Shala Monroque Choiseul LCShala Monroque is wearing the Inversion.
Shala Monroque can be described as many things, yet the title she gives herself today is Cultivator. As former creative director of Garage magazine and consultant for Miuccia Prada, Shala carved an influential path in the worlds of art and fashion. Yet, after over a decade of life at full speed, Monroque found herself longing for a different type of rhythm. Today back home in her birthplace of St. Lucia, Shala finds creative expression as a farm owner, gardener and host. We spoke to the importance of one’s relationship with nature, dressing for the spirits of the forest as well as how to be a monk in the city.
Interviewed by Sofia Nebiolo
Photography Mygell Felix
- N When you first wake up in the morning, what are the sounds that you hear and how does that affect you and the day ahead?
- M When I wake up in the morning, I hear the sound of what feels like a thousand birds as the sun rises. It is a gentle morning song; nature’s own alarm clock. Though they wake me up, I don’t really hear them until I open my eyes and start to become aware of my surroundings. It is a slow arising, bringing me into awareness of my beautiful forest reality. Eight years of waking this way has brought me to a more natural paced approach to life.
- N It is said that contact with the earth can produce a variety of physiological changes. How has your thinking and creativity been influenced by your close proximity to nature?
- M Nature has molded me beautifully both physically and creatively. Since being back, I have witnessed many growths and evolutions within me. Immediately upon tending the garden I shed all the excess fat I’d accumulated from anti-depressants and anti-psychotic drugs that I’d been wrongly prescribed. Since moving back, I haven’t touched aspirin in over 10 years! What in fact was wrong was my distance from nature and being away from family and my native culture. Once I was back home, amidst the lush green environment I knew and loved, I began to thrive again. I found my own rhythm which is in sync with the rhythm of nature. I rise with the sun and on good days, which are most days, I have a liquid breakfast of coconut water and fruit juices. I then head to the garden. Tending to the garden is where my creativity flourishes. I nurture it and it also nurtures my mind, body and soul. I speak to the trees and they speak to me. For example, it was in the garden while weeding and listening to Chronixx that I found the inspiration to reach out to Francesco Risso at Marni. That conversation led to me walking the Marni show. Or if I want to problem solve, I head to the garden and I always find the answers there. Anxiety? Quickly resolved after a slow walk, barefoot in the garden. Observing nature is very therapeutic. When you respect nature, she speaks with you and guides you within and outside of the garden. This is what it means to be grounded to the earth, to respect and love nature.
- N What drew you to fashion initially and what does it mean to you today?
- M In the first instance, I was drawn to fashion from my tiny island perusing the glossy fashion magazines and watching Elsa Klench on CNN on Saturdays. I did not understand it then, but what I knew from watching Elsa Klench was that I had a keen sense of recognizing trends. From 8 to 10 years old, I seemed to know what was next even before CNN reported it. I was an avid window shopper at that age too. I used to love going to town on Saturdays and walking around observing what was in store windows. I also observed the prices of things, practicing simple algebra and little did I know, relating style and economics. Later on, when I was entrenched in the art world, I decided to focus on understanding what fashion really meant. I started reading books and articles on the subject because everyone around me kept saying that I had a great sense of style and suggested I should work in the industry. I decided to educate myself. Traveling extensively at that time took me back to my inner child who used to window shop and mentally record everything. Only now I was doing it in multiple cities, looking at art and fashion simultaneously in London, Paris, Moscow, Milan, Venice, and Basel. Really what I love is people, and the way people adorn themselves has always fascinated me. I was fortunate to be able to process all of this data through the lens of a high-fashion, niche magazine and also the best contemporary art gallery in the world. People in the art world are fashionable and so it was an organic progression that I ended up at Prada, a house sitting at the nexus of both of these worlds. My understanding of fashion today is that it is a global language where the street and the internet intersect. Fashion as a consciousness is very alive, whether it is well is a different question. I believe there is space for the wellness of the consciousness of fashion, as it is an energy with great potential to do good.
- N How does your style translate to your life in the garden?
- M The garden is where my style finds its highest expression! I play with shape and color mostly, but flowers and fruits are the stars of the show. It’s really wonderful because I get to carve and sculpt a new dimension with the guidance of nature. Style has very much to do with timing as well. The sunlight can give the illusion of many colors on the same leaf multiple times a day and it’s always stylish. The wind adds movement to color and shape, but it also adds sound; it’s pure theater all the time. It’s as if Picasso designed the set, Alvin Ailey choreographed the ballet, Toumani Diabaté scored the music… it’s an alchemy of the elements. Working in a garden I get to work with the best stylist, and as such I dress accordingly too. I’m a small part in this play. Most days my garments are utilitarian depending on the weather and the task at hand yet color once again becomes important. There is the sun and mosquitos to consider, the rain, the mud, and the sap of trees. Then there are days when all the work is done, although it never really is in a garden, and I decide it's time to sit and enjoy this little play I’m a part of. Even when I’m alone, I dress up quite extravagantly to please myself and the spirits of the forest who work with me. It’s my little ceremony with self. The garments I cherish come out of the closet then.
- N How has your sense of community changed after moving back to St. Lucia?
- M I have always had a sense of community coming from St. Lucia. We have this way of assisting each other called a koudemain in Creole or coupe de main in French which translates to, a helping hand. I don’t see it happening as often now, but it’s always informed my approach to life. It’s based on a West African economic system where the community comes together to build a house or a garden for example. The men will labor and the women cook. The idea is grounded in acts of love, respect, and boundaries. If a friend is in need, we gather support. In fashion, I definitely had a sense of community and people I can count on and who can count on me when in need. It is much the same. I’m able to apply what I have learned from both city life and rural life wherever I am.
