Talking to Rym Beydoun about channeling Africa’s couture traditions and her Ivory Coast home
Super Yaya wants to defy your preconceived ideas of African fashion. “In the first place, I was just trying to communicate the idea that this is Africa,” the Lebanese Ivory Coast-based designer behind the label, Rym Beydoun explains. Born in Abidjan on the Ivory Coast, Beydoun studied at Central Saint Martins but was drawn back to her home country and worked there over her placement year. Returning as a graduate she worked on Laurence Airline, before starting the brand in 2016. Contrary to the pervasive, ridiculously simplified stereotype of Africa as one underdeveloped – and therefore, backwards – country (FYI, it’s a continent), Super Yaya is Beydoun’s way of paying tribute to the culture she grew up with while saying “We’re modern as well, you know?”
Instead of cliché cocoa tree motifs, Super Yaya is, instead, an “Africosmic” take on the West African fashion she grew up with before moving back to Beirut for a while after the first Ivorian political coup in 1999. Having reconnected with these roots in her year out from studying womenswear at Cental Saint Martins instead of working in an atelier – “I really wanted to get a different kind of exposure” – Super Yaya was Beydoun’s very 21st-century answer to bringing the traditional, readily accessible and affordable West African culture of getting your ready-to-wear pieces made-to-measure to anyone with an Internet connection.
Beydoun’s brand is also teaching lessons in authenticity of representation in fashion. More appreciation than appropriation – “appreciation is more that you’ve lived it, that you relate,” – Super Yaya is all about being able to “walk down the street in Abidjan and find someone wearing the same fabric as you.” “These are all fabrics that exist on the market,” she explains, “People go to church in them, buy them – it’s not exclusive.”
“The only thing different,” according to Beydoun, “is that the design is very specific to Super Yaya” – that is, a uniquely offbeat blend of graphic slogans that serve as testament to the Ivorian penchant for superlatives, worn with bold coloured retro-futuristic cut separates. In her own words: “Super Yaya is very surreal…it’s a world I create in-between things like past and future, west and east.”
Your business model was based around bringing couture services online – how do you feel Internet culture has impacted fashion?
Rym Beydoun: Every other decade (pre-internet) like the 80s or 90s, something comes to mind straight away in terms of fashion. Since the 2000s, nothing has really defined these two decades – I feel like there’s a kind of individualism that is really lost. This is something that is still real in Africa, though: we still have couture, basically. It’s a luxury but people don’t realise how much of a luxury it is for them to be still able to buy their own fabrics, create their own things, go to tailors and get things made-to-measure. It’s not expensive to do that. I just felt like this was important to bring out.
Where do you look for inspiration?
Rym Beydoun: The whole thing came to me when I was riding bikes, basically. I started taking motocross courses in Abidjan, and when I was riding that motorbike – with the scenery, the landscape – for me, it was so futuristic. The motocross outfit is very cosmic, and the sand dunes...it was just out of this world. You just feel like it’s so surreal, and surrealism is one thing that really inspires me.
You’ve mentioned before you’re influenced by ideas of Afrofuturism in your work – what is it that’s so compelling about this movement for you?
Rym Beydoun: I’ve been doing a lot of research into Afrofuturism lately because sometimes you think you know what it means, but it’s so complex as a term. The same with modernism – they’re both so paradoxical and controversial because even the architecture comes across as wanting to prove to the colonisers that “OK, look, we’re modern as well” – but in doing that, you’re actually showing and proving that you’ve been colonised. These are just ideas that I’ve been exposed to and I’m reconsidering what I think about it. I study interviews with Octavia Butler and all these writers that write black science fiction (to understand) why they write it, what is the future for black people and what is the past of black people.
It’s definitely very complex and these themes seem to be becoming more visible in designers’ work with politics the state it’s in right now. Is this something that you’ve noticed affecting your work too?
Rym Beydoun: I think politics is almost like the only thing you can get inspired by, lately. For me, two things are very central: to look back at culture, and to look back at social conditions like political issues. As I said, imagery is so accessible, it’s so easy to say what you have to say – which is always going to be connected to sexuality or something that is social. The thing is, everything is political.
“I think politics is almost like the only thing you can get inspired by, lately” – Rym Beydoun
Was that the thinking behind the graphic tees in your work – are they a kind of statement?
Rym Beydoun: For me, it was a way to be commercial, to be present and do my own thing without people pressuring me. So, I just sold those two t-shirts, and they just served as a link between me and the people who were already following the brand. It was a turning point. I knew the identity (of the label) was quite strong in terms of logo, branding, and all these things – and the message to communicate was Super Yaya. I wanted it to look like it could be anything. A lot of people questioned it – some people say it doesn’t sound like a brand name and they laugh – but that’s what I like, that it’s so flexible and it’s so open, I can do anything I want with it. I did the “Afrocosmic” slogan because that’s the motto – that Africa’s 100% cosmic. I’m also super into graphic design. I love the fact that there is another layer of design where you design letters and you design fonts and it expresses something.
Speaking of the power of logos, have you seen everyone’s own versions of IKEA clothing after the Balenciaga version of that IKEA bag went viral? What do you think about that?
Rym Beydoun: That comes back to my initial idea of people making things for themselves, right? Like in West Africa, people are still doing something themselves and I feel like there’s room for people to experiment (whereas outside of Africa) I feel like we’re being fed every day by things that are so constant, so square. I think it’s liberating to see that all of a sudden, they get inspired to do their own thing that they put on the Internet themselves. DIY forever, you know?
How would you like to see Super Yaya grow?
Rym Beydoun: We actually worked on a book in December and on a film. I’ve been focussing more on what I want to say – I’m really excited to develop the design part, but this was more about dealing with family complexities and issues. It’s very personal. My family was very dismantled in the past year and I wanted to reconnect. I photographed my family wearing my clothes; just showing a way of making peace. This is something that’s supposed to be coming out in the next few months.
At first, I set a deadline but now I’m more flexible because I just really believe in the idea of flexibility and I want everything to be organic and follow my own rhythm – I don’t want to be pressured by any outside schedule. Independence, for me, is the most important thing. I don’t mind my business staying really slow and really small, as long as I’m completely free and independent.
What advice do you have for other designers trying to do what you’re doing?
Rym Beydoun: It’s good to be real and to push concepts. I think we have enough cool, nice, pretty things – all these things, they exist. You need to think of a way to stand out and have something to say that is going to change something. We’re all just oversaturated – not even just in the fashion industry – you have to decide whether you want to be one of a thousand or if you want to stand out from them. So few people have a message!