?

Carmen: ULTANATIV is a sort of cultural experiment. For our first collection we’ve used traditional Jigida (waist) beads and crafted silver to make some really cool necklaces. We’ve also drawn inspiration from the 1920s and 1970s to make hats that complement our outfits—boater hats and big floppy boho hats made out of Ankara.

Any designers you admire? And who would you say have the strongest influences on your work and label artistically speaking?

Selina: So many! I think between the two of us we have several favourite designers. I really love the work of Alber Elbaz, Riccardo Tisci, Dries Van Noten, Kate and Laura Mulleavy, Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig, Mary Katrantzou, and Phoebe Philo. I guess I’m quite fond of those fashion duos [Laughs], but the list really does go on and on. I could probably sit here and tell you everything I love about each of their design aesthetics.

Carmen: I think we appreciate both intricacy and simplicity—some of my favourites are the houses of Alexander McQueen, Mathew Williamson, Marchesa, and Stella McCartney, to name a few.

Got any plans for world domination ;-)? What’s the future of R.O.F?

Carmen: World domination sounds good to me. [Laughs]

Selina: We’re still a very young company and we’ve only been around for about a year, but we’re growing everyday. I guess we’ll both find out the future of ROF in good time.

What’s it like being a part of the African fashion industry? Any perks or challenges?

Carmen: Operating in Nigeria is certainly a challenge. So many overhead costs involved in running any business. It would be nice if we didn’t have to constantly use a generator. But at the same time it’s exciting being a part of an industry that has really begun to blossom. The possibilities are endless.

Who are the stockists of your label and/or where are your designs available for purchase?

Selina: We just launched The ROF Pop-Up Shop on Friday 5th of August, which will run through to Thursday the 11th at The White Space on 58, Raymond Njoku, Ikoyi, Lagos (Friday from 4-10PM; Every other day 10AM-8PM). So anyone can come along and find out more about ROF. :-).

For more information on the label please visit www.InTheROF.com

- Andie Okon

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