When All the Stars Align: A Conversation with Celebrity Designer Kutula
Kutula, a black owned business within the LA area, has been a go-to for folks that want authentic, traditional African garb that is stylish and modern. I first found out about Kutula when I saw the "All the Stars" video with Kendrick Lamar and Sza. I noticed the beautiful red hats in the beginning of the video, and had to find where they came from. With a little bit of research, I found Kutula. Rachael and I visited the store to get an outfit for the Black Panther premiere our church put on, and while visiting, we asked store owners Bo and Kay some questions about the rise of their store.
Jode-Leigh: When was Kutula founded?
Kay: Our original brand is called Africana Imports. That business was founded in1971 by our mom. Bo and I [Kay] are sisters. Our mom had a thriving retail space starting in 1971 through 2014, when we decided to take over the business and rebranded it. In that rebranding process we wanted to rename it under something that had a deeper meaning for us, and that was based on our culture. My sister and I are half Zambian and half Nigerian, our mom is Zambian and our dad is Nigerian. They met here [Los Angeles] where we were born. Kutula means “to leap forward” and that came about from us talking about with our mom where we wanted to take the brand and asking her for some symbolic words. We loved Kutula and that's how we rebranded under that name. On our store it says, “Kutula by Africana” which is kind of where that all ties together. We see the long-term brand under just Kutula, but for our LA store we call it Kutula by Africana because we do have a long standing following that knows us under that previous brand name.
J: I actually found the store through Instagram, and saw the design of Lupita’s mom's dress for the Black Panther premier. What was that process like, and what other celebrities did you work with for this event?
K: It was a really great experience. For us Lupita was always somebody that we would have loved to work with. Fortunately, her team approached us because we had previously worked with her co-star from Queen of Katwe, David Oyelowo. We outfitted him for his global promotional tour. She saw all the work that we were doing, and he recommended us to her. We were incredibly excited when we heard that was how Lupita found out about us. The process was really collaborative, and I think once we had an idea for the silhouette we wanted for her mom, and once we found the perfect print, it all just fell into place from there. We were so excited to give her mom this really great red carpet look—something different than she's ever worn, a little bit more glam, like a ball gown for such a special occasion since her mom was going be her date for the night.
There were high expectations and I think everyone wanted to have a lot of fun with it. We weren't aware that Lupita had not yet really collaborated on designing, so we were more than pleased to be part of her sort-of inaugural design collaboration process.
We [also] worked with a lot of cast members helping them figure out which direction to go. A lot of them were seeking looks for their loved ones and their spouses. We dressed Sterling K. Brown's wife, Ryan Michelle Bathe, who is also an actress. We dressed both of Michael B. Jordan's parents, his mom was in a vintage silk that we've had for over 20-30 years! We also dressed a number of Disney executives, a lot of the star's teams, and a lot of attendees to the film. We found that we were flooded with so many people that were attending the premier and really wanted everyone to have unique look. I'd say we dressed around 75 or more people for the premier in two and a half weeks!
J: From where are your materials and fabrics sourced?
K: Primarily West Africa, that includes Nigeria, Ghana, Mali; and then Kenya and Congo.
J: Can you tell me more about the design process? From conceptualizing the look to the completed ready to wear item, what's that like?
K: Because we produce on site for the most part, a lot of times we're responding to customer feedback. So let's say if people really want to have jumpsuits, we think okay what's an interesting take on a jumpsuit? There are core areas of your wardrobe that we always hit upon whether it's dusters or trench coats, jumpsuits, or maxi skirts. We'll always bring those things back around, but do it with a new twist because we are really focused on helping people accentuate and build their wardrobes so it's not just a one-time-only thing that they're wearing.
Sometimes the fabric inspires the design process. The fabric speaks to you and you just think, "Oh this will make a really great wide leg pant or a really great jacket." Sometimes you leave fabric there until it inspires you or until the right client comes to you, like how we did the vintage silk with Michael B. Jordan's mom. From time to time we're inspired by a custom creation we do for a client and we decide to switch it up and make something similar for the store.
After the design is made we typically do small runs by making a few with different fabrics in each size. We try not to make too many versions of it and not too many in the same fabric to maintain that sort of boutique model and also just so people feel like their items are unique and not mass marketed.
Once we're happy with it, we'll start to make the rest of the sizes. We're always in the process on an ongoing basis. We're coming up with new styles essentially on a weekly basis if not more.
J: You’ve worked with other designers for the store. Can you tell me more about these collaborations, and whom else you've partnered with?
