This article is part of our Rising Stars segment. This series is dedicated to in-depth interviews with up-and-coming labels, bringing you an insider's perspective to building a brand. If your label wants to be considered for an interview, then don't hesitate to get in touch. Meanwhile, for more emerging talent, check the Blog regularly to see new interviews in our Rising Stars series.
Hi On Life - Accra, Ghana
For this interview I took a cab ride from the centre of Accra, Ghana, 30km west along the Atlantic coast to meet Rex – the tailor – at the Hi On Life studio in Kokrobite. The studio occupies a ground floor room situated within a colonial style house featuring a rooftop veranda, with goats and chickens roaming around outside the building, adding a final touch of authenticity to my surroundings.
The order of the day was cool vibes only, as a couple of Rex’s friends stopped by, and the sound speakers resonated with dancehall and afrobeats. To complete the relaxed mood, a few cats were chilling in the hammocks on the veranda, earning a totally unearned rest in the warm afternoon air.
Malin was also in tune with the mood, albeit some 5,687km away, in Malmo for a summer break. I interviewed her a week later by call – but only after she completed her morning swim at the beach - then met her a few weeks later for a design event featuring her work at the Swedish Embassy in London.
hs = HYPERSUPPLY – MB = Malin – RA = Rex
hs: How would you describe Hi On Life to the uninitiated?
MB: I used to say “street couture”, cos that kind of explains the style, the more high-fashion, haute couture style, mixed with street style, and that we also make everything the couture way, all on order, and by measurement if you want. That’s the best expression so far that I could come up with.
hs: Do you have a formal background in textiles?
MB: Not as a designer, but I studied textile management at the Swedish School of Textiles. It was a commercial bachelor’s degree (business and economics, with marketing as the head theme). There were small courses within everything from weaving to knitting, to pattern-making and so on – just so you get an idea of how everything works. I finished in 2001.I guess you are meant to work maybe as a buyer afterwards. Most of my friends work at big corporations like H&M.
I started this programme just after high-school, and I think I didn’t really know. I just read and thought, oh wow this sounds nice, working in fashion, travelling…After years it felt like I went to this business school which was super boring, and I just wanted to stop. Also you got a clue of all this shit happening in the textile business with unfair working conditions and all the environmental shit going on, so I was about to quit then, but then we had some small environmental course, so we were reading about organic cotton and fair trade, and different ways to do things, so then I realised that if I wanted to do this, this is the way I want to do it, so I specialised in green marketing and sustainable design, all of this. So after I finished this, there was nothing really. The sustainable design drive, this was quite early in time, the big brands hadn’t begun looking at this yet, so I didn’t feel like working at any of those places. So I was just working in a furniture shop that I had been working at before. A little bit as a buyer, decorating the store, a little bit of everything for a while.
Also, I took a year off the studies, and moved to Lisbon to study Portuguese, so I went back also after I finished my studies to do another semester learning Portuguese. I was just interested and following everything that was happening in sustainable design, and saw that there were actually some brands that were cool, but among the people I knew nobody knew about them, and there was no way to buy them or to see them, so I decided to open a small store selling these brands within streetwear. This was in Malmo, Sweden in 2005.
And then it continued I was running that shop, then I was a project manager at another one, and then finally to Hi On Life as a store in 2009. So we did have that same concept of selling streetwear brands within sustainable design, and then started a bit with, I always wanted to do my own things, but I don’t really have the patience. I’m not really good in sewing, in drawing, or anything. So I had a lot of ideas, but I couldn’t really create them myself. So we did some collaboration with student designers, like interns. So we did ideas together for sewing; when I had this Hi On Life shop we had a small studio in there.
hs: Had you been to Ghana before that?
MB: The first time I went to Ghana was in 2012.
hs: Oh ok, I asked because the name Hi On Life hinted to me that you had been to Ghana before you started the shop. Do you know about Highlife music? I thought you named the shop after that.
MB: Yeh, yeh! But I didn’t know at that time. It’s a coincidence!
We just came up with the name because I had the store together with a friend, and we had just been to Copenhagen Fashion week – that must have been early 2009. At that time there was a boom within sustainable design, a lot of nice brands, so we were really happy that there were so many things that we wanted to buy and sell. So that was the kind of feeling – “Hi On Life”. So we named the store after that, as it’s been our motto, so it’s nice that it turns out to have this music link.
hs: So you set up the store in 2009, went to Ghana in 2012, and that’s when you first decided to have your own label dedicated to the store?
