By Erica Sweeney
People often tell Korto Momolu that she makes juggling motherhood with a bustling career as a fashion designer look easy. Sitting in the lobby of her office in the River Market District and bouncing 5-month-old son Cameron on her lap, she laughs as soon as she says this. The reality is so far from the perception.
Momolu often operates on little sleep. She coordinates nearly every aspect of the fashion shows she participates in, sews her entire collections (often at the last minute), strives to spend enough quality time with 10-year-old daughter Alyse and, since April, brings Cameron with her everywhere so that she can breastfeed. And, she does all of this without the help of assistants or nannies.
But Momolu takes it all in stride with a laid-back air. With so much on her plate and New York Fashion Week just around the corner, she was planning to create her entire spring/summer 2015 collection just a month ahead of the event. While time management is always a struggle, she says she works best under pressure. “It’s more exciting at the last minute,” she says.
Known for being a finalist on “Project Runway” in 2008, being a contestant on “Project Runway All Stars” earlier this year and regularly showing collections and hosting fashion shows all over the country, what’s most important to Momolu is raising a healthy family and projecting an image that makes her children proud. Momolu, 39, has always wanted to be a mother, and says having kids is like getting a “clean slate.” The best part is seeing traits of herself and her husband, Benny Briggs, in their two children.
She is as dedicated to her own family as she is to supporting other moms through a partnership with Sisters United, an initiative created two years ago by local African-American sororities to raise awareness about infant mortality in Arkansas. Momolu is writing a blog, titled “Birth by Design,” documenting baby Cameron’s first year, and covering subjects like breastfeeding, safe sleep and life as a new mom, all in an effort to raise awareness about infant and women’s health.
“Being a new mom can be a lonely time,” she explains, and the support of other moms is invaluable. “Every day of having a new baby is so different. If [the blog] helps bring a voice to that, that’s awesome.”
Breastfeeding is an important issue for Momolu, especially because African-American mothers in Arkansas are nearly half as likely to breastfeed as white mothers. And, infant mortality remains higher in Arkansas than the national average, and highest among the state’s African-American community. African-American families in Arkansas are three times more likely to have a child die from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and twice as likely to have a child die before their first birthday, says Michelle Smith, director of the Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities at the Arkansas Department of Health and a member of Sisters United. “A lot of people look up to Korto, especially young people in the [African-American community],” Smith says, so having Momolu as a spokesperson brings more awareness to these issues and empowers women. “Korto is very generous and very humble. She’s a giver and a great mom.”
The Art of a Fashion Career
Art and creativity have always been staples in Momolu’s life. Drawing was her first art of choice, but while studying at an all-girls boarding high school in Canada, she began making garments for herself and others. Her sketches transitioned from landscapes to people in clothing. An art teacher recognized her talent and helped her apply to L’Academies des Couturiers Design Institute in Canada, where she graduated.
Born in Liberia, Momolu and her family moved to Canada in 1990 because of civil unrest in their home country. The move was supposed to be temporary, but the family was eventually given exile status. In the process, Momolu’s family lost everything, so she says going to Parsons The New School for Design in New York City was out of the question. She interned for several fashion designers in the city and helped out during fashion week.
Showing at Bryant Park years later as a “Project Runway” finalist was a “dream come true,” she says. She earned a spot on the show on her first (and, it would have been the only) try. Momolu was first runner-up on the fifth season in 2008 and voted fan favorite.
Winning the money to start her own line was her only reason for wanting to be on “Project Runway.” The fame and becoming so recognizable never entered her mind. At first, Momolu says people treated her differently (which she doesn’t like), and she even lost a few friends after being on the show. Staying grounded is always important to Momolu and something she insists on modeling for her children.
“I’ve always been the same person,” she says. Because of being on “Project Runway,” she says people think she’s a “glamorous diva” but on a regular day, she’s often wearing “flip-flops at Walmart.”
