With 27 years in the fashion industry, seasoned streetwear designer Kiki Kitty first met Farai Simoyi in 2013, when they were working on Nicki Minaj’s K-Mart collection. As the brand’s creative director and senior designer respectively, the two were fast friends, and instant collaborators.
Last week, Netflix premiered their new competition show Next in Fashion, on which Kitty and Simoyi are both competitors. Soon after, their appearance on the show came under scrutiny for a moment in the fourth episode, when guest judge and Pyer Moss founder Kerby Jean-Raymond walked off set rather than send the two women home. The challenge was streetwear, something Kiki Kitty has been designing for over 27 years—beginning at brands like FUBU and Rocawear, progenitors of modern streetwear. As Jean-Raymond saw it, the two had provided an innovative and fresh perspective on streetwear, something the other competitors lacked. Tan France and co-host Alexa Chung, however, maintained that the clothes were “unfinished,” and a stalemate ensued—one that culminated in Jean-Raymond exiting the stage and the show itself. He later tweeted: “Don’t ever appear as a guest judge on a TV show.”
I spoke at length with both Kitty and Simoyi about that moment, and what it felt like for a CFDA Fashion Fund-winning designer like Kerby Jean-Raymond to advocate for their work and presence on the show. Beyond that, they opened up about the brands who’ve stolen their designs and the ongoing fight for soul of streetwear, as more and more brands co-opt its aesthetics and redesign it as “luxury sportswear” on catwalks across the globe. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Did one of you have the specific idea to go on Next in Fashion? Was it kind of something you came up with together, or were you scouted?
Simoyi: So a guy named Rod actually reached out to me via Instagram, and at first I thought it was a joke. I was like, wait, what!? So they didn’t fully cast me at that point, but they wanted me to find them a partner for me on the show. So my first choice was Kiki, and they loved both of us as a team. So that’s how it all came together.
In Episode 4, the streetwear challenge, you were both spared elimination after Kerby Jean-Raymond walked off set rather than eliminate you. A couple of different times in that episode, the judges, specifically Alexa Chung, would make a comment like, “Oh, their design isn’t really my cup of tea.” Did you feel that attitude from the judges on set?
Kitty: One hundred percent.
Simoyi: I mean, I love that they had Kerby and Jason Bolden on, and Prabal Gurung as well. I thought it was great that they had creatives and other designers of color on the show, because they could understand our point of view better. You know, with Elizabeth Stewart and Alexa Chung, they just did not get it. And I felt like they chose not to get it. They already had a predisposed idea in their mind before. I think we even created something that like, “This is not going to be something I’m going to like.” So I felt like they never gave our work a chance.
Kitty: Also, just in considering streetwear, I felt like that they were going to expect from me the caricature of streetwear. They were expecting the caricature of what people perceive streetwear to be. But when we came together, our concept was Brooklyn. We’re both from Brooklyn. And streetwear isn’t that caricature they wanted, it’s everybody’s different interpretation based on their experiences and where they’re from, their culture, and where they’re living. But I was very aware that they would be expecting that caricature.
[Note: After this interview, Alexa Chung claimed in a separate interview that she “wasn’t even judging within the realms of how thematic it was.”]
When you were in front of the judges in that moment, receiving Alexa and Tan France’s negative feedback, did you think you were going home? Did you guys feel like that was the direction it was going?
Simoyi: Not at all. When Kerby came to us while we were designing, he loved what we did. And he was so excited and so inspired and even said, “I would rock that. I would rock that jumpsuit.” So we felt pretty strong and confident.
Kitty: I felt confident in what I knew we liked. I had confidence that, you know, Jason kind of got it. Kerby definitely got it.
Even when talking to themselves, Kerby said that conceptually, your look was one of the ones that he liked, and that it felt like you two were looking towards the future. So when you’re hearing that, you’d think you were in the top or at least safe!
Kitty: When they called our names, I was pissed. I wanted to just start fighting them.
Farai, when you were explaining your design ethos, you said that you both design from your point of view as black women, and that your point of view isn’t seen as innovative or marketable until luxury designers glom onto it. How have you encountered this in your own careers, beyond the show—the attitude that the “mainstream” isn’t going to get it until they find a way to sell it back to you?
Simoyi: Here’s the thing: What we design, if Jeremy Scott would have put that same exact design down the runway, everybody would be all over it. Celebrities would be into it. Elizabeth Stewart and Alexa Chung would be like, “This is the next greatest thing.” But because it’s two black women, an African designer and a black American designer doing it, it’s not cool until it’s flipped and reversed. They take our ideas and then try to resell them to us as if it’s their ideas. That’s what really pissed us off in that instant.
