We venture in discovery of another brand among the “Generation Africa" guests at the latest edition of Pitti Immagine, as part of an interesting project set up by Fondazione Pitti Discovery in collaboration with ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative to highlight the new creativity coming from the African continent. A men's fashion line that mixes tailoring with an unexpected approach to the use of textiles and inspirational themes always related to the continent's problems provide the basis to the work of Wale Oyéjidé, creative director of the Ikire Jones brand. We saw his work on the catwalk in Florence and we interviewed him to find out more about his career path and the world of his influences.
The AW16 collection was entitled "After Migration." It symbolized the journey of travelers integrating into a new society while trying to retain elements of their own cultural identities.
My style is rooted in classic menswear/Italian tailoring, but it is influenced by African design in a different way from the norm. The African influence comes from the attitude and technique of taking something that already exists and twisting it into a new shape. So, for example, I may have a Casentino coat, which is generally perceived as Italian, but I underlay it with bold African prints to give it a new personality. Or I may adapt an artwork from Renaissance-era Europe and use its imagery to tell stories about people of African descent in the form of a silk scarf. The idea is always to respectfully reinterpret what already exists, while adding something new to the conversation.
I believe that the constant need for story-telling is what most ties my work to African tradition. For me, it's very important that every collection has a direct relevance to issues that affect African people around the globe. The clothing is ultimately a vehicle to convey a larger message about the triumphs or travails of people from Sub-Saharan Africa. It's my hope that people not only enjoy the clothing I create, but that they also ask themselves hard questions about the way they perceive Africa, and ask themselves whether those perceptions they have are based on facts or founded on misinformed stereotypes. Ultimately, I hope to re-introduce African culture to parts of the world that may be unfamiliar with it.
Generation Africa is tremendously important because of the opportunity it creates for brands that may not otherwise have the resources to present their work on a stage as large as Pitti Uomo's. As always, when discussing the inclusion of minority voices into majority spaces, it is a question of access. There is no shortage of talented African designers or brands, but sometimes larger institutions don't know where to find them. Organizations like the Ethical Fashion Initiative are able to open the doors for talented designers that may have been previously overlooked. It is then up to those designers to prove that they are worthy of being put on such a large platform. It's a great opportunity for young brands like mine to prove that they have a unique voice that is worthy of being heard. Virtually every menswear company in the world aspires to present at Pitti Uomo; so for a young African brand to be propelled from obscurity onto the runway of the "Generation Africa" show is a magnificent gift.
The people of the many diverse nations of Africa have always harbored a lot of talent. But we do seem to be in a new era where African creatives have developed their practices to a point that art and design from Africa is not only seen as competitive with work created elsewhere, but it is also seen as unique enough to merit evaluation in its own right. There are ample stories of African struggle to be told through art and design, but there is also a lot of joy and progress that is waiting to be discovered in the work of designers from Africa. The world, in general, finally seems ready to pay attention to a corner of the globe that has not always been welcome in the creative conversation.
The moment I stepped from behind the curtain at the "Generation Africa" show and bowed to the applause of the waiting audience. I'm sure every designer remembers his or her first fashion show. But for me, being able to make my debut at Pitti Uomo was truly a special experience.
The gift and the curse of being given such a great opportunity (to present at Pitti Uomo) is that one feels an immense pressure to outdo one’s past work. I'm very excited to embark upon the journey of creating the next collections, and I'm very eager to build on the relationships that were established at Pitti. Every time one steps on a plane and travels across the world, one returns having learned something. I can’t wait to introduce my inspirations from Italy into my work.