Interview with Creative Director/Designer of Unyforme Design
Photography: Derrick Odafi
Interview: Derrick Odafi
Transcript: Siobhan Martin, Ria
Michael Dairo, also known as Money Valentino is a young designer that has dedicated his time and efforts to the craft of design well before his time in the fashion industry. From a very young age, Michael would discover software that allowed him to manipulate images and shapes and which would later become an instinctive part of his life. Through the curiosity of his youth, he began to develop his skills through pure enjoyment - starting his career in design as an early teen, designing Myspace pages for friends. Michael's interest in fashion would soon follow, which earned the moniker 'Money' as his sense of style gave his peers an idea of wealth. Since these humble beginnings, Michael has considerably developed his craft, being part of 2 prior brands with close friends before taking the leap on his own with his latest venture Unyforme, with a mission statement of merging heritage and futurism while creating new architecturally focused silhouettes.
We recently sat down with the designer, speaking to him about various topics such as his upbringing, the fashion industry, and his new upcoming lines at Unyforme Design.
Hi Michael, where are you originally from?
Hello. Through my family I’m from Nigeria, but North London raised me.
What is your earliest memory of doing something creative? Did you feel like people around you were supportive of it?
As far as I can remember it would probably date back to when I first discovered Photoshop. At the time I treated it as a personal hobby and did it more so for the creative expression than it being or leading to anything serious, although I did receive praise from my friends at the time when they saw what I was able to produce through the software and that was pretty cool to me.
At the age of 11 you actively began your design journey, tell us about that.
It was around this age when I discovered my passion for design through Photoshop. It was completely by chance too actually that it came about this way. I was in my living room one day with my brother. He was on the family PC and I was watching tv and I remember turning my head one time to the corner of the room where he was and he was using this software (which I now know to be Photoshop) to create these different designs. I didn’t have a clue as to how he was doing what he was doing but it definitely caught my attention. At some stage later, I managed to access his user file on the PC—I was somewhat of tech nerd, there wasn’t much I couldn’t do—and I found a folder that had all the designs he was making inside and I started opening each file one by one, revealing all of these different designs. My first reaction was ‘whoa’ because they were really good and I had no idea that he had this kind of talent. I don’t have a clue where he learned to do any of this stuff. After opening the files, I quickly began familiarising myself with the different tools in Photoshop and then I started to hide some of the layers on that design he made, trying to break down each part step-by-step. I still didn’t have a clue how he was doing all of this but one thing for sure was, I wanted to be able to do it too. After some time, I practiced quietly and used whatever tutorials I could find online to teach myself how to understand the basics and eventually get better.
By the time I was 13 I had gotten pretty good. At this point I was able to make things such as logos, flyers and I’d begun teaching myself how to make myspace layouts. After using one of my own custom designed layouts on page, my friends started to notice and were asking me to make one for them and I did. It was pretty cool to see my friends using layouts that I designed. Before I knew it, I started getting messages from other users on the site asking me to make layouts for them. It got overwhelming at one point because it was a lot and bear in mind, I was only 13, 14 at the time. I still had school to focus on (laughs). My biggest break came when a guy messaged me to help him design a layout for Tinie Tempah. I couldn’t believe it. To this day I still can’t because making myspace layouts was something I did for fun in my spare time.
As I got older, I connected more with design. Eventually it expanded from web & digital design to product design and eventually fashion design
Once you found this passion did your brother help you out with the software in any way?
Not really, no. I was very covert with it. It was something really personal for me at the time. As much as I was inspired by him, I really just kept it to myself. I did it for me. It was a way of expressing myself and to be honest, I don’t think he really even knew I was doing it.
Your alias is ‘Money Valentino’, where does that come from?
