La Réunion’s Patchwork Dresses Turn Symbols of Suffering Into Things of Beauty

2020-08-09 | Since 2 Month

Crafting garments that speak to history and what we can learn from it is at the heart of textile artist and designer Sarah Nsikak’s practice. Nsikak is a first-generation Nigerian American “dedicated to telling the untold and overlooked stories of fellow Africans.”

Born and raised in Oklahoma, Nsikak studied psychology and initially pursued a career in art therapy. But after completing her master’s in 2014, she began designing her own clothes using textile waste and upcycled vintage garments. Her grandmother, who was once a seamstress in the family’s Nigerian village, taught her to sew when she was young. Passionate about sustainability, Nsikak moved to New York in 2017 to work for a label that made claims about sustainability and Made in Africa production, but she quickly became disillusioned. “It was all smoke and mirrors,” she remembers. And not only that: Nsikak says she experienced gaslighting and racial discrimination. “From then on, it was important for me to take everyone off of pedestals and reimagine things from a new perspective.” Nsikak launched her fashion label, La Réunion, named for an island off of Madagascar, late last year.


When the pandemic hit New York in March, Nsikak began to focus on a capsule collection of made-to-order patchwork dresses. The dresses were inspired by the women of Namibia’s Herero tribe, which was almost destroyed during the colonial wars between the Herero and the German Empire between 1904 and 1908. After surviving these wars, the Herero women designed, wore, and thus adapted the patchwork dress, a style worn by their oppressors, as a sign of rebellion. “For me, their dresses have always been a sign of unbelievable resilience and perseverance,” Nsikak says. “These are traits that we, Black people, have always anchored ourselves in.” She adds, “to make emphatically beautiful something that was initially a symbol of pain and suffering is an act of rebellion, and it’s a sign of immense strength.” Nsikak’s vibrant, billowy dresses are crafted using scrap waste from cutting rooms, factories, local thrift stores, and online vintage shops. She describes her patchworked garments as “precious art pieces, and I hope the wearer feels that intention.”  

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