Salimatu Amabebe is a Chef, artist, photographer, model, event producer, activist… the list goes on and on. They feed the people of Portland, hosting regular Nigerian Pop-ups and Black Feast, a monthly dinner party celebrating Black artistry in the form of food, performance, and writing. The word “star” seems too loaded or simplistic to attribute to someone with such a dynamic creative prowess, but when you are in their warm smiling presence, experiencing their natural generosity, it is the first word that comes to mind.
FM: Where are you from and how has that shaped or inspired you creatively?
SA: I’m still figuring out the answer to where I am from. I’m Nigerian-American, born in a small town in coastal Maine and grew up traveling between Maine and Arizona. I have lived in a different place every two years since I was twelve. Moving around and traveling as a youth inspired so much of how I think and what I feel to create. Both of my parents worked full time when I was growing up, so I had a lot of freedom, responsibility and the time and space to create.
FM: Does your cultural background have an influence on your style?
SA: Absolutely. I grew up around a lot of family, music and food. My mother and two sisters are incredibly talented with a sewing machine, and we were always encouraged to make our extravagant clothing ideas. I’m definitely influenced by Nigerian fashion - I love vibrant colors, wax-print textiles and a brightly-colored printed suit! Amen!
FM: Can you describe your favorite ‘style’ moment/memory?
SA: On my seventh birthday I got to go clothes shopping with my mom and pick out one new outfit. Being the youngest of four, most of my clothes were hand-me-downs, so picking out a new outfit was a very big deal. I got a bright blue velour mini dress with buttons along the front, black zip-up ankle boots, and a purse that was just tweety bird’s head. I thought that was the best outfit in the world, and I still think it was one of my best fashion moments.
FM: Where did your first understanding of ‘style’ come from?
SA: A lot of what I learned about style came from my three older siblings. They all had their own unique likes and dislikes and that often provided inspiration. They also would make fun of me fairly relentlessly, so I by the time I started school, no one could tell me shit about what I could or couldn’t wear. I would get teased and still show up the next day in platforms and a face full of glitter.
I was also a huge Madonna fan for most of my adolescence. I owned all of her albums and would dress up as her and lip sync songs from the ‘Immaculate Collection’ to my ever-patient family. I think much of my understanding of style also came from Madonna.
FM: What aspects of your childhood have impacted your style?
SA: For the first few years of my childhood, education - my mom homeschooled me and my siblings. I didn’t have to deal with caring about what anyone would think of me. I had free reign to explore and experiment. When I finally started at a public school, I was thrilled because I felt I finally had an audience for all of my fashion ideas. Needless to say, most of these ideas were not well received by my second grade classmates. All the same, I would wear whatever I wanted.
FM: Is there one piece that you used to own and wish you still did?
SA: My very first swimsuit was a ruffled lime green two-piece with black polka dots. I think I was only about two or three years old when I had it, but I wish I could find one in my size now.
FM: What’s the best piece of fashion advice you’ve ever been given?
SA: Dress as if you were going to run into your worst enemy. I don’t have too many enemies (I hope) but I feel confident running into an ex.
“ I think making art just means that I allow myself a little more freedom to express myself through fashion. ”
FM: A pearl of wisdom to give to your younger self on dressing…
SA: The clothes need to fit your body, not the other way around.
FM: How does your work shape your personal style?
SA: At some point I decided that I would let myself wear whatever I wanted, so now I’m a lot more creative about the things that go on my body. I have a lot of skirts that I sometimes wear as tube tops. I think making art just means that I allow myself a little more freedom to express myself through fashion.
FM: What informs your creative work? Where do you find inspiration?
SA: Most of my inspiration comes from my family. I come from a household of storytellers and I think everything I do is just some form of storytelling. I like to delve deep into black history - lately I’ve been reading about the first black graphic designers in the US.
FM: Where in the world do you feel most inspired?
SA: I feel pretty inspired when I go back to Maine. Things move much more slowly there and I have so much time to walk around outside, talk with my family, and cook whatever I want.
FM: What have you learnt about yourself as your business or practice has grown?
SA: I need to constantly learn how to take better care of myself. Overworking oneself is not a positive quality no matter what anyone tells you. I’ve learned that believing I am valuable even if I’m not being ‘productive’ is something I will need to work on for a long time.
FM: Tell us about your creative process
SA: I focus primarily on black history
“ I rarely plan outfits because I like waking up and deciding what feels best. It reminds me of dressing up as a little kid. Everything in my closet feels fun to me. ”
FM: What do you have in mind when you get dressed in the morning? What do you try to achieve with your choice of clothing/outfits?
SA: When I get dressed in the morning, I think about how I’m feeling that day and I go from there. I usually think of one thing that feels right for me that day. Today I knew I wanted to wear bright red lipstick for some reason (I rarely do), I NEVER wear all black but today it felt right, so I wore a silk spaghetti strap top, my super glossy black adidas track pants, my new gold watch, and always my gold nameplate necklace. (Also white leather high tops and a leopard-print silk button-up because I really don’t know how to wear all black no matter how hard I try.) The only thing I try to achieve with my outfits is to accurately match how I feel in my body that day. I rarely plan outfits because I like waking up and deciding what feels best. It reminds me of dressing up as a little kid. Everything in my closet feels fun to me.
FM: Can you tell us about your next creative project?
SA: Yes! Traveling to Lagos with my brother to shoot some images during Lagos Fashion Week for a cookbook I have in the works. Also, I am working on a project called Black Convenience (a sampling of this was recently at PICA’s TBA Festival) where I design and create a series of food products that tell stories of black identity through packaging design. I’m hoping that eventually I can install them all together in a space to replicate a convenience store.
FM: How does Portland inspire the way you dress?
SA: I’m not sure. I see a lot of styles based around comfort and convenience, so I think I push harder against that than I did in any of the other place I’ve lived. I always want to do the opposite of what I see other people doing. If others are dressing down, I’m dressing up. If I see Chacos, I’m wearing heels.
FM: What is your favorite piece of clothing? And why?
SA: My favorite piece of clothing is a probably a pink striped schooner T-shirt. My uncle got it for me when I was probably four years old and it used to be my nightgown. Now it’s just a very soft T-shirt.
FM: Is there a particular outfit that makes you feel the most confident/inspired?
SA: I love most things sheer or silk. My most recent favorite outfit is a sheer, backless white dress that I wore with white leather platform heels and rhinestone nipple pasties. I feel solidly confident in that outfit.
FM: What does being ‘comfortable’ and ‘confident’ with your sense of style mean to you?
SA: Feeling comfortable with my sense of style just means feeling comfortable in my body. I spent so many years of my life struggling with an eating disorder and I had a difficult time loving clothes because I didn’t love my body. It took me nearly 28 years to get here, but I look in the mirror every day and I love what I see. I never imagined that I would feel that way. Because I have a good relationship with my body, I don’t try to squeeze myself into things that don’t fit me, and I don’t get mad at myself for not fitting into a smaller size. I only buy clothes that I LOVE and that feel like they were made for MY body.
Learn more about Black Feast and by tickets to upcoming events HERE.