Asata Maisé

Asata Maisé (she/her) is a self-taught designer repurposing vintage fabrics to create one of a kind pieces reminiscent of the 1960s & 1970s. After sewing for twelve years and working with Diane von Furstenberg, Michael Costello and palmer//harding; Asata began her eponymous brand in 2016 based on the cornerstones of sustainability and an exploration of history. Looking forward, Asata would like to share her knowledge through teaching and join research initiatives to create more sustainable practices in textile production. Asata was recently featured in Vogue’s list of black-owned fashion and beauty brands to support.

Asata Maisé wearing a corset, skirt, and handbag each made from vintage textiles.

What mediums do you work in?

I work in a few mediums, but I prefer to express myself with fashion design and garment construction. I also paint, draw, and make jewelry as well.

What are the main themes you explore?

I love history and I love reflecting on the past. For me, it’s just been self-expression and trying to do my best to create the person that I see myself as, through what I like, and what I’m attracted to. Also sustainability—just minimizing waste and appreciating the resources that I have. 

“Studying that era, being named Asata (after Assata Shakur), learning about the Black Panthers, and doing a lot of research was pretty much a catalyst to really appreciate the ’60s and ’70s. I became fixated on it and started resourcing textiles and fabrics from that era.

How long have you been designing and how did you get started?

I’ve been sewing and making clothes for at least 12 years. I learned how to sew in high school through my school’s textile and garment program. After two years in the program, I began to participate in local fashion shows. This is when I got more into design itself and added that to my previous knowledge of garment construction. In 2016, after living in L.A. and going to London at least once, I started to do more freelance work and that’s been about four years now.

The first thing that struck me about your designs is your usage of such playful patterns and textures reminiscent of the 1960s & 1970s. Last year I went to a traveling exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum called “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” and a few of the paintings there remind me of your work. The colors and patterns in Wadsworth Jarrell’s “Revolutionary (Angela Davis)” is one painting that comes to mind. Has this era defined your designs in any way?

Absolutely! As an artist, I’m always evolving and learning something new that changes the end product of my work. After a period of living in Los Angeles, and this was such a place where I felt liberated as a person, through how I dressed, and even as a consumer I was being more aware of the things I bought. Many people in L.A., in California in general, are really into thrifting and second-hand shopping, so this was probably what pushed me into exploring different eras. Some of the best things as far as design and construction came from the ’60s and ’70s. It was definitely an era of revolution—socially and politically, which always changes the way people have dressed historically.

Studying that era, being named Asata (after Assata Shakur), learning about the Black Panthers, and doing a lot of research was pretty much a catalyst for me to really appreciate the ’60s and ’70s. I became fixated on it and started resourcing textiles and fabrics from that era. I began using them in my work along with silhouettes from that era and even a bit earlier into the ’50s.

 

Asata Maisé wearing her designs. Shot by Asata Maisé.

What inspires your practice?

Everything! I actively use Tumblr as a mood board (my blog is asatamaise.tumblr.com). There are so many archives there and I’m always finding designers I’ve never heard of, uncovering some archives from a collection I’ve never seen, or seeing campaigns and photos from someone’s personal collection. Foreign, independent, and classic films inspire me as well. I love observing the costume and set design, especially in French films—they’re so romantic.

Each of your garments are “handmade from sustainably sourced, reclaimed materials,” what was your specific motivation for making sustainability a cornerstone of your brand?

It’s just a part of my lifestyle. I’m an Earth sign and Earth dominant, so my connection and relationship with the Earth has always been important. As humans, this is our home and we need to do our best to treat it as such.

Sewing is my way of preserving tradition and to take that a step further, I’m very mindful of what I use and how I use it. I’m also aware that the fashion industry is one of the most wasteful industries on the planet—from water pollution, to landfills being filled of garments that people threw away. I’m also really into mending and reconstructing my clothing instead of just throwing them away. So my lifestyle and my own beliefs are reflected in my work in that sense.  

“Sewing is my way of preserving tradition and to take that a step further, I’m very mindful of what I use and how I use it. I’m also aware that the fashion industry is one of the most wasteful industries on the planet—from water pollution, to landfills being filled of garments that people threw away. I’m also really into mending and reconstructing my clothing instead of just throwing them away.”

Where are you based and what do you think of the creative scene there?

