JonColby
Korto Momolu

Next time you’re out and about in Little Rock and think to yourself, “Say, that person over there looks like Liberian-born ‘Project Runway’ all-star fashion designer Korto Momolu,” and then dismiss the thought out of hand, look twice. Momolu — who converted her reality TV show fame into a career, sewing her ethos into garments like she did with Women Grow, an organization that cultivates women leaders in the cannabis industry — calls Little Rock home.

So on this November afternoon, the same day deemed Korto Momolu Day by the city of Little Rock in 2008, Momolu’s giving a sneak peek of her Fall/Winter ’21 Freedom Collection — four mini-collections, actually — in a chic storefront in the SoMa neighborhood, 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 13. All seating is front row, preshow cocktails begin at 3:30 p.m. and a pop-up reception takes place immediately after the show, including a trunk show where you can buy a piece fresh off the runway. Get tickets here or at Luv Boutique in Little Rock’s River Market. 

Advertisement

First, tell me a little about the Freedom Collection.

It’s been a pretty crazy two years for my industry. We thought it’d be a couple weeks, then a couple months, then a year, and now two years. Fashion Week — all my shows I usually go and do were canceled. People aren’t going anywhere so they’re not buying anything but athleisure. It’s like a death to what I know to be a business and a lifestyle.

Advertisement

So I called this the Freedom Collection because I just went through a lot last year — personal stuff, everything. It’s like I’m freeing myself, going back to old Korto and the things I used to love so much about designing. As an artist, when you don’t get to practice your art, it almost becomes like a slow death, you know what I mean? So it’s like I’m reviving my soul with this collection. I’m forcing myself to do it because I needed it. I needed to be creative again. To make things, and to feel that joy of creating something from nothing. But it was a fight against myself to do it, because — I don’t know. It’s not looking good out here! [Laughs.]

It’s interesting to hear that. Because looking at your work online, there’s so much joy and life coming across. And you don’t strike me as a person who’s going to hide that struggle, but also, you’re clearly doing the thing!

Advertisement

Yeah. I still show up. Last year, the people that I mentor were calling me, like, “What are we gonna do?!” You have to be this strong person to keep them going, but I’m like, “I have no IDEA what we’re gonna do!” [Laughs.] Who does the mentor go to, to get mentored? So it’s been tough. It’s been draining. But I’ve always been open with my struggles because I know what it’s like for somebody in my position, who’s not where I’m at, to say, “Fuck it. I’m out.” I try to be honest with it.

One of the things I felt about going through everything last year: It shows you what you’re made of. If you’re still standing after the last two years, and you can still get up and run a business, whatever level of business it is, that’s a victory. That’s why this [collection] is called “Freedom.” I’m free. I made it. All these big retailers and designers that you looked up to growing up — they’re going out of business. And it’s like, man, I’m thankful my phone still rings. That people are still ordering things. Might not be in the dozens and droves like I want it to be, but I’m still here! And I’m gonna do this collection, and tell this story. Use my voice to speak on some issues that are important to me, especially women’s rights and women’s empowerment. 

That’s really what the whole collection is about — about being who I am, being free to say what I want to say. Dress how I want to dress. This is my life, my body, and my choice. And I’m fighting against whoever is trying to take that from me. Among everything else — you know, being a Black woman and being judged upon entry anywhere just on my skin tone, not on my relevance, what I’ve done for my community, the kind of person I am. No one’s going to know that. They judge you from that visual. So the collection starts off black and white, because unfortunately, that’s the kind of world we’re living in. 

Advertisement

It seems like with your fashion, you pay attention to the whole body. Like incorporating essential oils and cannabis and sending messages about mental health and self-care. Why is that important for you, and do you find the fashion world receptive to those ideas? 

I’m not a singer or a musician, so I can’t put those ideas into music, so this is almost like me putting into a lyric some of the social things I feel are important, but that people don’t always think about. Changing the narrative. Like with the cannabis thing. People think, ‘Oh, you just get high all day,” but this stuff actually helps people. I was one of those people. I suffer from fibromyalgia and my right arm just goes out on me sometimes, and people in the industry helped me find ways to cope with it. There’s the fun side of it, but there’s also the medical side of it — helping people who really need it. So if I can lend a voice to that, that’s important. It’s important that we say more than, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be pink ruffles this season, and glitter and glam.’ That’s so superficial. I feel like if I’m gonna really say something, even if it’s through clothing, it needs to have a message. 

And when I make clothes, I’m thinking about when you’re sitting or when you’re moving. I’m making a garment that’s going to work for a woman. That’s how I started in fashion. Filling the gaps I thought were missing. 

I saw that DJ Nick Hud is doing the music for the event, also vocalists Tawanna Campbell-Berry and Dee Dee Jones. You strike me as a creator who’s very intentional about music, and about pairing it with a visual. Was it always like that for you, and why do you think about that in such detail?

On the runway, you can’t really speak. It’s not like “Project Runway” where you get up and talk about your collection. When it goes out, it goes out. And whatever the story is, I want them to feel it. And I feel like with music, the music choices you make really do — it is a vibe. I want it to feel like it’s all one thing and not disconnected. It should tell a story. It should go along with everything you’re saying, and should flow. 

With this [show], it opens with kids from the Westwind School of Performing Arts singing “Wade in the Water,” or an African rendition of it. I wanted to start with that vibe, and it sets the tone of the rest of the music to come after. I just like to create experiences. When people see my work, I want them to feel it in the music and see it in the clothes and just be moved by it. To leave there talking about it.

What do you think will come of the way we’ve dressed ourselves in isolation? I’ve worn sweatpants a lot and honestly, it’s been great. You do a ton with t-shirts and sweatshirts on your Instagram feed. Do you think the pendulum will swing the other way toward the super formal? 

I think it’s made everybody not take everything so seriously. I kinda like that. But I do miss being able to dress up. I think it’s gonna be extremes. But I think now people understand that it can be a t-shirt and still be cute and fashionable. We’re still gonna keep it cute. I saw a woman in the airport the other day with one of my t-shirts on! It made my heart happy.

Thinking of you in an airport makes me want to ask: You wear fabulous lipstick. It must have been weird to have that under a mask for so long!

Oh, my God, yes! Recently, I just started wearing it. Like, if I’m gonna be outside, I’m wearing it. I miss stuff like that. All the self-expression stuff. But even my masks had different vibes, different messages on them. One of them had little rhinestone lips, like giving people kisses. Even with a mask I still felt like I had to be Korto.

So the Freedom Collection show is happening on Korto Momolu Day, a day designated in your name by the City of Little Rock in 2008. Do you think you lose out on some things and gain other things by making your work from a place that’s not widely considered a fashion city? 

I lost a lot of jobs! I lost a lot of money living here. Especially in L.A. and New York, they’re like, “Oh, you’re not here? Arkansas?!” But it’s still home for me. I didn’t want my kids to have to suffer because I had this career and I was chasing it all around the world or all around the country. I’ve got to do my dream, and I can still do it, but I want my kids to have a foundation. Some stability. I grew up all over the place, starting a new school every year and not being able to have friends. I hated it. I never felt like I had a home. So when we moved here, it felt like home. We bought a house, and had kids. When I say I’m going home, this is the place I’m talking about. Not Liberia or Canada. This place has loved me and welcomed me and given me my own day. Showing [the collection] here is important to me, to say thank you for accepting me and loving me like I’m one of y’all, and continuing to.