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Sorcery, Story-Telling & Sustainability: A fashion dialogue with Tara Mabiala

Often capturing the nuances of Congolese dress, Tara Mabiala seeks to embody the essence of her cultural heritage through her craft. Presenting an array of striking pieces, Tara has seemingly reflected on the complex intertwining’s of one’s personal pleasures, coupled with the notions of cultural identity, to inspire her work. It is through Tara’s inquisitiveness of her Congolese familial relations and lived experiences that she has been able to channel a strong sense of imagination into her design process. 

The multi-dimensional and radiantly bold designs of one of Tara’s latest collections – ‘When she left the room the spirits went with her’, encapsulates much of the decorative styles celebrated within Congolese culture. However, cultural identity does not remain the sole inspiration for her collections, as Tara also adopts elements attained from classic Blaxploitation films. The strong portrayal of dress plays an important symbolic role for character expression and identification in Blaxploitation films, thus encouraging Tara to implement a similar ideology. 

We spoke with Tara about some of the pathways she has taken to develop her relationship with culture and creativity. We learn some of her primary inspiration sources, such as; the image of sorcery through story-telling, and the ongoing discourse surrounding sustainability, that is ever-present within the fashion industry. 

Several of your designs are constructed to capture elements of your Congolese heritage. Let’s talk about the journey you took to connect your creative process with your cultural identity.

It was quite an interesting process. It started when I began studying fashion in Geneva, which was daunting, but we had a tutor who was good at making us find out what we wanted to talk about. We had a project where we were required to pick a couple of pictures that captured what we wanted to express. I went back and looked at quite a lot of pictures that I had taken whilst growing up in Switzerland, the UK and Tanzania. A lot of the images had a mysterious side to them. As a child, I would create quite a strong imaginary world, with lots of magic and sorcery that I had heard through stories. 

I was also able to go to the Congo to see my family, where I had discussions with people and observed things in more detail. I guess that’s where the relationship to clothing came in—observing how the people appropriate clothing in the street but also within my family and at parties. So, as I matured creatively, I looked more at the way people dress and why they were dressed like that. 

All those kinds of pictures and experiences put together translated into a project at school, which kind of made me understand the link to emotion through clothing. It was very much associated with this magical world I had picked out of my travels, and through meeting my family.

Your BA collection in 2017, has a strong ancestral component – why was it important for you to draw on your family and have them model the garments?

I drew some inspiration for the collection by seeing my family get items made from the local seamstress in the Congo. I would also observe street children and see how the clothing was appropriated and dressed, which encouraged me to include that in my collection. 

It seemed logical for me to share that with my close family, here in Switzerland. So, the images were taken on my father, my sisters, my mother, my nieces and nephews, who I felt had witnessed the same sources of my inspiration. They knew the inspiration behind it, which made them wear the clothes more knowingly. To explain myself further, when I generally think about the models for my presentation and pictures, I try and take people who will understand the inspiration or the mood and atmosphere I’m trying to express. So that is why I used my family for that collection. They could understand and therefore, embody it. 

‘When She Left The Room The Spirits Went With Her’, are wonderfully elaborate pieces that you described were “anchored in personal pleasure”. How much of yourself is reflected in those designs? 

In this collection, I was inspired by a common dress in the Congo; called the uniform. This is where a group of people, like a family, would pick out a fabric for specific events like weddings or funerals. Everybody from that group would have some clothing made up of that particular fabric. Which means everyone in the group uses the same fabric for different styles. It’s something I really love about my culture; it’s really inspiring to me and is quite anchored in pleasure. 

The other source of my inspiration came from Blaxploitation movies in the ’70s and Westerns. For my last year as a student, I wanted my collection to be fun for me. So, I took things that I like and then made a collection out of it. It was the literal definition of me being anchored in my own pleasures. 

