It’s every designer’s dream to create a classic. Whether it’s the Fendi’s Baguette, the Jacquemus ‘Le Chiquito’ or Cult Gaia’s bamboo Ark, it-bags have the ability to launch an emerging talent or dwindling label to cult-brand status overnight. For Kelly Gunner, founder of London-based inclusive streetwear brand TOMME, her basketball handbags became an instantly-recognisable hit. Whether you’ve seen them adorning the outfits of Rosalia and Billie Eilish, or hanging off the arm of London’s fashion elite splashed across social media, you’ve seen them. TOMME’s unique designs take items deep-rooted in a male-dominated sport and transform them into individual, genderless pieces inspired by the intersection between female and male sports and contemporary streetwear aesthetics.
Earlier this year, TOMME launched its newest collaboration with the East London basketball team the London Lions, with British rapper Stefflon Don debuting the designs during her halftime show at the game. She was “Culturally the right person” to partner with the new collection, with “the brand being a mix of streetwear, hip-hop and fashion,” says Kelly. Making perfect sense to release last month with Women’s History month, Mother’s Day and the London Lions basketball game taking place that day – everything aligned flawlessly for TOMME’s new collaboration to debut.
What was the main reason for you choosing to rework basketballs as bags? Was there a key moment that made you first fall in love with basketballs in general?
So, the reason we use basketballs as bags was just a pure happy accident – I used to play basketball, just as a little hobby after work, so I had a couple of used basketballs laying around. I was just sewing and reworking things I had at home lying around. I was doing things such as turning cushions into bags, and just decided to cut the basketball – one of my used ones that came to the end of its life – and to see if I could do anything with it.
And then when I got into it, it kind of stayed in shape, so I was thinking, what can be done with this? Things kind of evolved from there. I feel like fashion is a bit of armour when you go out and you wear it to feel confident. But when you carry a basketball, there’s something that gives you confidence and makes you feel empowered when you carry it. It has that same sort of feeling for me. So, when I started making the bags, I wanted to try and capture that. That’s kind of how they accidentally both came together. Just trying to create that feeling to give to other people with the question “How can I carry my basketball and have that empowered feeling?”
I’ve always loved basketball since I grew up in the 90s in the peak Michael Jordan era, the Bulls and all the successes that they had, I got swept up being in the UK within that kind of hype. I love the whole culture that goes around the sport itself, it encapsulates so much more than just the game, which is what I also love about it. I like sports generally, I watch football, golf, you name it – but there’s something about basketball that just captures more than the game, which is what I love.
I feel like fashion is a bit of armour when you go out and you wear it to feel confident. But when you carry a basketball, there’s something that gives you confidence and makes you feel empowered when you carry it. It has that same sort of feeling for me.
Can you tell us a bit about why you chose to collaborate with the London Lions?
British basketball is really up and coming up at the moment. And the Lions for me, I’d always been aware of them being in and around London from seeing what’s happening in UK basketball. I knew about the team initially from the success of the women’s team and I knew of Ovie from Love Island who used to play for them. They’re a very prominent London team, who are really trying to drive basketball and fashion with the culture surrounding them, as well as obviously being a good team.
You’re inspired by the intersection between female and male sport and contemporary streetwear or aesthetic. Is this something you want to see happen more regularly or change in the fashion industry as well?
Yeah, 100% – for me, fashion has always been genderless, I always wore men’s clothes, I wore women’s clothes too but for me, that’s where I always felt most comfortable. Presenting a bit feminine, but still having some sort of masculine, dress, and sense of style. Again, growing up loving hip hop and people such as Mr. Hilton and that very tomboyish streetwear back in the day like that kind of style, that’s what I gravitated towards.
I’ve always felt that there’s a crossover and people should wear what they want to wear, and fashion should be that way. I’ve got a lot more guys wearing my bags, in their style even though it’s probably a more traditionally feminine-style bag with the way that I’ve just done the handles. I think it should be more. There should be more crossover, and I think we’re definitely seeing that shift in fashion. It’s taken a while to get there, but [its changed] now more than ever, and I love it. Fashion is supposed to be an expression of yourself. So, express yourself however you want to do that. Although it’s about, you know, taking something traditionally masculine and subverting it to something traditionally feminine. It’s never been, “you can’t wear that.” Do you know what I mean? It’s for everybody.
Which celebrity or person would you like to see wear a TOMME bag?
Oh, Teyana Taylor is always up there and Naomi Osaka, both of them are just amazing women in their field, and they just have vibe and style. I love it. They would be up there for me.
The items you create are very statement-focused pieces, what tips would you give to other people who are looking to wear them as more of a daily item?
I wear mine every day, I think that because I’ve got a few I can make that decision to wear one that’s maybe more classic. I definitely think the more classic colours of basketballs, the orange and the more muted tones, lends itself more to everyday wear because you can wear it with something that’s a bit more casual. Whereas when we do all the crazy pattern colours, then I think you feel like you really need to make that statement outfit that correlates which probably isn’t an everyday outfit. When I’m out, I’m just wearing casual clothes, it’s literally like picking a plain bag. With the classic orange, maybe wear some denim with it because I love that mix of denim and orange.
There’s something about pink basketballs that drives people crazy, I think because it’s such a juxtaposition of something so masculine and so feminine in terms of colour or shape, although it should be worn by everyone.
Your designs flip popular designs into one-off collectable and covetable items. Do you have a favourite bag you’ve “flipped”?
Ooh, do I have a number one? It’s hard, it’s very hard. I think it’s a toss-up between the Nike pink mini that I did, because that was the first one that really went viral crazy, the one that everybody wanted, still wants and the one that spawned loads of Ali Express copies. There’s something about pink basketballs that drives people crazy, I think because it’s such a juxtaposition of something so masculine and so feminine in terms of colour or shape, although it should be worn by everyone, but I think sometimes there’s just something about that, that people go crazy for. It’s one of my favourites, It’s a bastard to make though due to the rubber.
And the other is the Market Smiley. It’s a collaboration using the Official Market x Smiley basketball. It’s just that classic yellow smiley basketball, such a perfect design and so simple, but just so perfect. I love 90s rave culture and it’s such a simple, wicked design. Those are my favourites.
What type of obscure item would you turn into a bag? If you could?
I really want to work out, well I tried it with a skateboard. I’d like to try and use a baseball mitt or something a bit like that, or a ping pong paddle? I tried it with a tote bag, with the skateboard as the base. The other one I’m testing is that I’ve taken the skateboard apart in terms of sections, so that if you have it flat, it’s flat, and then when you pick it up, it kind of scoops up. Making it go into that shape.
But yeah, I think there must be so many things that could be a bag, a shoe. I’d like to try and do a shoe. I know that people have done that. But I’d like to try to do it with a sneaker somehow, as well as make it look good.
When you’re out wearing your do bags if people ask you where they’re from a lot?
I forget that a lot of people haven’t seen my brand so when I do it’s really nice. I did an art fair recently and everybody was like, “I’ve never seen this before”. I love the “oh wow” responses. I’m excited to keep pushing and doing more products. Making sure that it looks good. And not contributing to shit fashion. The shit fashion waste that’s out there.
Kelly says TOMME has a lot more exciting collaborations and new projects coming out later this year so keep your eyes on them for jewellery, tracksuits and new products in general. She describes this as “an artistic medium that you can put anything on” which allows for limitless experimentation, and we can’t wait to see.
The TOMME x London Lions collaboration bag is available to purchase now exclusively from the London Lions store.
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