How Ibrahim Kamara Found His Place in Fashion

Ibrahim Kamara was sitting in a steamy hotel room in West Africa not long ago, reflecting on a fleeting visit to Gambia, a country he once called home. Born in Sierra Leone in 1990, Mr. Kamara fled to nearby Gambia after civil war broke out, spending much of his childhood with an aunt and uncle before settling in London with his parents at 16.

After years away, Mr. Kamara, known to friends as I.B., had returned for a visit with the Senegalese photographer Malick Bodi. Mr. Kamara, now the stylist of choice for the likes of Virgil Abloh of Louis Vuitton men’s wear and Riccardo Tisci of Burberry, and recently named the editor of Dazed magazine, was in the process of retracing his past.

“I’ve been traveling by land and not air in Gambia for six days now, just driving through some of the places where I grew up and soaking it all in,” he said, hunching over his phone camera as a lazy ceiling fan chugged overhead. “How I tell fashion stories has been shaped so much by my early life here, from my community upbringing and being so close to nature to early memories of glimpses of Western magazines and pop videos. I’ve been wanting to come back for some time now. Too long, actually.”

Time is not something Mr. Kamara, 31, has had of late. In an industry where talented creative people can toil for years before their first big break, his trajectory from a Central Saint Martins fashion communications graduate to one of the most in-demand young stylists has been meteoric.

At a moment when Black representation in fashion remains a work in progress, Mr. Kamara’s distinctive voice — he first drew attention in 2016 with “2026,” a striking London exhibition that explored the changing nature of Black African masculinity on street-cast models in Soweto, South Africa — is upending conventional notions of how fashion can relate to race, gender and sexuality.

Currently he styles runway shows and advertising campaigns for top heritage houses like Burberry and Louis Vuitton men’s wear, as well as Erdem, and past clients include Stella McCartney and Dior. His work has appeared in British Vogue, Vogue Italia, System, W and i-D, where he was a senior editor at large. And in January of this year, Mr. Kamara was appointed editor in chief of Dazed, a quarterly youth culture magazine.

“An Ib Kamara comes along once in a generation,” said Mr. Abloh, for whom Mr. Kamara also styles Off-White collections. “His work is a prime example of how diversity can bring out the best of the fashion industry.”

Beyond the Covers

Mr. Kamara’s work tends to flirt at the intersection of raw realism, pop culture tropes and the alternative realities he creates. Of his debut covers for Dazed, one spotlighted suited Nigerian activists holding their national flag; another showed a young Black man in a Gucci tracksuit and hightops receiving an injection under the tagline “Freedom Is Coming But Where Are We Going?” Inside, an astronaut, slouching skater, Rastafarian, airline pilot and a businesswoman idled in a line, moving toward a visor-wearing vaccinator.

“Thank God Ib was not born in Britain,” said Lynette Nylander, the Dazed executive editorial director. Ms. Nylander, a former deputy editor at i-D and Teen Vogue, was hired alongside Mr. Kamara, who is dyslexic and for whom English is not his first language. The two had bonded over shared Sierra Leonean roots when they met in 2016.

“There aren’t many of us in fashion,” Ms. Nylander said. “But Ib has always been a bit of an outsider, adopting a nonconformist perspective from the world at large and then bringing it inside the fashion establishment. He has such an innate sense of the future, and uses so much color, that his ideas then become almost impossible to ignore.”

Both editors talked about the challenges of shooting content in a pandemic, often using a young team scattered across time zones. For Mr. Kamara, whose commercial projects for luxury brands have budgets that are often many times that of his magazine projects, the challenge of “learning how to be creative with nothing” has at times reminded him of his university days.

His September issue, published last week, is far from amateur, with three covers featuring Rihanna, one of the world’s most famous women. In one, she strikes an Amazonian pose in a gold snakeskin bodysuit; in another she wears a jungle green Louis Vuitton cap atop an Afro wig of Marge Simpson proportions. The third cover has her standing tall with a walking stick in a Burberry string bikini, trench and thigh-high boots. In a playful nod to one of her most famous songs, she’s under an umbrella. The tagline? “The Reign Never Stops.”

Mr. Kamara, who once worked on an ad campaign for Fenty, Rihanna’s clothing and cosmetics brand, styled the singer remotely (and notably in looks by key clients). In an inside photo, she is in a custom hooded cotton and canvas dress shaped like a marijuana blunt by the Jamaican designer Jawara Alleyne.

