Liberian-born fashion designer Korto Momolu first gained recognition as a contestant on Bravo's reality television show "Project Runway" in 2008 when she finished as first runner-up. This September she showed her Spring 2012 collection at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York. And now she plans to present pieces from her Sankofa collection at "Africa Underground," a fashion, music and arts showcase at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.
In an interview with NPR's Michel Martin, Momolu says the message of Sankofa is looking back to learn from your past while still moving forward.
"The whole process of the Sankofa show was to tell the stories of these women who went through the civil war in Liberia, who were wives, who were mothers. But now they are the household heads. The fathers are gone, or have passed, because of the war. Now they have this household they have to take care of. So looking back at what they went through, it was tough. But now they still have to keep looking forward," she says.
In describing her aesthetic, she says it involves lots of prints and colors, and she tries dressing women with and without curves — and make both look equally attractive.
"A straight up-and-down woman can look great in my clothes because I give her the illusion of hips and curves. A curvy woman can wear it and it enhances her," says Momolu.
When asked about lines inspired by African culture, Momolu says that aesthetic has been booming forever.
"I hate when designers who are more established don't give it its due. That it's only popular this season ... that next season, it's not going to be popular? There's so many things you can take from Africa: the coloring, the print, the traditional garbs ... just give it its props and don't give it a time," she says.
But what about white women who want to wear African garb, but do not want others to think they are appropriating African culture?
Momolu says, "Stay away from the traditional garments, because some of those garments have specific reasons why people wear them in our culture."
She recommends looking into the newer fashions, including designs by Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors.
MICHEL MARTIN, host: While the rest of the fashion world is looking to Paris for Fashion Week, we decided to take a look at some fashion happenings taking place a little closer to home, right here in Washington, DC.
Fashion designer Korto Momolu is one of the designers who will show pieces from her Sankofa collection tomorrow at Africa Underground. That's an art showcase taking place at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC.
Korto Momolu first gained recognition for her fashion sense as a contestant on Bravo's hit reality television series, "Project Runway," which she finished as first runner-up. And we are excited that she's here with us in our Washington, DC studios.
Welcome. Thanks for joining us.
KORTO MOMOLU: Thank you. Thank you so much.
MARTIN: And you're already intimidating us with your fierce style. You've got some fabulous piece on, which I won't even try to describe. It's kind of an earring and a necklace in one.
MOMOLU: Yeah, it's a earlace.
MARTIN: And we're completely blown away by it.
MOMOLU: (unintelligible) one thing a day.
MARTIN: So how did you get the fashion bug?
MOMOLU: You know, I was always an artist growing up. I remember being in pre-K and finger-painting. And I had a great mentor in high school that saw me going into the design direction, and she's the one - my art teacher, actually, in school. She's the one that actually kind of put me in the right direction to go into design for fashion when I graduated. And I've been doing it ever since, since I was 16.
MARTIN: Your fashions have now been seen all over the world.
MARTIN: You were recently at Fashion Week in New York...
MARTIN: ...where you showed your spring 2012 collection and you brought the Sankofa line to Washington, DC for this event, as we said, at the Smithsonian.
Tell us a little bit about - first of all, what does Sankofa mean?
MOMOLU: You know, Sankofa is one of those words. It means a lot, and I think that's something we all have to take into life. When you look backwards at your life and what you've gone through, you know, but you're moving forward, you know, looking backwards, but still moving forward, knowing who you are and knowing where you've come from, but you're still moving, you're progressing.
And that's what this is, because the whole process of the Sankofa show was to tell the story of these women who went through the civil war in Liberia who were wise, who were, you know, mothers. But now, they are the household heads. You know, the fathers are gone or have passed because of the war. Now, they have this household they have to take care of, so looking back at what they went through, it was hard and tough, but now they still have to keep moving forward. And how do they do that?
So Sankofa and Armani - those are the things that were kind of introduced with this collection to show that, as a woman, you can do anything.
MARTIN: Just describe your aesthetic for me, if you would, for those who have not had the opportunity to see it. And we'll put some pictures, obviously, on our website at npr.org. Go to the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org so that people can get a sense of it. Could you try to help just describe your aesthetic?
