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‘New York is an empathy accelerator.’

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Photo>>>Joel Bessa

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Feature by Mikaela Aitken

For siblings Sonia and Camille Tanoh, there’s no better place to seed their sustainable fashion label than New York, and no greater incubator than travel to galvanize their big dreams for the industry’s future.

From their adopted home base in New York, the pair travel frequently — from their familial roots in the Ivory Coast, to craftsmen in Portugal, family in France and collaborators in the US. It’s this global approach and empathy for the world around them that breathes a palpable joie de vivre into The Proper Label’s shoes and threads. From recycled and sustainably sourced materials, to workers’ rights, the Paris-born talents uphold the highest ethical and sustainable standards and recognize the value in building a brand that practices what it preaches. While on a trip to their factory in Portugal, Exceptional ALIEN caught up with Camille and Sonia to chat about coining the term ‘soul fashion,’ becoming keen observers through travel, and their top tips for great shopping and cheery eats in New York.

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On early inspiration

CT: Now that I have traveled a lot, I can see that growing up in Paris was a beautiful experience. We were going to the Louvre from about seven years of age. It was a blessing. Paris was the foundation for me to develop my taste in art, culture and music. 


ST: From a very young age, we were being put in front of Picasso, for example. We didn't realize at the time, but when we started traveling, we appreciated how much context we had learnt about different countries and cultures. Growing up in Paris was definitely a good grounding in knowing more about the world.

On finding your identity in Paris

CT: At the same time, it’s important to admit that there are different versions of Paris. I believe in equal opportunity, however it’s difficult to have equality in opportunity as well. We came from the Ivory Coast, which was colonized by France and became independent in 1958. The Black experience in the 21st century in Paris is very unique. You end up being sophisticated, but at the same time, tormented. The analogy I often use is that Paris feels a little bit like Disneyland. If you don't live in Paris, you go there during the day, you see the Eiffel Tower, those beautiful monuments, the Haussmannian buildings, and then you leave at night. For us in Paris, we’d be going to school during the day, then at night we’d come home to our African culture. You have this contrast of culture, where you're trying to find your place in the middle. It added another layer of complexity to who we are.

Sibling duo Camille and Sonia Tanoh spent their childhoods immersed in the cultural refinement and elegance of Paris, before deciding to launch their fashion brand The Proper Label in New York. What started out as a shoe company has evolved alongside the pair’s respective identities and ideas, becoming a way to serve the community, rather than just a product to sell. All images courtesy of Camille and Sonia Tanoh.

On the brand evolution of The Proper Label

CT: Before The Proper Label, it was The Proper Sneaker. Before The Proper Sneaker, it was the Monday Morning Man Shoe. Before the Monday Morning Man Shoe, it was the Saturday Afternoon Man Shoe. I think it’s linked to the evolution of consciousness. At the beginning I felt like my identity was kidnapped — I was aware of it but I couldn’t articulate it. So the first era of designing these shoes came from a place of revenge. Almost like you’re trying to get into a nightclub but you can’t get in, so you open a nightclub right across the street. Slowly, the design evolved, we talked to people in the neighborhood to see what they wanted to have, and The Proper Label came into fruition. It became more about the mission of trying to fix things — it was a service rather than a product.

‘There is soul music, there is soul food, but there is no soul for fashion.’

On the downfall of circular fashion

CT: Brands produce clothes in Bangladesh, let’s say. They then arrive in a showroom, and are marketed and sold. The brand then offers a take-back system for people to return their worn clothes. They’re put on a boat and they arrive in Africa. But the clothes were not designed to last. By the time they arrive in Africa, they go straight to landfill. No one wears them. What brands are calling circularity is actually still linear, just with a different end point. Being African, going to the Ivory Coast and seeing our Grandma and our family live next to the landfills, we see what happens. The water behind their house is polluted because of the dyes or the burning of the clothes. It didn’t necessarily traumatize us, but that image of supposed ‘circularity’ is attached.

