Karola Formella is quite literally one of the most colourful characters to be found on the streets of Brighton. An integral element of anarchist social centre, The Cowley Club, she consigns her daily life to the community cause and what she calls, “giving oil to the engine of good stuff”.
I met Karola at the Cowley, on what felt like the first real day of 2014 spring. We sat in the back yard while her chocolate, coconut, cardamom and lemon cake baked in the oven, alongside a few other equally unique concoctions. The cakes are just one example of her self-defining aversion to conformity, in which she pushes the dress code, helps the homeless into squats and prefers bikes to people.
Karola describes The Cowley Club as a voluntarily run, not-for-profit social centre. It was set up in 2002 as a space for groups and individuals to meet, organise and practice a DIY ethos. There is no hierarchy, with equality and inclusion at the top of the agenda. Karola is at the club most days, cooking and baking for the café, cleaning, working on the bar, ordering stock, inducting others, doing general admin and organising DJ events - all on a voluntary basis.
She first noticed the club whilst on holiday from her native Poland in 2007, and as a result that holiday still hasn't ended. “I thought it looked cool, but I didn't really know what it was,” she told me. “I didn't even know it was a café, it just looked like some weird place. They were looking for volunteers so I put my name down. The next day I was volunteering and after that I never stopped.”
The club appealed to her because participation was entirely her choice rather than the will of any outside pressure. She said, “I was drawn into it because I hate conforming and I hate being told what to do.” This much is clear just by looking at her. She is a mass of layer upon layer of sparkle and colour; of strikingly bright dresses, tights, tops, shoes and braces, covered with broaches, badges, tassels and ribbons. It's a hyper-real, almost jarring display of femininity that she pulls off with confidence.
She insisted she has no fashion influences; that it's just a way of keeping herself 'entertained' every morning. Her style spawned from a childhood obsession to look different by buying expensive and often designer clothes. Now she has retained the ethos to be different but rejected the consumer characteristic that went with it, shopping instead at jumble sales, flea markets, charity shops and clothes swaps, where the items would otherwise be thrown away.
She described how in Poland her look attracted bullying and intimidation. “It's not that people didn't like the style, it's the fact that I stood out that was the problem. They found it really disturbing that someone had the guts to look different.” In Brighton it's the opposite; enthusiastic onlookers stop her in the street for pictures and ask her to take part in vintage fashion shows.
Either way, she's adamant she doesn't do it to provoke, but rather for the simple pleasure of doing things differently: “We should do as many different things as possible so the world is an exciting place to be,” she said. Her activities with The Cowley Club are by no means the full extent of her community services. She also cooks food to give to the homeless and even took part in a project that supported homeless people to squat a building and set up a housing cooperative.
Mostly though, she serves the community through her love of push bikes. She participates in various local primary school bike clubs, teaching children how to fix bikes and ride safely. On top of that, she plays bike polo, organises bike festivals and has taken part in the naked bike ride and the 'critical mass' bike events where cyclists ‘reclaim the streets’.
She took me to Cranks, one of the two DIY bike-fixing workshops she volunteers with, where she directed me in replacing my rear brake. “I used to do loads of stuff with people, but I've shifted more towards bikes,” she told me. “I prefer bikes to people because they are simple and uncomplicated.” The contradiction is obvious, since Karola gives so much of her time to socialising and helping others. But whether it's bikes or people she will work with next, there's no doubt she will continue to make the world a more exciting place to be.
Article by Emilio Casalicchio
Photo by Nathan Gregg