A local fashion designer is inspired by the story of a black samurai

Quarantined during the pandemic, Gordon Holliday, a Charlotte-based fashion designer, was on the hunt for his next project. He spent his days in isolation watching television, but little did he know that his inspiration would come from an anime show on Netflix.

The title of the series, “Yasuke”, showed the story of the very first known black samurai warrior in Japan. Holliday said samurai lord Oda Nobunaga was criticized for taking Yasuke under his wing while an alien.

“I know what it’s like to be black in America, but what about being black in Japan? There was something that I started to resonate with, and that’s what my imagination struck,” the 28-year-old told QCity Metro.

Holliday, intrigued by the story of the samurai, began making kimonos that reflected Yasuke’s story and Japanese culture. Two years later, his work was featured in an exhibit at the Mint Museum Uptown called “Yasuke: The Hidden Ronin”.

The name comes from the legend that Yasuke went ronin (a term for a samurai who no longer serves) after Nobunaga’s death and disappeared.

The exhibit features 10 original kimonos, imagining what the African samurai warrior would have worn in modern times.

How a love for fashion was formed

Holliday said his early fashion aspirations began after he and his family moved from Baltimore, Maryland to Charlotte, North Carolina in 2007.

Throughout his time in elementary school, he had always worn uniforms, but attending the new Mallard Creek High School gave him the opportunity to test his fashion sense.

“[My style] It was a casual Ivy League mix but still with sportswear and Nike kicks. I wanted to mix the schoolboy look with the sporty style,” he said.

After high school, Holliday attended UNC Greensboro to study fine arts in photography.. But with his minor in retail studies, he often found himself in the fashion department, he said.

He found a side business selling screen-printed shirts, but as competition began to grow on campus, he knew he needed to upgrade his product.

“I wanted to do something a little different, a little edgy,” he said. “I decided I had to figure out how to cut and sew.”

After spending a summer learning from her grandmother, Holliday returned to school with newfound confidence.

He would go to a local thrift store and collect old clothes and clothes to put together clothes like jackets, jeans, shorts and hoodies.

“I would elevate it and add more pockets, use different materials, change the colors, or do something with a certain color palette,” he said.

He has also participated in a number of fashion shows and design competitions to showcase his work.

Holliday said, like other artists, that he did not want to bear his name but an artist’s name. He started using the name “ROOLE”, an acronym for Rule Over Our Lives Everyday.

He started tagging his work with his logo, the letter “R”

“I changed it to a mantra, an affirmation, that every time you wear this garment, you feel like you’re in charge of your day. You feel that confidence in yourself,” he said .

Become a full time artist

Holliday said after graduating from college in 2017, he worked odd jobs in Charlotte in hopes of pursuing his full-time artistic career with the right opportunity.

That opportunity almost came in late 2019 after he pursued designer work for Adidas shoes, but when the pandemic hit, things never materialized, he said.

Holliday said he decided to become a full-time artist, but needed a project to start his journey. After falling ill during the pandemic, he was stuck at home watching anime series and movies. Inspiration would soon come from Netflix.

“When I felt better, I went back to my studio and walked in,” he said.

Holliday’s latest kimono titled THE PROSPEROUS ONE. Photo credit: Daija Peeler/QCity Metro

After two years of perfecting her work, Holliday would have the opportunity to present her project in a fashion show at the Mint Museum. In March, the museum contacted Holliday to organize a fashion show with other emerging artists.

There he displayed the 10 kimonos. Impressed by his work, the museum offers him a personal exhibition.

Jennifer Sudul Edwards, chief curator of the Mint Museum, said the museum has always aimed to provide opportunities for local artists.

She said that since meeting Holliday, she has always admired his work as a fashion designer. She even bought a kimono from her website before they went on display.

When the Mint was looking for performers to perform in a fashion show, they knew they had to include Holliday.

“He has an eye for history and is very attentive to legacy. Yet he creates his own aesthetic, his own style and his own process,” she said.

Edwards said that after hearing Holliday’s ideas for a Yasuke exhibit, she wanted to give him the chance to showcase his work to a wider audience.

“We really believe in his work and his vision as an artist. We wanted to give him space to spread his wings,” she said.

Visitors observing Holliday’s “Fire” kimono which represents Japan’s rising sun and ceremonial celebrations. Photo courtesy of Gordon Holliday

On June 8, the exhibition was opened to the public. Over 300 tickets were sold but at least 500 visitors came through.

Holliday also included 16 local artists to share their work in the exhibit. These additional pieces include photos, digital art, and painted images. A DJ and a harpist were also on hand to play music on opening day.

Justin Hicks and Jordan Robinson were co-curators for the event.

Holliday said he was grateful for the support he witnessed on opening night. He received so many positive comments from the exhibition, he said.

“This story resonates with a lot of black people. Because we go through adversity, we go through daily struggles, we go through systematic oppression and we are constantly striving to get through it,” he said.

Before the exhibit closes on September 15, Holliday plans to host children at the museum to tell the story of Yasuke and the importance of creativity and entrepreneurship.

There will be a panel discussion on August 17 and a closing reception to be announced at a later date.

Kimonos can also be purchased on her website. Those exhibited are also available and will be received after the end of the exhibition.

The exhibition is open during museum opening hours. Tickets can be purchased in person or on the museum’s website.

About Shirley Dickson

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