Boundary-Busting Multi-Hyphenate Monica Ahanonu on Her Boundless Creative Practice

Posted inDesigner Profiles

Animator, model, title sequence designer, illustrator, fashion mogul, trendsetter— Monica Ahanonu defies category. More than rejecting boxes, the multi-hyphenate creative annihilates them. Guided by a bold, graphic, and colorful visual flair, Ahanonu has collaborated with an impressive cache of brands (Netflix, Adidas, Peloton, Old Navy, Ruggable, to name a few), designed covers for various publications, illustrated books, and much more, all while wearing audacious, inspiring outfits. She recently lended her aesthetic expertise to the sporting world in a collaboration with Johnnie Walker and NWSL teams Gotham City FC and Angel City FC, creating limited edition tops that serve as a wearable message of the pursuit towards gender equality.

In July, players from both teams donned training jerseys with Ahanonu’s compelling design, and fans have the ability to purchase their own at the Angel City FC and NJ/NY Gotham FC online stores. Each team is donating a portion of sales proceeds to Johnnie Walker’s nonprofit partner, the Women’s Sports Foundation. The activation was unveiled just before the FIFA Women’s World Cup that’s playing out in Australia and New Zealand as we speak, crushing viewership records and obliterating tickets sales expectations. Ahanonu’s design is part of a massive cultural moment around the rise of women’s sports, representing the continued collective efforts of women to achieve equality in the sports world and beyond.

As an athlete and a feminist who portrays strong female icons in much of her work, this mission is near and dear to Ahanonu. I had the privilege of chatting with her recently about this design, her creative journey, and how she navigates doing it all.

(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)

Juneteenth “Project We” tee designed for Old Navy, 2021.

Can you describe your background and your journey to where you are now as a creative?

I was a gymnast for about 14 years, so my childhood was gymnastics and routines and all that world, but the creative side of me started the summer between eighth and ninth grade. I had surgery on my feet, so I had to pause doing gymnastics for about two months, and I was in a wheelchair. During that time, I started teaching myself Photoshop and these little stick figure animation programs; I would animate my gymnastics routines and draw them and whatnot. At the time, I was just doing it to pass the time, but it’s cool to see how it’s become my life now.

I went to USC and studied animation and design for four years, and then afterwards, I worked at DreamWorks Animation. I worked on some of their feature films, mainly doing title sequences (Captain Underpants, Trolls, Boss Baby), motion graphics, and things along those lines. In around 2017, I decided to leave the studio and go freelance; I wanted to do my own style and more kinds of art other than just animation. I wanted to have more variety in my schedule and my projects, and I figured I could always go back to animation. I gave myself a certain amount of time when I left to see if I could succeed in freelance, and it was going well, so I stuck with it. Then in 2021, I signed with IMG, which is what started incorporating more of the fashion and modeling side of things into what I’m doing now.

Black Icons in Herstory book, October 2022.

As a multi-hyphenate creative, how are you able to navigate and balance your very many artistic identities and pursuits?

It’s tricky at times, and it’s always something I’m working on. But I think it also comes very naturally to me because I do better with schedules that are not consistent…last-minute changes can be stressful, but I work well that way. When things are too monotonous and straightforward, I go crazy because I want something to surprise me. That’s what helps me be able to switch between those different mindsets. That’s one reason why I wanted to go freelance, because I wanted more variety in my schedule and in my days. One day, I can work on a project like the Gotham City jerseys, and then one day, it could be something completely different, like a book project or something along those lines. It’s fun to be able to jump into different worlds with my art, depending on the day and what needs to get done. I balance it all because my mind works well with variety.

How do all of these aspects of yourself inform one another?

One thing that’s always been pretty big in my art is that I’m inspired by fashion and fabrics and textures and colors. So even when I was working in animation, I was always looking at fashion shows, seeing what new clothes were coming out, the new silhouettes. Silhouettes inspire me no matter what I’m working on. I’ll always look back to different fashion pieces, or I’ll go to vintage stores to see how old clothing was constructed, and see what different things are coming back around that were trendy or popular previously.

Everything has always naturally gone back to fashion for me; I’m always so inspired by it. I find it fun to almost dress up as a different character every day, depending on [my] mood. I noticed that when I’m doing my art, I’m thinking about the mood of whatever piece I’m working on— what it’s telling the audience, or telling me, and what I want people to feel when they’re looking at it. And I think that’s similar in fashion when you’re displaying a show or putting on an outfit— it’s a mood that you’re putting out into the world.

Collaboration with Ferragamo

How would you describe your personal visual aesthetic? 

I always say energetic because my work gives me energy. When I’m finishing a piece and when I’m finishing putting an outfit together that I’m going to wear, I get a very similar feeling between those two things. I get a similar feeling when I know I like my outfit and when I also know I like a piece that I’ve created and it’s done. It’s an energetic feeling. Bold is another way I would describe my aesthetic, and then also mismatching, but balanced.

In terms of your merch design for ACFC and Gotham FC, why was that project in particular important to you? What did you aim to achieve with that design? 

Since I did sports so much growing up, I always get excited about working on products that have to do with sports, and especially women’s sports. It’s cool to be a part of something that’s growing and supporting it. It feels good to encourage other people to take notice of different women’s sports and all of these things these athletes achieve.

I’d worked with Johnnie Walker in the past, so when they approached us about this, it was kind of exciting because I don’t get to go to soccer games ever. I wanted to create a design that would be uplifting and empowering, but also shows that teamwork feeling that I always had when I was doing sports and had a team I was playing with.

The design that I made is about togetherness. Some of the hands are reaching to each other, some are grabbing onto each other, some of them are lifting up— I just wanted to capture a feeling of excitement, teamwork, unity, that energy of the crowd. Everyone’s working towards a goal; there are two teams, but they’re all working towards seeing these individual athletes achieve something, and the teams achieve something. 

Cover illustration and interior portraits for Ida B. the Queen by Michelle Duster with Simon & Schuster Publishing, 2021.

You’ve already accomplished so much in such a breadth of artistic practices, but is there anything else you’re striving toward that you haven’t tackled yet? 

A crazy ultimate goal would be to do some kind of design work for the Olympics one day— something with the opening ceremonies or with a sport. Designing a gymnastics leotard would be cool, or something to do with that because I did gymnastics. But I also like race cars, so even designing a wrap for a Formula One car would be cool.