Intimacy. Selasi Collection Two.

Ronan Mckenzie’s exploratory label makes a tender physical debut to unveil its sophomore collection.

By Dominic Cadogan

Ronan Mckenzie’s exploratory label makes a tender physical debut to unveil its sophomore collection.

Ronan Mckenzie has been doing a lot of soul-searching over the past two and a half years. For the photographer, 2020’s period of isolation saw her expand her raison d’être, birthing Selasi – a phrase that means ‘God hears me’ in the Ghanaian language Ewe – a project allowing her to explore garments.

In a short space of time, Selasi, which began life as scraps of fabric cut out on Mckenzie’s kitchen table, has expanded into a bona fide brand with a debut collection stocked at SSENSE and Browns with an accompanying campaign lensed by Nadine Ijewere. Now, a year later, Mckenzie is taking another step forward with a show – to put it simply, but a performance would be a closer fit.

Calling on her community – models Alva Claire and Bibi Abdulkadir, musician Obongjayar, Acne Studios’ chief marketing officer Isabella Burley, as well as Mckenzie’s family, friends, and ex-boyfriend – last Friday, the photographer unveiled Collection Two within the walls of the St John church in Hackney. The carefully curated experience included a scent to amuse the nose, a solemn soundtrack created in collaboration with Melo-Zed, and a shapely chair that formed the centrepiece of a performance involving the photographer in an intimately tender embrace with another.

Building on motifs we saw within her debut collection, rippled keloid-inspired knits, sculptural sleeves, and slinky, figure-hugging silhouettes, the newest outing saw Selasi evolve once again. Vegan leather was upgraded to the real thing – ‘super soft, it feels like skin,’ she says – and cut into slouchy bombers and trench coats. There was colour too, from bold red to burgundy, alongside the signature sensual skin-like beiges and browns.

‘My personal life has changed so much since the beginning of the year and conversations around intimacy, touch and being held have become the focus on a lot of my practice at this point,’ Mckenzie tells System on the driving force behind her sophomore offering. ‘This collection is a vast representation of the different areas of myself that have all been unboxed this year.’

Here, System speaks to Mckenzie about the creative process behind Collection Two and the continuing evolution of Selasi.

Selasi Collection Two

Photography by Paul Perelka

The last time we spoke was after the release of Collection One, which was presented at your HOME space. What was the reception like from people after seeing the garments in real life for the first time?

Ronan Mckenzie: We were still just coming out of lockdown when I presented the first collection and it was very small and low key – I was testing the waters and creating this world for Selasi that is so much more than just garments. It’s about my story, my skin, and having other people be able to be part of it was really special. I didn’t expect it to grow in the way it has, but it has taken me on a journey where I get to play and be bold with what I’m saying. Once it all had happened, I really began to understand that it was a medium that I feel really connected to and one that I feel like I can explore, express and connect to people in a completely different way than my other practices so I really wanted to continue that and it felt natural to do so.

What did you want to explore with this collection that you weren’t able to with your debut?

Ronan Mckenzie: The first collection was a lot about exploring different shapes and what colours and tones went well with my skin. For the second collection, I wanted to create a more succinct body of work and build on the foundation of what I created with the first. I was a lot more intentional with the fabrication, textures and methods that I’m using – there’s print and different materials than I used in the first collection, which really opened up a whole new world of where I can go and what I can do with it. There’s not much conceptualizing or sitting down and planning what it’s going to be, the inspiration is already inside. With this collection, I had the tools and capacity to go whole hog and do the most.

‘There’s not much conceptualizing or sitting down and planning what it’s going to be, the inspiration is already inside. With this collection, I had the tools and capacity to go whole hog and do the most.’

Ronan Mckenzie

Can you tell me about some of the specific looks and motifs that appear?

Ronan Mckenzie: There’s a big development of the muscle series, which is the thermal knitwear piece that we created in the first collection. It’s the first thing I started drawing and the idea of being close to the body and being held by garments is the concept that runs through it. We’re also bringing colours and prints, which is totally new, but it felt like a natural place for us to continue. Also within the collection, there are a couple of special looks that are actually just draped, they’re not even proper garments, but that’s allowing me to continue my intuitive process with Selasi and understand what works as a garment or draping and how those combinations sit together.

Collaboration was an integral part of your debut collection, how has that manifested in this one?

Ronan Mckenzie: The score for the show is made by Melo-Zed and it’s very powerful, sensual and intimate. It came out of sharing our experiences and both of us opening up to intimate experiences we’ve had, how they felt, what we need, and what feels good. I also worked on a scent called Responsibility of Intimacy with Ezra-Lloyd Jackson, so the scent will be people’s first impression when they come into the space. There’s also a chair created with a good friend of mine, Jobe Burns, called ‘Body Language 001’ and it’s a two-person chair so that one person is holding another while sitting on it together. The focus is always on the body and celebrating the nuances between what feels good and what feels forced, where we should push and where we need release – all of those ideas inform these collaborative aspects that build the world of Selasi.

Selasi Collection Two

Photography by Paul Perelka

How does the vehicle of a show allow you to reach the audience in a way that you weren’t previously able to?

Ronan Mckenzie: I think so much about space, how people fit into them and how other people’s views and vision of them is a big part of the way I see the world. The show’s audience is 75% friends, family, artists and people who are part of our world and the collection is about intimacy and touch, demanding and feeling comfortable to want. I don’t know if I know what I want people to feel, but I hope that they join us in going with it to hear the voices in the track, smell the scent, and feel like they’ve been brought into our world. Whatever they think about that world is up to them.

‘The focus is always on the body and celebrating the nuances between what feels good and what feels forced, where we should push and where we need release – all of those ideas inform these collaborative aspects that build the world of Selasi.’

Ronan Mckenzie

What have you learned about yourself as a creative through working on Selasi? How does it differ from your approach to image-making?

Ronan Mckenzie: It’s given me space to refine the playfulness in my practice and through that freedom, I’m able to say things that I don’t feel like I’m able to communicate through a photograph. I’m able to put something tight around someone’s neck or create gaps in garments where someone’s hand could touch – using these tools in such a personal way to talk about where I want to be touched or how I want to present. Working on Selasi has enabled me to see myself in different ways and I think it’s because it grew by itself without much planning – I never wanted to have a brand, but it happened by itself and it felt like a natural way for me to go. I’ve been taken on a journey of understanding and trusting what feels right, and in trusting my gut and intuition, that has made me feel much stronger and more powerful.

You previously said that Selasi was your space to be ‘selfish’, is that still the case?

Ronan Mckenzie: I’ve not made the collection based on what I think we’re going to sell, it’s based on what I want to do. It’s all about me, I want this or I want that, this is exactly what I want to wear. That’s what I want people to feel when they’re wearing the pieces. I want everyone to know that I deserve to be held in the way that I want to be held and I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced that, but I know what I want that to feel like so I’m proud to be able to make a big song and dance of the fact that I want that. We get taught to compromise on what we want, especially in terms of intimacy, and I want everyone who is a part of the show to also feel the confidence to say ‘this is what I want.’ This is the beginning of my chapter where I don’t compromise over any of my needs anymore and that’s really scary but exciting. Just say ‘fuck it’ and have fun with it.

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