Lamine Badian Kouyaté has been disrupting the fashion system since 1992, when he presented his first Xuly.Bët collection in the rain outside of Jean Paul Gaultier’s tent. The following season, he moved to the Tuileries, where he showed his clothes on dancing models carrying radios, who came and left in a tourist bus. More revolutionary than the guerrilla-style presentation were the clothes, salvaged from thrift stores and bricolaged together. One-off pieces of street couture, if you will.
Cy Bianco, Forest Whitaker’s character in Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter, was modeled on Kouyaté. “I love his careless, instinctual hand,” Karl Lagerfeld told Vogue in 1993.
Born in Mali, Kouyaté moved to France to study architecture and became immersed in the 1980s club scene. An autodidact, his first pieces were made for night-owl friends. “I just took a machine and started sewing,” the designer told André Leon Talley. He named his line, established in 1989, Xuly.Bët, after a Wolof/Senegalese expression meaning “keep your eyes open.” And the fashion world did. He picked up France’s ANDAM Prize, and The New York Timesnamed him designer of the year in 1994. In 1997, Kouyaté moved his show to New York City and opened a boutique on Orchard Street, then completely ungentrified, where he hosted graffiti contests, according to fashion historian Richard Martin.
In September 2015 Kouyaté came back to the Big Apple (and plans to move here soon, he told Vogue.com), where he staged an out-of-doors pop-up show; today he returned to the runway with a colorful collection shown on models of African descent. He dedicated it to the late fashion critic Amy Spindler, one of the first people to support him.
The clothes he showed were slicker than his early work (no hanging threads or exposed seams), but Kouyaté’s signatures—stretch, color, shine, and print—were on full display. Second-skin bodysuits provided the base, over which toppers, many lined with faux fur, were layered. Platform “kinky boots,” seen elsewhere this season, were in the mix and emphasized the clubby feeling of these pieces, some of which harked back to times and venues long gone by.
It could have been a walk down memory lane, but the active sports pieces gave the collection a fresh vibe. Colorful and clever, they fulfill a criteria that counts as much as ever in the new world of fashion—they are unique. What renowned retailer Joseph Ettedgui said in Vogue in a 1993 profile on Kouyaté stands today: “What people want is something original, unlike anything else.” And that’s what Kouyaté, at his best, delivers.