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After Ninamounah Langestraat first ignited the imagination of the industry with a sex-charged, biology-driven graduate collection from the Gerrit Rietveld Academy, she turned to family member Robin Burggraaf before the pair launched Ninamounah. Together, the Amsterdam-based duo consider themselves biologists and anthropologists that use fashion as their preferred research method. Their collections have continually looked to natural phenomena as a conceptual starting point before challenging, teasing, and subverting cultural codes and societal views.
The last two seasons have evolved from an exploration of metamorphosis, the morphological mutation that occurs throughout the animal kingdom. While the first stage included the naturally-shed skins of several snake breeds, knits that resembled reptilian hides, eyelashes made from dragonfly-wings, the latest stage saw signature garments evolve, as iconic pieces such as the bodysuit mutated to create sartorial hybrids.
While encouraging humans to embrace one’s animalistic side – ‘we are all animals wearing a dress of culture” – the label is committed to cultivating positive change within the fashion industry too. Its seasonless collections continually take deadstock garments, from classic pinstripe suits to shirts, French corsetry and motor garment, before heavily reworking them into sensual and subversive shapes. Through this reclamation and upcycling, Ninamounah synthesises traces of a forlorn past with future realities while pushing fashion into a more conscious practice.
As a new delivery of the brand’s highly sought after squared-toed, hoof-shaped Howler Heels landed at LN-CC, we interrupted Ninamounah and Robin’s lockdown to discuss how Prohibition bootleggers inspired the shoe, to uncover the brand’s origin stories and research its latest evolution.
We’re always intrigued by the dynamic behind brands, when did the two of you meet?
Ninamounah: Robin and I are family. We met in the late 2000s, during our time as part of our informal 'oster family, where we both spent time when we needed a break. We were close and kept in contact but didn’t see one another for a while. It was until I graduated in 2017 and needed help with everything that was coming towards me, when Robin came to the rescue
When you graduated you knew?
N: Not at all, I still wanted to finish my studies in biology but when you graduate, there’s so much that comes in your direction that you’re almost forced into it, there’s this sense of ‘now or never’ to catch the wave. But I’m happy I did it, while still thinking about becoming a biologist one day.
That’s what we love about you, you describe yourselves as biologists. Fashion is the medium for your studies of biology and anthropology. Where did this come from?
N: I travelled a lot as a child, I lived in Mongolia and India, my mother and I travelled with my step-dad who’s a National Geographic photographer. I was always drawn to culture and animals, much more powerfully than fashion. I had a romanticized idea of studying biology, with its field work, but when the reality became clearer, I was attracted to art school instead, where I could use biology within my art. Initially, I was in textiles but I became frustrated by the pace of it and thankfully found fashion, and through it, my voice.
With your background and interests, your art practice could have gone in any which way direction. You hinted at wanting a faster pace and the framework of fashion certainly encourages you to create at a certain rate.
N: What is really intriguing within fashion is that you can always work with different disciplines, from other art disciplines, through to anthropologists, filmmakers, and writers. Creation by collaboration.
R: Fashion by its nature is about humans, it unites different disciplines and brings different points of view into play. The human, both in regards to body and experience, is so central to fashion. It’s the perfect stage to work with many different fields.
The fashion industry has a framework. With many other art disciplines, there’s greater freedom to release work, as and when the artist wishes to. With fashion, we have long been following a release cycle. Of course, right from the inception of the brand, you’ve challenged the system to be more conscious, more responsible.
R: True. At this point, we’re aware of the set boundaries but at the same time, it’s easy to lose track of them because some of them just don’t make sense. Today, there’s an encouraging fluidity.
A fluidity and flexibility in which we can all work closer together. It’s certainly something we’re cultivating at LN-CC too, which has meant we can re-stock the sold out footwear.
I’m intrigued by how you approach a collection. Is there a mood board?
N: I’m not a digital person. I draw, I research in the library, I read shit loads. I approach a collection much like a researcher in biology, I begin with a question and attempt to answer it. There is a mood board but it’s not a typical fashion mood board, there are animals and there are more stories than silhouettes.
From these stories, would you create characters?
N: Rarely in the sense of human stories. For the latest collection, I’m obsessed by hyenas.
R: In one sense, hyenas stand for a certain energy. However, more often than not, we do the opposite. We discover a character, it could be someone we meet in Amsterdam that becomes part of our creative cycle or a figure from history, and they give shape to the season as we develop the collection. Characters give life to what we are doing.
N: It really depends. I met Marcella, one of the muses we work with, and the main dress that we bring back season after season is Tradition, was made for her. She’s a judge and an artist and it was about surrounding her being as this femme fatale, a dominatrix in the law. That dress was her second-skin and I feel empowered wearing it. Meanwhile, we look at the bone structures of animals which feeds our tailoring.
We loved the elexo skeletal elements from the latest collection.
N: We literally used boning in the pieces, after researching the outer skeletons of lobsters.
As there’s so much depth to it, do you create anything out of your research?
R: There have been discussions, but it’s time because we want it to be hands on. We would love a Ninamounah zine to accompany each season.
You should! Now, on the subject of research, you have to tell us the story about the hoof heel and where they came from.
I started researching humans and hunting. From animals rolling in shit and dead animals to mask their scents, I wanted to see what humans did. I found out that moonshiners would go into the forest and build illegal shacks to produce their moonshine, but as no one would be in the forest, they opted to mask their shoe soles to hide their footprints. They made wooden cow and deer hoof so it would appear that it was just different animals walking in the woods, not moonshiners. A lot of hunters do that in the snow too. This sense of making your identity and this clash of the human and the animal was powerful. We applied the hoof idea to our heels, so if you wear our heels, you will leave your own animal mark and the squareness of the shape masks the heel too.
In terms of the process of making them, and the last, was it a difficult process?
N: It was difficult to begin with and we worked closely with Amsterdam-based woodworkers to create the perfect shape. Now that we have it, we have it forever, and can evolve it
All I can think of now is crime scene investigation shows.
N: Right? It’s the perfect crime shoe.
As far as you know, have your shoes been linked to a crime?
N: Nothing yet, haha.
From the two of you through to how you work with your muses and who walks your shows, a sense of collaboration and power of community run throughout the brand.
N: The family started in Amsterdam but it’s continually growing. I’d love to expand it.
The editorial captures this energy. Can you talk us through it and what you’d like viewers to take away from the Nikola Lamburov-shot visuals?
R: We shot the editorial in Amsterdam in August, right after the first lockdown, with our Amsterdam family. We’ve known Karina from the beginning, she was in our first show and in our most recent lookbook, and she’s a great friend but she also knows the rest of the team well so it was a super collaborative shoot, one that felt natural.
N: There was such a high energy level, everyone is such a character. I wish we could do every shoot like this one, it was super fun, with many pleasant surprises. It was open and spontaneous.
R: It was. We were definitely encouraged by the inevitable introspection during lockdown, it was a moment for us to focus on the sensuality of the brand, the bodysuit shapes that are part of our core, our signatures, our essence. We worked without a brief, we just met on the set that day and let it happen. It’s such a luxury that can only work when friends are involved because there’s trust and you can surrender to the moment.
Photography: Nikola Lamburov, @nikolalamburov
Art direction: Ferdi Sibbel, @ferdisibbel
Hair: La Toya Velberg, @latoyavelberg
Beauty: David Koppelaar, @davidkoppelaar
Model: Karina Zharmukhambetova, @karinazharmu