London based Eritrean fashion and interior designer Zekaryas Solomon is a creative mind who strives to find a voice in his works. With an aim of introducing his native country, and its cultural heritage, to the world, Zekaryas has made his collections and portfolios of eye catching artistic works widely famed. He interestingly made his creations a manifestation of whole population. My talk with a multiple award winning artist and one of Africa’s top designers, Zekaryas, follows.
- Were you born here in Eritrea?
Yes, I was born here in Eritrea, in 1985 my family and I had to leave because of the situation back then. So I grew up in Germany and then later on I moved on to London. I came back to Eritrea after many years; 20 years, so I am discovering a lot of new things.
- How did you get into fashion? You studied to be an architect but then got in to fashion. What was the spark that pushed you towards fashion?
I did architecture design and art. I did my Master’s Degree in Germany. When I went to the UK, I started feeling discontent with my job. The economy was going down so with architecture, it becomes hard for architects to find jobs. My company was firing people but I was still there and adamant about doing something related to architecture, something that would make me happy. So I was looking for something and my friends, family and professor kept reminding me that I am normally passionate about colors, fabrics and more connected to interior designing. They urged me to look into fashion. Prior to that, I didn’t know anything about it but when everyone suggested that I give it a try I was like ‘why not? At least, I will make clothes for me’.
- How did you come to know if fashion would be for you or not since the beginning?
I took a short course in men’s wear patter cutting. It was a short course of six months and then my teacher suggested I should do a degree instead. I enjoyed studying fashion because it has a lot of mathematics and creativity. When I went to apply I got interviewed and was asked why I was applying for a fashion school while I am an architect. I told them that I wanted to become my own boss and that I was trying to do fashion with a concept of my own; a mix of my architectural background and fashion.
- Can you elaborate please?
I have the architectural background and I was raised surrounded by a strong tradition, that of Eritrea, also, that of Europe. One of my earliest pieces was inspired by the traditional Tigrigna men’s wear, ‘Tibiko’. I completely manipulated it by reconstructing the waistband to make it wider, focused on other touches and details with modern fabrics and more to make it comfortable for everyone. I exaggerated some details so that people would look at it and be like ‘wow what is that? I played with the design adding a coat to it. That was my project. I made the traditional ‘Tibiko’ unique and colorful. So back to my concept, I wanted to use fashion as expression of my identity, as an Eritrean with a background in architecture. I was discovering the streets of London, wearing my own clothes, people wanted to buy them. I was basically making walking on the streets.
- But you never let go of architecture did you?
I studied architecture and part of it was interior design, urban design, and landscape design as well as educational architecture. The company I was working with would assign me to a lot of interior designing projects so I particularly enjoyed it.
- How do you manage to mix architecture with fashion?
After I did my first three collections I started looking for my identity. I am black and I am in Europe, so, who am I? Well, I am Eritrean. So this was the beginning of everything. With interior designing, I pick something, and through it I tell a story. One of the things picked up was Geez. I did my research and studied it to make patterns for interior designs as well as for my garments. I also pick up on other factors from the Eritrean narrative such as the unjust sanctions put on Eritrea and so on. This is how I found a connection between architecture and fashion and also a link to my identity.
- And it works. It works for you…
It works very well. I mean, I am getting orders. People call me for table clothes and choose patterns that I came up with. And the business is getting huge. All I do, I do it for my people. The company is called ‘KaNa’; the initial syllables of Kabana Nabana, which means ‘from us, to us’.
- So do you have a restriction on your products? Do you have a selection of customers? Who are your costumers?
My costumers are all who like my art. I actually have more foreign than Eritrean costumers. And no I don’t have a selection of customers.
But I try to turn traditional traits into fashion and interior design patters I made the company’s theme close to my people’s identity.
- Was it easy to make people, especially non Eritreans, understand the concept behind your works?
It was not. But nowadays it is a lot easier compared to how hard it used to be. If you are making beautiful things and finding a way of expressing yourself through your works, people will always wander and appreciate. When they first see it they would be shocked or surprised to see something new. Europeans love the designs as a set of patterns. Then they ask what it is and that is where I get to explain and tell my story linked to my origins. If it is a pattern inspired by Geez alphabets, then, I’d be like “these are letters of the Geez language, one of the ancient languages of the world still surviving in multiple languages of the Eritrean people, including the official language!” And it makes me proud to introduce my country in a creative way. My wish is for every artist to put our story out there for people to learn and appreciate our history and culture. The media has worked hard to make Eritrean reputation bad but what we have is much different to what is being told about us. So for us to tell our story through our profession is the only way to change the narrative. When the job is well done, people will appreciate it regardless, and sometimes, they appreciate it even more if there is a strong story behind the whole construction of it.
- How was your stay in Amara?
I came after a long time so I have lots of things to do. I am making sure that I am making the best out of my time here. I enjoy being in Eritrea. It is a beautiful place and our people are genuinely nice.
- Have you met with locals with the same profession as you?
I have and they are really talented. I have had meetings and workshops. I shared a lot of what I know while sharing ideas from them. I didn’t know what to expect before coming so I had no idea of what fashion designers do here and how they do things. But now I am going back with some points that I would like to work on in the suture.
- Do you see yourself coming back and share your experience in a form of a workshop or tutorial or anything of the sort to inspire young Eritreans involved in fashion?
- Thank you and good luck!