From Greener Pastures

Labrum’s Foday Dumbaya on fusing West African heritage with British craft
By Ella Joyce | Fashion | 16 November 2023
Photographer Kevin Buitrago

all clothing and accessories by LABRUM LONDON FW23

Labrum London is holding a magnifying glass up to the diaspora, telling stories of migration from West Africa to Britain through impeccable craft. FW23 saw creative director Foday Dumbuya present his collection, From Greener Pastures, in South London’s Brixton Village amongst its local stores and stalls. A highly personal ode to the area’s deep ties to West African culture and to crossing borders in search of pastures new, travel documents – Dumbuya’s mother and father’s old passports – were printed across louche tailoring, suitcases were worn as headwear and a trench coat covered in travel stamps was named in tribute to US memoirist and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. 

all clothing and accessories by LABRUM LONDON FW23

Ella Joyce: Congratulations on receiving the BFC’s Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design last month! 
Foday Dumbaya: Thank you! I’m still trying to get a grasp of the whole thing because it wasn’t something I expected. I’m so overwhelmed and happy, now I’m just trying to think, “What does that mean?” [laughs] Does it mean I have to work twice as hard, does it mean I just have to go to bed and sleep, or does it mean I keep doing what I’ve done the last eight or nine years? I’ve come to the conclusion to just keep being who I am, and keep telling the stories I want to tell about London and West Africa, specifically Sierra Leone. 

EJ: Your FW23 collection was named From Greener Pastures, where did the title come from? 
FD: We were telling stories about migration, and when our parents leave Africa, it’s always in search of greener pastures, but sometimes you don’t realise what you left may be the greener pasture you were looking for. Economically, things may not be stable but what gives us happiness is not always financial; sometimes the environment and people bring joy. Equally, we find solace in places like Brixton because our people are there, you can find food from back home and you can talk to someone who speaks like you. The collection was about showcasing the resilience of the people who make those journeys. 

EJ: How do you go about articulating that narrative? 
FD: We start to look at what people carry with them for survival, their style code, the look and feel. We ask, “What would they wear and why would they wear it?” It’s about the things they believe in and how we can incorporate them into prints, movement and shapes. It’s their journey and it’s our journey, we’re looking at how those two worlds collide. We normally start with shapes, the shapes build up to characters, then characters turn into colours and silhouettes.

all clothing and accessories by LABRUM LONDON FW23

“Immigrants are part of the fabric of our society all over the world, they add so much value and that value can be dismissed.”

EJ: You mentioned the importance of Brixton’s ties to West African culture, what did it mean to you to debut the collection in Brixton Village? 
FD: If we put this story in a place of luxury it doesn’t make sense because it doesn’t derive from there. The most important thing was taking the story to a place where people will understand why we tell the story, that’s why Brixton was so key. People within fashion don’t necessarily go to those places regularly because they don’t have to, if you support us it’s good to come on a journey. When we did the installation the backdrop was so important, Ethiopian coffee was being roasted and food stalls were selling yams and plantain.

EJ: And those immersive elements nod to conversations around the crossover of cultures. 
FD: That’s exactly why it’s so important. You walk in and you’re like, “What’s that smell?” If you’ve been to Ethiopia then you know the smell, if you haven’t and you question what it is, then people can take you through that. You walk through and you’re thinking, “Why is this a fruit and veg stall?” And people will say, “These are the places we go and buy our food.” It was imperative to have it there.

all clothing and accessories by LABRUM LONDON FW23

EJ: We saw motifs of passports and travel documents on garments, how do you merge influences from across the globe? 
FD: When I travel I pick up influences from other parts of the world, but my own African heritage is so rich and diverse. Within my community in London, I’m inspired by the way people live their life and the way they reference back to where they’re from. People always try to blend the two because they appreciate being British and equally appreciate being African, the outcome of that is beautiful. Merging British tailoring with West African flare in one garment is challenging, but the outcome is always interesting. We do things so that people question us and it starts a conversation. When we did the passport, we were thinking about what a passport looked like twenty or thirty years ago when our parents travelled, or what a stamp of entry into the UK looked like. What did it look like to have the freedom to work and travel? Those are the things we always question.

