Multidisciplinary careers are something that is being seen a lot more frequently in this day and age: people are starting to purposely ebb and flow through a variety of professional roles, and therefore gaining an array of skills and knowledge in return. This opportunist career may have been born by the rise of the internet, social media, visual cultures or simply travel accessibility. Fundamentally, restrictions in both thought and presence have been lifted by the possibility of choice, and in 2021, there are plenty of choices, to say the least. With or without a global pandemic. Screen Shot spoke to model, art director, entrepreneur (and much more) Louie Akinwale on how he has successfully created a multidisciplinary career for himself, as well as how he built a small business up from an idea, Lu by Lu, even in the midst of COVID-19’s chaos.
When asked to describe who he is and what he does, Akinwale took the entirety of the question into consideration (which accentuates the entire point made in this Deep Dive) and told Screen Shot “Well, my name’s Louie, I’m a model, designer, art director, creative director. I’m fun, vibrant, into fashion. I love music, just all around a happy person I think.”
This approach to not only personal life, but professional life too allows for an intertwining of influences without borders, which can only heighten inspiration in a creative sense because of it. Akinwale agrees, he also looks to the past for what the future holds, “a lot of the music I listen to is from the past. There are these artists called the Lijadu Sisters, they’re twins and play kind of like afro-jazz, and my last collection was inspired by them. They released a series of facial expression photographs in the 70s, and I thought I could incorporate this in my brand somehow in a sense where I’m trying to get across a personality within that sound, so definitely, it all entwines and influences each other.”
The past means that our own small (in the grand scheme of things) lives and more famous movements or influencers, as well as our childhood and experiences since then all shape how we react and create or aspire to be in whatever ‘now’ we live in at any given moment. In the interview, Akinwale reflected on this point and told us that “Even today, this morning, I woke up and I was looking at old school photographs because of a comment someone made on a Clubhouse stream that basically said ‘to really tap into yourself you’ve got to remember who you were as a small child’, so I was looking back. I used to do karate and all kinds of things, and it was amazing to think, wow, that was that me and this here is where I am now as this version of me, at 27, but it’s still the same person.”
Having a multidisciplinary career pushes a childlike and playful approach to whatever professional endeavour you may embark on. It seems to be an attitude that is unafraid to try and learn from any angle possible. This has been an especially challenging year for the entire world, and one that for many has forced people into flexible thinking, as well as proactive action. We spoke to Akinwale about the crossover between the past and future, and what he is doing with all he has learnt this far, now.
“I started off as a model, and have been doing that for three years now. My interest in fashion grew from that, I used to do e-commerce for this brand called Antonioli, I used to thrive off of it, and my interest in fashion just grew. I wanted to do more behind the scenes, I started casting and producing for a few brands during fashion week, I was booking models and I was also still doing the shows too, so it was like a conflict of interests.”
He continued to tell us that “My first modelling show, I was shitting myself. It was for this brand called Orange Culture and they’re Nigerian, I was opening and I was shaking. Since then I’ve done Moncler, Giogio Armani, Moschino, Off-White, Stone Island… McQueen like 2 weeks ago, Viviene Westwood e-commerce, so yeah I’m still going to continue. I’ve been working with really great brands during the pandemic, probably the most work ever actually, but I’ve been so on it, it’s just been crazy. I’m making sure my work, all of my work, is top tier. Lockdown of course has been hard but I really just believe in myself. Long story short, it’s shown me that if this is what’s happening during a lockdown, then I’m gonna be fine. I’ve been so persistent with it, and the free time that I have had, I’ve been able to work on my business Lu by Lu.”
“The brand was birthed out of lockdown, I didn’t know I was going to do this before lockdown. I did it all by myself, website to production to designing. It’s all happened in a year. And before, I had only ever made a pillow in textiles when I was 15. That pillow still exists.”
