The beloved designer on the challenges and successes of the last year.
Nigerian fashion designer Kenneth Ize is happy. He is grateful. But he is also stressed, and frustrated. He is a ball of mixed emotions, as any designer is in the lead-up to a fashion show — even if it’s digital — especially in these epochal times. Asked what the last few months have been like for him, he replies, "tired, sad, but not crying."
Ize is phoning from a car in Italy, where he had been for three weeks, finalizing his Fall 2021 collection. Those who have seen the new lineup have expressed surprise, and he expects a similar reaction once he presents it via video during Paris Fashion Week on March 10. Ize is known for his joyful, vividly colored, and patterned clothes, defined by slim tailoring, a retro influence, and, most of all, a dedication to traditional Nigerian aso oke textiles. Like everyone else on the planet, his axis has been shifted by the coronavirus pandemic, but being based in Lagos, Nigeria comes with its own set of problems. Big ones.
"I had just done my show in Paris and then 20 days later it was #EndSARS in Nigeria," Ize says, recalling the high of last season’s collection, which delivered a celebratory message of political empowerment, homosexuality, diversity, and craft. He was quickly deflated by the reality check of the political turmoil at home.
Last October, a wave of mass protests swept Nigeria amid new reports of police brutality by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a Nigerian police unit with a long record of abuse and violence against civilians. Thinking about the social unrest put Ize in an edgier place than usual when developing his fall collection. One literal example is his use of the color black, as well as cutting down on the number of bright colors — a signature — in his palette in general. But there is more.
"I started noticing that I was researching, for example, snakes and serpents. I would research body tattoos. I would research dark things that I would not usually research because I'm African," Ize says, noting the culture of superstition. "As an African person, your parents will tell you, 'Oh my God, when you see the cat, you need to run because if the cat spit in your face, it's going to blind you.'"
Ize found a way to reframe the narrative via ancient Egyptian lore, turning the negative connotations of snakes into a story of rebirth, which is how he’s choosing to see the state of Nigeria and the state of the world at large in the age of COVID-19. "It is a different side of me," Ize says. "I want to speak about life. I want to speak about what is affecting me personally, what is affecting my friends, my loved ones, people dying around the world. I want people to also be aware of the problems happening in Nigeria." His clothes are his way of having these conversations.
Indeed, Ize’s clothes have spoken volumes in a relatively short amount of time. They tell a story that’s quite different from most fashion brands on the world stage and have earned an audience of industry elites along the way. Born in Nigeria, Ize moved to Austria as a young child when his family was in political exile. He grew up there, his earnest interest in fashion nursed by his mother’s wardrobe of traditional Nigerian garments. After studying fashion and design at the University of Applied Arts Vienna, where Bernhard Willhelm and Hussein Chalayan were among his teachers, Ize moved back to Lagos. He launched his label in 2016 with the intention of exploring West African identity and showcasing and preserving the centuries-old Yoruba textile handcraft by working with local artisans.
The collection toes the line of gender fluidity, though there are men’s and women’s clothes. Naomi Campbell and Alton Mason walked in Ize’s show during Arise Fashion Week in Lagos in 2019, the same year he was a finalist for the LVMH Prize, making a list that has rarely included African designers. He made his debut at Paris Fashion Week with Campbell closing the show in February 2020, and later in the year it was announced that Ize had been tapped for a capsule collection with the Karl Lagerfeld brand that will launch in April. Ize’s own retailers include Net-A-Porter, Dover Street Market in New York and Los Angeles, MatchesFashion, and Browns, among others.
The decision to take his collection to Paris was a game-changer, one decided over dinner in Vienna one night. "I wanted to do Paris because I just knew that was being in it," Ize says. "If I'm going to show what we have in Nigeria, [which has] already been around for centuries and has not been paid attention to in fashion, where should I place it? It's in Paris."
Ize’s first show in the City of Lights was a success from a critical and sales point of view. "Seeing the money, I was like, 'OK, I’m fine now. I’m good.'" But as any industry veteran can attest, one good season does not a sure thing make, and the struggle is always real. Especially when you’re operating independently, as Ize is.
Paris is the big leagues, and by showing there, Ize proved he could compete design-wise, but the elevation in profile also exposed problems in production. It’s one thing to celebrate West African textile craft and tradition. It’s another to rely on local artisans to scale up to meet the needs and orders of international luxury retailers.
"I need to sit down with [the weavers] to make sure that they get it right," Ize says. "Sometimes things are just made badly, or when I go to the market to buy some yarn, I might be in traffic for six hours. I might not have electricity supply for the whole day, and I'll have to run my generator. Let me call it straight: It’s like working in a Third World country."
Ize still develops his fabrics and designs with local artisans, but the collection is now produced in Europe, mainly Italy. He is committed to using his work to shine a light on African design and culture, traditional and modern, but he can’t help but vent about the lack of resources in Nigeria and the lack of unity and organization from the fashion community there, all of which was compounded by the pandemic and #EndSARS. "I have never experienced something that looks like a war zone in my life," Ize says of the last six months. "We need support. This is almost a cry for help."
On his wish list is mentorship from the luxury industry and more financial support, for himself as a self-proclaimed one-man-show entrepreneur, and also support to develop the African fashion industry. He channeled his frustrations into his new collection. "If you would ask me about how I feel about doing my fall collection, I feel sad and I feel very happy that I could for one time in my life just speak my truth and just go with my feeling 100%."
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