K: Our whole reasoning behind doing that was recognizing that our clients were going online, searching, but not really purchasing. They then come in and show us different photos and we were realized that this could be a great opportunity to build a pipeline so that our clients would be able to touch and feel a variety of styles. We wanted to look at designers that were focusing on quality, that had a very specific aesthetic that compliments our existing brand by adding a little bit of variation, and to also give them a platform to be in a retail store. A lot of online designers don't have the opportunity to be retailed in Saks or Nordstrom and even if they were, companies like those don’t always know how to market African print. We've worked with a designer that used to be retailed in Nordstrom and his feedback was they didn't really know what to do with him.
We recognize there is a great need for that, to be able to channel a lot of these online designers, some of the best of the best, into a retail store so that people know there is a place that they can they can touch and feel them. We wanted to be able to create that exclusive opportunity for a select few designers so people can get to know them and because we've been around for a long time we can also impart some knowledge on what the client feedback is and how they can enhance their product. Overall we have a vested interest in making sure that everybody is performing to the highest level so that way we can all be really competitive globally. There's really enough room for everybody, but I think we just want to make sure that we're setting the bar on the highest level and we're able to fulfill that. We want people to have a positive association with African-inspired clothing, and know that they're going to get good customer service and high quality pieces that you know are going to last. We want to play a part in making that more widespread.
Some of the designers we're carrying right now are Kaela Kay which is out of Toronto, Mangishi Doll which is out of Zambia, and Midget Giraffe who's out of New Jersey, by way of Nigeria.
I think when our designers come in, they see a different side of the client base and they get great exposure since we're in the back door of Hollywood. I think most of the designers, within the first week or first few days, they get pieces on a celebrity. Two of our designers, after the first week were a part of the Kendrick Lamar video.
J: I'm glad you mentioned the Kendrick Lamar video, "All the Stars." A lot of your pieces were included in that. What did it mean to you to be involved in such an amazing video?
K: It was an incredible opportunity; it had come after a point in time when we had touched a lot of different aspects for the Black Panther film. Kendrick Lamar has such talent, skill, and respect in the industry. It was his same team behind his Grammy nominated video for "Humble" and it was also a lot of the same folks behind Beyoncé’s Lemonade visual album. Knowing that it was the best of the best working on it, combined with the fact that it's for Black Panther, it was it was truly an honor.
It was a really great creative avenue to be able to express more of the sentiment of the film and for the spotlight that's being positioned, specifically on African fashion as it relates to this film. We got to be on set and they had a live black panther there. The single [All the Stars] is just amazing, we found out that he was curating the whole soundtrack; it was really just an honor.
I think we were really creative on how we put together looks. If you look at our Instagram there’s a photo of the models standing in a line, waiting in a queue. A lot of those looks we were created by just kind of laying them around the store, playing around with different things and working with the stylist. We also provided some of the red hats you see on some of the kids and the Mali hats that were on the dancers. When there's a performance happening, and you're able to be a part of that it's an exhilarating experience. It meant a lot to us.
8. J: On a personal level what does the Black Panther film mean to you?
K: My sister and I being byproducts of the diaspora, being raised here in Los Angeles, living on the east coast, and through our schooling, our work and our careers, we've had a lot of interfacing with many different cultures and aspects of life. I think for us, and a lot of people in the diaspora, the film kind of encapsulated the full circle experience of all that and kind of took us back to a grounding place where it really united us as one. I think it reminded us of a lot of basic elements that connect us no matter what continent we're on. I believe it did that not only for us in the African diaspora, but for everyone else too. I think no matter where you're from, it's always amazing to see a group of people put in such a strong and empowering light. I think in this day, some kids that grew up with Barack Obama as the president didn't really see it as much of a big deal because they don't know that was so much of a big deal. I think when kids see that [Black Panther] and it's really just another superhero that's amazing, awesome, and someone to aspire to be without having to add a qualifier; it's an amazing film on it's own. That's like the pinnacle; it's a place I think personally we wish we had gotten to sooner. But the fact that it happened now, we're so thankful because I think it's inspiring a lot of different conversations. I think the ripple effect is going to be great in the creative space, in a social aspect, and a political aspect because it's such a personal film that Ryan Coogler did and he really put all his soul into it. I think that's why they're about to make record-breaking history at the box office (Since this conversation, Black Panther has broken multiple records). I don't think that Bo and I were surprised personally that it was going to be a big movement and a phenomenon. But the way it all played out, I think we couldn't have predicted the way it would feel and how many people would also take it to that level. I'm just glad we were involved in this capacity. It's great to be a part of such a historic moment.
Be sure to check out Kutula on social media!