‘Money’ is a nickname one of my old school friends Anton gave me—there was this false idea that I was rich because I had a lot of nice things and one day, he called me “Money Mike” and the name pretty much stuck with me. I knew it was official once I changed my MSN name to that (laughs). Later on, I shortened it down to just ‘Money’. The ‘Valentino’ part literally just came out of nowhere. It had a nice ring to it and pretty much stuck ever since.
You describe your mind as Abstract, what abstract painting would you describe your mind as? Something colourful?
Red and Pink on Pink or Pink on Pink by Mark Rothko, however, I’m not entirely sure on the legitimacy of the latter. I tried to find some information about the work a while ago online but wasn’t able to find much.
Who is your favourite fine artist?
I don’t have one in particular, but I am fan of Mark Rothko, Chris Ofili, Yves Klein and Kerry James Marshall’s work.
The colour Pink is very important to you, why is that?
Apart from aesthetic purposes, it’s also about what I associate with the colour—the brain to be specific. The brain is one of two most important organs in our body. It’s where our genius comes from and without it, we wouldn’t be able to function like we do on a day-to-day basis.
You delve into various creative disciplines, what would you say is the ‘brain’ of all of your creative skills?
Research. Research allows you to gain understanding and to set the tone. It’s usually the first thing I do before I start any kind of project. The beginning stage of working on a project is the most crucial, before you start designing anything or formulating ideas for colour palettes, you have to focus on how to make your project work. At this point you’re going to come across many questions, and the research you do will give you the answers you need.
Did academia play a part in your influences till this point?
Somewhat yeah. Designing was always a way for me to express myself and I didn’t have any intention of doing anything with it professionally, but when it came to choosing the subjects I wanted to study in school, naturally I gravitated towards classes such as graphic design and art because they were classes that allowed me to be me.
What was your favourite subject in school?
Science was cool. But I’d probably say maths.
It made you think. I don’t really like things that are too easy, maths was one of the most challenging and things that get me engaged like that are what I tend to gravitate towards.
Maths also teaches structures and systems. In your opinion, what are the main structural differences between graphic design and fashion design?
Graphic design is more two-dimensional and fashion design is more three-dimensional. In graphic design your end product focuses on the visual side of things and with fashion design, it’s also about how the end product looks, but also how it feels. Graphic design can range from something as a simple as a logo to the UI (user interface) that we see on websites and app via mobile or desktop, but we can only see this from one point of view which is why I say it’s more two dimensional, whereas with fashion design, you see the product from a 360 degree angle, physically being able to interact with it.
What form of creative expression do you always find yourself reverting to?
I’ve always enjoyed drawing. Ever since I was a young kid I would always draw, even if I wasn’t very good at it. I’d draw anything from cars, to sneakers to anime characters. The idea of getting images that’s inside your head to a canvas is cool to me.
You’ve worked with some amazing people already, one being young designer Eastwood Danso, tell us about that time?
It was an interesting period. This was where I learned the beginning steps in fashion working alongside him. We were both young, driven and filled with creative ideas. It was never planned though. I remember he hit me up on Twitter one time years ago suggesting we work together and do something. I had no idea who he was but after a few convos I was convinced that we could do some good stuff together.
What was the biggest learning curve for you at that time?
Not being on the same page/having conflicting ideas. Working alongside someone, at times you will have different opinions on what you’d want to do, and you don’t really know how to deal with these situations until they actually come about. In the beginning, we did have a lot of conflicting opinions and ideas as he wanted to do something different to what I wanted, but eventually we were able to find middle ground.
What was your role during that time and how was the experience?
In the beginning everything was pretty much 50/50 but overtime, I acted more as a consultant besides him. Often times I would design stuff, but also suggest & give advice on ideas. I remember the bus journeys to and from locations where we’d be sat designing t-shirts, those were fun.
You later worked with another designer Aaron Kudi on your then joint brand Goeie Katoen, where did that name come from?
The brand name itself, he came up with as he actually formulated the brand before I started working with him. It translates into ‘Good Cotton’ in Afrikaans and if you speak Dutch, you’d also be able to understand it as there are some similarities between the two languages.
