What are you looking for?

Sarah Nsikak La Reunion
Mother Stories

In The Studio With Sarah Nsikak of La Réunion

Sarah Nsikak La Reunion

Written by Katie Hintz-Zambrano

Photography by Yumi Matsuo

It's something like a rebirth year for Sarah Nsikak, founder of La Réunion. Not only is the fashion designer and artist re-settling into Brooklyn (after a stint Upstate), she's also got a newly mobile toddler on her hands and a revamped studio space, thanks to California Closets.

Tell us about your studio space.

”I've been in my studio for a little over 3 years, and I work in here at least 4 days a week. This feels like a total luxury coming out of a year living in Upstate New York, where I was lucky if I got a day a week in my Brooklyn studio.”

“The studio is located in a very industrial part of Bushwick, a zone not great to live in, which makes it an ideal work zone. I can really detach from feelings of comfort and rest that I try to cultivate at home, though I am guilty of bringing work home with me occasionally.”

Before installing your new modular organizational solution by California Closets, what was your studio space like?

“Chaotic! It was chaos. I understood it, but it was precarious—pulling remnants from shelves could lead to a domino-like catastrophe without the right combo of stealth and precision. In the beginning, I had no idea we'd be designing at the scale we are now, and I didn't have the perspective to redesign the space as we evolved. It was all happening quickly, but also gradually. Before I knew it, we had more scraps and rolls of deadstock fabric than our original 3 sets of metal shelves could logistically hold.There was no system, special textiles began to be buried and forgotten. The process of purging and assessing what we really needed for The Everyday System by California Closets was integral to our current established sense of order and productivity.”

“I do most of my work in the studio and with the new set-up by California Closets, I’ve been really enjoying being here more. Everything is more straightforward and I know exactly where everything is.”

How would you describe the space after The Everyday System ™ was installed?

“The whole process was incredibly smooth and thoughtful. We met with Carolyn from California Closets in the studio, she assessed the space alongside my ideas and needs for storage, and in no time we had a beautiful 3-D rendering of the new storage system. Our needs were top priority, and we can feel that now, using the space everyday and accessing materials in a new, more efficient way. Beyond that, it's so beautiful! The Everyday System makes the studio space more inviting.”

What are your favorite aspects of the modular Everyday System ™, now that you've started working alongside it?

“I love the look of it. It's sleek in a timeless way. The subtitles are what I love the most. The white-on-white color gives it a quiet presence, but it's by far the most substantial furniture piece in the space. It showcases the textiles and our samples in a way that centers the work, a giant frame with living and rotating art pieces.”

“And I really love the drawers. You know those drawers that just glide, no friction or turbulence, just buttery smooth? That sounds so superfluous, but when it's a drawer you use many times a day, it matters a lot! It feels fancy to have sleek drawers.”

Tell us about the process of setting up The Everyday System ™.

“The whole process was great—very easy, start to finish. I really don't have any complaints. The fact that I could opt for California Closets to have their experts install the system meant I had no stress. I trust myself to build things, but this was a big undertaking, and I wouldn't have felt as good even hiring someone else who doesn't know the California Closets materials well. I was able to continue working on the other side of the studio while the California Closets crew came in and quietly installed the system in just a few hours.”

Does "work" happen mostly in your studio space, or does it happen everywhere?

“These days, I'm in the studio often. I do most of my work here and with the new organizational system, I've been really enjoying being here more. Everything is more straightforward, and I set up the whole thing myself, so I know exactly where everything is. I'd much rather work from the studio than from home or really anywhere else.”

Do you have any creative habits or practices to get going and get inspired?

“When I'm not deep in a project, I'm probably watching a film or reading an artist interview. I've been feeling so inspired by the work of others in different mediums. Mati Diop's 2019 film Atlantics has really given me the itch to travel to Africa soon and do some sourcing there. I also love going to exhibitions and openings, seeing what my peers are up to and how the times we are in have been informing contemporary work.”