MOMOLU: Yes. My aesthetic comes in where I try to dress a woman that is curvy and not curvy, and make them each look the same. A straight-up-and-down woman can look great in my clothes because I give her the illusion of hips and curves. A curvy woman can wear it, and it enhances her. You know, I do a lot of prints, a lot of color and things that, when you walk into a room, people will notice you. It's different.
I kind of go - myself, I kind of go to the left. I don't follow trends. I kind of do what Korto wants to do. I kind of close in that gap of what you can't find in the store that you always dream about, like what I'm wearing now, the earlace. Sometimes you want to wear earrings, but you want to wear a necklace, but you can't wear them both. So, hey, I made it where you can wear them all in one piece, and it's great. It's fantastic. And someone's going to ask you about it once, at least, during the day.
MARTIN: That's so true. If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm speaking with Korto Momolu, fashion designer, former contestant on Bravo TV's reality show, "Project Runway."
Tomorrow, she's showing pieces from her Sankofa collection at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, during an event called Africa Underground.
How do you deal with the whole question of what an African-inspired aesthetic is? Because you see, every now and again, the - many of the famous designers whose names we know, every couple of years, it seems, they kind of rediscover, you know, an African-inspired collection.
MARTIN: And your face is doing something really interesting right now. You're kind of - your jaw's kind of like, err, like this.
MOMOLU: Yeah, it irks me. It irks me.
MARTIN: So what's going on there?
MOMOLU: You know, this season was dedicated to Africa. Apparently, for fashion in New York, we were told that Africa was booming this season. Africa's been booming forever and people have been, you know, taking inspiration from it forever. And I just - I hate when designers who are, you know, more established don't give it its due. That it's only popular this season? So, what, next season, it's not going to be popular?
There are so many things you can take from Africa: the coloring, the prints, the traditional garbs that people take, you know, influences from, and it's constantly being taken from. Just give it its props, and don't give it a time.
MARTIN: Let me ask you this question, which might be a little sensitive for some people. I personally know a lot of white women who would like to wear these designs...
MARTIN: ...African-inspired designs because they like it.
MARTIN: But then, sometimes, there's this hesitation, which is, this isn't for me.
MARTIN: It's not - there's a feeling that maybe it wouldn't be appreciated if I were to sport it. If you were a white woman and you - or man - and you wanted to sport this aesthetic, but then there might be people who'd think, oh, you're fronting or you're...
MARTIN: What would you say to that person who thinks, you know, I love it, but I don't want people to think that I'm appropriating their culture? Okay?
MARTIN: How about that?
MOMOLU: I would say stay away from, like, the traditional garments, because a lot of those garments have specific reasons why people wear them in our culture. So if you stay away from that and look into the new now, like for instance, the Marc Jacobs and the DVF and the Michael Kors, who are doing African-inspired collections where you can get a great - really great kente cloth or mud cloth jacket, but it's high fashion.
MARTIN: Oh, so you're saying there are some sensitivities on it, because there are some specific meanings...
MOMOLU: Yes. And so...
MARTIN: ...and specific occasions in which certain things are worn, and when it's worn outside of that context, you're saying there is, sometimes, some issues?
MOMOLU: Yes. Some people who - yeah, who are really sensitive about that. They'd be like, hmm, why is she wearing that? I remember being younger, and I had bought a cowry shell necklace. And my mom's, like, why do you have that on? I was like, because it's cute. And she's like, take that off. You know, I mean, I didn't understand. But then she broke it down later that, you know, why we use cowry shells. It's not just a piece of necklace you can buy in the market.
If you really want to understand it, you can definitely research and find out what certain things are worn. But if you just love the look of the print and you want to wear something that's interesting, there are definitely designers who cater to that - me, myself, as well, and some of the designers are going to be at the show tomorrow night.
You can get these high-fashion pieces that you can wear with your jeans and go to dinner, and no one's going to say, oh, she's wearing an African jacket. It's just going to be a hot jacket, just it happens to be in the African print.
MARTIN: Korto Momolu is a fashion designer. She's the former first runner-up of the reality television series, "Project Runway." She's showing pieces from her Sankofa collection tomorrow at Africa Underground at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC. And she joined us in our Washington, DC studio.
Korto, thank you so much for joining us, and good luck to you.
MOMOLU: Thank you so much. You guys come out tomorrow night. Come check me out. It's going to be fabulous. I'm excited. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.