Light Year: an Interview with LVMH Graduate Prize Winner Ayo keys
Culture — 02.11.17
Ayo Keys was one of the three 2016 graduates to receive an LVMH Graduate Prize; the award included the opportunity to train at Marc Jacobs for a year. For Ayo, the award was meaningful not only because it was distinguished but because it was a significant end to four laborious years at one of the best fashion schools in the world.
Ayo Keys and I were roommates at Parsons The New School of Design in New York. In our final year of school, I remember us having so many conversations on trying to get our work seen. On feeling like Parsons had a particular aesthetic that they wanted to push forward, that there wasn’t enough room for all of us to be celebrated. It always seemed to be after our panels that we’d get into these lengthy discussions after sitting through either defending our work or getting praised amongst justified criticism. Most times it was defending our work, despite living, breathing, eating and sleeping at school. When the time came for the end of our final semester, Ayo Keys had not been chosen as a recipient of any awards. She was not selected as a finalist whose collection got to be shown down the 2016 Parsons BFA Runway Show, and she began to feel the exhaustion that one feels after working tirelessly without any significant results. Her collection had been funded through a Kickstarter, raising over $10,000, a reminder that not only was a Parsons education expensive but to create a successful project, an artist needed even more funds. The collection Light Year was a study on innovative light-filled and light-responsive fabrics; she worked with different textures, dyeing methods, and knits. Frankly, at that time I was exceptionally in awe of the clothes, yet Parsons did not think it was forward thinking enough. She moved back to Philadelphia after the cap and gown ceremony and picked up a retail job she had worked during the weekend and summers while at Parsons.
Fast forward to 2017, and we are in Ayo’s Apartment in Washington Heights. Her room is spotless, there are fresh flowers in vases, and despite our being slightly early she is fully dressed and touching up her makeup. She is almost at the end of her time training at Marc Jacobs. It is Sunday morning and Lili, Ayo, and I are laying in her bed eating muffins and drinking smoothies, there is no music playing during the entire interview.
Patricia: Tell me about your senior year at Parsons.
Ayo Keys: My senior year I was in a really strong class, which was good but it was also difficult because my professor was one of the directors of the fashion program. That put a lot of pressure on our entire class to perform to a standard that represented her teaching ability well, something that we realised only towards the end of the year. This process was a bit painful, not just the typical design practice of research, sketching and figuring out materials. It was also coming in for your feedback session during your 6-hour studio critique and being told “no”. Or my case of being told “this is okay, keep going” and then reaching our midway point which was the winter break where we had an external panel come in and talk to us. At that point, I thought “wow this is great!”, I’d be getting feedback from professionals, an unbiased opinion. The day before the critique, I met up with my professor, and she didn’t think the collection was good enough anymore and she wanted me to start from the beginning again.
Patricia: What was your collection based on?
My thesis was inspired by science fiction and the importance of being able to see people of colour in science fiction when growing up. I used light to manipulate materials since light plays such a massive role in sci-fi movies. For some reason when I told white adults this, they would then ask what was the story that my collection was based on, as though that wasn’t enough. It’s about visibility, and then they would further ask why visibility was important to me. I ended up developing a story anyway. It was about a woman of colour; she travels from planet to planet on a mission to defeat evil an empire. Developing a story actually helped tie in the collection, every look was meant for a different planet and a different mission. Sun-dried fabrics for desert-like planets, reflective fabrics for dark planets.
Patricia: Why did you apply to the LVMH prize?
The main reason I applied to the graduate LVMH prize was that it was the only prize that wasn’t facilitated through Parsons directly. I applied for fun, and I applied because I felt I would have a better chance of winning something that wasn’t a part of the Parsons PR machine. It was very clear at the beginning of the year and even more towards the end of the year that Parsons had a particular aesthetic that they wanted to present to the world. The favouritism is something that is very disappointing when you are a student. A lot of my peers were also really frustrated. When you work on something for so long, you expect approval or at least an industry standard critique. I felt when I applied that I wasn’t going to win, but it was the only thing that wasn’t through Parsons, I just had to try. When I graduated from school, I moved home to Philly, and I picked up a job at Club Monaco again in retail. I applied for maybe 200 jobs. It wasn’t just me, most of my peers were applying for anything that came up on Indeed or Glassdoor, we were sending job applications to each other, and we felt that there weren’t that many jobs. There was a lot of unemployed graduates applying to jobs in their fields.
Patricia: How did you feel when you got the email?
I was checking my emails at work, and I got an email from Marc Jacobs asking if I could come by for an interview and I thought this might be for the 15 jobs I applied to. Secretly I was hoping to myself that ‘please let it not be for pattern making!’. Like, I needed a job, but I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life. Later that day Mark Alizart, sends me an email about being an LVMH finalist! To say that I was really happy after the year that I had at Parsons is an understatement. Finally, I was going to get some feedback from people in the industry, and recognition for the work that I had put in that I felt was worthy of attention. I wasn’t even looking for a ‘this is amazing and excellent!’ but a ‘this is good, what are you working on next?’ I was freaking out, I called my mom, I called my grandma and I Facetimed Patricia. Then I sent this really dorky email of thanks. The email had explained that someone would be in touch from Marc Jacobs, which explained the initial email from HR, so no pattern making.
Patricia: How was that interview?
