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FKA twigs on launching an Instagram mag called AVANTgarden

The theme of the first issue is braided hair – we speak to the auteur about the history of the hairstyle, moving to a multi-cultural metropolis and Instagram

I’m getting ready to say goodbye to FKA twigs. “Do you want to hear a bit of my new album?” she asks. “Yes!” I squeal, without skipping a beat. Then I look at the expression on her face... of course, that was never going to happen.

twigs, aka Tahliah Debrett Barnett, is direct, and she’s funny. We’re at a studio in East London where she’s recording (I’m kept waiting downstairs for a few minutes as she’s in the flow of a session), to discuss her latest project, an Instagram magazine called AVANTgarden.

The first ever issue is striking and formatted specifically for the flick-through slide function of the platform. Focusing on braided hairstyles, twigs has developed animalistic, barbershop-inspired imagery, showing beautiful braid patterns curling around the scalps of her friends, with Ghana braids, durags and beads adorning their heads. It’s intimately tied to her sense of blackness, something which she hasn’t spoken about in depth since she was being harassed online back in 2014.

At the time she wrote on Twitter: “I am genuinely shocked and disgusted at the amount of racism that has been infecting my account the past week. Racism is unacceptable in the real world, and it’s unacceptable online.” Now, she says, she wants to start a conversation with other people of colour about another issue that directly affects us and is often tied to racism: the trauma and beauty attached to our hair.

Of course, being a black celebrity doesn’t automatically qualify one as a spokesperson for the community and she herself is adamant that the magazine is set to be a learning process, a jumping off point for her to develop knowledge about particular topics. We sat down with her to find out more.

What was the reason for choosing Instagram as a format?

FKA twigs: I’ve struggled to feel comfortable on social media as I’m a very private person and I find it hard to share the things I’m doing on an everyday level. It feels so intrusive and weird to me. But, if it’s something I can put creativity into and I can have certain amount of imagination and control around it, it makes me feel much more comfortable. I thought it would be much more impactful to create something like this, rather than to put out a picture with some words underneath it, or retweet something. I thought it would spark a conversation. I think for me it’s my way of interacting with people that follow me in an honest way without me cringing at myself. Because it is cringe sometimes. Why not create something that can bring an artistic community together?

And on a practical level, what do you think Instagram brings?

FKA twigs: I just find it interesting if I wanted to know who was on the cover of Dazed, I would definitely see it on Instagram before I would see it in the shops. As far as I’m aware, no-one’s done a monthly magazine with a beautiful layout and thought of it that way on Instagram. Rather than posting selfies or pictures of your cups of coffee or avocado toast, I thought it would be exciting to see people using it in more of a creative way to express themselves. I would love to make it into a physical thing eventually, or it can be put in a gallery, or it can be on a website.

Where were the images taken?

FKA twigs: The pictures were taken in my house. Friends and everyone came down and we were all just laughing and cooking pasta, listening to music. It was a very chill day.

Who did the hairstyling?

FKA twigs: Rio Sreedharan. I’ve been working for him for just about a year now and it’s been really interesting working with a hair stylist who thinks so much about protecting my hair. When I first started my journey of being an artist four years ago, I had hair down to here (gestures) and through the years it just got shorter and shorter and shorter, because you’re having so many people touch it, style it and use heat. Working with Rio, he does protect my hair and he is literally so fast at braiding. He did all those hairstyles in the magazine in one day. Ten people with different things in seven hours.

How much do you know about the history of braids?

FKA twigs: One of the girls, Chanel, said the hairstyle that she has in the magazine is actually from her grandma’s tribe – the Ashanti tribe in Ghana. I thought that was quite special. It was really fun looking at the heritage of braids because of course, different braids mean different things. There’s braid patterns which are for fertility, or because you want to get married. You know cornrows started because slaves would draw maps in the braids of how to escape the plantations? I think it’s important that we own our heritage and we know these things. It’s awful, but It makes me feel proud of them. I feel proud that they did that to release themselves from pain. That’s a beautiful thing. Through braids some people found their liberty. That’s why I think the community should be able to feel like they can wear braids with a suit and still look really smart, or their natural texture with suit and still feel really smart.

And it’s nice because you do have one girl with her natural texture in there as well...

FKA twigs: Because that’s really important. I’m not saying, “get braids”. I’m saying embrace your heritage, embrace your hair texture, embrace protective styles. I know I’m going to put my hair away during winter because it’s not going to like the cold or the rain. Soon I’ll put my hair away and it’ll come out in the spring. I own that.

“You know cornrows started because slaves would draw maps in the braids of how to escape the plantations? I think it’s important that we own our heritage and we know these things” – FKA twigs

I was wondering about the aesthetic of the magazine. It feels a bit animalistic with the cat eyes and pan-African themes.

FKA twigs: Like, I’m an alien (laughs), so that’s kind of the aesthetic I like. It was inspired by growing up and becoming a young lady in south London. You walk past the black barber shops and see the muted colours they have, the styles you could pick. The posters would always be old, faded and peeling off the wall. You’d pick ‘number four’. It was inspired by that. It seems quite romantic to me, the way those photos are taken. There’s always a certain amount of aspiration, romance and hope. Those pictures we’ve all grown up with are so strong and hopeful, inspired by romance and pride.

What were you thinking with the captions? Some of them seemed a bit satirical, playing on the names of black beauty products?

