Local fashion designer finds inspiration from the story of Black samurai


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While quarantined during the pandemic, Gordon Holliday, a Charlotte-based fashion designer, was in search of his next project. He spent his days in isolation watching TV, but little did he know his inspiration would come from an anime show on Netflix.

The series title, “Yasuke” showed the story of the first-ever known Black samurai warrior in Japan. Holliday said the samurai’s lord, Oda Nobunaga, was criticized for taking Yasuke under his wing despite being a foreigner.

“I know what it’s like to be Black in America, but what about being Black in Japan? There was something that I started resonating with, and that’s what my imagination hit,” the 28-year-old told QCity Metro.

Holliday, intrigued by the samurai’s story, began making kimonos that reflect Yasuke’s story and Japanese culture. Two years later, his work is being displayed as an exhibition at the Mint Museum Uptown titled, “Yasuke: The Hidden Ronin”.

The name comes from the legend that Yasuke went ronin (a term for a samurai who no longer serves) after the death of Nobunaga and disappeared.

The exhibition features 10 original kimonos, envisioning what the African samurai warrior would have worn in modern day.

How a love for fashion was formed

Holliday said his early aspirations in fashion started after he and his family moved from Baltimore, Maryland to Charlotte, NC in 2007.

Throughout his time in grade school, he had always worn uniforms but attending the newly opened Mallard Creek High School gave him the chance to test out his fashion sense.

“[My style] It was a blend of casual Ivy League but still with sports wear and Nike kicks. I wanted to mix the school boy look with the jock style,” he said.

After high school, Holliday attended UNC Greensboro to study fine arts in photography. But with his minor in retail studies, he would often find his way into the fashion department, he said.

He found a side hustle selling screen-print shirts but as competition began to grow on campus, he knew he needed to upgrade his product.

“I wanted to do something that was a little different, a little edgy,” he said. “I decided that I needed to figure out how to cut and sew.”

After spending a summer learning from his grandmother, Holliday returned to school with a new confidence.

He would go to local thrift store and get old clothing and garments to piece together pieces of clothing like jackets, jeans, shorts, and hoodies.

“I would elevate it and add more pockets, use different materials, switch the colors up or do somethings by a certain color palette,” he said.

He also entered a number of fashion shows and design competitions to showcase his work.

Holliday said, like other artists, he didn’t want to go by his name but an artist name. It began using the name “ROOLE”, an acronym for Rule Over Our Lives Everyday.

It started tagging his work with his logo, the letter “R”.

“I changed it into a mantra, an affirmation, that whenever you wear that clothing, you feel like you’re taking charge of your day. You feel that confidence in yourself,” he said.

Becoming a full-time artist

Holliday said after graduating college in 2017, he worked odd jobs in Charlotte in hopes of continuing his art career full-time with the right opportunity.

That opportunity almost came in late 2019 after pursuing a job as a designer for Adidas footwear but when the pandemic came, things never materialized, he said.

Holliday said he decided to become a full-time artist but needed a project to kickstart his journey. After getting sick during the pandemic, he was stuck at home watching anime shows and movies. Inspiration would soon come from Netflix.

“When I was feeling better, I got back to my studio and went in,” he said.

Holliday’s last kimono titled, THE PROSPEROUS ONE. Photo credit: Daija Peeler/QCity Metro

After two years of perfecting his work, Holliday would get the opportunity to showcase his project in a fashion show at the Mint Museum. In March, the museum reached out to Holliday about doing a fashion show with other emerging artists.

There, he displayed all 10 kimonos. Impressed by his work, the museum offered him a solo exhibition.

Jennifer Sudul Edwards, chief curator at the Mint Museum, said the museum has always had the goal of providing opportunities for local artists.

She said since meeting Holliday she has always admired his work as a fashion designer. She even purchased a kimono off of his website before they were on display.

When the Mint was looking for artists to participate in a fashion show, she knew that she had to include Holliday.

“He has an eye for history and is very thoughtful about legacy. Yet he is very much creating his own aesthetic, style and his own process,” she said.

Edwards said after hearing Holliday’s ideas for an exhibition on Yasuke she wanted to give him the chance to showcase his work to a larger audience.

“We really believe in his work and his vision as an artist. We wanted to give him a space to stretch his wings,” she said.

Visitors observing Holliday’s “Fire” Kimono which represents Japan’s Rising sun and ceremonial celebrations. Photo courtesy of Gordon Holliday

On June 8, the exhibition opened to the public. Over 300 tickets were sold but at least 500 visitors walked through.

Holliday included 16 local artists to share their work in the exhibition too. These additional pieces include photos, digital art and painted pictures. A DJ and harpist were also in attendance to play music on the opening day.

Justin Hicks and Jordan Robinson were co-curators of the event.

Holliday said he is grateful for the support he witnessed on opening night. He has received so much positive feedback from the exhibition, he said.

“That story resonates with a lot of black people. Because we go through adversities, we go through day-to-day struggles, we go through systematic oppression and constantly we’re pushing through it to get through it,” he said.

Before the exhibition closes on September 15, Holliday plans to host kids at the museum to tell the story of Yasuke and the importance of creativity and entrepreneurship.

There will be a panelist discussion on August 17 and a closing reception that will be announced at a later date.

Kimonos can also be purchased on his website. The ones on display are also available and will be received after the exhibition ends.

The exhibit is open during museum operating hours. Tickets can be purchased in-person or on the museum’s website.


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