Malian fashion designer working in Paris
Born: Bamako, Mali, circa 1963, son of a diplomat and a doctor; moved to Paris around 1986. Education: Studied architecture, Architecture School of Strasbourg, France, and at La Villette, Paris. Career: Designs under XULY.Bët label, based in Kouyaté's Funkin' Fashion Factory, Paris; became known for recycled, patched-together clothing; first New York runway show, 1997; opened store on New York's Orchard Street, 1997; changed New York store name to Fragile, 1999. Address: 8 Rouget-de-l'Isle, 93500 Pantin, Paris, France.
Spindler, Amy M., "Prince of Pieces," in the New York Times, 2 May 1993.
Donovan, Carrie, "Paris Report," in the New York Times Magazine, 9May 1993.
Hume, Marion, "Coming Unstitched, or Just a Stitch-up?," in the Independent (London), 30 September 1993.
Martin, Richard, "A Sweater as Quasi-Surreal Composition," in theIndependent (London), 30 September 1993.
Talley, Andre Leon, "Piecing It Together," in Vogue, October 1993.
"The Last Word," in WWD, 14 March 1994.
Jacobs, Patricia, "Xüly Bet," in Essence, May 1994.
White, Constance, "Two European Lines Take on America," in the New York Times, 21 October 1997.
——, "Inspiration from the Compelling Land of the Visionaries," in the New York Times, 6 November 1997.
Greene, Walter, "Sexy Spring Fashions," in Black Elegance, April 1998.
White, Renee Minus, "A Fashionable Bet From Paris to New York," in New York Amsterdam News, 15 April 1999.
Colman, David, "After Pushcarts Comes a Catwalk," in the New York Times, 23 May 1999.
Barnett, Amy Du Bois, "Portfolio: Bet on It," in Essence, August 1999.***
In a Paris collections report under the rubric "The Last Word," Women's Wear Daily (14 March 1994) recounted: "Deadly heat, a grating live band and groupies lounging on the floor…. But it wasn't a Grateful Dead concert—just XULY.Bët's défilé at La Samaritaine department store." Lamine Kouyaté, designing for his label XULY.Bët, has all the characteristics of an avant-garde and disestablishment fashion, but one that at least assumes a fashion system and even shows good likelihood of becoming a positive and lasting element of the fashion system.
Recycling, collage, rags to riches economics, exposed seams and construction, a profoundly African sensibility, and artistic temperament all seem at odds with establishment fashion but have, in fact, brought XULY.Bët to the mainstream and major recognition. Lauded as a fashion postmodernist and deconstructivist, Kouyaté's fashion coincides only with the intellectual postulation; his design creativity is more intuitive and personal, founded in his childhood in Mali, Africa, and the necessarily pastiched view of the world he perceived in a former French colony. The 1993 XULY.Bët collection was based on torn, dismembered, and reassembled surplus and flea market clothing, each a one-of-a-kind invention from the "given" of a distressed or discarded fashion object. Kouyaté's urban picturesque includes cropped jackets, bold African prints, graphics, and graffiti lacerated and reassembled, and long dresses that defy their own length in haphazard apertures, visible seaming, and a charming sense of coming apart. Kouyaté's dilapidated dresses and clothes are a romantic, enchanted vision.
As Kouyaté told Amy Spindler of the New York Times in May 1993, "At home, all the products come from foreign places. They're imported from everywhere, made for a different world, with another culture in mind. A sweater arrives in one of the hottest moments of the year. So you cut the sleeves off it to make it cooler. Or a woman will get a magazine with a Chanel suit in it, and she'll ask a tailor to make it out of African fabric. It completely redirects the look." Adaptation and alteration are paramount in XULY.Bët's work, beginning with the patchwork of distressed, repaired, and patched garments of 1993 and his 1994 compounds of cultures and fabrics.
Like the Futurist demand that sculpture relinquish its pedestal, material unity, and high-art status, Kouyaté's fashion demands that high fashion come to the streets and flea markets to renew itself. It is, of course, a demolition for the purpose of rejuvenation, but an extreme of ruin that some find difficult to accept. Yet few could deny the beauty of Kouyaté's vision: sensuous patching, often skin tight, gives dresses a sense of tattoo or body decoration more than of party dressing. His 1993 show sent African models out in Caucasian-colored "skin-tone" Band-Aids to reinforce the impression of scarification and the necessary politics of adornment.
If Kouyaté's œuvre shares principles with Martin Margiela's pensive and poetic deconstruction in fashion and both owe some debt to Rei Kawakubo's pioneering deconstructions of the early 1980s and again in the late 1980s, Kouyaté's African roots and sensibility set him apart, mingling rich pattern mix with the concept of collage. Kouyaté requires different eyes—the XULY.Bët name means the equivalent of "keep your eyes open," as with alertness and wonderment—and a Western willingness to accept an African aesthetic.
The reluctance to fully accept Kouyaté's innovative work resides less in its épater les bourgeois scorn for tradition and deliberate inversion of the economic order, for both of these are standard gambits of fashion novelty. The greater difficulty is probably in seeing improvised and aesthetically coarse (in Western terms and fashion's propensity to refinement) creation of fashion. But what Kouyaté proves is that the colonial disadvantage he might supposedly have begun with is an opportunity and offers its own aesthetic. The lesson to old imperialisms is obvious, and fashion must know better than to be one of the ruined empires. A few tatters, some exposed junctures, and disheveled first impressions may be tonic and certainly far more interesting than an inflexible and rarefied status for fashion. Like Jean-Michel Basquiat's brilliant and lasting impact on American art, Kouyaté is showing the "real thing" of an African taste rendered in his own meeting with Western terms, not merely rich peasants or tourist views of a Third-World pageantry. Kouyaté's aesthetic is irrefutably an eye-opener for fashion.
Kouyaté and XULY.Bët have made as much of an impression in the U.S. since their first New York runway show in 1997 as they did on their introduction to the Parisian fashion community in 1992. American fashion critics, musicians from INXS to Neneh Cherry, and more important, the youthful public, have embraced Kouyaté's multiethnic, flea market-driven style.
Kouyaté has continued to rely on bargain basement-found pieces as the basis for his designs, transforming them into colorful, fashionable items that have been described as sensual and glamorous, despite their origin as thrift shop underwear or crocheted blankets. His architecturally-driven visible seams, along with his large, outer labels, have become trademarks of his otherwise diverse work. As Constance White pointed out in the New York Times in November 1997, his skill and conviction—and his lack of reliance on fashion trends—are what make his work stand out.
Kouyaté's choice of New York's Orchard Street rather than SoHo for his first U.S. store, called XULY.Bët Funkin' Fashion, fit perfectly with his street-based sensibility. The store hosted graffiti contests and featured a changing roster of guest designers in addition to the XULY.Bët label. In 1999 the store, run by Damien Serrazin, changed its name to Fragile; it began featuring XULY.Bët as its lead line, along with other designers such as Punk Empire and Dexter Wong. It remains an off-the-beaten-track magnet for multicultural youth, always influenced by the active street culture surrounding it.
For the future, Kouyaté told Essence magazine in August 1999 that he hopes to expand into more department stores and shops—he has had success in Europe in retail chains such as Galeries Lafayette—as well as into other products such as footwear, accessories, and even housewares. Yet Kouyaté's primary focus will remain on what Women's Wear Daily called his "lively, mismatched patterned clothes" (1 April 1998), which appeal to both devotees of fashion and the street-smart customers who inspire him.
updated by Karen Raugust