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Art of Style

The working wardrobe: Amy Sall

From editor and lecturer to consultant in contemporary African and Afro-diasporic culture, AMY SALL has carved out a truly multifaceted career by refusing to be labeled and, instead, exploring her passions. Here, she talks to MEGAN LOGUE about amplifying the voices of young scholars, her aversion to being called an influencer and the role fashion plays in her life and work

Photography Andy JacksonStyling Hannah Krall

By Amy Sall’s own admission, there’s no concise way to describe what exactly she ‘does’. An academic with entrepreneurial spirit, she earned her bachelor’s degree in culture and media studies at The New School, New York, after which she decided to pursue a master’s degree at Columbia University, studying human rights with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa. It was during this time, inspired by conversations about African identity taking place between her peers outside the classroom, that she launched SUNU Journal, a publication intended to give these discussions a dedicated platform.

In 2016, Sall began teaching at her alma mater, The New School, a milestone that she refers to as a “full-circle moment”. Sall’s course, The African Gaze: Visual Culture of Postcolonial Africa and the Social Imagination, was one she created and developed herself – and was swiftly followed by another, Third Cinema and the Counter Narratives. The opportunity to bring the discourse she’d been fostering elsewhere into such a venerable institution was one she relished. “I am so grateful to The New School and my former professors. I took some amazing classes when I was a student there, but I always felt there needed to be more courses focusing on Blackness and Africanness – and I am so glad to have been able to contribute that to the curriculum. Creating these courses and sharing them with students has also really helped grow and deepen my own interests and passions.”

As a result of Sall’s multi-faceted career, she’s often been, somewhat lazily, labeled an ‘influencer’. However, the term is one she strongly disavows. “It’s such an interesting word. I think it speaks to the very limited nature of language. ‘Influencer’ has just become this empty catch-all phrase applied to people who don’t have traditional jobs. I don’t consider myself an influencer. I consider myself a multi-dimensional woman who has different interests and is not afraid to express herself or indulge in her passions. I don’t consider myself a brand; I am me.” Read on to discover more about Sall’s rich career and style secrets…

Choose your path

“I was always interested in fashion on two levels. Of course, the superficial aspect – we all want to look good and express ourselves – but also in historical and cultural terms. I wrote my college thesis on the appropriation of African textiles in western fashion. I even had a blog back in the day and was talking about cultural appropriation before it became a buzz phrase. I actually interned at Vogue for a year because I thought I wanted a career in fashion journalism. It was a great experience but, ultimately, it wasn’t for me. I realized that I was conflating my interests and passions. I had to ask myself what it is that I am truly passionate about. What really motivates me? What makes me want to get up in the morning? Eventually, I recognized that the answer was people and current affairs; that’s when I knew I should pursue human rights. It sounds like a hard pivot but, to me, it makes complete sense. You have to do what you want in life and just let things unfold as they should.”

We’re all multi-dimensional people, but we live in a society that wants you to pick a box and stay in it. I am so anti all that. I want to have the freedom to explore all my interests and passions…

Start the conversation

“There was kind of a multi-pronged inspiration behind SUNU Journal, which I launched during my graduate degree. I was immersed in this academic setting and my concentration was Africa, so I was having all these conversations outside the classroom with my peers about African history, politics and culture – past, present and future. At the same time, I was also posting a lot of archival materials I found on social media, and the comments section would often give rise to some really interesting discussions. All of which made me realize there was no real space where young people could congregate and put forward their ideas about Africa. I wanted to create that platform for emerging thinkers, artists and writers. When I think about the publications from history that truly inspire me, it’s titles like Présence Africaine and The Black Scholar – literary journals that discussed Africa in a very compelling, anti-colonial way. With SUNU Journal, I wanted to create something similar – almost an homage to these publications, but powered by the voices of young people.”

Don’t let yourself be pigeonholed

“We’re all multi-dimensional people, but we live in a society that wants you to pick a box and stay in it. I am so anti all that. I want to have the freedom to explore all my interests and passions, especially as a Black woman – because society does not always grant me that freedom. It’s such a pity for anyone to limit themselves to a single thing, when we all have a variety of different interests. I think it’s important to define who you are, what you want to do and allow your experiences to align with that. It’s because I’ve done this work that nothing I pursue feels disparate; it all makes sense to me. That’s how I live my life, collecting experiences along the way. As a result, there is no such thing as a typical working day for me, but I do try to create routine by starting each day the same way. Whether I have a photoshoot, am teaching classes or plan on spending the day answering emails, I wake up, pray, meditate, drink lemon water and decompress before I jump into work. As long as I have completed my morning routine, I feel prepared to deal with whatever the day throws at me. The world is so crazy, especially right now; we need to find moments of peace wherever we can.”

Women designers understand on an intimate level just how nuanced femininity is… I think quiet sexiness and beauty are very important; it doesn’t have to scream to be heard

Redefine ‘sexy’

“It’s a cliché but, when it comes to personal style, my approach is very ‘less is more’. I love my looks to be elegant and clean but also functional and comfortable, plus, I tend to stick to a very muted palette. I love exploring shapes and silhouettes, as opposed to patterns, prints or colors. I stick with pieces that are timeless and a look that is authentic. All my favorite designers – such as The Row, Khaite, Gabriela Hearst, Loewe, Bottega Veneta and Prada – fall into this vein. They’re forward-thinking and create pieces for modern, intelligent women. A lot of my favorite labels are helmed by women. I think part of that might be to do with the fact women understand that sexiness and beauty don’t always mean a mini skirt or showing skin. You can wear baggy trousers and oversized shirts and look just as elegant. Women designers understand on an intimate level just how nuanced femininity is. I don’t like to do anything that’s overt. I think quiet sexiness and beauty are very important; it doesn’t have to scream to be heard. I have a strong sense of self and my style is in line with that.”

Dress with purpose

“I think if you’re wearing something that makes you feel good, it definitely boosts your mood. I don’t know if there’s a scientific study that backs that up, but I believe it! There’s a running joke that we’re all at home in our sweats right now, and I definitely fell into that at the beginning of lockdown because there was no need to dress up. But one of the things we’ve learned from the past year, after being faced with mortality on the level that we have, is that life is short and precious. You don’t need an excuse to dress up; every day is worth celebrating. Another thing the past 12 months have really brought to our attention is sustainability – especially in regard to who exactly is making our clothes. We’ve learned a lot about the exploitation of minority groups around the world. For me, it’s important to hold myself accountable. Having a holistic view of human rights is important to me, and so I want to make sure that I am living my life in accordance with that – not excluding my sartorial choices.”

Life is short and precious. You don’t need an excuse to dress up; every day is worth celebrating

Enjoy the ritual

“I keep my look consistent, even when it comes to hair and beauty. My signature hairstyle is a middle parting, worn with a low bun or chignon, but, depending on the day, I also love wearing braids or keeping my hair natural. Both of these looks are very much a part of me. Even before the pandemic, I was very into skincare. I think it’s because I’m not great with makeup – although I am trying to learn more – so I always made sure to have a healthy base. I love Dr. Barbara Sturm’s products. However, for me, the main focus is routine and creating my own rituals. I spend a lot of time on my skin, especially at night time. I’ll set aside between 30 and 45 minutes to double-cleanse, apply my serums, moisturize, use a gua sha tool or jade roller and practice facial massage. I am all about self-care; it makes you feel beautiful and healthy – and I find this quiet ritual really centering, especially at night. It’s a time when I can reflect on my day and think ahead to the next one, whilst staying in a relaxed, almost meditative state. In many ways, it’s the counterpoint to my morning routine. Both book-end my day and help me feel grounded.”