You are also a producer, how would you describe the Goeie Katoen brand as an instrument?
Correction – a beat-maker. Me making beats is just another way of me expressing my creativity. I haven’t learned the necessary education to be able to call myself a producer just yet. But, I would say it is kind of like a mixture. It’s not just the one instrument, but a mixture between a kick-drum and strings maybe. The strings, give it the melodic feel. It makes it feel light while also giving you that sense of elegance. When you close your eyes, you’re in a heavenly environment. With the kick-drum, it just lets you know it’s presence is really there. You feel it with the kick-drum and then you have the strings there to entice you, bringing you to a different world - I think that’s how I’d describe Goeie Katoen.
What was your working relationship like between the two of you?
Positive. We were a very balanced & advanced duo who also established a personal friendship outside of work which made things easier. If there was ever an issue, we would know how to address it because relationship we had built. I think most importantly we respected each other. It was like a ‘if I’m up, then you’re up too’ type of relationship. Not one man for himself.
What are your biggest takeaways from that time?
When you’re working with someone just as great as you or even better, the possibilities of what you can achieve are endless.
The art installations for the brand and editorials were amazing achievements that will last very long, what did you guys aim to do with each collection or presentation?
Thank you. I appreciate that.
We always led with strong visuals, which was pretty evident in the work we were presenting. That was our forte. I think for us it was just whatever the collection was, we wanted to present that in a strong visual manner and make it as such that it really entices you, because we realised early on that visuals were something we were really good at.
What caused you to move on from that project?
Once you realise that you’re doing something well and gaining from it, you start question how you can build from them. For me, I was now at a place (mentally) where I was ready to venture out and do something of my own. I was having ideas that were beyond the capacity that we were working at and I felt the need to create a new world to house these ideas.
Research and understanding seems to be important to you, what elements of the art world have you studied which form your perspective on design?
It was more so learning about the different designers and who/what appealed to me initially. One of my favourite designers of all time is Dieter Rams. His principles are really in line with my approach— or my approach is in line with his principles should I say. Not to say everything he does is what I’ll do, it’s just following his principles allows me to create a refined, linear way of thinking. One that gives me purpose and direction. It’s so easy to design something but it’s important to make it work. For example, the Google Glass were cool, but overall wasn’t a well-rounded product which eventually got pulled. This was an issue we had with Goeie Katoen. We had good ideas but they didn’t always work as well as we’d hoped. For example, in one of our collections we had this one jacket that represented the human skeleton: the top half was cropped and represented the top half of the skeleton and the bottom half was made of straps that wrapped around and connected at the front and this represented the rib cage within the skeleton. The idea was great, but it lacked when it came to functionality. From then I learned to hone my own design skills. My way of studying design was to practice and experiment as much as possible and did research where I could so when I came across Dieter Rams, it was pretty much like my ‘light-bulb’ moment.
What fashion houses have moulded your view on design?
In all honesty, none. I don’t tend to focus on any other fashion houses. It’s sometimes interesting to see who’s doing what but I don’t concentrate on anybody else mainly because I like to focus and develop my craft organically. It’s easy to look at what somebody else is doing and then start to mimic what they’re doing and I don’t want to fall into that pattern. But I give a lot of credit to Rick Owens for being consistent and constantly thinking ahead.
You’ve mentioned in the past that the interiors of houses influence you a lot, why is that?
It’s not so much the interior, but more so the exterior, and it’s not necessarily houses either. It’s building in general. When I look at buildings, I see shapes in my head and it was this way of thinking that led to development of one of the logos for Unyforme Design
On your Instagram it is very evident that galleries and exhibitions are a big part of your life, what is the best gallery/exhibition you have been to?