I’m based in Delaware and it’s always been a little challenging being a creative here because it’s small and everyone knows each other. It’s not known as a hub for creativity. I will say that Delaware lacks diversity and therefore lacks creativity in many ways. Since it’s a smaller place, many talented people from Delaware move to larger places, like myself. When everyone leaves, that leaves very few people here as far as having an artistic community. I do have some friends who are still here and doing their best to bring in that change. I’m hoping that in the next few years, we see Delaware as a place where creative people are from.

There’s a lot of innovation in fashion these days but also uniformity fueled by this “Instagram aesthetic” and what influencers/celebrities are wearing. It’s like we have two separate extremes in fashion now with some designers being super experimental, then the other side of the spectrum where many people are dressing the same and using fast fashion to build their look. What are your thoughts on that?

Wow, there’s so much to think about so I’m going to try to unpack my thoughts little-by-little. Chaz of Toro y Moi had an interview with Playboy last year and one of the quotes that struck me was that “Hyper-connectivity is at war with cultural disconnection,” and I also feel that way. Today we’ll see an image of someone with a certain following, and a lot of people desire to look like and dress like that person. If you’re constantly copying someone, you’re losing the sense of who you are and becoming disconnected with yourself.

So in that way, I definitely believe it’s harmful. I also know that fast fashion is harmful based on the facts; it harms the workers who are underpaid and harms the Earth. It’s not a good example to set for the younger people who are the main users of these social media platforms. At the end of the day, I don’t really think they’re [most influencers] are happy with themselves. It’s definitely something that I’m not a fan of at all. It’s also been personally difficult because I work so hard to remain authentic, making sure I am as conscious as possible with what I am doing. Sometimes I feel like I don’t have the audience that someone else who is just copying or using a template for Instagram success. It sucks, but at the end of the day, that’s not where I place my value.

Asata Maisé Spring/Summer 2019 lookbook. Shot by Asata Maisé.

Who are some of your favorite artists?

My friends Indigo Tshai and Nick Girtain, director and actor Vincent Gallo, designers such as Weslah, Ottolinger, Mowalola, Emily Bode, BARRAGÁN, Phlemuns, Miuccia Prada, John Galliano, painter Mati Klarwein, digital and musical artist Jasmyn Milan, writer Kurt Vonnegut, and so many others.

“Let’s talk more about these black artists and make more space for them. Whenever we mention non-blacks, we should think why aren’t some black people mentioned as well, because more than likely they’ve inspired some of those people at the top.”

 What support systems do you wish were in place for black artists?

First of all, financial support! We need all kinds of support to make it easier for everyone. It’s very difficult to tackle because unfortunately, it’s deeply ingrained into our society. So I’m aware that being a black woman is this very special thing, but I’m also aware that it makes my struggle 10x harder than someone else who is not a black woman.

I believe that a few support systems can be more grants, awards, some workspaces/artist studios—that would help so many people that I know. We already know the stories of people working in their basements or their bedrooms. If someone even had the space to create, that would change everything.

Also, acknowledgment. Let’s talk more about these black artists and make more space for them. Whenever we mention non-blacks, we should think why aren’t some black people mentioned as well, because more than likely they’ve inspired some of those people at the top. My own work has been copied by non-blacks and I never got any type of recognition for it.

(L) Mini bag handmade from remnant fabrics of previous projects, (R) Baguette bag handmade from 1960’s terry cloth. Shot by Asata Maisé.

For sure! That’s a huge reason why I started this magazine. I’ve always wanted to be in the art world, but as I got older, I realized that there’s hardly anyone who looks like me and I doubted that many non-black people would provide support for me. I’m not sure that I want to be in environments that go against my core beliefs or don’t serve my needs. If I’m not doing work to support my people or at least help them to accelerate in the slightest, then what’s the point? I wouldn’t like to spend my life supporting wealthy institutions or people who aren’t going to help me at all.

I can agree with everything you said. I worked at high-end places in the restaurant industry and the fashion industry, and I’d be the only black person there or one of two. There’s very little diversity and I think what are you doing for my community and other people? Functioning in both industries has always been very difficult and it makes me think: What am I doing in this space? How is it serving me? Am I helping other people who look like me? Am I helping people who may not be as privileged as I am to have some of these opportunities? I’ve had some amazing opportunities throughout my life, but how do we create more for people like us that we know the struggle of. It’s not being handed to us or made readily available to us.

