Somali American designers take on refugee stereotypes in Minneapolis fashion pop-up

Fashion designers Mohamed Malim, 25, and Mohamed Hersi, 30, share similar backgrounds as former refugees.

Fashion designers Mohamed Malim, 25, and Mohamed Hersi, 30, share similar backgrounds as former refugees. It’s an experience they are embracing and elevating as they launch a new fashion collaboration aimed at countering backlash against refugees and highlighting the power and beauty the arts can have in bringing communities together. 

The two designers held their first pop-up event between their brands Epimonia and Original Royal Refugee Saturday at Malim’s design studio in Minneapolis.

The capsule collection includes hoodies, long-sleeve shirts and jackets that integrate fabric from discarded life jackets to call attention to the refugee crisis and promote the use of recycled materials. Hersi also painted several life jackets that will be auctioned off during the event, with proceeds donated to several Minnesota nonprofits dedicated to helping refugees. 

“We wanted to just bring something forth that’s bigger than clothes [and] something that’s more purposeful,” Hersi said. “Our brands have somewhat the same DNA. We’re both refugees, both Somali, we both have different journeys as refugee immigrants, but you know [we have] the same bones.”

A pile of donated life jackets to be used in making fashion pieces by designer Mohamed Malim sit inside of the Epimonia studio in Minneapolis on Thursday.

Evan Frost | MPR News

When Malim founded Epimonia in 2018, he was a college student at the University at St. Thomas.

He started by making bracelets from recycled life jackets worn by refugees, and since then, has shown his work during New York Fashion Week and opened his own fashion studio in Minneapolis. He’s also a mentor to aspiring fashion designers who are trying to get their foot in the door. 

Since 2012, Hersi has been a painter and clothing designer. His brand is called Original Royal Refugee and is also based in Minneapolis. He notably created some red carpet suits for Academy Award nominated Somali American actor Barkhad Abdi who made his debut in the 2013 film “Captain Phillips” as Somali pirate leader Abduwali Muse. Hersi says his art reflects his Somali identity and his life growing up in New Delhi, India. 

Malim and Hersi met several years ago when both men participated in a project aimed at countering xenophobic narratives against refugees following Trump’s election. When that project concluded, the two kept tabs on each other’s work, but they only recently reconnected and developed their fashion pop-up. 

An orange wristband sits on a table.

An Epimonia bracelet made of a recycled life jackets worn by refugees who crossed the Mediteranean Sea inside of the Epimonia Studio in Minneapolis on Thursday.

Evan Frost | MPR News

Like their previous project, they view this collaboration as a counterpoint to negative and hateful rhetoric surrounding refugees who are displaced and forced to flee their homeland, said Malim. They also see their designs as a celebration of humanity and they hope their work inspires other young designers who are wondering if there is a place for them in the fashion industry. 

“The talent is out there, but there has to be that one person who can just stand up, say ‘I want to serve my community,’” said Malim. “I want to inspire the young generation and that’s truly the goal — to inspire the young refugee generation who are looking to tap into the fashion industry, whether it’s a model, or there’s a fashion designer, or there’s a creative or an artist, whatever the case be.” 

Not wanting their communities to place limitations on themselves based on lack of representation, Hersi feels it’s important to collaborate on a project that instills hope in future generations about pursuing their dreams. 

“There’s so many barriers, just to get to that last, final place,” he said. “I hope, whatever I do, it just takes those barriers down, so whoever’s behind me can get through the door easily.”

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https://www.mprnews.org/story/2021/10/30/somali-american-designers-take-on-refugee-stereotypes-in-minneapolis-fashion-popup