Briggs says having a recognizable wife has taken some getting used to. While he expected that people around Little Rock would notice her after being on the show, it wasn’t until a trip to the British Virgin Islands that he realized how well known she was. “It blew me away when we went other places, people were coming up to her and showing her love,” he says. “At times, it’s super cool, and at times, it makes you stop and think, ‘It’s crazy people know who my wife is.’ To me she’s my wife, but when that happens, it’s like I’m with a superstar.”
But, Briggs, an Arkansas native, has always known Momolu was “going places,” ever since he saw her design portfolio shortly after they met at a New York City shopping mall 18 years ago. They have been married for 15 years. “She has a vision and puts it into action,” he says. “That’s hard to do. She never stops until she achieves a dream. I’m super proud of her.” Her creativity blew him away, he says, and he loves that Momolu fosters their daughter Alyse’s creativity and knows she’ll do the same for Cameron. Briggs calls his wife an “awesome mother.”
Having creative children is also important to Momolu: “I wouldn’t know what to do with a child that wasn’t,” she says. Though she bought Alyse a sewing machine, the 10-year-old is more interested in dance and performance, and hopes to be a model when she grows up.
Speaking a Dream
Without the support of her husband and other family and friends, Momolu says, “I couldn’t do what I do.” And, she’s grateful that her husband “steps aside and lets me be me.”
With raising a family, traveling and running a business, Momolu says it isn’t until the middle of the night, around 2 a.m., that she has a chance to take some time for herself. This is when she checks email, browses social media sites and catches up on the TV shows she records. “I feel like I have to live a little before bed,” she says.
The family lives in Mabelvale and spends time together riding bikes across the Big Dam Bridge, watching the Cooking Channel and checking out new places to eat. Having children 10 years apart has had its ups and downs, Momolu says. Alyse, an only child for so long, had some trouble adjusting to the new baby, but she is a big help with taking care of Cameron. Most of all, Momolu says, “I’m calmer this time around.”
Because she travels several times a month to host or show collections at fashion shows, and pumping enough breast milk for an extended time period is difficult, Momolu brings Cameron everywhere. “I’m getting him on the road early,” she says. She doesn’t travel with a nanny, but sometimes hires one locally to help out with Cameron during the shows. Later this month, Cameron will attend his first New York Fashion Week, where his mom will show her spring/summer 2015 collection, featuring prints and leather, and a flowing style. Momolu has partnered with a jewelry designer to create coordinating Lucite and metal pieces.
Momolu says her designs make women feel sexy and pretty, even when they aren’t “100 percent comfortable in their own skin.” She never uses patterns to create her pieces. Instead, she chooses fabrics first and then drapes on mannequins.
Locally, Momolu has been involved with the Designer’s Choice Fashion Preview, founded by Theresa Timmons, since it began in 2007, just before auditioning for “Project Runway.”
This summer, Momolu taught at the Cultivate the Arts Summer Camp in Little Rock. At the camp, created by the Timmons Art Foundation, she talked to students ages 6-15 about how fashion is a part of every aspect of life. While she says teaching “takes patience,” she loves educating others about what she loves. Plus, she sees herself in the young artists.
“I tell them to speak their dreams, and then do things to get there,” she says. “Speaking it out makes it real.”
The importance of hard work in achieving a dream is a value she’s working to instill in her own children and those that she teaches.
In some ways, Momolu says, she’s still chasing her dreams. She says she’s not in an environment to do everything perfectly in her design career, and there are “still some rough edges.” She does everything herself, including sewing her collection, coordinating attendance at fashion shows and finding sponsors. She says she hasn’t found the right team to help her, and isn’t yet able to hire a full-time staff. “I’m still a mom-and-pop shop,” she says. “I’m still pushing to where I want to be in my career.”
Why she continues to stay in Little Rock despite success beyond is the question Momolu is most frequently asked. To her, the answer is simple: Central Arkansas is a great place to raise a family. “Here it’s calming and peaceful,” she says. “I’m just like everyone else, chasing the American Dream and raising a family."
—Savvy, September 2014