MB: Yeh because then I discovered the tailors, how they work, and I liked Ghana straight away. It was something new, and I felt very welcome and at home the first time. So then I got to thinking, “ok, the tailors here would be quite easy to work with”. I had initially thought of maybe using a factory somewhere like Portugal, however I would have been churning out pieces at volume, and I never wanted to do things this way. I realised that this way in Ghana would be very direct. I could just buy the materials, design what to do, and some days later you had a piece. At that time I just made some shirts, some bags and shorts and brought them to the shop in Sweden, and yeah people kept saying, “Wow!” I had thought that there would only be mild interest, but actually I saw that people were quite keen on the pieces.
hs: I noticed that your first collection had a “monochrome” feel to it, the colour black was quite prevalent. So what influenced you to make your recent third collection more “pink”?
MB: It’s hard to say exactly what it is. Maybe it’s the contrast. If you are in a very plain and grey, calm environment, it’s like you see that colours are missing, so I think, “Alright, let’s have colours”. But when I’m in Ghana and there are a lot of colours around me, I’m searching for calm.
When I was in Labadi [Accra], there was a small path which people would use to walk to church and to school. It was like a catwalk every morning. We were just looking at people in different creations. It was really fun. Maybe you know that Sweden is very flat, organised - I mean even more than England; everything is controlled, clean. Maybe when I’m in Sweden I want something a bit crazier than your regular, like in Ghana where everything is a bit messy. Maybe now I’m searching for a bit more plain, a bit more calm. I don’t know, that’s just my theory.
hs: So for 2.0.4, what is the inspiration?
MB: That’s the one coming out now for autumn. The inspiration always corresponds to what is around. That one we made when we had just moved out to the house in Kokrobite, to the beach side. And that one also, it has also a bit of colour, but maybe darker colours. I cannot really say. I am influenced by what’s around. When we go to parties in Ghana, or funerals, or just at the beach when you see… I just love to see what people dress up to wear to a funeral. Really creating, especially some of the old men have really creative outfits. Sometimes I just see a crazy hat, or people using material in a certain way, or seeing material that I think is really cool that maybe I could do something else with. A lot of the material in this collection, I would say are more royal materials. Normally I just see the materials and the ideas come, like, “ok, this one I could turn into a jacket!” Something that it is maybe not meant to be in the Ghanaian way, but comes out as something different.
RA: We were in Accra for 3 and a half years (I was born there), then came to Kokrobite 6 months ago. Malin chose to move here because Accra is quite noisy, and the atmosphere…there are a lot of cars, a lot of smoke, and also there’s more privacy here. We came here to hide ourselves and work in a more tranquil environment. I’ve also made new friends here and had new experiences. It has made a difference to my life.
hs: So you are taking a Ghanaian inspiration for the textiles, and then reimagining it for how you would like to wear it.
MB: Yeh, absolutely, some kind of fusion. I was brought up in the 1990s, and I take a lot of inspiration coming from the music scene. I listen to dancehall and R&B, so that’s a style influence that’s always with me, mixed with Ghanaian traditional wear. I really love how there’s this mix between traditional wear and streetwear - in Ghana you can look out and see ladies wearing the full traditional wear with headdress, walking next to some cool ghetto boy wearing streetwear, and I really like this contrast between the old and the new. So yeh, that’s absolutely influencing me.
hs: How do your clients order from you?
MB: So far actually most people are writing to me saying they have seen something, and asking if they can order it, quite personal conversations by email or on social media. I do everything in one size fit. Most of the things are quite oversized. They work fine on most people. If you are tall or short, it will look different, but it can fit a lot of different bodies. If someone says I have really long arms, so I would like it with longer sleeves, or I’m short so I want it with shorter legs, that’s fine, we can also do everything with measurements. But we don’t make things like “Small, Medium, Large”. We prefer to do things in a personalised way. Even if the customer for example wanted a jacket, and didn’t know how to measure themselves, they could just take the sleeve measurement from a jacket that they like, and tell us to use the same measurement. It’s like a virtual tailor. Of course it’s more work than just pushing a button to order, but most feel that it’s more exclusive to have something made specifically for them. I have friends that see a jacket and like the style, but want to be able to pick a different material to use, and we can offer that flexibility.