Did you always know you wanted to be a mother?

“I think so. Of course, for most of my life I had no idea what it meant to be a mother, but the idea of bringing new life into the world with deep hope that this person would actively care about the advancement of Black and brown people like them, and our planet's preservation, was always an exciting dream.”

“I’m great at overcommitting and burning the candle at both ends. Having a baby will teach you refinement. You will choose the things that matter most to you, or feel most possible, and learn to say ‘no.’”

How was your pregnancy and birth experience?

“It makes me sigh when I think about my pregnancy and the way I was treated by the American medical system. I've since learned that I had it easy compared to my immigrant mother who was told she would never bear children and to stop trying (she had 3).”

“I was told I was ‘high risk’ because of an antiquated blood test that doesn't represent the pre-existing conditions or general genetic makeup of many Black women. Honestly, my pregnancy was fine. I had a little nausea and definitely pushed the limits of lifting a bit too much (we moved Upstate while I was pregnant), but it was generally a straightforward pregnancy.”

“It felt special to be carrying my child, but I had many experiences that made me feel discarded by society. By my third trimester, I was in the hospital every week getting non-stress tests and ultrasounds because my baby was ‘measuring small.’ They ended up inducing me because of her size, saying it was protocol to ensure she was growing at the right rate. In hindsight, I wish I'd had advocates in the hospital who didn't treat me and my health insurance like an opportunity. The medical system in this country is a business and it sucks to be treated like a billable asset and a liability. I'm grateful for the NICU nurse who taught me so much, her name was Nancy and she was paying it forward 16 years after another NICU nurse saved her 24-week-old twins. I'll never forget her.”

What has your experience been like bonding with your daughter?

“It has been a rollercoaster. While I was nursing her, we had a great bond that felt special. We were always together and I wore her everywhere. This ended at 8 months, and by 12 she had formed an attachment to her dad and a rejection of me. This was intense. Like, screaming and contorting her body when I was the one holding her while he was in the room.”

“Looking back on this time, it feels like it was because I was spending so much time with her during the day and she was sick of me. There wasn't a lot we could do in our town, maybe this was pandemic-related, but there just weren't many baby-friendly activities going on Upstate. I was her sole form of entertainment, oscillating between the same 20 books and the same 30 toys, upstairs, downstairs, outside, back upstairs—on a loop. I was so tired.”

“Postpartum has its own battles, too. I was rejecting the changes of my body, and by 10 months my child was rejecting me. I felt like being in Upstate New York as a Black woman I was also being rejected by society. It was tough. We moved back to Brooklyn in March of this year, and since settling in, I feel a new bond with my daughter that is not related to my body producing her meals. It’s based on us communicating in our way, laughing together, discovering new things at the same time, meeting strangers that look like us, walking together for the first time, and deciding that we're a team. It feels really good lately.”

Tell us about your daughter's name and any meanings behind it.

“Her first name is Maleigha (Mali) and her middle name is Ima, which means ‘love’ in our Nigerian dialect, Ibibiom. It's a name my mother gave to her and I've learned from my Jewish friends that it also means ‘mother’ in Hebrew, which makes her name feel like a perfectly tied bow.”

What excites you about raising a daughter? Has motherhood made you think about gender differently?

“I found out she was a girl in the early days and that did really excite me, but I had no preference. I'm still trying to de-program my brain around the gender binary. She's going to be who she is regardless of medical classification, so it doesn't matter to me.”

“If I'm thinking about womanhood and what the world has decided a woman or a girl is, to have a girl is an exciting thing and terrifying thing. But I would likely feel this way about having a boy, too. A lot of people think she's a boy. I don't always correct them. I guess having a baby has reminded me that gender shouldn't be so rigid, especially in this time when they are just babies being babies.”

What has surprised you about the experience of motherhood so far?