Kitty: It’s ghetto until proven fashionable.
Speaking of Jeremy Scott: Kiki, on your Instagram, you have a side-by-side photo of designs that you did for FUBU in 1998, and a Moschino collection featuring the same looks from 2015. This is obviously something that has happened to you in your own career.
Kitty: Correct. Getting ripped off by bigger, wider and more famous designers happens all the time. It’s just it has become part of life. Everyone knows that it happens. You know what I’m saying? These are things that just happen on a regular basis. And then it’s like you can’t say anything because, first of all: Who’s listening.
Simoyi: Or you have this fear about being blackballed out of the industry, especially when you’re a new, upcoming designer of color. Also, a lot of times we sit in these rooms and we just kind of keep our eyes down and our mouths shut because we want somebody to open the door for us. We want the opportunity. But I think now, especially in this moment, when we both have that platform to speak, I’m like—if we’re going to get eliminated, this is our chance. This is our only chance to really speak about what we face and what we experience. So I’m really glad we took the opportunity to do that on the show.
While the judges were discussing your designs, Kerby opened up and said that this is something that has happened to him in his own career. He said: “Louis Vuitton copies my shit.” What did it feel like to hear him admit that?
Kitty: Understand, this was also a very long conversation. There was so many things he said.
Simoyi: Yeah, and in that moment it just made me feel sort of bonded to him. I was like, you are my person. I know we both have the same struggles, and even though we’ve all had challenges, if we continue to support each other and speak about these things, I think we can get to a better place.
Kitty: And it takes someone like Kerby, who has reached the level of success that he has, to be able to say something like that. It can feel like we’re too small to have a real voice. So when we complain, it feels like we’re complaining to a brick wall. So the fact that we had this platform was phenomenal. And the fact that Kerby can say, yes, this happens to me on a regular basis. It’s kind of like, all right! Can you believe us now? If it happens to him, you know it happens to everyone else. It was just so important for him to have spoken up for us in that way. It’s unbelievable. It’s so important.
You also mentioned that this was a much longer conversation. So after you saw the episode, is there anything of note that didn’t make it into the final edit? Was there a lot of back and forth between you two and the judges?
Simoyi: I know Kerby definitely said a lot more.
Kitty: Jason Bolden was also on our side, and one of the things that we’ve talked about was the fact that the entire time it was supposed to be a streetwear challenge. They said it over and over: streetwear, streetwear, streetwear. And then when we got the judging, they said “luxury sportswear.” So a big part of the conversation was the disparity between streetwear and luxury sportswear. They’re not the same thing. Streetwear is where the raw inspiration and talent and the voice of the people are. Luxury sportswear is when they take that and charge you a bunch of money for it, you know? And then it becomes luxury sportswear because someone else did it. So onstage, we spoke about the fact that like when you’re in these design houses, we all know that people pay money for others to give them streetwear inspiration.
It reminds me of how you explained streetwear to the judges, Kiki. You said: “Streetwear is not a trend. It’s a culture. It’s supposed to evoke feelings and make you feel something.”
Kitty: Yeah, people take their inspiration from creatives on the street and then turn it into “luxury sportswear.” They’re not an interchangeable word. One is the inspiration. The other is the mass market. We were trying to stay true to the challenge, which was streetwear. And we were like, this is Brooklyn. This is what we would do. I could be home, and someone invites me to a party, and I have nothing to wear. But I’ll find different fabrics, throw things together, maybe go to the thrift store. We figure it out based on what we have, because we can’t just go out and buy something new—we don’t got it like that. That’s why I wanted to create the look we did. This is what streetwear is.
When luxury brands like Balenciaga, or even a couple of years ago, Vetements, are labeled as the “next big things” in streetwear, or get called the new wave of streetwear, what is your reaction to that?
Simoyi: It’s sad, because a lot of times you can see where the inspiration is coming from, and they don’t even take the time to speak on the history of it. And I think that’s where a lot of the cultural appropriation comes from. Especially in my culture, because I’m originally from Zimbabwe, there’s so many times where people take ideas from, Nigerian traditional wear, from South African clothing, even Kenyan Maasai or Zulu beading work. And they give no credit at all. And I think all we want is for our voices to be heard.
Kitty: Because streetwear is so personal to all of us, it’s become frustrating being a pioneer and being a part of streetwear in its infancy, to see the road that it took. It’s really very personal and very emotional for me. We were starting these things in the 90s, we made this big waves with something new and something so fresh and so dope. And then you see it disappear, and then everyone else takes ownership of it. But because of social media and because of a lot of new resources, a lot of young designers are able to come now and and give their voice again.
