This year fashion took centre stage at the Africa Utopia Festival. Directed by Agnes Cazin, the #AfricaSquad fashion show put the spotlight on amazing designers across the African diaspora and the Continent. We caught up with one of the UK’s fresh new talents, Elizabeth-Yemi Akingbade, founder of Yemzi, a sustainable street-luxe bohemian fashion label.
…inspired by African and European art, culture and creativity; made with love in London for the active dreamer. Elizabeth-Yemi
We first heard of Yemzi through Africa Utopia 2016, how did you get involved with the festival?
I was invited to take part in the #AfricaSquad fashion show by the creative director Agnes Cazin. My SS16 collection showcased, was based on animal skin prints, in blue, orange and green. I’ve worked with Agnes before; she used some of my pieces for House for Koko.
When did you want to be a fashion designer?
From a very young age. I’ve always been creative, I won various art competitions at school and when I was 14, attended Bournemouth Arts Institute on Saturdays.
When did Yemzi officially launch?
I like the idea of being a young business owner, so in 2013 during my final year at London College of Communication, in South London, I decided to open Yemzi.
My Nigerian name is Yemi; Yemzi was a nickname people called me and was just a natural progression.
How did you start Yemzi?
My only 2 official collections, were SS16 and SS17. Before that I printed my designs on ready-made T-shirts sold in Soboye Boutique, giving me exposure to other markets like Paris. Now I source and cut fabrics myself.
Prints are the foundation of Yemzi…Because I like using timeless prints and textures that can be worn in any season. I create my own prints telling my story through drawing. Many African designers use Dutch wax prints, but I don’t. It’s boring to see the same prints everywhere.
What fabrics do you use?
Any sustainable materials, like Bamboo and organic cotton. But when I created the high-end gold collection I used silk chiffon and silk satin.
Are you concerned about being pigeon-holed as an ‘African’ fashion designer?
I describe myself as a British-Nigerian designer. I’m not really concerned about categories and labels. If people want to call me a British designer or a Nigerian designer, both are fine with me!
What does sustainable /ethical fashion mean to you and why is it important?
Fast fashion can cause a lot of damage to the environment and for those at the bottom of the fashion food chain. It doesn’t have to be like that. All my collections are made in London, everyone is paid a fair wage and work in a safe environment.
Are sustainable fashion businesses like Yemzi, becoming more common?
Yes, people are becoming conscious about what they consume and are aware of alternatives. If mindsets change and people buy quality clothes they can buy less and have something that lasts longer.
What inspires you?
Life. I like to express my struggles, joys and culture, through my collections. I was fostered by an English family but still have a connection with my Nigerian culture, so everything I do is a fusion of that. Being fostered made me more determined to stay connected to by Nigerian heritage and part of the reason I studied African studies rather than a fashion course.
After learning some Yoruba I went to Nigeria and met my Grandmother, before she passed away in January this year, and learnt important aspects about Nigerian culture.
This is the mood board for SS17 – I combine my inspirations and then draw my prints, which are digitally printed onto fabric.
Your SS17 Collection launched on 19th September tell us about that.
Continuing with the theme of combing my British and Nigerian culture, I used Yoruba symbols / tribal marks and imagery I found though researching, as the main source of inspiration. I went for a darker theme, as my collections reflect how I feel. I was invited to show some of the new collection at a fashion show, on Nigerian Independence Day, but didn’t have an official launch.
I’m based in a converted shipping container and the SS17 collection was shot in a World War II bunker underneath my office. The styling is London inspired but I have some silhouettes which are very much African. I take traditional African shapes and make them commonplace in the London environment.
Fela Kuti’s wives inspired the bold unblended eyelids and dotting make-up framing the eyebrows.
Why was the theme dark?
Working a second job 6 days a week, completing my MA in African Studies and trying to grow Yemzi has been challenging. The fashion industry can look very glamorous but there is an ugly side to it. The collection reflects this contrast between the different faces of fashion and the personal challenges I face.
What’s the Yemzi ethos?
I have a ‘green and clean’ ethos, using fabrics which are not toxic to the environment.
You recently did another shoot for your SS17 collection?
Yes, again outside my shipping container with 2 models. I only use models with natural hair (it’s part of my green and natural ethos). One is white with ginger hair and the other is of mixed African and Asian heritage.
I am a huge advocate of natural hair since doing the big chop in July 2010. Textured hair should be embraced.
The most challenging aspect of running your business?
It’s a lot more expensive running a sustainable fashion business, the fabrics I use have an impact on the cost of my collection.
The biggest lesson you’ve learned since starting Yemzi?
Ask for help. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. Whether it’s an MUA or photographer, you should be willing to ask for help when you’re on tight budget. The worst anyone can say to you is ‘no’.
The main highlight of running your business?
When people appreciate the clothes!
Any exciting developments on the horizon?
My unisex Capsule Collection launching in February, will be my first AW collection. Very excited about that!
Any advice for other aspiring fashion designers?
Make use of what you have when starting out on a tight budget, I’ve connected with people who’ve helped along the way and for shoots used the space outside my office, rather than using studios all the time. You must be financially creative as well as artistically creative.
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All photos (unless stated): Lepa Georgievska
MUA: Chantelle Phillips
Hair: Zateesha Barbour