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Tolu CokerFounder, Fashion Designer

London, UK. May 21st, 2021

Interviewed by Alexei Key

The British-Nigerian fashion and textile designer, Tolu Coker believes in an industry that pays every achievement forward.


More than anything, my brand is about community. There are four main ‘Cs’ that I’d use to describe my brand: Craftmanship, Clothes, Communities and Cultures. The Tolu Coker brand is about using fashion as a tool to evoke social change and have important conversations.

I flirt with the boundaries of fashion and contemporary art a lot, because my practice is naturally very multidisciplinary and takes into account the wider environmental, social, and cultural ecosystem. What’s special about this is that it’s created an organic community and way of working and engaging with others. I’m an artist as well as a designer, but I’m also educator. So sometimes I’m creating clothes or textiles, sometimes I’m lecturing and consulting, or sometimes I’m illustrating and curating work for an exhibition or shooting a film.

Often, it’s so easy to get lost behind the persona of a brand or business, but I try to lead with empathy and humanity first. It allows me to authentically connect with people, to learn from different environments and experiences, and to create in a really informed and organic way. Even though I make clothes, I think I consider myself more of a multidisciplinary artist. Clothes are just one of many outlets of expression for me.

Almost everyone with whom I’ve interacted, in some shape or form, has influenced my aesthetic. I design around real-life stories and people as opposed to ideals, so I spend a lot of time talking to people and researching. I’m heavily inspired by my parents, especially looking back at images of them when they were younger. I definitely get my sense of style from them. My late father was also a social activist and photographer/journalist, so I’m heavily informed and draw a lot of inspiration from his incredible photo archives.

My AW21 collection, titled “SORO SOKE: Diasapora ’68” was so special in the sense that my community really came out and supported me, as always. I collaborated with my brother, Ade Coker, who photographed it, and our amazing friend Adeleke Adesina, who directed it. The collection came from a very vulnerable place because I was really moved by the End Sars protests and massacres happening in Nigeria last year. They reminded me so much of the stories my parents used to tell me when I was younger, about how Nigeria has been affected by the same issues generation after generation. The effects of colonialism are long-lasting and have created a dynamic of inequality that fuels literal murder and corruption.

The fashion industry has been notorious about centering and taking inspiration from cultures without investing back into those cultures. Last year everyone was posting black squares, and it was at times frustrating, because the real change only occurs when people consistently continue to care, even when nobody’s watching.

I felt a duty to speak about it, because being born in the UK is a privilege, and we have a visibility here that we can often take for granted. I also wanted to shine some light on the unsung contributions of Nigerians to British society—many of whom really shaped their communities in the 1960s and ’70s in phenomenal and uplifting ways.

This project affords even greater meaning, because soon we’ll be going back to Nigeria to support communities there with proceeds from the sale of special collection pieces. I think change can start small and it can start at home. You must be able to give and not always take. It’s a really rewarding feeling to be able to witness how your efforts and work can have an impact on the lives of others.

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My work has enabled me to experience more empathy for others, and it’s realigning my priorities. Fashion can often be a vehicle, as powerful as it is. So, it’s really up to you to choose the kind of person you want to be. I always say, “purpose over popularity,” because without integrity you really have nothing. I’ve been blessed to be able to travel with my work, and that means I get to connect with other creatives and people across many communities who are really genuine, authentic, and caring. These relationships are so important, because they enrich you and hold up a mirror to you as well. I’m blessed to be able to do what I do.

My creative process is very vulnerable, as I allow myself time to feel, discover, and learn before I even put pen to paper. And it’s a different process every time. I try to really immerse myself in whatever I do, and my work always has different outcomes or outputs, dependent on what best speaks to the ideas and stories I’m exploring. During the first lockdown, I spent 80 percent of my time journaling and gardening and the other 20 percent lecturing and drawing. I spend a lot of time alone, but a lot of time having intimate conversations with people as well. I like one-to-one conversations; they reveal a person’s vulnerability. I’m actually very introverted, but I’m also curious, so I’ll often get out and travel or explore to discover new people and things.

Permaculture is among my most recent inspirations. I’ve been spending a lot of time going back to basics and looking at materials: the textiles we use, how we produce them, and their lifecycle in the ecosystem. It’s important for me to understand each step of the process, because sustainability is such a buzzword right now.

Whenever I hear the word “legacy,” I always think about my spirituality and purpose. I can’t help but feel that anything outside of that is rooted in ego. I haven’t met too many other people in fashion who I can truly relate to in terms of background and the space we create from, so I hope my journey and work opens doors for others like me, who may otherwise never get certain opportunities. Whether it be in fashion, in education, or even just in personal relationships, I also hope people will continue the work of elevating others and using their position for wider change. Economic freedom for creatives of low-income backgrounds is a great example of an area that needs attention.

There’s a lot of classism and financial barriers in creative industries, which can stifle amazing creativity. I want to help shift perspectives toward that with my work. It’s important to build a community of people who are their own leaders, people who allow themselves to think and express freely outside of our current social constructs, and who lead with compassion, integrity, and care for others.

I hope that my work in some way inspires this or at least encourages this. I hope the relationships, conversations, and mental shifts I’ve experienced with others continue to be nurtured through the work and lives of other people, too.

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TOLU COKER Fall 2020

Favorite films: It’s impossible to have favorites, as there are too many genres, but some films I love are anything with Viola Davis and Denzel Washington, as well as The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, City of God, The Shawshank Redemption, Entitled, directed by Adeyemi Michael, and Belly from 1998, directed by Hype Williams.

Favorite music: I listen to everything from everywhere, so that’s an impossible question.

Favorite pieces of art: Toyin Ojih Odutola’s “A Countervailing Theory” series and Favour Jonathan’s sculptures of Ododo and Divinity.

Favorite books: No Disrespect and Midnight by Sister Souljah; Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Manifest Now by Idil Ahmed; and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

Current and upcoming creatives you’re excited by: So many, starting with photographers Ade Coker, Dexter Navy, and Rafael Pavarotti; artists Favour Jonathan, Kehinde Wiley, and Toyin Ojih Odutola, and directors Adeyemi Michael, Runyararo Mapfumo, Ade Adesina, and Akinola Davies. I also love Olan Collardy‘s film work—it’s crazy! And in music, Anaïs Zero, Sault, Ego Ella May, Little Simz, and Khruangbin.


TOLU COKER