FKA twigs: Exactly, it was a kind of regrowth of these slogans we see on our hair lotions and stuff. It’s always very happy and aspirational, which is so funny because there’s so much pain behind it. ’The natural choice’ and ‘nature’s beauty’. But there’s a lot of pain and misunderstanding behind grooming our hair, and that’s really sad.

When did you decide to focus on braids more generally?

FKA twigs: I thought of the idea about eight months ago. As a mixed race person, I have a very complicated relationship with my hair. For people of colour, hair texture is such a big conversation. I’ve heard horrific stories of girls going into school with braids and teachers telling them to take them out, or even cutting girl’s braids out in the classroom. Even the conversation around the latest Dove advert, it was found that they produced a cream for ‘normal to dark skin’. It’s the same thing with hair texture – what people perceive ‘abnormal’ is something that needs to be tamed. So I think for me, braids as a protective hairstyle and something that’s been passed down through our heritage, is amazing to embrace. To be able to embrace your natural hair texture and also embrace things that protect your hair from the weather.

And why did you decide to do braids as your first issue?

FKA twigs: I think when I first started wearing braids and having them in my photoshoots and videos, no-one was really doing it. It wasn’t so much of a thing as it was now. I found it quite strange because after spending five or six years living in Croydon, it seemed like quite natural. I felt that it was fine for me to go on the red carpet with my hair all braided and twisted up but people were blown away by it, like it was this phenomenon. I was kind of like, ‘hang on a minute, people have been doing this for ages’. I am a businesswoman and I can wear a suit and a braid with beads. It was normality and it felt very natural to do it as the first issue of AVANTgarden.

“As a mixed race person, I have a very complicated relationship with my hair. For people of colour, hair texture is such a big conversation. I’ve heard horrific stories of girls going into school with braids and teachers telling them to take them out” – FKA twigs

When you were younger what kind of hairstyles did you go through?

FKA twigs: I grew up in the countryside and I was the only person of colour in my school. I grew up wanting my hair to be straight all the time, straightening it then being caught in the rain. I remember the first time I did my own hair, in Year 7. I got some oil from London, because where I live you couldn’t get that stuff. I put it in my hair and braided it in two plaits. I remember going into Geography and a girl saying "Oh, your hair’s so greasy". I felt so horrible because it was something I was doing for me. I knew was good for me and I knew it was gonna protect my hair and make me feel good, help it grow, and help me get aesthetically where I wanted to be. But the people where I lived weren’t used to.

Did you take them out?

FKA twigs: Yes, I did take them out. I think that’s part of the reason why AVANTgarden it is the way it is. It’s not because I think I know the answer, because I don’t. I’m a grown woman and still I have days where I feel weird if my hair’s too frizzy. It’s years and years of subconscious messaging that’s got into your head. I think to spark a conversation is just the very beginning of untangling it and having positive contemporary imagery people can relate to. It’s so much more than some cute pictures to me, like I do want people to talk about it and I want to be able to talk to people through my social media to see how they feel, so that I can learn as well.

Did it take some time for you to develop a community of people of colour around you, coming from such a white place?

FKA twigs: My friends are my friends, I have black friends, I have Indian friends, white friends, Asian friends. I remember I could never get a boyfriend in school but when I moved to London my mum stopped on Sydenham High Street. She went to Morley’s Chicken and I just remember this light skinned boy came by on a bike. He was so cute and he just knocked on the door. I wound down the window and he slipped his number through. And I was like, ‘oh my God, boys are going to like me’. From then on, I just knew. I went to a college which was so multicultural.

Colourism (exists) within our society as well. I had a really awful experience recently where I was working with a dark-skinned girl and she thought it was really funny to call me ‘wash and go’. It was really hurtful to me and I found myself trying to justify how frizzy and awful my hair is. I’m not a wash and go girl. We’ve both experienced difficulty, and we’ve probably gone through the same things. This is my sister, why are we having this conversation? I just think that within our community, all different shapes, and all different places that we’re all from, we should just come together and be like, “this is something we have in common”.

“It’s also a way for me to create on a low budget again, like I’ve come from a very punk way of working. All my early music videos were just my friends setting up in my living room” – FKA twigs

How many other issues of AVANTgarden will you do?

FKA twigs: I’m aiming to do one a month like a normal publication, maybe sometimes I’ll do more, sometimes I’ll do less. I think for me it’s a way for me to express myself without any rules and guidelines. Say, for example, when I was on the cover of some big publications, I had to wear what they gave me. I don’t know how it works, but if it’s somehow sponsored by Prada or something, then I have to wear it and that’s that. It doesn’t always make me feel good.

AVANTgarden is a way for me to create with my friends. Or it’s a way for me to express my sense of humour. Like, a lot of people don’t know but I’m really goofy. It doesn’t always come through like in my work or my imagery. Like, if I want to do a whole issue on cats then I can do that. I think it’s also a way for me to create on a low budget again. I’ve come from a very punk way of working. All my early music videos were just my friends setting up in my living room.

You kind of want to reclaim that a bit? 

FKA twigs: Well, I’ve never lost it – I’ve always done it. Even when I did Nike for example, I made the zine on my kitchen table. I did that with my own hands, sticking and gluing at one o’clock in the morning.

I’m assuming you’re recording at the moment for a reason, are any of the magazines in the future going to relate to your music? 

FKA twigs: I mean maybe, I don’t know. I have three issues in my brain and none of them have music, but maybe one day.