From “Generation Africa”: the fashion duo AKJP

Fashion By Stefano Guerrini

Our journey to discover the four brands who presented their collections at the last edition of Pitti on the catwalk of the “Generation Africa” project, developed by Fondazione Pitti Discovery in collaboration with ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative with the aim of promoting young and talented designers from the African continent, ends with a duo: AKJP. Keith Henning and Jody Paulsen’s brand arrived at Pitti after featuring in the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Cape Town and being one of the finalists of "Who is on Next?” Dubai 2015. The name derives from the initials of Adriaan Kuiters, a brand created by Keith, and Jody, to emphasize the synergistic union of two creative worlds, where their South African roots are highly prized, together with an openness to other worlds. It’s no coincidence that the two have just opened AKJP Collective, a concept store open to emerging talent from around the world. A few days after the show, we interviewed the creative duo, who talked about their excitement at showing in Florence, as the culmination of a year full of interesting and formative experiences, that inspires hope for the future of their brands. Here is the interview with Keith and Jody of AKJP. 

Could you tell us when you began working in fashion and how you made your career in fashion?
I, Keith, started my basic menswear label, Adriaan Kuiters (named after my grandfather), in 2012. I began my collaboration with Jody Paulsen to produce prints for the garments the following year and the collaboration has grown over 3 years to become its own brand, AKJP. Me and Jody are both self-trained in fashion as we have backgrounds in Industrial Design and Fine Arts respectively.  
What is the best or most important moment of your career so far and why?
We have had three defining moments in the past few months that have been incredibly important to AKJP. In October we re-launched our shop in Cape Town as a concept store called AKJP Collective - a platform showcasing emerging local design. Later that month we were selected to participate in Vogue Italia’s 'Who’s on Next’ expo in Dubai - this was an amazing experience as we had the opportunity to connect with emerging fashion labels from all over the world.  Being invited to show at Pitti 2016 has been a career defying moment, as it was our first ever international runway show. We were very proud to be amongst the four other labels participating in the ‘Generation Africa’ show.


Can you describe the collection that you presented at Pitti?
The collection that we showcased at Pitti was designed after we started weaving our own textiles. It was our first experience working with a fabric mill to develop our own woven textile. Once we received our fabric we started to amass other natural textiles and started to develop our creative direction for our winter collection. Inspired by local artist Georgina Gratrix and Herbie Hancock, we designed our collection with the feeling of having nature in mind. We were inspired by the lush tropical landscape of Durban as well as the effortless nonchalance of their locals. 

Can you tell us something more about your style? What is your target market? Where do your inspirations come from? What icons do you have in mind when you design?
Our style has always been a mix of sporty and sophisticated. We love the idea of clothes that can transition from day to night. Our target client is varied: we design certain garments with students in mind and other garments with mature working women in mind – it’s always interesting to see how diverse the customers are once the clothes are in our store. This collection was the first collection to be inspired by someone we actually know, our good friend Georgina Gratrix. Not only do we admire her great talent as an artist but we have always loved her idiosyncratic personal style. She is one of the most iconic people we know, as her unique style seeps into her body language and artistic practice.


What part of your work do you consider to be most deeply rooted in your heritage and linked to Africa?
I guess our focus on creating our own original prints every season is somehow linked to our own heritage as African - although our prints are never inspired by cultural inheritance. We try our best not to appropriate local cultures as it can be dangerous ground to tread - particularly regarding the political climate of South Africa over the past 25 years. We are proud to be South African designers but we do not feel obliged to illustrate this through our clothing.  

What is the importance of Projects like “Generation Africa”, in your opinion, for your personal work and in general?
The importance of Generation Africa is huge. It has not only given our brand coverage in the international press but has also allowed us to connect with other designers from Africa. It has been so wonderful to get to know and share experiences with other designers who share our background. Generation Africa has also boosted our morale as designers - it has given us energy to do our best work as we were very proud to be selected. 

Can you tell us something about the precise creative moment that Africa is experiencing now, from your point of view?
There is a fantastic wave of new talent that has emerged recently. It is always very inspiring to feel as though you are a part of a movement or community - which is in part why we opened our store AKJP collective. This is a special moment for Africa as many buyers are focusing more on purchasing locally, which has had a ripple effect on the number of new brands that have emerged recently.
Is there an episode, a moment, a special memory that you have from this edition of Pitti, that you can share with us?
Bonding with the teams backstage and with the other designers. We were very happy to see the same passion and enthusiasm from the production team backstage. The energy was wonderful and we felt incredibly supported throughout the entire process. 


What are your plans and dreams for the future?
Expanding our brand into Europe and America as well as refining our concept store over time. Our big dream is to expand our concept store internationally along with all of the local brands we have been working with.