- N How are the conversations different (or not) from those before when you lived in a large city, traveling a lot?
- M I’m naturally a curious person, so I have always asked a lot of questions and listened keenly, whether it’s about a painting or a tree. Inside of me resides a storyteller too so I’m always ready to learn. It is rare that I have conversations about fashion here. I live in a remote village where life is very simple. I needed that, to step away and process all that I’d taken in on my travels so I welcome this sort of hard-drive sweep of the mind, if you will. Conversations revolve much more around the elements, the cycles, and the seasons. Even just the nuts and bolts of constructing, be it a garden bed, a charcoal pit, a bench, a shed are the discussions I have most today. Then there is the community chatter of the children walking home from school and the latest death or birth. Sometimes my two worlds collide when I have had friends from fashion or art visit and these really eclectic conversations happen with my neighbors. It is both entertaining and educational.
- N How do you practice slow living? What has living slowly taught you?
- M To the chagrin of some of my friends and family, I absolutely practice slow living. Slow to check emails, slow to return phone calls, slow to rise from bed, slow to garden! All because the garden, whose rhythm is dictated by the sun is slow. Farming naturally and organically will guide you to live slowly. There’s a difference in the way of sprinkling chemical fertilizers that is very fast or taking the time to set up beds organically, which is a meticulous approach. The body can only do so much in a day and my days have come to be guided by the sun. Since I began farming, I have gone back to New York or Paris and circled fashion. Yet I found myself beginning to yawn at the dinner table by 8pm and then utterly unable to stay out past 10pm and I don’t fight it. I had to adapt really early upon my return. Living in a rainforest you have no other choice as a farmer, your activities are dictated by the whims of the weather and the cycles of the seasons. There’s just no fighting against it. I sentimentally put the tin roof back on my grandmother’s house as I always dreamt of the sound of the rain on the roof when I lived in New York and ha! I immediately remembered this causes a chain reaction. Sometimes the rain comes so hard you think it’s going to crash through the roof, and then there’s nothing to do as you can’t hear the radio or tv or phone or even the person next to you. You can only hear your thoughts and so the forest grants you these opportunities for pause, and reflection. Plans to work outside? Dashed! I remember to heed the pace of nature. She has taught me that she is slow, but always working. There are some things that can only be witnessed in silence and that time, slow time is a great curator.
- N Do you think it is possible to adapt to a sense of slowness in a busy place?
- M I remember my first trip back home in my early 20’s when I first lived in New York. My family thought I was mad, “where are you rushing to!” they’d ask. In New York, you walk a thousand miles in a minute and there’s always a rush to get everything done. Once my family pointed this out, I made a conscious effort to observe how I moved once I was back in the city. From then on, I would often muse on what it meant to be a monk in the city. Monks represented serenity and tranquility in the midst of chaos and they were often a beacon. So yes, I believe it’s possible. You just have to be as forceful as the elements knowing when to say yes and when to say no! In this regard I’m like lightning, not always showing up yet striking with precision, and a bit of a show. At once slow and fast. That is the way of nature.
- N What do you dream about?
- M Every single day I dream of the same things. I dream of carving out spaces in nature that encourages people to dream beautiful dreams and to remember that we are a small, yet grand part of this big organism called Planet Earth. My biggest dream, stemming from a vision I had in the garden at 15, is to carve out a food forest meditation garden, a place for humans to reconnect to the source of life and to remember that we are this source of life. Every day I act on this dream.
- N How did you learn to farm or grow plants and trees ? Did you have a teacher or did you learn through self practice?
- M When I was growing up it was natural to take your children along to the garden with you and give them chores matched with their capacity. My mother’s lineage is one of cultivators and lovers of plants. My great-grandmother is renowned here in my community for staying well into the night deep in the forest gardening. Her son, my grandfather Gregor Monroque was very much the same. We have inherited this land, this old growth food forest he planted and it’s been sitting untended and wild for the better part of 40 years. When I was 15, on one of the last times I went to the garden with my grandmother, possibly the last time I went there with her before she passed, I was standing in what was already his wilding food forest and I had a very clear vision of what this place could be. It is this vision that has driven me my entire life since and reminds me of my mission and why I am here on this planet. It reminds me of exactly what it takes to make a seed grow and to stabilize soil. It is in my DNA. The things I may have thought I’d forgotten show up in small affirmations, for example when I find small stonewalls around trees built by my grandfather which is something I have been doing from innate knowledge since I returned. The trees my grandfather planted speak to me and they tell me so much about him, so much about myself, and so much about Shala the Cultivator.
- N What does the word balance mean to you?
- M Written on the facade of my primary school were the words: Pray hard, work hard, play hard. The sun rises and it sets and in between these cycles are the balance of work and respite and in between work and respite is meditation. The gliding of a leaf on the wind is meditation. The splashing of feet in a river is play, the tilling of soil is work. We cannot do too much of any one of these. Nature is balance.
- N Do you see yourself as an advocate for a more earth centric way of thinking? And if so, what would you like people to take away from your lifestyle changes?
- M I am absolutely an advocate for a more earth centric way of life. It’s the only way to truly live the language of love. The earth revolves around the sun, so I’m even an advocate for a sun balanced life. To rise and set with the sun is a balanced life, a healthy life. It’s contrary to modern life but we live in a postmodern world. I believe in moving with the times and when time moves fast it’s time to move slow. Look to nature, she will show you the way.