While many luxury brands have attached themselves to activism, streetwear and "cool things" in ways that don’t always feel believable, Pierpaolo Piccioli, the creative director of Valentino, has made the collection feel relevant in meaningful ways—whether that's co-designing pieces for the men's fall 2019 collection with Undercover’s Jun Takahashi or featuring 43 black models in the spring/summer 2019 women's couture collection.
As recently as a year ago, Mustafa Ahmed, a 23-year-old poet, singer, and songwriter from Toronto who has worked with artists including Drake, the Weeknd, Daniel Caesar and Camila Cabello, didn't know what Valentino was. But after receiving a DM from the Maison Valentino Instagram account, which he initially ignored, he learned about the significance of the luxury house from his model friends.
From there, Ahmed, who goes by Mustafa the Poet, started a relationship with the brand, which began with a video collaboration for the men's fall 2019 show, then attending the women's couture show, and finally collaborating directly with Piccioli on the women's fall 2019 collection. Ahmed's poetry was embroidered on 25 pieces in the collection.
This is a new world for Ahmed, who began performing spoken word as a child before starting the Halal Gang, a collective of artists from Toronto made up of Ahmed, Puffy L’z, Mo-G, Safe, and Smoke Dawg, who was murdered last year. Here, Ahmed talks about what it was like working with a luxury brand, how he transitioned from poet to songwriter to singer, and the documentary about Toronto he's working on with Drake.
What was the process of working with Piccioli?
We started by talking about our shared interest in romantic poetry. I didn't even know at the time what the womenswear collection was going to be, but through our conversations, he developed three different mood boards around three of my poems. Then he wanted to have more of a conversation about what a collection would look like and the imagery he wanted to use. From that, and understanding that my words would be on pieces of clothing, I started writing. A lot of what I was writing came from the perspective of black love and what that meant to me. Like, “I thought I was too dark until I stretched into a galaxy.” I wanted to offer hope. I was only supposed to have 10 pieces in the collection, but it ended up being 25.
This is your first time working with a luxury brand. Were you hesitant?
One thousand percent. I really wanted to make sure that if this was going to happen, I just wanted to make sure that my words weren’t being compromised in the process. I think with the experience, perhaps seeing Pierpaolo Piccioli use 43 black women in the couture show, which is the most black women ever used in a couture show, and seeing how he was breaking barriers with race, I thought this collaboration could have been another example of that. I wanted to present poetry that was personal to me and resonated with me and continued to tell that story
What have you learned about the luxury industry from working with Valentino?
It really is art. It felt like true artistic expression. There is a creative integrity with Piccioli that I understand.
What's been the response?
I've gotten a lot of support, but I don't want people to feel like they need to buy pieces from the collection. This stuff is beyond my pay grade, so seeing these young girls that support my work say they are going to get items from the collection was concerning to me. I think my work existing in that space is enough. In six months, I want people to go to Valentino stores like they would go to a gallery to see my pieces.
Drake posted your poem to his Instagram account a couple years ago. How did that impact you?
To be honest, the impact was wide. I think at the time there weren’t a lot of artists that he was co-signing from the city. He was following me at the time, which gave me excitement. Obviously this guy is the Don of the city, but it was definitely effective. It gave me a little bit of a boost to work harder and to focus more on what it is that I want to create.
What else are you working on?
I'm working on a music project now that's being executive produced by Frank Dukes. I'm also working on a short film for my city called Remember Me Toronto with Drake and 40, who is scoring the project.
What's the short film about?
I had a conversation with Drake about how much violence there is in the city, and I realized when we pass away, people don't remember us in the way that we should be remembered. And I realized that while we're still here, it's important to account for that memory. So I'm basically interviewing different rappers from across Toronto, and they gave me these really beautiful responses. It just humanizes everyone. When you get lost to gun violence, there’s a stigma. There's a narrative in the media that insinuates that the victims deserved to die.