What makes a brand successful, more often than not, is the story surrounding it, and Akinwale gave me an inkling of a story that means Lu by Lu will grow in wonderful ways. “It all came from my dad in a way, the first drop for Lu by Lu was called shifting seas, my dad had cancer so when he was ill I obviously suddenly had to face vulnerability, him going from masculine to something quite the opposite. It’s a unisex bag like shifting seas, transcending and also coming from an earthly world and into heaven, so it’s all about fluidity.” He continued to say that “The bag itself being produced doesn’t know if it’s male or female, it’s an object. You become what you choose to be perceived as.”
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Going back to the past creating the now, Akinwale tells us that “Everything is handmade piece by piece, which is the same as life, like everything I’ve done has, piece by piece, led me to this point. Here we are.”
“My bags are from Nigeria, I’ve grown up in London all my life but I’ve got Nigerian heritage and my parents essentially brought me up to be Nigerian, so when I go to visit it feels like home straight away. I design the bags in London and a lot of my influences are through lights, shapes, circles, fluorescent colours, from Lagos to London.”
Like many more aspects of Akinwale’s career, he tells us that “It all happened by the odds, my mum was a designer, and she was working on a sample of this bag, and I thought to myself, let’s elevate that idea. So I did, and it was kind of a domino effect from there. I started researching Dior in the 80s, Fendi in the 70s, and I’ve just been building my idea with an entwining of influences, and I do a lot of research into the colours that I like and why.” He told us that the process allows him to “flirt with so many different things, generally I pick what’s right and what suits each individual personality of each of the bags.” Contrary to this way of working and arriving at an outcome however, the entrepreneur understands that to place himself within the fashion world “you’ve got to find your audience.”
The realisation of starting a brand in the midst of chaos, not only the repercussions of COVID-19 but Brexit too, Akinwale is flowing through all the motions and seemingly taking the frustrations in his stride, although “shippings are taking forever, it’s of course frustrating. I’m doing all this work and research ready to get this project out into the world and it’s like… I don’t have the product. If I’m having a conversation with someone that could help, people want to see the product, and there have been times that I just don’t have anything physical to show them yet.”
Having an idea, and putting it into action is one thing. Staying motivated consistently enough to make the action birth a product is entirely another thing. We asked how Akinwale manages to do so many different things within one career, because to us it seemed a lot to be juggling, and again, his answer was as multifaceted as his approach to professionalism, “Seeing the sunshine, going outside, every day I see inspiration through everything. I fully enjoy and immerse myself in what I do, in all aspects, I really just love what I’m doing at any given moment and I give it everything I’ve got. I’m happy just doing.”
A day in the life of Akinwale is quite possibly exactly how you would imagine it, “I like mixing it up, I had a shoot last week and an hour later I was working on my bags and then I was promoting it and then I did something else for someone else all in one day, it’s fun and this is how I need to do things, my motivation is just to keep going. I have a really bad attention span, I daydream… it’s ridiculous. And zone out frequently. But I come back, and I try, and that’s the most important thing.”
Belief in something truly does make whatever that might be possible, even if first thought out as impossible, and in the case of starting your own business: Akinwale shows us that first and foremost belief is what has to come as a priority. He manifests that one day, “I want to walk into Selfridges and see Lu by Lu next to Prada.” But furthermore, he places the essence of what he creates on something much bigger than an accessory brand, “I want the bags to create a community and a lifestyle, that’s the main goal here. I want there to be a family around the brand, that’s what I want, a safe space for people to join, not just bags but music, events, workshops, that sort of thing.”
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If you need someone to tell you to take the plunge into your passions today, Akinwale tells anyone with a dream to create something, “Just do it, make it happen, if you believe in yourself it’s always going to happen regardless. There are so many times I’ve been knocked down. No matter what, if you really want something, it’s yours. You might hear a few nos along the way but you’re definitely going to get a yes, go with it, have fun with it, enjoy the process, all of it.”
