We sat down with Sarah Nsikak Whitmarsh, the upstate New York-based Nigerian-American fashion designer, to talk all about her first pregnancy, her designs, and her desire to bring sustainability into the (often wasteful) fashion industry.
Sarah founded her brand, La Réunion, to create beautiful, African-inspired clothing from fabrics that would otherwise get thrown out – think bright colors and patchwork patterns from vintage fabrics and recycled materials from other New York-based designers, including our very own HATCH fabrics. As she preps to bring her first baby into the world, Sarah gets real, chatting about everything from navigating the healthcare system as a Black woman to cravings to how she’s preserving her energy for motherhood. Check out our interview below.
How are you feeling?
I feel pretty…unsettled. I have a doctor’s appointment next week and until then, I won’t know if the baby is in the right growth percentile. I have appointments every 2 weeks and in between appointments, I try to eat as many nutrients as I can and remain calm and not stress out, but it’s stressful! And, no one talks enough about pregnancy in a real way! I feel like I know everything about COVID and training for a marathon, and yet I feel like I know nothing about pregnancy.
I’m unsettled, but also have a lot of gratitude. I’ve stopped over-googling, which helps!
How is this pregnancy different from what you expected?
I didn’t expect so much uncertainty. I didn’t expect to be in a constant state of what if, what does this mean, why don’t I know this. I would have thought that my experience as a woman in the world would have prepared me better for this experience.
It’s only since becoming pregnant that I’ve learned about my mother’s experience getting pregnant and other family members’ pregnancies and births. I wish I knew more earlier. And, I wish that we normalized all the issues that come up, not just the joy and beautiful moments.
I didn’t expect to get here and be so surprised the whole time.
Any cravings? (Answers as her husband delivers her a smoothie…)
I only want smoothies and fruit, cold water and things that are really refreshing! Sometimes I want saltier things. But overall, I want fruit and hydrating foods. I think that’s because I’m not great at staying hydrated, so my body is craving hydrating foods. My favorite smoothie combo is berries, spinach, granola, vanilla protein powder, and vanilla Greek yogurt. I have food aversions where nothing really sounds good and I don’t look forward to meals as much as I used to. But, I’m trying to nourish myself for my baby’s growth.
I’m trying to figure out more specifics around my birth plan and I’m trying to find a doula! I do know that I’m having her in the hospital because I have a higher risk pregnancy because of slightly elevated AFP levels. (A lot of doctors don’t test for that because it’s antiquated and doesn’t say much, but my doctor did and then put me in the high-risk group. Elevated AFPs levels are more common in Black women).
Navigating the healthcare system as a Black woman has been challenging. We’re not empowered to speak up and I’m constantly asking myself “is this advice/recommendation going to serve me in the end or am I going to end up with complications that are more likely for Black women?” I didn’t know there were so many pre-existing conditions that make Black women at a higher risk for certain things. I’ve felt frustrated, neglected, and dismissed during this process. I wish I was more comfortable talking about my experience as a Black woman in the healthcare system. I don’t like the idea of placing fear on expectant mothers, which is what I’ve experienced. I have to advocate for myself more and I wish that I was more open about my fears and experiences as a pregnant Black woman.
Your style during pregnancy?
I’m a bit rebellious and don’t want to buy things that won’t last. I’ve been living in oversized shirts and sweaters and the jester pants that I designed out of French terry. But, at 30 weeks pregnant, I need some new clothes at this point and I’m excited to add in some HATCH clothing!
Oh and, compression socks. That’s it. That’s all I’m going to say. I love them.
I would have thought that my experience as a woman in the world would have prepared me better for this experience.
How has being pregnant influenced your work and your designs?
I’ve been thinking about designing baby clothes!
I’ve also been thinking more about my legacy, which wasn’t important to me before but is now. I keep my baby in mind and think about how she’ll feel about what I do. I want her to be proud and I think about how she’ll interact with my designs in the future. I’ve made pieces specifically for the sake of passing them down. I want everyone to see my pieces as heirloom pieces.
I want her to think “wow you made that out of post-consumer material and didn’t compromise on that for 10 years? That’s amazing.”
You describe your brand as “self-reunion to self.” What does that mean to you?
It is a bit cryptic, but it means having a foundational self – knowing where you come from. I want everyone to return to their self, to remain connected to their center. It’s liberating when you know where you’ve come from, yet lots of people go their whole life without knowing. Growing up, I had one culture at home, another at school, and another with Black Americans. Learning more about my Nigerian culture gave me a greater sense of self and belonging.
Through my designs, I’m embracing and celebrating my roots and culture and sharing stories about Africa that are elevated and thought out. I’m honoring my tribe and others that I learn about.
What role does sustainability play in your work and life?
It’s the whole point! I always had the desire to work in sustainable fashion. I was working in fashion for several years and worked for different designers and always came away with scraps that I couldn’t believe they were throwing away! I was immensely frustrated by all the waste and wanted to repurpose the amazing scraps I found.
I want my customers to feel better about their purchase by knowing the fabrics are recycled from deadstock fabric. It’s still wasteful to make things, but the waste we at La Réunion create is very small. This is the move for fashion in the future. Designers have to take responsibility for how they’re creating their clothes.
Transitioning to home life, my partner is building a composter so we can compost our food scraps and we’re learning more about circular living, growing our own microgreens and food, and buying less plastic. We’re definitely in a transition period right now because we moved upstate and we’re having a baby, but we hope to continue to figure out how to live more sustainably. This is a nice journey to go through with a baby.
How do you plan to incorporate sustainability into parenting?
Diapers are really wasteful! This was one of the first things I thought about when I got pregnant. We’re going to use biodegradable diapers that we plan to compost ourselves. I’m prioritizing organic cotton clothing for her – it’s comforting to know how it was grown and that there aren’t chemicals that she’ll absorb from her clothing through her skin. I plan to breastfeed and supplement with formula if needed and to use glass bottles.
Overall, I’m getting as few things as possible! I don’t want to go crazy buying things and then not use them. I think it’s better to not have so much.
Also, nothing is too precious in my home (or her nursery). I’ve collected lots of ratan furniture that I’m putting in her nursery. I won’t be upset if she broke it or banged it up. There’s nothing in our home that can’t be used because what’s the point!
Wishes for the future?
I really wish that people will live in a way that preserves the planet. We’re past the point of trying to prevent climate change. Now we have to think about preservation and future generations. I constantly think about my baby’s world in 20 years. I have a dream that all production will stop so that we can preserve more resources. That’s not going to happen, but I wish we all would think about preservation as it applies to garments, fabric, cultures, languages, the environment, everything.
I wish for less anxiety and more joy and peace throughout our lives for women.