I took a few steps back throughout my career to make sure that everything that I’m doing is with integrity. I believe I’m at the place where I can possibly hire an intern, so I’m going to make sure that it’s a young, black person who is looking forward to gaining a new skill and who I know will appreciate it and not take it for granted. It would also be nice to know that I’m helping and teaching someone else, because if I didn’t learn the skills that I learned when I was 14-years-old, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

“I tell people that school is not for everyone. There’s no one route to success—whatever success may mean to you. One day I may still go back to school, but it didn’t work out for many reasons, and I always tried to figure out what I could do instead. I didn’t think that without school I couldn’t become a designer. I was going to design somehow, but I had to be open to those opportunities. Be open to different ways for things to happen, and they will happen.”

Instead of attending school for design/fashion you opted to freelance design and build a career for yourself. It’s so easy for young people to be pushed into attending school even if it doesn’t align with their goals or learning styles. Why did you decide to go down this route and what did you learn from your decision?

I went to college for one semester for fashion design, and when I arrived I had high expectations, especially after sewing and designing for four years. Unfortunately, I was super disappointed when I learned that my first three years at the college would be focused on design via illustration. I was also super depressed at the time, so I dropped out after one semester, moved to LA, and by chance and putting myself out there, I started working in the industry.

I met Michael Costello from Project Runway who’s a huge designer now and I started working with him. I also met the president of a company that was producing for Odd Future Golf Wang at the time and started interning for them. I wanted to go back to school, so after visiting London in 2014 and interning with Diane von Furstenberg, I wanted to find a way to live there for at least a year. I applied to the London College of Fashion and was accepted, but unfortunately I couldn’t afford it, so I went back for another internship. At that time I was with palmer//harding and they won the 2017 British Fashion Council/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund.

I tell people that school is not for everyone. There’s no one route to success—whatever success may mean to you. One day I may still go back to school, but it didn’t work out for many reasons, and I always tried to figure out what I could do instead. I didn’t think that without school I couldn’t become a designer. I was going to design somehow, but I had to be open to those opportunities. Be open to different ways for things to happen, and they will happen.

Corey wearing a pants set handmade from a vintage corduroy textile and custom yoga mat bag. Shot by Asata Maisé.

Have you encountered any obstacles as a designer?

One of my biggest challenges has been overcoming my fears and self-doubt. I finally feel that after a lot of internal work, I’ve overcome a lot of the doubts that I’ve had. Right now I’m in a space where I think I can do this and show more of myself because I’ve been very reserved, and only allow a fraction of myself to be exposed to the public. Now I’m getting more comfortable with who I am and I’m ready to show that. I’ve been making some yoga outfits but nobody really knows that I do yoga, so I thought that I could introduce more of my fitness gear. I also want to share more of my jewelry. I haven’t sold any of my jewelry, but I’ve been telling myself that it’s good enough to sell. Telling myself that something I’ve made is good enough to be appreciated is definitely something I’ve had to overcome.

“I took a few steps back throughout my career to make sure that everything that I’m doing is with integrity. I believe I’m at the place where I can possibly hire an intern, so I’m going to make sure that it’s a young, black person who is looking forward to gaining a new skill and who I know will appreciate it and not take it for granted.”

Where do you see yourself and your practice in the future?

I want to teach whether it be in a school or online, and be able to share the knowledge I’ve gained. I want to create more sustainable practices in fashion, possibly with a company that researches and produces the most sustainable textiles. Lastly, being able to express myself through creative means. I want to do this for as long as I live.

Provide a few tips that may be helpful for young artists

Listen to your intuition. Stay true to yourself. Take advice from people who have been through something similar and have something to offer you. Take risks and don’t doubt yourself, because nothing is impossible.

5 thoughts

  1. Very nice article. It took me on an enlightening journey about my niece and I am proud of what you have accomplished and love the person you grew to be. Also happy that you never gave up on your dreams to be the designer that you were destined to be.

  2. Beautiful!! we as a Black ppl are so gifted, talented and creative I’m so glad that you’ve found your passion and one of your purposes in this life because I’m sure there are many keep going forward my daughter and may God continue to order your steps and Bless everything you put your hands too.

  3. Loved this! Always excited to learn about black designers who can be supported in the fashion industry. Everyone’s come up is so different and it’s great to be reminded of that.

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