Being authentic is a core theme within Akinwale’s career process, who comments that “In anything, I always come as me, because that’s sustainable. I’ve grown, I’m trying to educate myself, and I’m aware that I’m connecting with different people all the time, and so in that sense, I’ve got to be having the right conversations, I’m so ‘east end’ anyway, but I’m trying to translate myself in the best way that I can.” This statement in particular stood out to me, because it is something that can overwhelm many that embark on the multidisciplinary journey: finding a balance of adjusting your knowledge to fit an audience’s needs while staying true to who you are is fundamental.
Akinwale concludes that “Tips are everywhere, you just have to look for them.” Continuing that “I’ve only got one life to live and I’m doing okay, this is where I am now and I’ve just got to be consistent. Anything could happen, so I’m being humble with how and where I step.”
To sum up, Akinwale is proof that ‘doing it all’ is actually possible, but only if you’re enjoying every step of the way. Staying fulfilled is cause for motivation and staying open to flexibility allows for opportunities.
In recent years, ‘multidisciplinary artist’ has become somewhat of a buzzword, used by many as a catch-all term meant to help redefine what can really be described as the act of blindly dabbling in everything. As a result, many of us have forgotten what it truly is like to be a multidisciplinary artist in 2021’s digital age, as well as the amount of work, planning and creativity it takes to gracefully mix digital with real-life art. Fear no more, because we managed to speak to one of the real ones out there, writer, director, and performer Alejandra Smits, about publishing her second poetry book while simultaneously maintaining her already impressive career in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Smits’ second poetry book, titled Poetry Scam, initially started as “a very traditional poetry book,” only to then shift into a mix of what can only be described as ‘Instagram poetry’. “I started working on it three years ago, then slowly, as I started editing it and thinking about its layout with my team of designers, we felt like I wasn’t really portraying myself in it, so we decided to add my own memes, which I usually share through my Instagram Stories,” Smits explained about the concept behind Poetry Scam.
The book consists of a compilation of poems and images by the artist, containing both English and Spanish editions. “In the middle part that divides the Spanish version from the English version, there’s a whole chapter of memes separated into different chapters. It started as just poems and then quickly evolved into a piece of art, more than just a book.”
Through Poetry Scam, Smits’ first intention was to create a play out of the book—bringing her own words and images to life, in a way. But then, you know what I’m about to say: COVID came. The show had to be cancelled after the performer had already found a location to present it. Speaking about potentially turning the play into a video performance, which Smits has a fair amount of experience with, she shared herself that “I was also getting into that idea but now, everything is so difficult when it comes to managing artists—because I had a lot of collaborators who wanted to interpret the poems I wrote—but I’m simply not a producer, I’m an artist, and I’m terrible at managing other people.”
As a result, Smits decided to lay this idea to rest, at least for now.
You only need to look up Smits’ Instagram account to notice that the artist has an influential presence on the platform. With more than 45,000 followers to her credit, the artist admits to finding it hard to block out the dependency that comes with social media influence. “I’m super addicted to my phone, and I’m a bit worried about that relationship because it doesn’t allow me to be in the present moment. I’ll be watching a movie and constantly checking my phone at the same time, just because I’ll have this sort of anxiety.”
After realising that she was going through what most of us can probably relate to—those who actually don’t feel the need to check their phone during a movie are one of the few lucky ones—Smits decided to take a well-needed break from all of it. “Yesterday actually, I disabled all of my notifications as I’m trying not to check my phone as often. If something is urgent I’ll get an email or a call instead. Right now, I’m trying to go into a detox with Instagram.”
But fighting a habit can be hard, especially if there’s an army of behaviour scientists, data analysts and constantly evolving algorithms working against you and your newly found resolution. Ever since our conversation, Smits has posted a few times on Instagram, with one of those posts receiving more than 10,900 likes.
Of course, my aim is not to criticise the artist’s relationship with social media, but more to highlight the presence and role that social media play in her life, as well as in her career. Insta detox put aside, it simply cannot be ignored that Smits’ way of approaching the digital world is as ‘down with the kids’ as it can be.
