Fashion & Grooming Editor, Ross Pollard talks to the 2019 Fashion Scout Merit Award winner, Tolu Coker.
Han Wen, Eudon Choi, Roberts | Wood, David Koma, Xiao Li, Phoebe English, Katie Ann McGuigan, James Kelly, Gyo Yuni Kimchoe, Hermione de Paula, Georgia Hardinge, Heohwan Simulation, Edda and I-Am-Chen; that’s quite the list of talent isn’t it?

It’s the list of previous winners of the Fashion Scout Merit Award, an award that has become a pointer to who will be the next big name you must know. This year the award and £20,000 prize has gone to Tolu Coker and her eponymous unisex label. The bright, bold and youthful looks were selected by the judging panel of industry experts. I couldn’t wait to ask her a few questions in advance of her show during fashion week.

Tolu Coker
Congratulations on winning the Fashion Scout Merit Award this season, what made you apply?
Mainly because I had another collection in mind, but it was just having the means to showcase it and being logistically and financially able to do so. I graduated in 2017 so loads of stuff was coming my way, but it was just hard to put it all together.

I just thought this would be a great opportunity to show a lot of the things I’d been wanting to show for a while that I’ve had in the pipeline since the first graduate collection. Fashion Scout is a great platform to do that.

Tolu Coker
Getting the chance to show at such a famous event as Fashion Scout is a great opportunity, but how else do you think winning the award will help you?
I think it will give people a better look and perspective of my creative vision because I think people have seen my fashion films, look book sheets, some of my one-off projects but the only other show was my graduate collection, and it was a shared show.

There’s limitation with how creative you can get considering you’re sharing a show with other designers. I think it will allow people to also just be aware that I’ve evolved since then.

It’s a mixed collection with elements of menswear and womenswear; do you look at the two as different design sets within a theme or intrinsically linked unisex garments that naturally flow from your ideas and voice?
I think it’s all a natural flow of ideas; there’s more of a personal touch to it as I always wear men’s jackets so when I’m designing, I don’t think this is for a man or this is for a woman. I guess there are people who imagine it only for a man or woman, whereas I look at it like whoever likes this can wear it.

There’s a lot of people who have a blurred spectrum at the minute so I just think there’s more freedom for anyone to wear it. Most of my silhouettes can be worn by a woman or a man and it just evolves naturally. I just look at what people wear and I believe there only being one silhouette for a woman and one for a man is really outdated.

Tolu Coker
Tolu Coker
You’ve spoken previously about the issues of race and identity. Fashion has a huge problem with both diversity and cultural appropriation, one that’s sometimes discussed but rarely acted on. From your perspective what do you think could drive the much-needed change?
I guess just allowing fashion to be a bit more democratic, because what tends to happen with diversity and representation is everything tends to be created without diversity in mind, and then diversity only really comes in at the casting process or the styling later.

I think it needs to start from the very beginning so that it’s authentic. I think cultural appropriation half the time is not necessarily models of colour on the runway, but it’s designing the collection in mind, then having people from those communities involved in your research process.

I think moving forward that diversity needs to be a lot more than just an aesthetic. It really needs to start from the core, not just having models of colour or diverse casting because then the diversity feels a bit limited.

Tolu Coker collections also heavily feature materials in their second life. It feels like this is a time of change ­– the rework, reuse, recycle philosophy is finally taking hold.
Yeah, when I get designing, firstly, if you don’t have a lot of funds available to you in some sense in terms of materials that’s not much of an issue, because fashion’s one of the biggest polluters and wasteful industry – it’s the second most polluting industry.

There are a lot of things that are available and most of the stuff I use in the collection is just dead stock from companies or things that have offcuts so you’re getting quality materials and by deconstructing things. A lot of it started off as a way of working around defects in the material so I was like, ok well I can take the parts that aren’t suitable and remake it into something else.

So, it’s not just about sustainability being an ethos but also because it’s resourceful. It doesn’t just help the environment but it helps designers too. It was just a natural thing to me as I’ve mostly shopped second hand all my life anyway so this translates into the way I design too.

Tolu Coker
Having graduated from CSM, do you think that fashion studies include enough focus on the business side of the industry as well as the creative?
Most definitely not. I think that’s one of the biggest takeaways I had from university is realising that.

But I think a lot of it comes with its price, because you do have some universities that are really heavily focussed on business so then you’ve got people that make great commercial collections but I wouldn’t say from an artistic point of view that they’re the most inspiring. Yeah, they’re great clothes and they’re lovely to look at, but then you have other universities that are focussed on the concept and story-telling and I think really, it’s about trying to find the balance between the two – of story-telling elements and the business side of things, but then I guess it depends on what designer you want to be.

Not everyone that goes to fashion school is trying to make a big commercial brand. I was quite blessed to be on a placement that allowed me to have a great overview and perspective and I also worked through retail all the way through college and university so I had that side of things to really help me, but I have seen a difference in people that didn’t get internships and those who didn’t have part time jobs where they experienced selling things and seeing what people want to actually buy.

Tolu Coker
The pieces you produce are steeped in your own story, your identity and your family; how do you translate that story into fabric?
A lot of it is through illustration. I always observe people and places and a lot of my research process is either looking through old photographs or internet albums and galleries, because I feel like you find a lot of stories in them as people document memories and I studied print and I do freelance illustration so yeah that’s how I translate it.

Tolu Coker
Having won the award, what advice would you pass on to young designers just starting out their journey?
If I’m honest I don’t know. I’m still figuring it out myself, but the one thing I would say is always be authentic, always be yourself ­– as cliché as it sounds. I think things are so intense anyway, like just the logistic things and trying to design something there’s no point putting all that effort in when it isn’t a true representative of you.

I haven’t always been confident in my own personal ability especially in fashion school. My own advice would be just put out what you’re trying to say and if you’re going to do it just do it and don’t worry too much about how everyone else does it or else you just kind of blend in.

Tolu Coker
I’m a huge boilersuit fan. I saw yours on Instagram with its bobbles, paint marks and rolled legs/sleeves. I’m in love, can you put it on sale?
Glad to hear you love it! My garments are currently made to order via my website, but that could be changing very soon. You can find the website here.

Thanks to Tolu for her time. I can’t wait to see the collection on 15 February at Fashion Scout.