On how you run things at The Proper Label

ST: We make sure that everything we do doesn’t match that image. We manage the whole process, from developing the collection, to receiving the material, to sending the goods. Even developing our samples, the factory will use what is closest to what we’re after — we don’t wait for new material to come in. We manufacture in Portugal because the government is really pushing companies to be sustainable. It’s a small country with a close connection to its agriculture — all you have to do is go outside and you’ll see the farmer selling his fruit and vegetables. They want to avoid pollution and they’re very transparent. We really appreciate that. 


CT: We do the job. We follow the whole supply chain. And we do assessments on the CO2 we emit. It’s the mentality of an upward spiral, to constantly improve.

Sustainability in fashion hits very close to home for Camille and Sonia, who have witnessed the impact of textile waste on trips back to the Ivory Coast. Consequently, their brand champions the highest ethical and sustainable standards, including overseeing every step of the production process, and choosing to work with environmentally friendly and transparent collaborators. Bottom row left and right by Joel Bessa; all other images courtesy of Camille and Sonia Tanoh.

On the concept of soul fashion

CT: There is soul music, there is soul food, but there is no soul for fashion: when people design things it’s rarely for others, or for the planet, and most of the time it’s greenwashing. We’re from a tribe, by living in Ivory Coast, that is very spiritual. Our mom told us that we are spiritual beings having a human experience, so it really made sense to focus on sustainability. I think pre-pandemic and pre-Black Lives Matter, these topics didn’t resonate as much as now. We fast-forwarded and shifted dimensions during this pandemic: everyone spent more time on themselves and realized what truly mattered. We talk about linear versus circular. Linear means you take, you make, you use, then you throw away. Circular means you take, you make, you use, then you reuse. But when you talk about consciousness, you actually don't want it to circulate in order to evolve, you want it to spiral up. The expression ‘going in circles’ means there is no door. Spiral means you can open the loop.

‘Travel gives you a level of humility to question the things that you do.’

On how travel inspires you

ST: For me, travel is a way to open different aspects of the world. When you travel, you may not speak the language, yet you still try to make yourself understood — either through food, fashion, or music. Traveling helped me open my mind to different aspects of understanding people and being sensitive to how they live. This helped a lot in the development of The Proper Label, because now when we do something we question how we can communicate and resonate with everyone.


CT: Traveling turned me into a great observer. You see how people move and talk; you see their perspective on life. You also learn the word ‘waste’ does not make sense. New doesn’t truly exist: the concept of new has been seeded in our mind. When you’re traveling, or at least when you’re in the air, you see the Earth as a living organism. You understand how the whole machine works, and that you’re part of it. You start to understand that the resources you use, you take them — they’re not infinite. So I think travel gives you a level of humility to question the things that you do.

On how New York inspires you

ST: New York is the representation of opportunity. I don't know how to explain it, but when you’re in New York, you feel like you can do anything. When you wake up in the morning, you have so much ambition, because you feel like everything is touchable. Everyone from the porter to the kitchen hand has ambition and hope. It’s contagious, and you really feel like you’re on top of the world — a superhuman who can do anything.

Camille and Sonia were drawn to the drive and ambition of the city. Inspired by the diversity of people, energies and cultures that they find around every corner, they credit NYC for their professional and personal growth, calling the city an ‘empathy accelerator.’ Some of the lively venues they frequent are Egyptian eatery Zooba (pictured second and third rows, courtesy of Zooba), and African restaurant New Ivoire (pictured fourth row left). All other images courtesy of Camille and Sonia Tanoh.

On your relationship with the city

CT: Every street and even every block is made from a different vibe, or a different energy. You go from Koreatown to Chinatown, you go to the Lower East Side, which has Hispanic culture, then you go down to Harlem, which has African culture. New York, for me, is a spiritual learning center. You just learn about yourself 10 times faster than any other place in the world.