RA: I work using freehand cutting, which I was taught by my dad. I grew up by his side, so I came to learn some of his tricks. He taught me the main basics of the work, and I advanced from there.
hs: How do most people find out about you?
MB: So far, it’s super small scale, so it’s hard to make any generalisation. I would say I have most interest from America when it comes to people wanting to collaborate, or from stylists, but for orders, mainly from my contacts in Sweden. There are quite a few people here who want to order. But I think if I were to start selling a bit more, I think Asia would be a good market, and the big metropolises like New York and maybe London. Places where people want to be seen, and not just have the ordinary things that everybody is wearing. In that way Sweden is not really the place where I would naturally expect to have a lot of customers, but I know a lot of people here
hs: In Sweden people generally dress to fit in with everyone else?
MB: People want to be, we have this expression “lagom”, normal. People want to melt into the mass. It’s quite boring cos there a few people that want to dress in a more personal way, but very few. It’s very clean. Like Scandinavian clean lines, black, just black, it’s boring. Of course there are still people who are buying, so I shouldn’t say that everyone is boring haha.
hs: These customers who discover you, every single piece is made just for them?
MB: Yes. In general nothing is in stock or ready-made; generally everything is done on order. The only exception is one retail store in Tokyo, which orders a few pieces at a go. Even there, however we tailor the trousers for example to be a bit shorter for the customers there. Another difference would be how our shorts wouldn’t work there in the winter, so for those, we would adapt them to be trousers instead.
RA: Most of the clients are European. A lot of the clients are Malin’s friends. So one of the pieces I’m working on now is for a Swede. Often a client will have seen a piece and liked it, and then ask for a similar cut, but maybe they might want us to use a different fabric or tweak the dimensions slightly for their fit. I ask most of the customers to tell me their waist measurement, and I can make it how they want. I estimate the other lengths and proportions based on the waist measure. I can work like this even if the client may be bigger or smaller than average at the waist.
hs: Ah, you also have a Japanese retailer as a customer. How did they discover your brand?
MB: This was actually from the first collection. I attended a fashion show in Copenhagen for upcoming fashion designers called Unfair Fashion. It was especially for people working in fashion in a fairer way. The night after the show I got an email from a buyer saying that he liked my stuff, and asking if we could provide him with a lookbook. We didn’t even have a lookbook ready, so I replied saying,”erm, ok, yeh, let me come back to you”… so a few days later I sent it, and he made an order a week later. I was a bit nervous because we hadn’t made anything beyond the samples, and It wasn’t my initial plan to sell to retailers. You know, I planned to just make for custom orders and sell on the web, and to friends. It was a bit scary, but we managed to do it. Even to deliver from Ghana to Japan, I wasn’t sure if the package would even get there, but it was fine.
But I mean even just going to the post office in Accra is a different story. The customs office and all that: you have to open every item and then go through it, and put it back in the box, and then the guy would say “now you have to go to that line”, “now you have to wrap it in brown paper”, “now you have to write the address here”, and then if you get something wrong they say “no, no, no…you have to do it again”. It’s long! When you’re done or almost done with all this, then the post office has closed!... haha, but yeh, it’s possible.
hs: So now, if you were to look back over all of your collections, which pieces are you happiest with?
MB: It’s always hard. Sometimes I get tired. When you finish one collection you just want to move on to the next one. The one we call the Erykah Badu shirt that she was wearing for photoshoots. Of course that became a sort of favourite. However, now that material is not available anymore. So those who ordered that one have got an exclusive.
hs: In general are there any kinds of features, materials, or colours that you prefer to work with?
MB: I would say I like things that are expressive maybe, some of the materials like the Badu shirt are bright, but have a lot of applications and things happening within them. So I guess things that are a bit extra, or extravagant. It can be “plain”, but it has something special. I would of course prefer that all of the materials were locally made and organic and fair trade, but that’s the difficulty in Ghana – to have any proof of origin, so I’m always trying to ask when I go to the market, especially for those cotton wax prints, that at least it’s not a copy made in China or something like that.
