Updated: Feb 26
We sat down with Charlene Coulibaly in her Bethnal Green studio to chat about her journey as a stylist from university, to her present role working as an assistant at a large fashion company.
Charlene sees the long-term vision in the present day and although she is not yet a full-time stylist, she highlights the importance of building up funds first, as a means to doing what you want to do in the long run.
On the topic of fame and visibility as a creative, she expressed a balanced view, “I feel like I’m in the middle, I would like people to see my work, love my work, but I don’t want to be famous as a stylist - I just enjoy styling. If it came to a point where I’ve been working [in the industry] for ages and people didn’t know who I was I wouldn’t mind because I actually enjoy just doing it.”
Charlene’s styling journey started at home during her childhood. Her sister would always dress her up and from that she took an interest in fashion. It was her community that took this interest further, growing up being part of a jerking group, she “always wanted to be looking a certain type of way...it just got me so obsessed with looking interesting. It was from that, that I came into fashion.”
From blogging in her teens to studying Fashion Communications at University, Charlene’s styling journey has been informed by a diverse range of experiences. Revealing the difficulty she experienced transitioning from University into her career, Charlene candidly explained, “...it was really, really hard. I feel like at university you have this mindset of ‘I don’t need to be somewhere yet because I’m still exploring. As soon as that field of security is gone, it’s so hard.”
Many young creatives, especially those in their twenties can relate to the feelings of pressure to achieve great success even though they are only at the beginning of their careers. “Your twenties is this weird stage where you want to have made it to where you feel like you should be and you still just want to have fun because you don’t have a lot of time. When I first left [university], I felt like I had this weird sense of ‘I’m not doing enough’ or ‘I’m not doing what I should be doing’ and it was slowing me down because instead of working towards it I was just panicking all the time, it was just ruining my work.”
Despite the uncertainty throughout her journey, Charlene expressed that she feels happy with the connections and experiences she is gaining in her career, especially through her 9-5 job. The financial stability allows her to pursue her own projects on the side. At the age of 24, Charlene feels that there are a lot of societal expectations surrounding the concept of success and achievement and she expressed her thoughts on whether these pressures come from within, or are entirely external. “...I think it’s a bit of both, obviously everyone sets their own goals, so we match ourselves against where and what we want to be at a certain period in time. But Instagram and social media does play a huge part in it, just because we’re constantly being fed success stories. Noone ever goes on instagram and says ‘oh my God I’m doing really badly.’ You get the odd few but because they don’t want to depress the people that follow them they always show their success stories. Naturally, you will be upset, because you want to be happy everyday...You get your days when you’re like ‘Why is that not me?”
Luckily for Charlene, she’s blessed to have a group of people, a creative family, who understands what she is doing and going through. “When each of us feels down, we console the other person and give the advice they need to hear... We push each other, if something good happens for me, it motivates someone else... we are all each other’s successes...We’re always trying to catch up with each other, it’s not that we’re in a race but we all need to be in line with each other.”
Charlene’s creative home is shared between 4 friends, her “actual studio belongs to two designers, MMRMS (@mmrms.studio) and Jubel (@jubel.studio), my two really good friends. We actually built the studio together. When we started it had blue carpet on the floors, so they ripped it out, they also repainted and broke down walls. They are my inspiration, so when I’m around them or their work, it allows me to be inspired.” She uses the space as a base, a home, in which to finish her creative projects, but she also explains the importance of external influence on her work. “A lot of my stuff comes from galleries or art. I’m really into paintings. But it finishes at home.”
On her creative process, Charlene emphasised that a key aspect of her creativity is being able to draw on outside influences from art and culture but also commented on pushing herself to feel uncomfortable. “I have this weird thing with creativity, I like being very comfortable and very uncomfortable. When I create a concept, I want to be a bit uncomfortable; I want my mind to go to places it doesn’t usually go. But at the point where I’m finalising it, when I’m creating the looks or creating the photographs, I want to be comfortable.”
Heritage also plays an important role in the work Charlene creates, finding inspiration in the visual experience of being an African in the diaspora. “I do think my heritage has a big influence on what I do just because I can’t escape it. It’s what I’m thinking all the time. There’s no way I can’t incorporate myself in my work and that’s me. In my final year at university I focused on my country. I’m from the Ivory Coast/ Cote d’Ivoire. So I looked into my parent’s tribes (they’re from two different tribes), looking at the native materials and accessories they used and incorporating them into my work. I love to combine African accessories with Western clothing like suits.”
Finally, Charlene shared her thoughts on representation in the industry and her hopes for the future.
“I feel like we’ve come a long way...not saying it’s good enough but it's good that people are trying to do better. The problem is, that the people in charge of diversity, tend to not be black people (or people from diverse backgrounds). So they’re not ever going to be able to do it how we would want them to. It could be better, being a black person in the creative industry, I have had a lot of difficulties trying to get a job at companies or even experiencing racism in the workplace - but in terms of involvement we’re getting there.”
Before we wrapped up the interview, Charlene left us with some words of wisdom:
“We get consumed by how others portray us. I believe we should create our own image of ourselves.”
Words by: Fumi Lijadu