Yamuna Forzani would rather be called a queer activist than a designer or artist, but her creativity is undeniable. A member of the house of Commes de Garçons and Kiki House of Angels, Forzani channels the DIY, radically inclusive ethos of the underground ballroom scene into her vibrant collections. Her knitwear clothing and textile designs are reminiscent of classic Versace prints with a contemporary, street style twist, and her more avant-garde looks can be spotted in the Designer’s Delight category at balls from New York to Paris.

With her most recent collection and its accompanying Utopia Ball in The Hague, where she is currently based, Forzani makes it clear that community comes first. “It’s about wanting to do something that’s more than my own ego,” she says.

Upending traditional hierarchies of the fashion industry by collaborating directly with her models and peers in the ballroom scene, Forzani has her sights set on continuing to expand the potential of her eponymous brand. In her own words, “What’s really important to me is, beyond making clothes and trying to sell them, just continuing to make spaces and platforms where people can get their fucking life.”

Gallery: Yamuna Forzani SS19 Fashion show / photography by David Morrison

Matthew Later: The theme of your most recent ball was utopia. What does utopia look like to you?
Yamuna Forzani: I think a utopia is about being able to accept yourself and also accept other people around you, and I think that is universal. Nowadays nobody is really in the middle, you’re either this or you’re that. Everyone wants to be queer and anti-label, but even within the LGBTQ+ community there’s still a lot of segregation. But we actually have way more similarities than differences.

ML: It’s like your clothing, which is intended to be entirely gender neutral. How do you approach making clothes that resist being immediately coded as either ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’?
YF: People are always using the term ‘genderless’ these days but I prefer the term ‘genderful’, because I don’t like the idea of taking things away, I like the idea of being more. Fashion marketing or whatever bullocks, they just want to segregate us. If you don’t like anything in the menswear section, why can’t you just go into the women’s section and try stuff on? Why does it have to be scary? Of course, that’s another question – clothing is very political.

ML: That attitude is representative of your overall aesthetic, which is very exuberant, very colourful and busy, especially your knitwear. What’s your design process like?
YF: For me it’s all about fabric. If you make your own fabric or design your own prints, that to me is more interesting than if you have you a really cool silhouette or a really good drape. In my first collection, my graduation collection, I did collaborations with three other graphic designers. But with my new collection I made everything myself. I was using a combination of drawings, photographs, and found materials. I made some of the patterns on the train going to the place where I knit the fabrics, which is a textile museum.

ML: What is it about knitwear that interests you?
YF: If you’re weaving a fabric on a loom, everything has to be decided already when you start. When you’re knitting on this handheld machine, it’s called a Brother, you can be very playful because you can change the shape or change the pattern as you go. That fits my personality more, because I’m very intuitive. I don’t like to plan ahead too much.

“People are always using the term ‘genderless’ these days but I prefer the term ‘genderful’, because I don’t like the idea of taking things away, I like the idea of being more”

ML: Were you already involved in the ballroom scene when you began studying at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, or did that come later?
YF: I was always involved in the queer scene, but more the queer art scene and not the ballroom scene, because I didn’t know it existed. It’s still underground. I had literally just graduated, and I designed a sock campaign to raise money for an organisation that aids LGBTQ+ refugees. I was making a video to promote the campaign, and someone from the ballroom scene came to the open casting. They started voguing and everyone in the room went “What is that and how do we learn to do it?” And that’s how I got involved in the ballroom scene. That’s how it started and it all kind of snowballed.

ML: Most of your models are participants in the scene too.
YF: They’re my muses, I create for them. When I was making my collection I had everyone come over to my studio at least once a week. I’m very privileged to have this community because when it comes to other fashion brands, they don’t create in collaboration with the model. Usually the models have to wear the clothing, they have to sell the clothing. It’s not like “Bitch, I’m not gonna wear that blue, I want it in pink!” [laughs] They make suggestions and it pushes me to a higher level, and of course they feel amazing, so everything looks good in the end.

Gallery: Utopia Ball / photography by Celine Fortenbacher

ML: You were recently travelling around the world to participate in different local ballroom scenes. What did you take away from your travels?
YF: Especially with Pose and My House, ballroom is definitely becoming more popular. I haven’t been to New York since Pose came out, but some of my friends were at the recent Latex Ball there and they said that it was booming, which is cool. Coming to America from the ballroom scene in Europe though, it’s definitely different. The level in America is amazing, it’s so high, but in Europe we’re still learning and developing. Everyone looks to New York for answers, but we’re not New York. We’re trying to figure out our own ways.

ML: Like you said earlier in our conversation, the ballroom scene was started by primarily queer black and latino communities in New York…
YF: Exactly.

ML: How do you feel your own identity affects your relationship with the scene?
YF: I am a white, queer woman, I’m not a person of colour. The scene’s not made for me, and I feel in certain ways a guest. I understand my position, but I still feel like I’ve become an ally. I can give a lot to the scene and I can get a lot from the scene, and in that sense I’ve been welcomed with open arms. I feel very lucky. It’s still very strict though. If you want to be a part of the scene you can’t just storm the runway. You have to go to some balls first, you have to get to know everyone. You have to go to the classes and forge relationships.

“Even if you’ve got a shitty ass wig on and you’re stumbling around in your heels, if you get on the runway, I’m still going to cheer for you. Because that’s major, what you’re doing.”

ML: How has being a part of the scene influenced you creatively?
YF: It’s changed everything. In the scene I also walk Designer’s Delight, and my main category is Bizarre.

ML: For people who don’t know, what is Bizarre?
YF: In ballroom you have fashion, beauty, body and sex, and performance categories. Bizarre is a fashion category where you have to make a bizarre look out of basically whatever you can find. It really embodies that queer fantasy, which isn’t about being fish, it isn’t about being perfect, it isn’t about having the most beautiful face. Bizarre is about looking the most fucked-up and taking whatever you can, garbage or unconventional materials, and turning it into something that’s going to make everyone gag. Usually the themes are very extravagant and strange. For example, “An acid trip on the Vegas strip”.

Matthew: What materials did you use for that theme?
Yamuna: I made a knitted jumpsuit with all these loops, and I had a very colourful balloon headpiece. I had a mouth stretcher, and lots of fairy lights dangling everywhere. I want more people to walk that category actually, because it makes everyone laugh.

ML: There’s definitely a sense of play in taking the language and references of high fashion, which is often so classist and exclusive, and repurposing them in such an inclusive environment.
YF: Definitely. At balls you always see people in the backstage with double-sided sticky tape just making things work. But on the other hand you have people in the scene with very expensive, beautiful, tailor-made outfits. And I love how they walk on the same runway. You can come to a ball in an outfit which cost you twenty Euros and you can win the grand prize. It doesn’t matter if the person next to you is wearing full Gucci, it’s about how you sell it and your attitude. That’s the beautiful thing about it. It’s a place where people can really live their fantasy.

ML: There are shared values and ideals, but at the same time everyone has their own relationship to the scene and can draw their own meaning from it. Everyone has their own reason to be there.
YF: And cheer for one another! Even if you’ve got a shitty ass wig on and you’re stumbling around in your heels, if you get on the runway, I’m still going to cheer for you. Because that’s major, what you’re doing.

Follow Yamuna Forzani on Instagram.