5 minutes with Richard Mkoloma ~ on working with Puma, the Urban Professor and his take on activism and brand purpose
How would you summarise your experience in a few sentences and your career highlights?
Hello Fay! Well, first things first - Thank you for inviting me to share here on Seekd, what you have created is an exciting platform that is a great ethical addition to the fashion product landscape.
My background in the fashion industry spans nearly 20 years providing advisory and design services. I’ve often been tasked with delivering innovative and strategic design that bridge the gap between fashion, lifestyle and sportswear. I’ve worked on both commercial and niche collections and on brand concepts for the likes of AFI/African Fashion International in South Africa, Adidas Originals in Germany, Michiko Koshino and Puma here in the UK, Fila and Urban Professor in the USA to name a few.
Ok, so I’ve name dropped the big names but I also really enjoy working with smaller brands and start-ups as I feel that this is often where the freshness is, as well as the need for support from someone like myself. In addition to my professional practice, I’m somewhat of a creative polymath, alongside fashion I also write poetry and make music with various collaborators merging the worlds of Hip Hop, Electronica and Poetry. I’ve been invited to perform in Accra, New York, Amsterdam and Sydney and places in the UK like the Southbank Centre, Sadler’s Wells and the Jazz Cafe.
I nurture close ties to contemporary and urban culture by staying connected and contributing in different ways - I was recently featured in ‘SoleSeekers’ - the world’s first feature length documentary on UK sneaker culture. I curated the UK launch event for the Fresh Dressed film (a chronicle of hip-hop, urban fashion) and joined the panel discussion for the European launch of The Dandy Lion Project at the 2016 Brighton Biennial.
Highlights in terms of impact or bigger ‘wins’ include working with Michiko Koshino early in my career on her avant-garde Yen Jeans line to turn it into a full collection that did phenomenally well across Europe. My work for sports brand Puma was notable in that it included designing the first few seasons of the concept-driven Urban Mobility collaboration with maverick designer Hussein Chalayan which pioneered the now familiar high-end sport-luxe narrative. I also played a pivotal design role helping to establish the fashion-led approach of the Puma Golf brand which disrupted the rigid styling of golf apparel - we helped make golf look cooler - no mean feat!
Personally I’m also committed to next-generation development and love working with initiatives that use creative design process to increase young people’s capabilities, provide tangible skills and positively affect change. In terms of social impact, I’m really proud of the work I did as a creative director for the women’s health rights charity FORWARD, where I helped to shift the way they engage and ‘skill-up’ youth advocates by using creative workshops, publishing a book, curating art exhibitions, music and collaborating with creative professionals. I’m equally proud of my time working in the Caribbean for the arts/education program Art Rules Aruba, where I developed a fashion course. Several students have since gone to study in some some great art institutions in Europe and about to take the next leap into a creative career.
Have you worked with any stars and what did the experience teach you?
I have and one learning that really stuck with me was my first face-to-face meeting the mogul Sean ‘P.Diddy’ Combs when I was working as the lead designer for his niche denim capsule - Blue by Sean John. After a few minutes of talking he looked me dead in the eye and stated, in all seriousness that - “I am nothing without my team”, clearly he meant this and practiced it also. This is quite consistent with most of the big personalities I’ve come across. Behind the glitz and showmanship there is this incredible drive, hard work and a ‘team’ and I’ve worked with some brilliant teams. It’s a really important but often understated aspect of our industry especially in our current image-saturated and individually focused ‘moment’.
What top tips would you give emerging designers on future proofing their brand? And of course that key thing, gaining new customers in what can be a busy market...
This leads on from my last answer - team, team, team! Particularly for small labels and start-ups this area can easily get neglected. Yes, financial resources can be a challenge but it is part of the job to find a mutually beneficial way to work with a supporting cast of players. Often labels are started by individuals with bags of creative talent and are perhaps less capable on the managing, leading and delegating aspects. Doing this, or hiring someone to help project manage will enable everyone to focus on their individual areas of strength and expertise which will power and sustain the business. It is so important and will allow you to focus on the big picture.
I would also say that building a strong product with a compelling brand narrative - backed up by a meaningful mission - will help towards future proofing your brand and gaining new customers.
The new customer question is all about either surprising them with something that captures their imagination, (for example a fantastically crafted item of jewellery in an unexpected material); or giving them something that is beautifully useful (like a fantastically crafted item of jewellery that doubles as heart rate monitor) or, especially now, giving your customers something with meaning -(a fantastically crafted item of jewellery with a heart rate monitor made from sustainable materials by a women’s co-operative). If you can do all three, you’re probably on to a winner!
Essentially - know yourself, what you do and why that is meaningful (to others).
What’s your take on the ethical fashion/accessories market at the moment? Have you seen a big change over the years?
What’s really exciting is - and this is going to be a controversial statement - that I can start to see the demise of the specialist ethical fashion market. Let me explain. From an activist point of the view - the broad purpose is to significantly affect the dominant ‘status quo’ so that positive change happens, right? So with the ethical market in this case, the ‘activism’ you could argue is to transform the landscape so that everything is ethically minded - products, processes, treatment of people and of the environment and so on.
These ethical principles have long been heralded by a plethora of pioneering brands such as Patagonia, People Tree and newer players such as Edun as well as Everlane with their ‘Radically Transparent business model. And of course platforms like Seekd continue to keep the movementgoing.
We are indeed seeing the seeds of an exciting new future starting to take root with the mainstream adoption of, and innovation around, ethical principles as more than just a bolt-on CSR program.
Take for example brands like Timberland and Stella McCartney, and ranges like H&M’s Conscious Collection and Adidas Parley for the Oceans which repurposes ocean plastics.
Of course the industry still has a long, long way to go. We can definitely acknowledge the success of small ethical brands and their effect on consumer attitudes which in turn has shifted corporate behaviour - an example of small business and people power. So, maybe this is the beginning of the end, the end of ‘being ethical’ just seen as a niche proposition and maybe that is the point, if the end is a better, more sustainable and ethical landscape across the whole supply chain.
I think that we are still a long way from that so it remains an exciting time to see how the ethical landscape innovates and develops.
Who do you admire in the industry?
I admire AFI who have long championed amazing independent African designers and were doing see-now-buy-now long before it was a ‘thing’; and how Adidas delivered Parley for the Oceans -after the initial unveiling they paused to develop a sustainable supply chain so that it wasn’t just an ‘greenwashing’ marketing moment; and of course Michiko Koshino and Hussein Chalayan for consistently pushing innovative and concept driven ideas.
Broadly, I admire new start-ups as well as ideas that change the way companies and customers interact such as an Everlane, and Common Objective who use tech to meaningfully connect people in the ethical space.
How can you personally help brands? Are there any metrics you would apply to show distance travelled?
I help people sharpen their edge: from a product perspective as a designer, developing their brand strategy/narrative as a creative consultant, and their leadership and vision as a coach/mentor. The service is bespoke as clients’; needs vary. So if you need fresh eyes on product, your brand or yourself as a creative professional then get in touch. You can dive a bit deeper via Richblk.com, www.linkedin.com/in/richardmkoloma or on Instagram @richblkshoots.
Thanks again for letting me share on here and keep up the good work - Seekd is a much needed platform