It’s never been an easy task trying to break into fashion – the struggle is certainly very real. In a time where it is becoming increasingly difficult to embark on any kind of creative career, whether it be financial constraints or the oversaturated market of talented graduates, young designers face a challenging path ahead of them to get to fashion week and beyond.
This year we saw the Queen and Anna Wintour unexpectedly show up on the front row at emerging designer Richard Quinn’s show. Not only was this a historically significant moment for British fashion but it was a pretty big deal for young and emerging designers everywhere. It is encouraging to see such high-profile individuals showing their support for young up and coming talent and not just for the well-established, seasoned designers.
One such young, up and coming designer who we recently came across at London Fashion Week Mens was Latifah Usman – the brains, brawn and talent behind the London based, urban menswear brand Drifters LDN. Drifters is an explorative brand immersed in beauty, culture and fluidity, seeking to break societal boundaries. It is a brand built on the notion that life is constantly changing and as individuals we grow and change with it. Latifah founded Drifters LDN in 2015 following her 3rd-year collection at university. I caught up with Latifah at her studio in South London to discuss her journey to London Fashion Week and what it takes to make it as a young designer…
Talk us through how you got to London Fashion Week…
I first showed my SS18 collection in the BFC show space after I was discovered by PRs a year previously, and I’ve been doing presentations ever since. I was at a point where I wasn’t entirely sure where I needed to be, I was still trying to find myself. I knew I liked menswear, I knew how to make clothes and I knew how to design them but I didn’t know where exactly I wanted to take the brand. And then they were like, “Wow, you need to be at fashion week”.
Many great British designers show at the BFC show space at London Fashion Week. How did it feel showing your collection at London Fashion Week?
As a designer, the biggest thing that you dream of is being at fashion week. So actually being there, I felt a real sense of acceptance. I’ve finally gotten here being with people who I have looked up to for so long. It was an intense feeling.
You’ve done both the BFC runway show and presentations. Which do you feel is best for showcasing your collection as a young designer?
It really depends on your brand and what you can do financially. I feel that whatever you do, as long as you make it great, that will be good enough. The BFC showrooms are good because everyone knows them and if you link your name to London Fashion Week people recognise you as an actual brand. I feel like presentations are best for me though because everyone who is there has come specifically to see Drifters and that feeling is great. I feel like I have people’s attention a lot more. People are waiting to see what I’m going to do next and that really spurs me on.
Initiatives like the BFC show space and Fashion Scout have been great for helping designers get their collections seen but do you feel like the industry is doing enough to help young designers when it comes to preparing them for working in fashion and running their own brand?
Fashion is expensive and I don’t feel like anyone talks about it that much. You see the beautiful outcome but you can’t begin to imagine the struggle that a lot of brands go through and the money they spend to get to the level of being Balenciaga or being Balmain. It takes years, decades even! The industry should be more honest with young designers. Any help is good help, awards are great but with things like internships you can really help young people realise what it takes to run a fashion brand – with interns that I’ve had, they see every single aspect of what I do. I just relaunched my website which I did myself, they saw me shoot the pictures for my website. I want them to have a full understanding of what it is to run a brand and that it’s not just glamorous photo shoots and mingling with celebrities, it is hard. I need them to understand that so that when they go away they have really learnt something valuable that will actually help them.
It’s one thing having the talent and ability to create an amazing collection but the business aspect is incredibly important when it comes to running a successful brand. Other than PR, you do everything yourself. What do you think are the most important skills to have in terms of the business side of things?
You need to have a very good understanding of everything. I learnt as I went along but my Mum is a lawyer and runs her own business which really helped, and so I learnt a lot from her as well. I think time management and money management are crucial – learn how to budget and be consistent in everything you do. Something important they don’t teach at University is sometimes you’ve just got to be a cheeky person and try your luck. You’ve got to just ask, and then whatever happens happens. Sometimes you don’t want to ask for help but sometimes you just have to because you just don’t have the funds or the time.
A lot of well-established and emerging designers have been turning to influencers to promote their brand and sell their clothes. Is this something you buy in to or are you looking at other ways to promote Drifters?
I’m a person who naturally likes to do their own thing so if I can do something my own way then I will always choose to do so. I’ve dealt with influencers in the past and they’ve put my stuff out there to potential customers I may otherwise not have had which is great. But I feel that increasingly, it’s about real people and personally, when I scroll through my Instagram I want to be able to relate to what I’m seeing. It’s great having these influencers who have 100k+ followers but what I really want to see are real people – like some guy on his way to work wearing a Drifters shirt or someone I know like my brother, for example, he models Drifters a lot. I don’t want people feeling like Drifters is just for the elite or for those who have super cool style, it is for everyone – my next campaign will really be looking at this concept so I’m just trying to find people who have that streetwear look who will wear some pieces and try and promote the brand that way. Not just guys but girls too. My brand feels very unisex in my mind, especially this season. Women are increasingly embracing all aspects of their identity. I had a girl in my presentation for the first time and people reacted really interestingly to her which I loved.
Which brands do you really admire right now?
It’s difficult to say because I’m so focused on my own brand, I almost don’t look around anymore but I love Alexander Wang, I love Daily Paper. It’s not even just design wise, I just love what they’re doing – their social media, their website and their brand as a whole. It’s very in right now, that whole look. I love all the little collaborations they’re doing as well.
A key issue that designers of all levels struggle with is competing with fast-fashion and some of their businesses are suffering as a result. How do you deal with this as a young designer?
You need to just keep going and selling your brand. Part of me is waiting for my break but in the meantime, I just keep working on my brand, getting out content, looking into new ways of inspiring people to buy Drifters. Sometimes I think that one day it’s just going to reach a point and people will turn to brands like Drifters. It’s like something just happens and then suddenly everyone is wearing that brand – Off-White is the perfect example of this happening. Everyone goes through phases with certain brands and suddenly out of nowhere everyone is wearing them.
Lastly, when you are solely responsible for running your own brand with nobody else to rely on, it’s important to look after yourself. What do you feel is crucial when it comes to keeping yourself going?
My biggest thing is that my mind doesn’t switch off so I need to sleep. Even if I have millions of things to do the next day, I will still make sure I get those six hours in. But as soon as I wake up, “Boom!” I’m going. Taking time out to just stop and analyse what your next step will be is very important. We often form this habit of thinking about everything we have to do and that we just have to keep going no matter what, but then you burn out and your work slacks because of it. Praising yourself as well – I hardly do it and it’s a bad habit because being a creative, you kind of think nothing is ever good enough, you think you need to do more. So, sitting back and telling yourself’ “You know what, that was a good job, I liked that,” is important and then you keep going. Celebrate the little wins.
Latifah is certainly one to watch and one can’t help but admire her strong, can-do and business savvy attitude towards her brand. Her AW18 collection entitled “Inside Down, Upside Out” explores Latifah’s fascination with things being the wrong way around – an idea that is highly topical in today’s society where people are encouraged to be unconventional or to go against societal norms. The collection features raw edges and back to front and inside out structures. Check out the collection on the Drifters LDN website. We’re looking forward to seeing what Latifah comes up with next…
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