How I live: London-based designer Tolu Coker

Behind the scenes with British-Nigerian fashion designer, illustrator and textile designer Tolu Coker.
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‘Fashion is such a powerful tool and a good conversation starter, but a lot of brands do a disservice by just being about clothes,’ says Tolu Coker. ‘My brand is about more than clothing.’ The young London-based designer (@tolucoker), a graduate of Central Saint Martins whose clothes have been worn by big hitters like Rihanna and Rita Ora, runs a brand that spans from fashion and illustration to films and photography. But for Tolu, the vision is less about selling products and more about connecting communities.

‘It’s important that people don’t have a monopoly on voices and stories,’ she says. ‘I always start with my community, the Black community, and I love to deconstruct ideas of blackness. There are so many stereotypes and ideas of what “Black culture” is, and I want to shine a light on that. The diaspora community, too. I love those narratives. It always boils down to the wealth of difference in people.’ Tolu is also a big believer in making fashion more sustainable – ‘and not just the environmental impact but the cultural impact, the wages people are paid, the conditions they work under. I don’t think making clothing should be at the expense of other people.’

At home

‘This has actually been the longest amount of time I’ve been in London at one time as a lot of my work has caused me to travel. But right now I’m based in west London – Queen’s Park – with my mom and brother. I was actually born across the street and then I moved here. The home is underneath a block of flats, it’s not quite a maisonette, but it’s between a ground-floor flat and a maisonette. It’s across three floors. When you come in there’s a front patio, then the kitchen; the second floor is my younger brother’s room and the living room; and then the top floor is my bedroom, my mum’s room and the bathroom.’

Green touch

‘A two-minute walk away is a community space where a lot of people grow fruit and veg, which is actually really rare for council community in London. We consider it our mini garden and an extension for home. My mom's the ultimate home gardener – she’s obsessed with it. We're growing lemons, squash, tomatoes, cucumber, peppers. During lockdown I've been running Horticulture classes for young people via IG Live and Zoom. I did a session on tomatoes and aubergines and how people can grow them inside.People are really surprised to see you can do so much in a small space.’

The routine

‘For me, a normal routine doesn’t exist! That’s one of the things that scares and excites me. My life is very spontaneous – it was before lockdown and it’s continued within it. Often I’ll wake up and exercise, but then I’ll go with my mood or with whatever is urgent. I’ve been writing quite a lot recently, so maybe I’ll have a submission deadline. Sometimes I’ll set a plan for the day – whether it’s writing or a class – then I get an email saying, “We need to shoot a magazine cover, can we have [clothing] items?” So I’ll have to run to Brixton where my stuff is stored at a friend’s house. It can be so random.’

Being sustainable

‘I source textiles from factories’ excess production and design my collection based on what’s available. It’s a direct solution to manufacturing waste – ”How can we make something that’s sustainable and desirable, too?” So often when people think of sustainable clothing, they think of linen and hippies. For us, it’s not so much an aesthetic but an ethos.’

The neighborhood

‘The local community is incredible. It’s a very multicultural community – a lot of Afro-Caribbean people live in the area as well as people from Bangladesh and a lot of white middle-class people as well. It’s such a melting pot. I love how integrated everything is – when you look at different demographics in London there are areas that are densely populated by certain demographics or ethnicities, but here everybody knows everybody, people say hello and have cups of tea and my mom will help people out in the garden. It’s a really trusting neighbourhood, but also one that’s had its challenges. A lot of the resources that people once relied on are no longer there. We used to have local youth classes – dance, music and art, which is how I got into my uni: a programme at my local youth centre that no longer exists. So that’s had a huge impact on the community in the last few years. And I'm actively trying to change that with my brand.’

Local spots

‘A 10-minute walk away from the house is Queen’s Park. There are some beautiful spaces in the area despite the development and changes. On a Sunday there’s an incredible farmers’ market, one of the best I’ve been to in London. The local park is also beautiful and has a mini farm. And The Alice House is a cool gastro pub and cafe in the area that I like.’

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