It takes quite a few emails before I’m finally able to catch Ibrahim “Ib” Kamara on Skype. The Sierra Leone native, enrolled at London’s Central Saint Martins, is currently holed up in Vienna, Austria, styling a friend’s presentation. We chat about “the gays,” life after university, and redefining Black male sexuality on his own terms with his project, Sensitive Thug. Text Sean Santiago. Photographed by Campbell Addy.
What I really like about Sensitive Thug is how the subjects present in this conventionally masculine way until you notice something small—a spaghetti strap, or jewels, and you kind of look at the layers and you do a double take.
I think that’s what I’m really interested in at the moment, defining a new man. [The name] kind of came about as a joke with a friend, but I started running with it. I started looking at hip hop in the early 2000s, 50 Cent and those guys everyone wanted to look like, and playing with [the image of] the strong man. I want to take that apart and make him comfortable in his sexuality, make my own man that I think is ready for 2016 or 2027. With menswear I can push it as much as I want. Not so much women’s wear, because it’s a bit obvious when you put a woman in certain things.
Do you like hip hop?
It’s not really my thing. Kanye West and fashion I find very problematic. I think when you take American rappers and fashion it’s become this one look they’re all going for. Like, you can’t really go off the rails with it and I find that so chaotic. If Kanye West wears something it goes viral, from Paris to New York, to Milan, to Africa. I don’t want to go back to Africa and see people wearing something from New York. So I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of hip hop, but I like the idea of making fun of it. Like, dragging it through the streets and putting it in people’s faces and saying, ‘Hey, well, I can do whatever I want with it, too.’ This is my interpretation of hip hop.
So I’m guessing from Instagram that you’re in London by way of Nigeria?
No, I’m Sierra Leonean. I’m half Sierra Leonean, half Malian. And I moved to London at the age of seventeen.
Just for university?
No, I came to join my mum. My mum has lived here for a long time.
So when you talk about Kanye being very much an American influence and being that new male archetype in hip hop, how does that influence what you’re seeing abroad?
That’s the thing, being at Central Saint Martins is a world unto its own. And sometimes I forget that there are people in different places. In my uni we have a club—well, not a club, but we have a night called Loverboy, where kids from other universities come join us. It’s kind of a Studio 54 vibe, so you really have to dress up. You see kids with these really forward-thinking looks. You’re thinking Oh, shit, and I get so inspired by people dressing up to go to these clubs. It’s not about what’s happening in the mainstream, it’s about these little kids who call themselves artists and photographers and models and whatever, they all just come together. And we all know each other because we all party in the same place all the time, so we all tend to rub off on each other’s style. Like, I’ll wear a lipstick and a crop top and seventies trousers to the party and then my friends will wear a spaghetti strap and a jock strap over a jean and you’ll be like, ‘It looks so good!’
So that’s in London?
Yeah, and I grew up in Africa, which was pretty hip hop influenced. We all wore jeans and tops and trainers. When I got to London I did pretty much the same thing for a year, until I went to arts university. You’re open to a whole different world then, and everything you’ve been taught pretty much flies out the window. You just want to reinvent yourself. You wear things just to make your mom go, ‘I’m going to die tomorrow!’
Is your mom supportive of that spirit of reinvention—and wearing her things?
No, not at all. I just have to steal them. But I shop a lot of women’s wear, so I go into the women’s section and I find things and I always cut them, make them my own look, then I go out. And that’s what most of my friends do. So, on any given night out you never know what anyone’s going to wear. Everyone turns up looking differently, because they’ve gone out to buy things and cut them up or stitched them.
Do you like fashion, per se? Fashion with a capital ‘F’?
We might come up with all of these crazy ideas, but we still need to pay the rent. So I’ll still need to work with brands and play by the books. But if I had my way we’d create new ways of communicating through clothing, different ways to communicate ideas and “Fashion.” For me, in my work, if you look at it twice then I’m happy. That is what an image should do to you. You shouldn’t flip through a magazine and subconsciously know what’s next. If you’re going to communicate an idea to someone through an image, it’s so important that a person looks at it and thinks. It can’t just be a pretty picture. If you challenge [people] you can change their mindset.
What does that do in terms of your priorities and your personal goals, in terms of what you think you can do in the industry?
I didn’t used to represent me in my work, it was pretty much what I was seeing on the runway. Now [my work is] pushing me, I see me. And when I say me, I see a Black boy. For the last few months I’ve been trying to push as many Black boys as possible. And not just the model-looking Black boys. Most of my friends and I street cast a lot, so we take people from the street that have never been shot before and put them in a high-fashion situation or whatever, and we create fashion and we say hey, these people exist and they look great, they can compete with the mainstream. I’m surrounded by people who are putting themselves in their work and pushing it out there for people that are like them, or that look like them, so that they know there is space for us.
What are your plans once you leave Central Saint Martins?
I think some of my friends are so worried because we’re leaving such a bubble. I think it’s wrong to call it a bubble, maybe...a mindset, a different way of thinking. And we’ll have to go face the ordinary world. Oh, that sounds so bad! I shouldn’t say that. We have to go face the money-making world, where it’s all about money and not so much ideas, and how do we compromise those ideas? It’s scary, to be honest. I just turned twenty-five and I had to sit down and ask myself, ‘What am I doing with my life right now? What do I want to do?’ I have all of these projects I want to pursue and at the same time I need to make money, I need to travel, I need to pay for my rent. London is very expensive. How do I keep creating things and hope that I can finally work with a brand that will appreciate my thinking? Or do I do this on the side? Being in Vienna and working on my friend’s collection has been so stressful, because you have to work with people and compromise, and their ideas come first because they need to sell it.
So you’re not going to go back to Sierra Leone after school? You’re going to stay in London?
I think I want to be based in London. I don’t think Sierra Leone is ready yet...I don’t think Sierra Leone will get it any time soon. It’s better to affect places where you can make the biggest impact and hopefully it spreads. I definitely want to go back home and be inspired by what people wear and what they do and see what they are looking at. I think most of the great ideas are coming from the third world, not so much here. The research is good here, but when you’re traveling and you look at the way people dress and the way people put things together, it’s so much more interesting. [People are] not thinking that they want to be stylish or look great, they just put it together and you’re like, ‘Wow, that could be on the runway. This could literally be Givenchy in twenty years.'
I feel like we’ve seen a lot of traditional dress parsed through the lens of someone presumably not of that culture, and then brought to this high-fashion stage. What is that tension there, because it feels like it’s almost not cool until a Western designer draws attention to it.
It has a lot to do with the media—what gets press and what doesn’t get press. As long as there’s money and a different race behind it, it becomes cool. It’s one of the things, leaving CSM, that I might need to face. You never know...I’m so aware of who I am right now. I think coming to England, at one point I just wanted to fit in, but fitting in doesn’t solve anything. You need to have your own identity. And as much as I love London, at the back of my head I’m African. I come from an African background and I know myself, [I know] I need to be very aware that there aren’t going to be equal opportunities for everyone. One of the reasons my friend and I started shooting Black boys is that in America Black boys are being killed. So we’re subconsciously trying to create great images of the Black man. The Black man can also think and create things and is not just the trend follower that the fashion industry thinks he is.