EJ: There were also references to literary works such as Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners and Danell Jones’ An African in Imperial London. How does music and literature filter through your designs?
FD: Growing up, I picked up music from my parent’s record player, but as a kid you don’t value it because you don’t think what they’re listening to sounds cool. When you get older and listen back to the songs your parents listened to, you do a little bit of research into how songs were made back then, by people who hadn’t been exposed to technology but still made beautiful songs. Then you appreciate it and it takes you into a rabbit hole of learning more, picking out genres and things you appreciate. I love world music, so I go in search of different tunes and languages. I listen to songs I don’t even understand, but I love the beat. There’s an artist I found recently from Mali called Fatoumata Diawara, songs like hers inspire me to choose music for shows. Sometimes I read a book and I’m inspired by the story, then it drops my mind into history and that helps me bring stories to life. I tell real stories because fantasy doesn’t work for me, I want to tell stories you can look back at and think, “Did I learn something from that?”

EJ: ‘Designed by an Immigrant’ has become Labrum’s signature slogan, and an important one, especially with recent discourse around immigration in the UK and abroad. How do you hope this will continue to reposition the discussion around immigrants in the West? 
FD: We’re celebrating and giving a platform to people who don’t have a voice. The word has always been demonised, the beauty of it is taken away to make people feel uncomfortable about being immigrants. Immigrants are part of the fabric of our society all over the world, they add so much value and that value can be dismissed. Instead of that just being our tagline it’s going to be a concept, next year it’ll be an exhibition at 180 Studios [where Labrum is based] showcasing all different art under one roof. You’ll have Labrum all the time, but ‘Designed by an Immigrant’ is going to be a concept which will evolve and travel to different cities to tell its own story.

all clothing and accessories by LABRUM LONDON FW23

“Merging British tailoring with West African flare in one garment is challenging, but the outcome is always interesting.”

EJ: That’s such a powerful idea. Community is clearly integral to the brand, how do you go about fostering an environment of like-minded people?
FD: Community has been everything to me, for example, I used to run with Run Dem Crew [a running group set up by DJ, poet, and youth mentor Charlie Dark in East London], now those people are my family and friends. In everything I do I work with the same people and bring them together. I work with [artists] Yinka [Ilori] and Julian [Knox], they bring so much to the table – it gives you life. When you move to a country it’s difficult to start meeting people, but we’re trying to create a place you can walk into and not have to be somebody else, you can just be yourself.

EJ: You’ve built various initiatives to create those spaces such as the King Naimbana II Foundation [a charity named after Dumbuya’s father supporting youth and sports development in Sierra Leone] and your work with The Wickers Charity in Hackney [a non-profit organisation aiming to reduce gang related crime in East London], can you tell us about those? 
FD: I’m obsessed with running. When I went to Sierra Leone I saw some kids running barefoot and it affected me in so many ways. At that point, I was working for Nike and I had so many shoes, I was like, “This is ridiculous. I have over 300 pairs of shoes I’m rotating, they can go to a good cause.” I came back to London and put aside 60 pairs. I told my friends how emotional the experience was and they were like, “We’ve got loads of shoes we can give you, we can do this together.” I took them to Sierra Leone and gave them to the children, the excitement on their faces showed the little things you can do to add to their lives. I started working with the Wickers in lockdown because some parents couldn’t afford two meals for their kids when the schools closed. I thought, “What can I do to help?” I started making masks, selling them and donating all the money I made because I had the fabric already. Every week we went to Tesco to buy food and were dropping into houses. I didn’t want to just give the charity the money, I wanted to be part of it, I wanted to see these kids’ spaces. I connected with a lot of kids and their parents, understanding what it’s like being a young person in London. Off the back of that, I set up a charity in Sierra Leone called King Naimbana II, which pays the education fees for kids who want to go to university but their parents can’t afford it, which I want to carry on doing as the brand continues to grow.

all clothing and accessories by LABRUM LONDON FW23

Interview originally published in HERO 30. 

grooming assistant CLARA RETIF;
production SJOERD CUYPERS;
production assistant DANIEL FITZGERALD


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