Sarah Nsikak is a textile artist, designer and first-generation Nigerian American. She began designing her own clothes using textile waste and upcycled garments in 2014. Her interest in sustainable textile design eventually led her to create our own line, La Réunion, which creates reworked wearable art pieces that tell evocative stories about the African American and African experience. We spoke to Sarah about fashion and waste in the textile industry and her personal journey to create la réunion.
What's the story behind La Réunion? How did it start?
I have always made little textile art pieces without really sharing them, but I actualized the project La Réunion (named after the island) at the end of 2019. The goal has always been to share Africa-inspired artwork, and to do so sustainably.
I wanted to be very intentional about introducing clothing into the project. There are so many brands out there, and I didn't want to do it just because I knew how to, or because it was expected of me.
The capsule of Patchwork Dresses were created out of a time of real sadness and grief. COVID-19 had hit hard in NYC, and we are confined to our homes. I no longer had a job, and had a lot of time to create something from an honest place. I remember thinking, "what can I make that will make me feel good in a time where that seems impossible?" Fashion has this transportive element that can make you feel you're somewhere else or someone else, even on the bleakest day. This is why I knew I'd be making something I could wear.
Tell us more about your experience in the fashion industry and pivoting to your art practice when you noticed the amount of waste?
I moved to NYC in 2017 to work for a designer that claimed to be sustainable and ethically made in Africa, but it was smoke and mirrors. I witnessed greenwashing and abuse in the fashion industry first-hand, and became disillusioned. I was gaslighted into believing that the abuse and being underpaid was something you just had to go through.
From then on, it was so important for me to take everyone off pedestals and reimagine things from a new perspective, because this one was not it. I began to think about where I fit into this landscape as an artist that cares about ethics, sustainability, equity for black people, and celebrating Africa. I spent a couple of years working for different designers, some that I really admire now and stay connected to. I was eager to learn and see what I could do differently. I'm thankful for every single experience now, and feel it led me to unwavering values and an altruistic message that uplifts those that look like me, and tells buried stories of those that inspire me the most.
In what ways does la réunion try to address sustainability issues in the fashion industry?
Textile waste is one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions. It also negatively affects black and brown countries before anywhere else. I recently read about a 30ft mountain of textile waste rotting in beautiful Ghana. We would never allow this in America or any predominantly white country. The countries of black and brown people are treated as dump sites for exorbitant American waste. I want to help spread awareness about this as much as I can, because it's the consumption of cheaply made fast fashion that perpetuates these disparities. There is a lack of big picture thinking and understanding when it comes to buying clothing. I know my garments
will not be accessible to everyone, but what is most important to me is that people are inspired to consider supporting their local designers and local thrift stores, versus their local fast fashion shop. Not seeing the rotting mountain every day can't be the reason why there's a lack of awareness that it exists.
What are some of the challenges in starting your own small label?
It's challenging doing just about anything at first. I started the company with no money or help, so it all felt like a big undertaking. A more tangible challenge for me was being taken seriously as a woman of color, and standing my ground on pricing. People often assume black owned means "free" or "cheap". My work is very labor intensive and intentional, and it's important that I stand firm on the value of that no matter how challenging it is.
Where do you see La Réunion in five years?
Working with African artists and artisans to provide opportunities and empower women in the country I'm from.
How do you implement conscious consumption and sustainability practices in your own life?
I do everything locally and on a small scale. For example, I would rather go do my local hardware store than make an online order because I want to help sustain my community. It’s better for the environment that we don't order things when we have the choice not to. Other things I do are reusing literally everything as many times as I can, I take my reusable coffee cup with me, I compost our food scraps, and I'm always thinking about ways to cut down on plastic.
Any books you love that have helped further your education on climate and sustainability, or intersectional environmentalism?
I've been reading a book by Thich Nhat Hanh called The Sun My Hear. It's all about living mindfully and meditatively. With that foundation, I'm naturally more inclined to learn about sustainability and ways I can care for myself and my community well.