On what surprises you about the city

CT: Every day is an adventure — we leave the office and we don't know what's going to happen. We go through casting, we find this amazing girl with curly hair whose dad is from the Philippines and whose mother is Spanish. And then you see this guy who is Jamaican, but grew up in Shanghai and now he lives in New York because his dad is a diplomat. There are so many stories that open your mind. I think New York is an empathy accelerator.

‘There is this company called Revel and you can hire a little Vespa to ride around New York for like $10 per day. It's so nice.’

On showing friends around for a day

CT: Ah, I'm not the best guy for the whole avocado toast or street style pictures. But what I would do is definitely show off the contrast. So, there is this company called Revel and you can hire a little Vespa to ride around New York for like $10 per day. It's so nice. We would definitely go to MoMA, because every day you have to get your culture shot. Then, you can ride to Harlem in 10 minutes and go to an amazing African restaurant. New Ivoire is really nice, it’s Ivorian food for roughly around $15 to $20. I would then contrast it again by taking a ride over the bridge to Brooklyn and going to Williamsburg, and to the nice vintage stores.

On eating in New York for under $20

CT: There’s an amazing place that does happy hour in the Lower East Side called Zest Sushi. It's super nice and during happy hour the sushi costs between $3 and $8, so you actually have a feast for like $15. Then you have Pepe Rosso which is amazing Italian. It’s made on the spot in front of you; the guys are so nice. Zooba is an Egyptian restaurant in SoHo with very nice hummus and good samosas. It’s super, super nice. 


ST: I also love getting Sweetgreen. It’s a chain but the story behind it is about sustainability and using local farmers, and it’s just great food for lunch.

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For cheap(er) eats around the city, Camille recommends hole-in-the-wall joint Pepe Rosso (pictured first row center and right, courtesy of Pepe Rosso) or Zest Sushi for happy hour (pictured third row right, courtesy of Zest Sushi). For something more upscale, Camille suggests heading to the charming and ever-classy Sant Ambroeus (pictured second row, courtesy of Sant Ambroeus). All other images courtesy of Camille and Sonia Tanoh.

On a splurge meal

ST: Añejo in Tribeca is a very nice spot. They have tacos with seafood and it’s really nice. 

  

CT: I definitely love going to Sant Ambroeus. It’s a bit fancy-fancy, but we’ve eaten some extremely good Italian there. And there is a place that makes very nice couscous called Cafe Mogador in the East Village.

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On your choice of shops and galleries

CT: Definitely Dover Street Market, because their people are just the best when it comes to blending architecture and clothes. The Gagosian gallery in Uptown is amazing. I love the David Zwirner gallery. Basically, on 22nd and 23rd streets you have two strips of galleries with a great selection of art.

‘New York is the representation of opportunity. When you’re in New York, you feel like you can do anything.’

On window or an aisle seat

ST: Window. Even if it’s raining on the ground, when you go up in the sky, there’s always beautiful sunshine. 


CT: Definitely the window because it allows you to dream.

On a song that best represents New York for you

ST: Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ ‘Empire State of Mind.’ Everytime I listen to that song, it pushes me to want to do more. Jay-Z and Alicia Keys are sharing their experience because they’re New Yorkers. For us who are foreigners, it makes us dream. 


CT: Mine would then be versus that, so I’d choose LCD Soundsystem, ‘New York, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down.’ It’s such an intense city that never sleeps, and I’m talking in Uber Eats language, it actually never sleeps. Sometimes you get really tired. Also, another one that’s really important is Pop Smoke, ‘Dior.’ A drill music movement subgenre came from Brooklyn and Pop Smoke was considered a king, because he was bringing in new energy. And you can also check The Proper playlists on Spotify, we do a playlist every month.

On New York in one word

ST: Inspiration. 


Everywhere you go in New York is different and it just inspires you.


CT: Empathy.


Empathy is a nice word for New York, because there are more than 800 languages. How crazy is that? And there is so much slang, like ‘suspect’ or ‘janky.’ New York has its own slang.

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