Instagram has become, without a doubt, an important tool for artists like Smits to promote their work and get cast for different kinds of projects by brands. “I get a lot of jobs thanks to my Instagram so I want to be grateful towards the app but I just feel like I need to change my relationship with it in order to not get so wrapped up in it.”
On the app, Smits’ feed is a mix of her art—from poems and memes to videos of her performances—as well as pictures of her modelling for some of Instagram’s trendiest brands such as La Manso, Miista, Paloma Wool, and more.
Although Smits does admit to modelling for many brands, including some that she doesn’t feel the need to post about on her own feed, she didn’t plan on getting involved in the fashion industry at first, “It happened by mistake almost, I actually started modelling for Paloma Wool a couple of years ago, maybe 3 years ago and I was working with one of my best friends, Carlota Guerrero, who’s a photographer. She took me in for a couple of campaigns and after that everything snowballed. My agency, which is from London, contacted me and I said ‘yes of course’. I quickly realised that it was an easy job to have on the side because it gave me a lot of freedom and it’s lucrative.”
But Smits never planned to go down that route when it comes to her career, and faced an internal dilemma knowing that she played a part in the fashion industry, therefore in all the sustainability and human rights issues it represents too. “I’m also trying to shift into a different source of income,” she explains, “in order to stop modelling in a couple of years or so.”
With modelling comes almost instantly the discussion of body positivity and the vulnerability that it involves. As a performer, Smits’ body is a very important medium used in her art, and so is vulnerability: “I grew up thinking that I should be smaller, because my friends were super skinny and I had a lot of insecurities about my body and my curves. Even nowadays, I still feel insecure sometimes although I love my body. It’s a really long journey to loving your body completely, and I’m still on it.”
For Smits, using her body as the main element of some of her artwork is not about finding self-love, but more about getting an understanding of her strengths and weaknesses in order to overcome them. “Knowing that, no matter what, when I overcome them, I’m fine, that’s what the process is about with my body and my work. When I do a performance and I’m exposing my body, even though I’m feeling insecure, getting used to that ‘friction’ is what I’m interested in. I feel uncomfortable, but nothing bad is happening. It’s about being comfortable with not being comfortable if that makes sense?”
What she calls ‘friction’ is a strong reminder of what women can go through on a daily basis. At the risk of sounding cheesy, know you what they say, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, right? Her approach to narration, creatively used in more than one medium—through writing, imageries such as memes and Instagram Stories, performances using her own body, film—is what makes Smits such a versatile artist; a multidisciplinary narrator.
By revealing her body as well as other aspects of her life online, Smits acts as a gentle reminder that we’re all, in a way, performing, only the artist uses her whole life as a performative exercise, one she constantly learns from. “I think most people that follow me on Instagram think that I love my body unconditionally but it’s not like that.”
Smits’ work is interlaced with humour—anyone who can’t see that after scrolling through her poems and memes, which could also be qualified as digital poems, is clearly missing the whole point. By exploring existential topics such as death and trauma using digital mediums that were never truly appreciated in the art world until now, the artist offers her audience a type of performance that is both funny and highly relatable.
Now, here comes the million-dollar question: are memes a valid piece of artistic expression? Of course, everything is arguable but in Smits’ case, the conversation could easily be pleaded in her favour. After all, memes are often created to make social or political commentary, just like many other art mediums. As a multidisciplinary storyteller, Smits’ art (be that memes, videos, or written poetry) should therefore be considered as valid pieces of artistic expression.
Through her work as well as her digital presence, Smits has managed to not only make a name for herself as one of the most exciting emerging artists of our generation but also as a highly needed breath of fresh air on both the art and fashion scenes.
On top of Poetry Scam and her on and off Instagram presence, the artist has recently launched her own newsletter called Unsolicited Existence, which focuses on “all things existence.” Whether you’re a multidisciplinary artist yourself trying to navigate the digital world or simply looking to improve your meme-making skills, Smits’ artwork will, without a doubt, have something to offer you. And as the affirmation goes: have fun, take detours, find your (multiple) callings and all in all—exist loudly.