The pieces were also made in confinement, so I was at home with no contact and exchange with colleagues. All the tutoring was done on Zoom, so everyone who has been in lockdown knows you kind of have to re-invent how you live life. I already knew that when I create, I have to be really excited by the final form for me to continue and push further. It was nice to work in a way that wasn’t constantly influenced by my tutor’s and colleague’s thoughts. Instead, I thought; how does this make me feel when seeing it, and if it brings me joy and pleasure in that way… it’s ok. 

This collection is also described as a manifesto for the joy of dressing. How did this concept establish itself? 

There were certain things that I was attracted to and came to be obsessed about when developing the collection. I was inspired by the idea of the uniform and the festive dress, which has lots of volume, ruffles, and scrunching that I extracted from those types of designs. There were also other things like; ideas that were not seen as fashion that I enjoyed – such as visible bras and bra straps. I always thought why not embrace that and make it a fun part of the design. 

The Blaxploitation movies influenced how the clothes were to be worn. Often the characters would have different roles in the films. For example, in Coffy, Pam Grier is a nurse who also transforms into this seductive date and then goes into a detective role. So, the clothing situates each character, allowing them to symbolise each role – emphasising the notion of embodiment. 

You’ve previously spoken at some length about the importance of revisiting sustainability in fashion. How would you best describe your relationship with sustainability within your practice of fashion? 

This is a subject I really like. So, as a student, being sustainable in fashion is quite easy. It comes naturally because we aren’t that rich so we have to make everything ourselves or we work with one or two really talented seamstresses. We upcycle a lot, use vintage things and make do with very little, so you are kind of forced to be sustainable. For me, that’s how I went through my study. So, I sometimes find it frustrating when up and coming fashion students say that their graduate collection was sustainable, as if it were ground-breaking, when we are often all doing something that is, more or less, sustainable. 

So, as a fashion student, I find it interesting to continue making collections sustainable and think truly about what it is to be sustainable in fashion… outside of being a student. Thinking about brands that produce over availability, push consumption and engage in greenwashing, are all areas I wanted to think about theoretically during my studies. That’s how I went about analysing relationships to clothing, consuming and fashion. I think common sustainability in fashion is about production and sourcing, when it has to be about consumer’s relationship to clothing and why it is that way. The whole capitalistic thing is the basis of understanding sustainability in fashion. However, I’m really happy to see more brands engage in sustainable practices like upcycling. Fashion will continue to be unsustainable because the demand is too high, and we are continuing to overproduce. 

On the topic of sustainability, your thesis mentions the notion of collective dress. What benefit does the ideology of collective dress have for the individual? 

I read quite a few pieces of individuality and collectiveness and what I took out from those texts is the idea that individuality is shared with collectiveness. Often the things that make us stand out as individuals are commonly shared by a collective. Dress, in fashion, is a way of communicating between us. There are pointers in how we dress that allows us to communicate with other people who maybe dress in the same way. 

Certain things give a sense of belonging and a way of being seen. So, when you’re a minority, this notion of belonging helps you to live in a world where you are not the majority. I think fashion is one of the ways that this can be achieved. In my thesis, I looked at different groups of people and they’re not people who dress identically, but as a member of their collective, they can recognise one another based on how they dress. I am not talking about collective dress as the uniform, because for me the uniform is entirely different to collective dress. It is more the notion that someone’s ideology is so strong that they want to embody it through dress. It’s being fabulous as a way of being radical whilst living and embracing who you are as a group, making collective dress so important.

As a designer, considering the future, what area(s) would you like to positively impact within the fashion industry (outside of sustainability)? 

As a black woman in fashion, working towards eliminating the practice of fake diversity and representation is important. We are seeing more and more diverse bodies on the catwalks but not in the design teams… we cannot instigate the token black designer either.  

There are also big questions surrounding the measurements of success in fashion design. I think fashion is often linked to achieving success. You know, it’s always “who is the next Karl Lagerfeld?” or “these are the 30 best fashion students to come out of the year” … except how do we navigate that? I think about that a lot, deconstructing the fashion industry to the point where it restores its inherent nature… the open and free expression of creativity for oneself. 

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