“I'm tired a lot of the time, and I never felt like I couldn't keep working or couldn't ‘rally’ until now. It's humbling! I'm also more aware of what I do around her, how I speak to people, and what kind of person she perceives me to be. She has shown me in her way that she's listening and watching. It makes me better and also makes me more self-aware. We're growing together and in some ways I feel like I'm starting from scratch, too.”

What was your own upbringing like? I know you grew up in Oklahoma, and your parents are from Nigeria.

“I was raised by two hardworking immigrants in the middle of the country. I think about how hard this must have been for them—having the opportunity to come to America and not necessarily the context to know what each region would hold. Just the promise of opportunity and a better life for their children.”

“They were very strict and afraid that we would become ‘American kids,’ who they saw as disrespectful and lazy. Culturally, my parents had a very different upbringing where they were given a lot more responsibility in the family from a very young age. They didn't want us to have any worries or stress, but they wanted us to be excellent.”

“My dad taught me how much harder I would have to work than my white peers when I was being benched on my YMCA basketball team in 6th grade. He passed away in 2006, and this amplified the pressure in some ways—for me there was a deep desire to honor his legacy and make him proud in my own way. My parent's definition of excellence was becoming a doctor, lawyer, engineer, scientist, etc.”

“I have two siblings and the three of us were given a loving childhood with the added pressures of being the first in this country to do everything. My sister became a lawyer, my brother's still finding his path, and I, as the middle child, of course, had to go and become an artist.”

“My job isn't really anything of interest to my mom. She cares about my income and my health, but I don't think she has the patience to care about art. To her it's not a life-saving profession, but to me it is. We just see the world differently because of our very different upbringings. I've grown to really appreciate that. I owe her the world and feel overwhelmed with gratitude for all the sacrifices she and my dad made for the three of us. I think subconsciously, my patchworking and quilting comes from my upbringing in Oklahoma and my general amazement for all quilts that everyone had in their homes. I would later learn that people who were enslaved made many of them, and this is maybe the best metaphor for my life in Oklahoma and the dualities I tried to decode my whole life in white spaces.”

Are there things from your upbringing that you're consciously trying to incorporate (or not incorporate) into Mali's upbringing?

“My child is going to grow up here in NYC, where she will see Black people at school and even have Black teachers, which is something I never had. She's going to grow up knowing she's Nigerian and already eats our food and listens to highlife music. She's going to travel to Africa and experience the village my mother grew up in. She's going to know where she comes from and choose what parts of that she wants to identify with on her own.”

“As for her white side, the world will show her what this means every day, as it's set up for white people to exist and thrive in. She will learn that she's perfectly whole as she is and she has an important place in this world no matter what kind of ‘othered’ society tries to make her.”

What excites you most about motherhood right now?

“Mali just started walking and that's both terrifying and exhilarating! I've also been loving watching her make friends and talk to other babies. She's finding her words and has her own style of communicating. Sometimes it's saying ‘hi’ desperately and repeatedly until she gets a wave back. It's adorable.”

What advice would you give to other moms about to have their first child?

“I would say it's going to be a unique journey for you, so don't read so much about other people. You can make the rules for you and your family. It's not supposed to be so complicated. Don't buy so much stuff. People have been doing this with much less since the beginning of time. Lean into your community and try to enjoy it, every hard season you go through will be a blip in the grand scheme.”

Can you tell us about your career—before launching La Réunion—in a nutshell?

“I studied at Oklahoma University and didn't study fashion. I moved to NYC with the intention of working hard for experience, knowledge, and relationships. I remember the years before I made the move, my brother-in-law wrote a book about why you don't need to get an MBA. He told me it's best to just get in there and work hard to learn. The problem with that is that people in New York care about institutions and tend to size you up based on this kind of thing. It's been really special for me to find the people in both fashion and art that value scrappy people who make their own way here, knowing that kind, hard-working people do get far.”