There was this exhibition that I went to at the Saatchi Gallery in 2019. It was a virtual reality experience that focused on the connection between the human world and a natural world. As you placed your VR headset on, you’re transported to this beautiful, alternate forest that had a giant Sequoia tree planted in the middle. What I liked about this exhibition was the surreal experience. You could see when you would breathe out, not like you would on a cold day, but, as if I you were breathing and had some sort of thermo vision. It felt like you were really in an alternate universe although physically you hadn’t gone anywhere. It felt as if you were in Pandora (from Avatar)
Speaking of galleries, a trip to the Tate Modern influenced the logo design of your brand, tell us about this moment.
This is interesting to me because it was very spontaneous and absolutely not planned whatsoever. As soon as I realised what was happening, I recorded the memory right away.
It was my birthday that day and I decided I’d like to go to Tate Modern. As I was going down to the gallery, I was taking in the scenery around me and there was a specific building that caught my attention from a distance and I remember that I stopped pretty much instantly. I didn’t know at the time what purpose it was going to serve me but I knew it would later on at some point so I took a photo of it. From looking at that picture, I started formulating shapes and the idea for my logo came about.
You have since been in partnerships till this point when developing a fashion brand, what are the main adjustments for you currently?
The realisation that it’s just you now. You’re solely responsible for all of the decisions that’s going to be made so if things go well, it’s on you, and if things go wrong it’s also on you, so you don’t have that opportunity to shift the blame towards anyone else because everything is of your own decision making. There’s no shoulder to lean on. That’s one of the things I learned when I decided to branch out and do this by myself. But I took a positive approach to it. I anticipated mistakes as that’s natural but coming from where I come from, I’d hope that I’ve learned from those mistakes so there’ll be more good than bad. If I do make mistakes, hopefully they’ll be new mistakes and even if it is an old mistake, it’ll be one that I’m able to rectify quickly.
You look to introduce architectural-focused silhouettes to the man’s wardrobe; how do you aim to do this? (focus on form, function, texture?)
Yeah so, I’m going to be doing a lot of experimenting. I’m anticipating a lot of failure in the beginning, but I’m also anticipating finding success through failure too. The possibilities are endless for me, but I don’t want to reveal too much just yet because I prefer to allow my work to come to fruition and then for people to see it. Shape and form are definitely going to be at the forefront of my brand. They are two components that come very naturally to me. I feel like it’s a space within menswear that has been tapped into slightly and I’d like to expand on. Before I started the brand, I did a lot of research in regards to what I wanted to do, how I was going to do it and why, so, by the time I had answered all those questions, I was ready to go.
Why is it important for you to merge heritage and futurism in your work?
For me heritage sort of serves as a history lesson as it allows me to delve deep into the past and uncover, resurface and reference things from a time before. The futuristic aspect is sort of like the child to history as it continues the message but with from a new perspective.
What other activities are occupying your time while you develop your brand?
Just a bunch of stuff that keeps me balanced and active. Every morning I’ll go through a run and do some strength training. There’s only so much I can do now due to Covid and these constant lockdowns (laughs). I miss being able to travel freely, that’s something I used to do but we can’t really go anywhere right now, can we? Every weekend I would play football too. Football is my life.
What have you not accomplished prior that you aim to do with Unyforme Design?
So, so much, but for now I’d say establishment and growth. I have high hopes for Unyforme Design and I want to take this project to the heights that I’ve set out. I’ve mapped and planned the out the next 4/5 years for Unyforme Design. Now, it’s about stabilising one sector at a time and then moving on to the next. What you’ve seen so far barely scratches the surface to what I have in store. We are now witnessing Unyforme Design and a micro level.
We are seeing a few black designers and artists reaching some amazing heights, what structural changes do you think need to be made to maintain such for generations?