After the years, I have found the spots that I know I can trust, and I know they are working directly from the factories, so it’s not that they have bought it through some other middle hand. I have to ask, is this something that you will be able to provide when I come back some months later. They can never say 100% but they have some kind of certainty. But then there are some materials that are not in Ghana. They are made in India, but they are made specifically for the Ghana market, and they are designed by a lady that I buy them from. She sends the order to India, and the order arrives back in Ghana. This lady in the market in Ghana mainly sells fabric for funeral ceremonies, so they have a lot of “bling” and adinkra symbols incorporated in some way.
RA: We have a cloth that has a lot of value here. It’s more expensive than the prints. It’s called kente cloth. I like that a lot. I think it’s a versatile type of cloth, and I would like to use it as an element in various garments and blend it with other materials. Also, I most prefer making jackets, because they are more complicated, and people can also understand the technicality of my work more easily when seeing one of my jackets. I could make a jacket in one full day, focussing exclusively on that piece. The one thing that might delay me is if we can’t source all the required fabrics on time. In theory I could maybe complete the whole jacket in less than a day, but I need to make sure I get enough rest breaks in order to consistently do my job properly.
MB: Now, what I would like to do more is, for the upcoming collection that we are now shooting in Sweden [2.0.5 - the next spring collection], we have done one print. A friend of mine has done the graphics, and we’ve found finally a place that could do digital prints in Accra, so the plan is to try to do more of our own prints also. The whole idea is to try to find ways of taking those traditional cultural materials, but in a way that we can use them in modern life. A lot of times I’ve been working a lot with those fair trade shops, and it’s very… everybody wants to help; people like crafters, and maybe you just buy something to be nice, but it may not be something that you have an actual use for. So I’m trying to find a way of using old techniques and craft, but to create something that is actually wanted and useful. It feels more sustainable than producing a lot of things that are nice, but not really used, and just stand on the corner of a shelf.
hs: Is your end goal to try and produce something 100% Ghanaian made
MB: I like to try to keep it local, and minimise shipping things around too much. If I’m in Ghana and producing there, the dream would be that the cotton comes from maybe Mali or Burkina Faso – Ghana isn’t a big producer – and the weaving is done in the region, so it’s not shipped to Europe, or printed in Asia, then shipped back again, and all these crazy things happening in the textile industry normally. If I were in Sweden, it would be the same thing, however cotton would never be made in Sweden for example and with tailoring, we don’t have that same kind of culture. It’s more about factories, so that’s why Sweden wouldn’t work too well.
hs: Is there anything else that you would like to say?
MB: The idea of starting something like this, it wasn’t about making money. It was a win-win situation of me being able to do something creative and something that feels good, and to create work opportunities for the tailors and the artisans in a place that really needs it. That’s how it all started with producing in a developing country. And when I saw the tailors, there’s so much talent that’s not really being utilised I feel. There are a lot of talented tailors who don’t get enough work, and then they have to turn to something else because they are not getting enough orders. So I will try to find ways to work with them, doing things that are not the normal church clothes and everyday clothing, but something else, more with a fashion look.
RA: Our sewing for Ghanaian clothing is just the same as for western, but that isn’t seen by everyone, it’s more that the western style is seen as fashionable. Once people understand, then the locals will appreciate what they have a lot. So right now, it has made me love what Malin has brought, because my work is more appreciated…
Also, I wish everybody could sew. I learned for myself, so that I could design my clothes for myself, then I could look exactly how I wanted to when I went out. I learned from my dad, but my dad is not as good as I am now. If you do it with your heart, you’ll go far.
MB: I want my clients to feel proud, powerful, and edgy in my clothing. When people wear it for photoshoots - I think even when I wear it myself – I can see how people grow and glow in a way. A lot of pieces have this kind of royal aura that you feel; you feel quite powerful with the material and everything, so I think that’s the, yeah…it’s like, "look at me, I’m wearing something that is good-looking, and it’s made with a lot of love". We have joy in the studio every day, and Rex is singing, and kids around the neighbourhood are coming and dancing. There’s a lot of happiness and life that is given to each creation.
It was perhaps fitting then, that Torbjörn Sohlström – Swedish Ambassador to the UK – was not only keen to try on one of Hi On Life’s jackets [from the 2.0.5 collection], but also instinctively started posing for Malin to take photos. He then turned to face his new audience, holding the sides of the jacket declaring, “I feel like a royal!”