Lillian Ahenkan's style is shaped by her Ghanaian roots, her Sydney upbringing and her unparalleled confidence in the woman she wants to be.
"Beyond the Fit" is a series that explores how emerging creatives weave together personal style and identity.
"Living a life that's as close to my dreams as humanly possible [is what drives me]", says Lillian Ahenkan, also known on social media and beyond as @FlexMami. The 26-year-old Sydney native has already achieved many of those dreams, including roles as a TV presenter, DJ, author, podcaster and entrepreneur, among others. She is the realised epitome of a multi-hyphenate creative.
While she may have different platforms to connect with people on and different environments to dress for, the only opinion Lillian's concerned about when it comes to her style and identity is her own. "I'm not the kind of person who wants to over-intellectualise creativity in any way. It's intuitive and goes off a vibe", she says of her style process. When it comes to dressing for potential jobs, however, Lillian admits, "I have to be mindful of my audience. Being online, I can wear a crop top to work, no problem. But walking into a boardroom, is that going to be appropriate? Probably not. I might do it anyway, I might not".
Lillian's style, which mirrors her personality and is bound up with self-expression and ardent individuality while nodding to her Ghanaian roots, includes an unabashed love for mixing bright colours and prints. But she wasn't always so self-assured. Here, Lillian talks about her journey from learning to celebrate her cultural roots to strengthening and claiming her own identity to ignoring expectations that box in her true creativity and confidence.
"I'm a huge advocate for big conversations, sharing my beliefs and encouraging others to do the same".
You're known for the way you boldly work with colour and prints. Have you always been drawn to them?
No, when I was in high school, I was a scene kid! I was wearing a lot of black, red and chequered patterns, until I realised that the connotations of being scene or emo just weren't for me. I was very emo in terms of style, but not in terms of mood. [When I visit family] back in Ghana, it's assumed that you wear colour. You only really wear black to a funeral. So, I felt like I was really going against what I knew, and I had internalised racism about wearing colour because I felt it othered me and I couldn't blend in. Being immersed in a [Ghanaian] culture that really values self-expression no matter what your socio-economic status was really vital and instrumental to the way I explore colour and prints.
Has your family impacted your journey of self? And how have your roots in Ghana and upbringing in Sydney influenced your style?
“Absolutely, but it was more an emphasis on looking appropriate for every occasion. My mother was so fascinated with respectability politics. At first, I thought it was a cultural thing. Even though my mother has been in Sydney for 30 years, she's not as assimilated as you'd expect. She would say that she could imagine so many young girls in Ghana jumping at the chance to have the autonomy to wear what they want. So, she was surprised that I just wanted to walk around wearing black, when I could be wearing all of these fun things like earrings and headbands and scarves”.
How has getting older impacted how you see yourself?
“All through high school, I wore a uniform. I only really had to figure out dressing myself for one day of the week when I would go to a party on a Saturday. Part of me was really excited by the idea of being an adult and getting to dress myself.
Coming out of high school was a big learning curve for me. I was questioning who I was and how I wanted to be seen. This manifested in my early 20s, when I was really concerned with not wearing jeans and a T-shirt with sneakers because I just thought everyone would think I was lazy. It took a real moment of self-realisation to feel okay with dressing comfortably. I do notice that within Western cultures, being someone who dresses up and dresses well is associated with very specific connotations, so I noticed it as a sort of barrier to entry. I guess in a roundabout way, I don't think it makes me comfortable, but I do think that looking at those parallels is always very interesting to me”.
There are, of course, parallels not only in culture but in gender identity as well, right?
I'm really into playing up my femininity. For the longest time, I was like, I don't want to dress feminine because the connotation of being a "girly girl" is just not great. Then suddenly I decided I didn't care and that I liked dresses and being considered pretty and cute. In the same vein, I could be wearing a suit tomorrow and feel comfortable in that also. It's about wearing what I want and what makes me feel good.
In many ways, self-expression can be synonymous with style. How do you express yourself beyond the way you dress?
With my words! I'm a huge advocate for big conversations, sharing my beliefs and encouraging others to do the same. In the last couple of years, I've also become a really house-proud person, taking any moment to DIY, decorate and invest in a space that makes me feel sensational. With my space, I make a conscious effort to get furniture and décor pieces that actually spark some kind of joy. I'm straying away from the mentality of styling a space with what's cheapest or what mirrors the norm. I prioritise pattern, colour, print and comfort, which leaves me with a space that I'm excited to be in and excited to come back to”.
"I'll often double down in situations where someone is like, 'Maybe don't wear so much colour'. And I'm like, 'Well, why not?'"
Do you still feel any kind of pressure to subdue your style—like how you avoided wearing colour when you were in high school—especially in Sydney, where the fashion scene can, at times, be quite homogeneous?
Never. I can see why people would, but—and I'm going to say it's my Aquarius moon—I've always had a fascination with being unique and being myself, especially in environments where I'm expected to be anybody but. Sometimes it backfires and can have a negative implication on people's perception of the work I am able to do. Because it's like, "Hmm, if you spend so much time getting ready, then surely you're not switched on enough to do your job". I am constantly challenging ideas attached to dressing a certain way. I'll often double down in situations where someone is like, "Maybe don't wear so much colour". And I'm like, "Well, why not?" If I have the agency to be in a certain space, why can't I be as I am?
Words: Ella Jane
Photography: Yasmin Suteja
Reported: September 2020