“For the first 3+ years in New York, I worked in fashion, coming off of running a tiny upcycling company I started in Oklahoma City. From 2019 to March 2020, when we all left the office, I was working for Mara Hoffman. I learned a lot about how to create a circular and responsible business while I was there.”

“I'm very grateful for my entire journey in NYC, even the very hard lessons that happened in the early days. I feel like I aligned with the right people at the right time and it led me to my own little piece of success in this city that I love.”

What was the impetus for starting La Réunion?

“My first round of jobs in the fashion industry taught me so much. It's not a very ethical or mindful industry, and there are a lot of people faking it to manipulate the customer. Thankfully, now we're in a time of education and people can see through a lot of the greenwashing that I was surrounded by. Long before moving to New York or knowing I'd have a company here, I felt the need for change in the industry.”

“Fast fashion stores were popping up everywhere in 2016, and no one was asking why or how clothes could come at such small cost. I think there's a real issue with shame when it comes to ‘sustainable fashion’ and no one should be shamed for buying fast fashion out of necessity. The consumer is not the problem. There is a need for more accessible and slowly made garments, whether it's through mending vintage or through education around cost per wear and encouraging investments in clothes as they are a necessity.”

Was La Réunion a hit from the start?

La Réunion was definitely well received from the beginning, and I think it was the recycling of fabric, African storytelling, and accessibility through payment plans. Of course, we're not perfect and have a lot to learn, but our goal is to challenge the way people think about garments as well. We are always open to repairs, we let customers make requests, and we encourage reselling and keeping the cycle going. If people walk away with nothing but inspiration about how they can consume more responsibly, then we've done something worthwhile.”

What would you consider your "big break"?

“When the Met reached out to us about being a part of their In America exhibition, it felt surreal. It wasn't a big break in the sense that we made a lot of money or got a ton of press, but it was a dream for me to be in the same room as some of my heroes in fashion and to be on the walls of such an iconic establishment.”

“This happened about a year after the dresses launched. There's nothing quite like getting selfies from women in their La Réunion dresses who were visiting NYC and seeing their dress is a part of fashion history in a small way. It was there for a year and the whole year I could feel it. An absolutely priceless and treasured memory I'll carry for a very long time.”

Any advice you'd give to fellow creatives about juggling a business and a child?

“I'm great at overcommitting and burning the candle at both ends. Having a baby will teach you refinement. You will choose the things that matter most to you, or feel most possible, and learn to say ‘no.’ It's harder for some than others, but this is what helped me with the transition into working mom. Though I'm far from perfect at it and I'm always catching up. People are very understanding and want to help you, so remember that too.”

Would love for you to tell us your take on juggling so-called "mom guilt."

“I don't feel like this is so much of a struggle for me at the moment, and I think it's because I've had a few different people in my life guide me on the uselessness of guilt. There's nothing productive about feeling guilty. It's totally natural, so of course you should let yourself feel it for a moment, but try to release it. Guilt doesn't lead to positive action or progress, it only sets you back. If your baby is fed and with someone that you trust, they're ok and you're still mothering them by making that happen.”

Any big happenings—professionally or personally—that you're excited about for the year ahead?

“I have a fine art practice as well, and I'm excited to begin a residency in Paris with Merci this fall. I will be making art for their frames wall, and we're talking about ways to bring in garments if it makes sense. They've always been lovely supporters of my work, so it feels special to get to make work with and for them.”

Shop the Story

Gingham Amara Dress

La Réunion

Herero Patchworked Dress

La Réunion

Patchworked Dress

La Réunion

Fante Patchworked Dress

La Réunion

Student Government (2022)

Sarah Nsikak

Quiet Dawn (2021)

Sarah Nsikak

It May As Well Be Spring (2021)

Sarah Nsikak

Stained Glass Window (2022)

Sarah Nsikak

The Everyday System ™

California Closets

The Everyday System ™

California Closets

The Everyday System ™

California Closets

The Everyday System ™

California Closets

Write a Comment

Share this story