I first came across Julia M’Poko in 2013, when she entered the ELLE Rising Star Design Awards. Besides the fact that I was on the judging panel, that year remains extra special for me because the seven finalists we chose include young designers that are undeniably making their mark right now on the local design scene, Lukhanyo Mdingi, Jenevieve Lyons and Nicholas Coutts. In over a year and a half since the awards I hadn’t heard as much about what Julia was up to, and then a few months ago, boom! She dropped Mo’Ko Elosa on us, a stunning Japanese inspired A/W womenswear collection, and then shortly after, in July, she dropped an equally stunning and exciting collection at SA Menswear Week. I had to pay her a visit.
Firstly, what does Mo’Ko Elosa mean? Where does it come from?
Well, Mo’Ko means one in Lingala, which is one of the main languages spoken in Congo, and Elosa is my grandmother’s maiden name. It symbolizes unity, even though there’s a distance between us. It’s more like a personal family thing, something that’s really dear to my heart.
I’m producing my range to go into stores. We’re going into Boaston Society, and then we’re following up with SAM (South African Market). I’m also trying to push my brand into Joburg, as many stores as possible; especially the menswear because there’s such a limited amount of stores that stock local menswear.
Ja, I get you. Menswear is definitely a growing market, but it’s also a limited market. People tend to have certain views of local menswear. So, are you doing both menswear and womenswear at the moment?
I’m focusing more on menswear, and also paying close attention to what I think will sell. The goal is to establish myself as the kind of designer who does great tailoring. I’m also trying to establish my basic silhouette, one that will actually make money. It’s all good and well to be famous and in every magazine, but if you’re not making money, then it’s a hobby, and I’m not trying to be a hobby designer, I want this to pay the bills. So far it looks like my shirts are what a lot of people are really interested in. I’m not even putting the entire menswear range into stores just yet. Anything that’s more artistic, or quite involved when it comes to design is going to be mainly made-to-order, with just a few produced to get a feel for the market. Right now the focus is on getting the basics into production. Once I can generate a good enough income from that then I can produce more stuff. I must admit, it almost hurts me that I can’t be as creative as I want to, because I really want to do those outrageous items.
That’s interesting because it’s something that Sandiso and I are always talking about, whether or not the designers we celebrate are managing to turn their labels into businesses. Or are we all out here playing the hype game. It’s quite cool that you have such a strong focus on building a business. In terms of your aesthetic where do you see your label fitting in?
It’s very clean and minimal – for lack of a better word – but there is a lot of attention to detail and I play around with asymmetry. I don’t want to call myself a minimalist, everyone is a minimalist, but I’m still trying to find the one word that encapsulates it all. Its core essence is about getting inspiration from Japanese design aesthetics and elements, but I want it to be very subtle. For example if it’s inspired by a kimono, it doesn’t have to literally look like a kimono.
Let’s talk about the process of establishing a label. One of the things that troubles me with local labels is the lack of longevity. I feel like there are only handful of labels that came up in the 20 years between 1990 and 2010 that are still around. I graduated from fashion school in 1998, so I have seen a number of labels come and go. But, I am super optimistic and I feel like a lot of what’s come in the last five years has a better chance of lasting. I think the market is also a little more receptive to local design. Since graduating in 2012, what’s been your process, which has led you to this point where you are able to launch your own label? And what are you doing to ensure your longevity?
Firstly, I’ve dabbled with different kinds of design styles; I’ve designed some more conceptual stuff that no one is about to try and wear, I’ve done streetwear, then I got into bridalwear and eveningwear. I experimented because I wanted to try everything until I figured out what I wanted to do, and of course what would sell. When I graduated I interned for Merchants on Long. While I was there an opportunity came up to potentially design a collection that could fit into that space, so I put together all these storyboards, which I eventually used to enter ELLE Rising Star Awards. I got a lot of requests and orders from that, from all over, as far afield as Italy and the US. There were original prints in that collection, and when those people wanted to order some of it, it was just way too expensive to produce. I decided to take a step back and make something that was a whole lot more affordable, something I could sell locally. Even though the international market loved it, there wasn’t that much hype for that range in the local market. I was like, this is where I am based, and I would love for people here to wear my clothes. So I would like to find a way to break into this market and still have that international appeal.
I’ve always wanted to do menswear, and when I did finally did it, things kind of fell into place and I realized that there is space for me in the market in terms of what I’m doing with my clean silhouettes, shirts and tailoring. Right now I’m focusing on doing something that has global feel in terms of fabric and quality, but still manufactured locally. When I speak to older friends and parents, many of them tell me they love local but they have an issue with fabric quality and garment construction, so they end up buying international brands. Hence I’m working towards establishing myself in that high quality space without being too expensive.
Keep up with Julia and Mo’ko Elosa on twitter and instagram: @mokoelosa
Words and Portrait Pic by Malibongwe Tyilo