I took the train from Philly to New York on a Monday, and I met with the Design Director, the Creative Director, a Senior Designer and a Studio Director all at once at a table, which felt very much like a panel. These people who had been there for a very long time, particularly the design director and the creative director, have been working with Marc for years. But of course, when the HR lady told me their names, I went into the room and forgot everyone’s name. So I went in there and did that thing where you’re like ‘I’ll look at you now, and then you next’, and then go round the table looking at each person while I spoke. It was summer, and I could say ‘oh I’m hot’, and that’s why I was sweating, but it was an air-conditioned building, but I think it was quite apparent that I was nervous and sweating! I was literally flipping through my portfolio, and my legs were shaking while I was standing because I was so so nervous.
But they were all really nice and really receptive, there was even a point that because my portfolio was bound in a binder style, one of the pages got stuck while turning, the designer that was closest to me then started to help me turn the pages which really helped me feel like this is okay. That was something that calmed me down, the rest of the interview was maybe like 30 to 45 minutes. They really looked at most of my entire process. I showed them swatches for the garments that had been made, the fitting process, the material process, choosing the material, how the material was made. They said at the end which was really amazing, “I like it a lot”, and this was the creative director speaking. He goes, “It’s cool, but you can still wear it. Sometimes we do crazy things here, but the important thing is that she can still wear it.” And that was something that I had been dying to hear, and I had not heard in school. So often wearable clothes are put down because of their wearability. But he was saying I am an authority also in the fashion world, and I appreciate amazing but wearable clothes. I packed up my portfolio, went home to Philly and planned to work at Club Monaco the next day.
Patricia: So, what did winning feel like?
I got the email that I won on a Tuesday. They said that the award ceremony was that Thursday in Paris and that they’d fly me out and I could stay a bit if I wanted, and I was like ‘uh can someone cover my shift?’ I called everyone, and my favourite response was my dad, who sort of doesn’t understand what I do. He’s like, “I don’t really know what you’re saying but is it good? It sounds good.” And I was like, “It’s really good! It’s the best thing!” Then he’s like, “Ok, ok, I’m proud of you!” That was important to talk to someone that when you say LVMH, they go, “what?” I think I explained it to him as ‘the Beyonce of fashion’ and they just validated me.
When I was waiting next to the stage to be awarded, and the room started to fill up, Karl Lagerfeld, Phoebe Philo, Nicolas Ghesquiere, Jonathan Anderson, Marc Jacobs, Riccardo Tisci and everyone you can imagine starts coming out of the door together. It was a group of all of the people I respect and admire for their work ethic, and what they’ve presented to the world. These people were coming into the same room that I was in and I was literally trying not to lose my shit. When they called my name, and I shook their hands, it was such an amazing feeling because when other artists see you, I think it is a more important feeling than being seen by the public. Because these people are doing the same thing as you, and having a sort of ‘You’re doing okay’ is really nice.
Patricia: That day was also an important day for LVMH because Grace Wales Bonner had been awarded the LVMH prize, how did that make you feel?
I think that there are so few women in design, especially young women. A lot of women in design have been in the industry for so long and have been working for a lot of different companies and did not have the opportunity to create their own brand. Unless, of course, you are Stella McCartney and there aren’t very many Stella McCartney’s. I think that over the last 20 years there have been many young designers but to reach a level of industry-wide recognition, there are a few people whose products can be recognised by publications that aren’t just fashion. I really respect Wales Bonner, especially because she’s doing menswear and unapologetically using her fashion to talk about the mix of English and Black culture, through different African textile and textures.
Lili: So what have you been doing recently?
As part of the prize, I had a year-long internship at Marc Jacobs as a design trainee. I work with the design team which is pretty small and amazing. I work with one of the people who interviewed me, the one who helped flip my portfolio! I help with concept development, dyeing, research, looking into vintage and at local vintage stores. An amazing part of this is meeting all of these people who have so much knowledge on clothing. Seeing vintage is important because it was a part of my process for thesis, trying to figure out what shapes I wanted things to take. I would go to military surplus stores, buy an extra large coat and use it in a fitting because I liked the proportions. I liked the slump and the droop and to see how things were finished on the inside. It is easier sometimes to use an existing garment to figure out how to work through ideas. The most significant part of working at Marc Jacobs is seeing what it takes for the clothes to come down the runway and the feeling of fulfilment of being a part of that and putting hours into those pieces.
Patricia: How has life been since?
When my thesis ended, I felt so tired of consuming things. I spent the summer laying around, not reading books, watching mindless reality TV, watching Grace and Frankie, and watching Gossip Girl for the twenty-thousandth time in my life. I was trying to figure what my life was now that I didn’t have 6-hour studio and classes to take. Do I exercise? Do I eat? I can eat regular meals again. I was just trying to figure out self-care. When I started working again on the fall and spring shows it was, of course, crazy busy. I bought a yoga mat and an exercise machine. I thought to myself, ‘I’m an adult now. I have to be more responsible for my body.’ Sometimes you go back and forth between working and taking care of yourself, and it’s okay to take a break, you are just as important as your work, and your work is better if you take care of yourself. Life is so different when you aren’t in school, it is possible to eat sleep and breathe your craft but then again the complete exhaustion I felt after graduation affected how I felt, especially returning home to Philly. Now, I think I’m beginning to think about self-care and treating myself better for all the work that I do.
Ayo Keys has finished her year-long training at Marc Jacobs and is currently working as a Women’s Wear Associate Designer at Nike-Converse.