While in quarantine during the pandemic, Gordon Holliday, a Charlotte-based fashion designer, was looking for his next project. He spent his days in seclusion watching TV, but little did he know that his inspiration would come from an anime show on Netflix.
The title of the series, “Yasuke” told the story of the first black samurai warrior known in Japan. Holliday said the samurai lord, Oda Nobunaga, was criticized for taking Yasuke under his wing despite being a foreigner.
“I know what it’s like to be black in America, but what about being black in Japan? I had something that I started to resonate with, and that’s what struck my imagination,” the 28-year-old told QCity Metro.
Holliday, intrigued by the history of the samurai, began making kimonos that reflect Yasuke’s history and Japanese culture. Two years later, his work is appearing as an exhibit at the Uptown Mint Museum titled, “Yasuke: The Hidden Ronin.”
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The name comes from the legend that Yasuke went ronin (a term for a samurai who no longer serves) after Nobunaga’s death and disappeared.
The exhibit features 10 original kimonos, anticipating what the modern-day African samurai warrior would have worn.
How the love for fashion was born
Holliday said his early aspirations in fashion began after he and his family moved from Baltimore, Maryland to Charlotte, NC in 2007.
Throughout high school, he always wore uniforms, but attending the newly opened Mallard Creek High School gave him the opportunity to test his fashion sense.
“[My style] It was a mix of casual Ivy League, but still sportswear and Nike kicks. I wanted to mix the schoolboy look with the jock style,” he said.
After high school, Holliday attended UNC Greensboro to study fine arts in photography. But with a minor in retail studies, he often found his way into the fashion department, he said.
He found a side hustle selling screen-printed shirts, but as competition began to increase on campus, he knew he had to improve his product.
“I wanted to do something that was a little different, a little edgy,” he said. “I decided I needed to figure out how to cut and sew.”
After spending a summer tutored by his grandmother, Holliday returned to school with a newfound confidence.
He would go to the local thrift store and pick up old clothes and clothing to piece together pieces of clothing like jackets, jeans, shorts and hoodies.
“I would take it up a notch and add more pockets, use different materials, change the colors or do something with a certain color palette,” he said.
He also participated in a number of fashion shows and design competitions to showcase his work.
Holliday said, like other artists, he didn’t want to go by his name, but a stage name. It started using the name “ROOLE”, an acronym for rule over our daily lives.
Began labeling his work with his logo, the letter “R”
“I turned it into a mantra, an affirmation, that every time you wear that outfit, you feel like you’re taking charge of your day. You feel that confidence in yourself,” he said.
Becoming one full time artist
Holliday said after graduating college in 2017, he worked odd jobs in Charlotte in hopes of continuing his art career full-time with the right opportunity.
That opportunity almost came in late 2019 after pursuing a job as a designer for Adidas shoes, but when the pandemic hit, things never materialized, he said.
Holliday said he decided to become a full-time artist, but needed a project to start his journey. After falling ill during the pandemic, he was stuck at home watching anime shows and movies. Inspiration would soon come from Netflix.
“When I felt better, I went back to my studio and went inside,” he said.
After two years of perfecting his work, Holliday would have the opportunity to showcase his project in a fashion show at the Mint Museum. In March, the museum contacted Holliday about doing a fashion show with other emerging artists.
There, he displayed all 10 kimonos. Impressed by his work, the museum offered him a personal exhibition.
Jennifer Sudul Edwards, chief curator at the Mint Museum, said the museum has always aimed to provide opportunities for local artists.
She said that since meeting Holliday, she has always admired his work as a designer. She even bought a kimono off his website before they showed up.
When Mint was looking for artists to participate in a fashion show, she knew she had to include Holliday.
“He has an eye for history and is very thoughtful about legacy. However, he is very much creating his own aesthetic, style and process,” she said.
Edwards said after hearing Holliday’s ideas for an exhibit on Yasuke, she wanted to give him the opportunity to showcase his work to a larger audience.
“We really believe in his work and his vision as an artist. We wanted to give him a space to spread his wings,” she said.
On June 8, the exhibition was opened to the public. Over 300 tickets were sold, but at least 500 visitors walked through.
Holliday enlisted 16 local artists to share their work in the exhibit as well. These additional pieces include photographs, digital art and painted pictures. A DJ and a harpist was also present to play music on the opening day.
Justin Hicks and Jordan Robinson co-curated the event.
Holliday said he’s grateful for the support he had on opening night. He has received a lot of positive feedback from the exhibition, he said.
“This story resonates with many black people. Because we go through hardships, we go through daily struggles, we go through systemic oppression, and we’re constantly pushing it to get through it,” he said.
Before the exhibit closes on Sept. 15, Holliday plans to host children at the museum to tell the story of Yasuke and the importance of creativity and entrepreneurship.
There will be a panel discussion on August 17 and a closing reception to be announced at a later date.
Kimonos can also be purchased on his website. Those on display are also available and will be picked up after the exhibition ends.
The exhibition is open during the museum’s opening hours. Tickets can be purchased in person or on the museum’s website.