Before, if you didn’t have billions of dollars, you couldn’t do it. I feel like if it wasn’t for social media, people wouldn’t know who Dapper Dan was. But now, things go viral and people pick up on things, and you can have a dope idea and let it be out there. The fact that streetwear has made a comeback in the way it was intended really feels good. It’s why I got really annoyed when Virgil Abloh said that streetwear is going to be dead. I thought that was very destructive.
I mean, Virgil is a designer who came up through streetwear, designed streetwear clothes. So in that context, it definitely sounds destructive.
Kitty: That’s the thing. There are all these young designers that are finding a way to make their own things happen, and it’s just irresponsible.
Now, on a reality show, there’s obviously a lot that happens off camera. Did you guys have any explicit conversation with either the judges or production or your fellow competitors after that episode wrapped, after Kerby walked out and you realized that no one was going to be eliminated?
Kitty: We were getting the cold shoulder from some of the competitors. No one said anything to us, but we were definitely getting it from some of them. The energy shifted, and we were getting shade.
Simoyi: It was like the integrity of the show changed. We were these professional designers at the beginning of the show, and there was love between everybody. Everybody was so supportive of everyone. But after that episode, it really shifted. And we could definitely feel it 100 percent.
When Kerby walked out, what was your immediate reaction?
Simoyi: I’ve been following Kerby’s work for so long, and I’ve seen how supportive he is about our culture and designers of color. So as soon as he walked off stage, I knew I knew that this wasn’t for him. This was not something that he felt like he wanted to be a part of and put his stamp on.
Kitty: Listen, if we had to go, we didn’t mind going at this point. We obviously knew the judges weren’t really vibing with us. We knew that winning this whole thing was probably not an option. So we’re like, if this is why we’re here, to stand up for people like us, and really have a voice on this platform, then that’s fine.
Something that I was thinking about when I was watching the episode was that Alexa Chung used to be an editor for British Vogue under editor-in-chief Alexandra Shulman. In 2017, Shulman gave an interview with the Guardian, where it came out that she only put black people on the cover of the magazine 12 times in 25 years because there “weren’t any black models or celebrities who would sell magazines.” I feel like that echoed what Alexa meant when judging your looks, that it wasn’t her “cup of tea,” something that came up frequently in judging. What do you have to say to established fashion industry types who believe there is no audience for the clothes you make?
Simoyi: First of all, they’re fooling themselves if they believe that. But I remember being a young designer. I always wanted to be on Vogue or, you know, have my clothes featured in Vogue or in these certain publications. But I’ve come to realize that I don’t need them, staffed with people that don’t look like me to validate my work. There’s so many other outlets like Jezebel, and platforms where I can represent myself and have people that support me. We really don’t need places like Vogue anymore. It’s up to us to build our own platform, to be able to support ourselves and to support each other.
Kitty: I also feel like you can’t believe the hype, no matter what, from these people. Even if they do decide that they’re gonna put you on, because right now it’s trendy to be black women., it’s like, OK, I could take that. But at the same time, I’m not believing the hype because at any minute they can decide you’re not. If I’m not staying true to myself, to my culture, to what I believe the whole time, then I would just crumble and fall. I can’t be at the mercy of things like that. As a designer, you want to be accepted for your work and for what you do, but it’s not my intention is not to make someone else happy. My intention is to get my point of view across and my voice heard.
Is there anything that you would want to say to other black women who are getting a foothold in the fashion industry?
Simoyi:Yeah, I think one thing we’ve just been stressing is just continue to push forward and go for it and don’t be afraid. Share your stories because there’s so many other young people behind me, behind them that are going gonna look up to them. It’s just like, keep going, and know I’m always going to be in your corner. That’s part of the reason why the show was so important to me. I’m always going to support younger designers. So I’d want them to know: Just keep going.
Kitty: Off camera, Prabal gave us some great advice, which I’ll pass on to others as well. And that is to tell your story. The story is what drives you forward. The story is what brings other people in. What’s going to get other people to care about your design is your strong point of view. Just be real. There was a time when people told me not to put my photo on on my website, and to not use black models. Everyone knows in the industry, as a black designer, that when you start your own line, they tell you to hide the fact that you’re black. But I just didn’t buy into that. I’m like, if that’s what it’s going to be, then I don’t want a part of that. If a buyer doesn’t want my designs because I’m using a black model or because they see I’m black, then to hell with it.