The designer’s graduate collection at CSM unpacked the demonisation of voodoo, making a spiritual offering to Amber Rose and her Cameroonian ancestors
“They used words like ‘primitive’ and ‘violent’,” Cathy Meyong says. “And that just proved my point. This is how our culture is perceived in the west.” The graduate designer is remembering an interaction she had with one of her tutors at Central Saint Martins, who was clearly unacquainted with the realities of West African voodoo. “It hurts to hear those comments when you’re sharing something so personal. I don’t blame them, though. They’re a product of their own environment and privileges, so I don’t expect them to be woke.” The suspicion that collects around diasporic religions has long been a source of fascination for Meyong, a German, second-generation Cameroonian who was raised Christian but used her graduate collection as a means to reconnect with her ancestral heritage and rewrite the traumas of colonialism.
“If you think of the term voodoo, the first thing that pops into your mind is black magic, stabbing dolls, and death. But it’s actually a spiritual practice with close links to Hinduism and Buddhism.” The reclamation of voodoo – or vodun – is a theme Botter also put forward for its SS24 collection, where the hands of dolls had been strung into a belt, while their heads lolloped from key chains. Meyong took this further, connecting the demonisation of African religions to the construction of racial difference in the 1500s. “It’s about the creation of Blackness, which was used as a tool to colonise the continent and support slavery,” she says, much like how Christianity was wielded as an excuse to justify imperialism. “I’ve had to look at this in an academic way because it’s an emotional topic, it’s the only for me not to become too affected.”
In an attempt to evoke the “visual violence” of colonialism and the way vodun has been represented in the west, Meyong turned out bulb-like jackets with jagged stripes and hirsute mohawks, wide-set cowhide boots, and faux-suede dresses that had been draped and twisted and tangled around the torso. Bralettes were made from ethically-sourced antelope horns, mini skirts from taxidermied crow wings, and earrings from the lacquered shells of a horseshoe crab. The models looked like prehistoric video vixens, disobedient, cold-blooded, rich. “I design for people who look like me, I want to reclaim the violence that has been done to us” she explains. “The collection plays into this idea of vodun being a sinister force in the west, I wanted the clothes to look violent and creepy because it’s discomfort that motivates change.”
The presence of all those animal bones and dismembered limbs was meant to inspire discomfort in white audiences, who are often sanctimonious about sacrificial practices despite shopping for mass-farmed meat. “I was hoping to show people that we are all hypocrites,” Meyong says. “It’s not okay to use fur but it’s okay to use leather? And wear garments created by people who are exploited and underpaid? Is the life of a fox worth more than the life of a brown person in India? The focus isn’t on the right thing at times.” The designer – who worked three jobs while studying at CSM – gathered these materials from ethical taxidermist groups on Facebook and eBay and antique markets during her placement year. “I designed all of these pieces in the knowledge that I might never be able to create another collection again,” she says.
“You need money and I don’t know where that’s going to come from,” she continues, adding that she’d like to work for Rick Owens – whose designs ride on a similar notion of venal glamour – but is applying for openings at Lidl. “In this cost of living crisis, I need two jobs to keep my head above water, which doesn’t give me time to work on my own stuff. It makes me think ‘Do I have a place in this industry?’, I saved up for my collection for over three years and I didn’t see a single Black designer in any of the professional ateliers I worked in during my internships.” But like most confrontational designers, a hard-won struggle has been a boon to Meyong’s creative thinking. On a catwalk that tends to skew conceptual more than covetable, she cast a new and fully-formed protagonist: assertive, obscene, dark lipstick, even darker glasses.
“The inspiration for those sunglasses came from Amber Rose. She was that girl. I literally just took the glasses she wore to red-carpet events and tweaked the shape to make them more modern,” she says. It’s a fitting tribute given that Meyong’s introduction to fashion came via 2010s jerk culture – all snapbacks, galaxy prints, and shutter shades – when Rose was at the height of her MTV fame. “Oh god, I don’t want to think about that period of time, but just know that it was my peak,” she adds. Embarrassment aside, the designer’s work is impregnated with the confidence of that era’s figureheads, who celebrated and maintained their Blackness through style. It means her collection took a sledgehammer – or perhaps an antique tusk – to the hierarchies established during colonialism, their foundations brought into question by those brave enough to return to the source.