I would like to see more support because there are many black designers and designers of colour out here, but I feel we don’t receive the same level of support as our fairer skinned counterparts. If you take for example what Sam (of A-Cold-Wall) did recently with the grant, it highlighted an on-going issue. He realised that there were cracks in the pavement that were not being filled, which is an issue because we’re just trying to do what everyone else is doing and it’s almost as if we’re being held back because of the colour of our skin. We’re no different to anyone else or what they’re doing. We’ve now taken it upon ourselves to go against the norm of how it’s been done before because it wasn’t really helping us. Not to say we’re ‘rebelling’, but the system in place doesn’t help us so now we have gone about finding ways around it for us to be included. I’m hoping what Sam did will begin a conversation on how we reach out to more of the black community and people of colour because there’s no reason we shouldn’t. It’s not about wanting to look better than the rest, it’s just about wanting to be recognised.When you look at the top fashion houses, how many have black designers at the forefront?
If you could prioritize one thing in the design world, what would that be?
Inclusivity. I want more inclusivity and to see more opportunities because I feel like now people are in tune with themselves from a young age and know what they want to do, whereas with my generation we didn’t always know what we wanted to do (straight away). A lot of young(er) people see success online from people who are of similar age and feel this pressure to achieve the same amount by the time they’re 20, 30 and so on, but there’s the other side of the spectrum that suggests that it may happen that way so it’s better to use your teenage years and your 20’s learning because by the time you make it to 40 or 50, doing whatever it is you want to do, you’ll be coasting and not working super hard to ‘make it’. I want it to be normal for people to understand that being in your 20’s doesn’t mean you have to make it there and then, that’s the part where you should be researching and developing, but also, finding the time to be yourself and enjoy. Go at a pace that’s best for you because life is about balance.
It’s about repositioning the pressure, it's not about making it but what are you doing to make it.
That’s only part of the issue. The real issue is the fact that society has made us believe that we need to “make it” in the first place. What that phrase means will vary from person to person but if we go with the notion that making it means to have a higher way of living, then arguably said, we don’t need to make it. But for the ones that believe that they do, where they tend to fall short is, knowing what they want but not knowing how they’re going to get what they want. They just want to make it because of the level of comfortability they perceive comes with it. Of course, we all strive to be in that level of comfort where we can travel to where we want and when, to not have to worry about bills and buy/build our dream homes, but we need to know how we're going to get to that point. You have to plan why you want to do something? How? Why? Because without them you’re lost.
It’s so much easier when you start at a young age, when your mind is at it’s freshest and possibly it’s best. My mother had a conversation with me a while ago and was applauding me about how hardworking I am and how I take it upon myself to get things done, even though she still to this day isn't, you know, the happiest, I didn't go to university, but she’s now starting to understand. I just felt like I had a different path in life. I've gotten to a point in life where—I don't know if this is even healthy but—my idea of relaxing is working but in a peaceful environment. If I'm in a nice, quiet environment, I’m relaxed. I have a lot of goals I want to achieve and I feel like it'll be easier for me to achieve them if I'm working now whilst I’m at my freshest. I have no reason not to. As much as I have an Xbox, TV and dozens of gadgets that I can indulge in, it's like, it's not going anywhere, but time is. Time is probably the best luxury there is because it’s something we’re all given. That unfortunate part is that some of us misuse it or don’t grasp it while we can.
Productivity never goes in vain. In whatever it is you are doing, always be productive, it might just come in some way you don’t expect
There we go! That's usually part of the success story of everyone that’s the best in their field. You look at Mohammed Ali, Steve Jobs, Cristiano Ronaldo, Dieter Rams, Zara Hadid. These people put endless amounts of work into their craft to be considered the best at what they do and today, when you see what they're doing, you fall nothing short of amazement by it. Some people think it’s just talent but they don't actually see behind the scenes of how much time, hard work and sacrifices they put into developing their craft to get to the point where they are at now.
Wearing Wordmark Sweatshirt by Unyforme Design
Wearing Wordmark Sweatshirt & Jeans by Unyforme Design
Unyforme Design Leather Bag (Unreleased)