“I don’t often work with celebrities because many aren’t willing to push themselves creatively or get outside the box,” Mr. Kamara said, fiddling with a large diamond stud gleaming from his ear. “Until recently, I tended to work with my friends as it was just easier. But Rihanna is an exception — she is someone who always takes a risk. She resonates with our readership.”

Young people are still looking to magazines, Mr. Kamara said. They just want to see themselves better represented. Which means looking beyond Paris, London and New York to often overlooked cities in Africa and Asia, using local writers and photographers to spotlight those cultures, and then creating a dreamlike fashion universe to tell those stories, create narratives and push them into the mainstream.

“There’s an innocence and urgency that has remained untouched in Ibrahim’s work,” said the photographer Paolo Roversi, a longtime collaborator, adding that he loved his friend’s ability to “create hats with pasta, or mix something found on the street with an haute couture outfit.”

“He is completely true to himself, and that’s where his vision comes from,” Mr. Roversi said. “But his debut Dazed cover shoots were also a great example of how fashion can retain a dreamy, escapist aspect and still be a social commentary.”

The Move to Fashion

One distinctive thread running through much of Mr. Kamara’s work is his fixation with current affairs. It comes, in part, from his earliest memories in Africa and watching other worlds emerge through CNN and BBC. There is also a near forensic approach to detail, honed when he spent three years studying sciences to please his parents, who hoped he would become a doctor. Eventually, miserable, he moved toward fashion.

“Breaking that to my family was one of the hardest things — it was harder than coming out to my parents because African parents put so much pressure on careers and degrees,” Mr. Kamara said. It was his move to London and the sense of personal freedom he found there that propelled his creative self-confidence.

“There was this dreamlike feeling for a time, this sense of wonder that came from growing up between two very different worlds, that really made me who I am,” he said. “I wanted to harness that while still maintaining clear anchors to reality.”

At one point he thought he wanted to be a designer, in order to explore what would ultimately become foundations of his work: notions of queerness, gender exploration and fluidity, as well as Black and distinctively African beauty. Then came a short and unsuccessful stint in public relations, before a pivotal job assisting Barry Kamen, the late stylist who was at the forefront of the 1980s Buffalo scene.

“I realized styling could be a quicker way to tell the stories I wanted to tell,” Mr. Kamara said, pointing to the director Quentin Tarantino, the composer Hans Zimmer and Diana Vreeland as inspirations, thanks to their ability to create immediately recognizable “worlds” that were distinctly their own.

(One person Mr. Kamara doesn’t spend a lot of time styling is himself.) A devotee of a white tee and black pants, he, like many high-profile creative people, said he is “obsessed with clothes, just as long as they are not on me.”

“I’m still honing my own language,” he said. “I love what I do, so much that when I’m not working, you will still find me constantly researching. I have my notebook with me most times during the day.”

Mr. Kamara appears both sweet and still a little surprised about his professional success. At the same time, he is quietly steely about his right to influence and shape the fashion firmament. Mr. Tisci noted that while both he and Mr. Kamara were “quite shy people,” they used work to express themselves boldly.

“He knows how to make my vision come true,” Mr. Tisci said of Mr. Kamara’s influence, calling his recent spring-summer 2022 men’s wear presentation, styled by Mr. Kamara, “the moment where I really found myself at Burberry.”

Ms. Nylander said that while she and Mr. Kamara had both been “nervous” about their Dazed appointments, he had convinced her that it was not just an exciting opportunity but “one that was bigger than the both of us.”

The fashion industry as a whole is prone to the tokenization of Black talent. “Ultimately, there still aren’t many younger Black editors, especially at the top of the tree, who can make real decisions in magazines,” she said. “The mission now is to communicate well beyond art school kids and industry people.”

What may be harder to navigate is being constantly in demand. Mr. Kamara’s short visit to Gambia had been his first personal trip “in literally years,” he said, and he said that a punishing schedule had “taken a toll.” So can the balancing act required by social media. Instagram may have introduced Mr. Kamara to several key collaborators, like the South African photographer Kristin Lee Moolman, but even for those who have risen to powerful positions, it can create insecurities.

“In fashion, even if you are always looking forward, you often feel like you are only as good as your last work,” Mr. Kamara said. “So sometimes that grid can make me feel a little haunted.”

“I hope I inspire people of all colors and backgrounds to unapologetically express themselves,” he said. “That’s the outsider’s legacy. You do your own thing, then hopefully the world catches up to it one day.”

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