Student Profile: Kikanza Nuri-Robins

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How and when did you start sewing?    
My godmother tells me that I starting draping my dolls when I was very young.  At 13, I bargained for my first sewing machine. (You don’t have to give me anything else, All I want is a sewing machine.)  It was an old Kenmore that had two stitches — forward and backward.  My mother didn’t sew, but she set standards for the quality of my work.  She said that it had to look as good on the inside as it did on the outside, and if I spent my clothing allowance on fabric, whatever I made I was going to have to wear.  That meant I learned to finish seams, set in zippers, and  handwork button holes.  Right from the beginning I learned Quality and Excellence were presented to me as standards.

What’s your favorite sewing tool/piece of equipment?
I love my Bernina automatic button hole maker.  After years of bound button holes, and imperfect machine button holes, I love that I can now make button holes that even my mother would approve of.

How much time to you have to sew?
I have as much time as I take to sew, because I schedule it, just as I do everything else that is important to me.  I would love to sew something every day, but I don’t have that kind of life.  I do go into my studio almost every day.  Sewing calms me down.  It is while working of a project that I also work out solutions for other aspects of my life.  When I am too tired or too busy to work on a project, I will often just sit in the studio, browsing through patterns, or playing with my stash.  I probably average one garment a month.

Where do you go for fabrics?
I look for fabric everywhere I go. When I am at home, in Los Angeles, I go to F&S on Pico Boulevard.  I like the size of the shop and love their selections of silks and woolens.  I almost always find what I need there. The Fabric Store on N. La Brea is new to LA, and I like it because of its selection of natural fibers and because all of the fabric is arranged by color.  If you want to make something red, you only have to look in one place.  In Los Angeles we are very lucky because we have MANY choices.  Mood and International Silks and Woolens are also well-represented in my stash.

What’s your favorite fabric to sew on?
Light weight wool.  I love summer-weight suiting, and blouse weight wools.  I can wear them year-round, they last forever and they are wonderful to work with.

Who is your favorite designer?
I’m not sure if I have a favorite.  It depends if you are asking whose work I appreciate most, or about my personal style.  I don’t think I have ever made a garment from a pattern without altering the style in some way, so I guess my favorite designer is me.   I like almost everything from Eileen Fisher’s studio, and I love Koos’ sense of color.

What is your biggest inspiration?
The fabric inspires me.  I walk through the store waiting for something to whisper, “Take me home!”  I’ll buy a piece of beautiful fabric not knowing what it will become, and keep it until its destiny is obvious.

What is your favorite fashion book?
I don’t have one.  I don ’t collect fashion books.  I have basic books on how to sew.  Susan Khalje’s Bridal Couture is my favorite sewing book because she covers the basics and more in a very accessible way.

From a technical point of view, when you sew, what’s easiest?  What’s hardest?
The easiest part is imagining… the hardest is turning that vision into something I can proudly wear.  Small angled pieces like gussets make my eyes cross.

What is the favorite thing you’ve ever made?
I belong to an organization that used to have an annual formal dinner-dance.  For 15 years, I got to imagine and create a formal outfit, suitable for dancing.  Those were some of the best times I’ve had sewing — incredibly beautiful fabrics, challenging designs and the pressure of having all decisions made and executed on time for the New Year’s Eve Gala.

What’s your next sewing project?
A wool safari-style jacket for my brother, who is an urban farmer (Truly Living Well, Atlanta GA).   He speaks and teaches a lot and I want him to wear something nicer than a flannel shirt or a cotton safari jacket.

Whose personal style/wardrobe/image do you admire?
Mine.  I like natural fibers, simple lines, fabulous fabrics and interesting texture and patterns.  My clothes are easy to wear by many body types.  They are comfortable and versatile.  I travel a lot so versatility is important; any one piece can be worn in combination with several others.  Whether I buy or make something, I have to be able to wear it with at least one garment that is already in my closet.  I speak in front of audiences, so it is important that my clothes do not distract from my words. At the same time it is my responsibility to give the people something pleasant to look at.  I keep to a simple color story, but often use bright,  surprising, colorful linings.

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We like to feature a garment you’ve sewn – can you tell us about it? 
Aubergine is a new color for me.  Most of the things in my closet are black, browns and reds.  I can wear colors that are less flattering, if I have one of my best colors around my face.  I began to experiment with some new colors from a stash I inherited from a dear friend.  I loved the aubergine trim I used to tone down a fuchsia and tangerine plaid, so I bought more.  However, what worked for trim didn’t work for a whole garment. So the tunic and slacks I made had to wait for an enhancement.  I found it when I visited a strip mall at a store that sold sari fabric, in a city I was working in.  I used the beautiful gold and aubergine to make cuffs for the tunic and a narrow scarf to wear with it.  The fabric was sold in pieces and I still had most of the four yards I purchased, so I made a calf length vest to wear with the tunic when the scarf wasn’t enough.  The vest transformed a too-simple garment into a spectacular, special-occasion outfit. I used the remaining sari fabric to line a suit jacket. I’ve gotten lots of wear out of all the pieces and many compliments as well.

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