Tailoring with a twist: Gozi Ochonogor and her U.Mi-1 at Generation Africa

Fashion / Performance By Stefano Guerrini

We continue our journey to discover the four brands who showed their collections at the latest edition of Pitti as part of Generation Africa, a project developed by Fondazione Pitti Discovery in collaboration with ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative, with the aim of promoting talented young designers from the African continent, underlining the new energy and the creative ferments that are coming from there now. So among the chosen brands which showed their new collections on 14 January, at Via Valfonda Dogana’ spaces, there was also Gozi Ochonogor with her menswear line, U.Mi-1, launched in 2008. A few days after the show, we interviewed the designer, not only to discover more about her work and her emotions about showing in Florence, but also to further her vision of the current African creative landscape. Here is our interview with Gozi Ochonogor. 

Could you tell us when you began working in fashion and how fashion has become your work?
I began working in fashion over a decade ago. I started a brand in my second year at school so I could pay my tuition fees. I had given up a career in software engineering for fashion and my parents thought I had lost my mind. I was selling to shops and at Portobello market in London at the weekends. I would cycle to the market sometimes as early as 3:30 am to be first on the list for the best pitch. My parents realised I was serious when they visited in winter and I was still at it. I won their support.  I continued the brand after graduating, had a bit of a hiatus, moved to Japan and launched U.Mi-1.
Best or most important moment of your career so far and why?
We had a couple of sink or swim moments in early 2015. Two factories which were handling our production closed down mid-production. With the first one we thought we were just unlucky, with the second, we did not know what to think. But we reacted quickly and delivered. We did lose some money in the process which had a knock-on effect on the entire year. But it all miraculously came together in December. We got taken on by our Paris agent, which we came in to contact with by chance. An assistant had written down a wrong number for a buyer and it was theirs. We then got the invite to do Pitti. Everyone loved the show, but I am very self-critical and sometimes all I see are my errors. Once I decided that there was nothing I could do but look forward, I remembered our rollercoaster year and how much we had overcome. I also realised I truly love what I do and I have so much more in me still to give. It is an amazing feeling when you know you are on the right track and the universe is rooting for you.
Can you describe the collection you presented at Pitti?
Our collections are a 3-part story so this season is the 2nd instalment on the Yorubas, a tribe in Western Nigeria. The focus was on tribal marks, a dying tradition which the Yorubas use to beautify and identify themselves. We transposed these facial designs onto our fabrics and incorporated them in our design, using raw edges, bold appliqués and stripes, which is reminiscent of traditional Yoruba attire. The collection is elegant and beautiful as this is how we see these marks and their place in our history.
Can you tell us something more about your style? What is the reference target? Where do your inspirations come from? What are the icons you have in mind when you design?

Our collections are always inspired by Africa, in particular Nigeria – its art, culture and architecture. We have a rich, diverse heritage and it is a very interesting discovery process for the team during the research stage. Within our design, we weave interpretations of a particular tribe that I recall mostly from my childhood memories, presenting it in a way that is fascinating but with a universal appeal. It is a dialogue with the wearer. I would say the U.Mi-1 style is tailoring with a twist. My goal is to design and cut stylish, detailed yet unfussy pieces, as we believe that is how a cool, modern gentleman should dress. 

Which part of your work do you think is firmly rooted in your heritage and can be linked to Africa?
I would say the inspiration, but since the final garment also contains European and Asian aesthetics, it is difficult to split the garment’s influence or heritage. It is a combination of layers, and I take it as a whole, much like good lasagne.
What is the importance of Projects like Generation Africa, in your opinion, for your personal work and in general?
Projects like Generation Africa are truly amazing as they put our work in the spotlight where we would otherwise be in the shade. Press and sales go hand in hand and it requires a lot of resources to produce such a show. We thank the organisers of ITC, especially Simonetta Cipriani for choosing U.Mi-1 and giving us the opportunity to take it up a few notches.

Can you tell us something about the precise creative moment that Africa is living now, from your point of view?
From art to fashion and design to literature, we are producing contemporary works which are a beautiful mix of cultures, yet innately African. People are addressing issues of identity, race and migration which have brought about honest discussion and openness to the continent. There is also a hunger now that I feel did not exist before: to see and be seen beyond our borders. This has propelled people to be creative beyond their means. Consequently, all eyes are now on us. It is a great time.
An episode, a moment, a special memory that you have from this edition of Pitti, which you can share with us?
The show happened so quickly. All I recall is taking a pin out of my bun to fix a model’s hair; asking to reduce one’s make-up, which was done at the line-up as it was a shared show; and kneeling down to tie another’s shoelace. By the time I stood up, it was over. I promise I did not faint. It felt like it all went by in a flash.  Perhaps I was moving in slow motion. I was then ushered to take my bow. I came out. The place was heaving and everyone had turned towards me. I have done shows in the past but the energy in there was really amazing. I think there was a bit of a surprise that I am a woman. I saw so many people, phones and cameras and felt a little like a deer caught in headlights. I was truly overwhelmed. Thankfully, I managed to find my feet moments later. I think that will always remain my Pitti moment.
Plans and dreams for the future?

Stay healthy, stay focused. Do more and do it better.