It’s Black History Months (BHM) and awards season, so I caught up with Black British Business Award finalist Wanita Bardouille, Creative Services (CS) Director at Ralph Lauren (RL). Nominated in the Leader Category, I wanted to know how she feels about it all!
How does it feel to be nominated for a BBB Award? Really nice, but I’m quite reserved and don’t like the spotlight too much so it was a bit hard to accept.
Do you think it’s necessary to have the BBB Awards? Of course, when I was nominated one of the founders said, black professionals in prominent positions have a responsibility to allow others to see them and hopefully feel inspired.
What does it mean to be a leader? I’m part of the Diversity and Inclusion Team at work and give talks in schools. It’s important to give back and encourage others to be authentic to themselves. Once a headteacher said to me, “I don’t know why you want to talk to these girls; they all just want to be hairdressers and nail technicians”. I reminded him that Vidal Sassoon was a hairdresser! For me, it’s not what you dream but how big you dream it; I encourage young people to believe in their own value.
The term ‘African designer’ can be ambiguous and reductive. Synonymous with tribal prints; the artistry and craftsmanship of traditional African techniques can often languish in the shadows of the fashion world. We caught up with London based luxury knitwear designer, Korlekie, to find out how she’s bringing these traditional techniques to the fashion forefront.
Why the name Korlekie? I was born in the UK to Ghanaian parents. Korlekie comes from my father’s tribe, the Ga-Adangbe and means ‘Queen of Eagles’.
Is your African heritage expressed in your designs? Being African is an intrinsic part of me, and I’m also inspired by other things. So, I wouldn’t say my designs are ‘African-inspired’ they just reflect who I am.
Is there an expectation to use prints in your designs? Some people have a narrow view on what ‘African’ is and expect to see printed fabrics in my collections. When they don’t, they ask, ‘so what’s African about your collection?’ African textiles are more than just wax prints, which originally came from Asia and were exported by the Dutch who brought them to Africa.
A white designer born in the UK wouldn’t be asked, “so what’s British about your collection?”
Why knitwear? I’m an artist and like to create my own fabrics; that’s how my passion for knitwear came about. Wax print fabrics can be restrictive; as they are repetitive, when you cut the fabric it’s difficult to get the prints to align. Through making my own fabrics I understand how the fabric works and have the creative freedom to make timeless, sustainable pieces.
Knitwear encompasses many things, including embroidery and beading. I also use new technologies such as 3D printing.
You describe yourself as a luxury knitwear clothing brand. What does luxury mean to you? Luxury is about quality more than wealth. It’s craftsmanship skills, paying close attention to intricate details that enhance and maintain the quality of design.
I use a range of fabrics to complement the theme of a collection. It can be anything from teddy bear fur to hand woven Kente cloth.
Your latest Pure Red collection symbolises “boldness and sensuality”, why did you go for this theme? The collection is called ‘Pure Red’because of what the colour signifies, power, passion, love, danger. Red is empowering and bold; Korlekie designs are statement pieces and celebrate the female body; they are not for the faint-hearted!
How did you source the Kente fabric used in the collection? We worked with a social enterprise called Nubuke Foundation in Ghana. We sent them our own unique colour ways and patterns to create artisan Kente cloths that were designed into kimono style jackets.
What’s the process you undertake when designing a garment? Depending on the garment, it can be a long process. A tailored blazer can take around three days if the fabric has already been made and dresses can take around a week.
When a customer requires a bespoke outfit, it’s good for them to know what they want to express through their outfit, then I’ll do the rest.
What is the ethos of Korlekie? Cutting-edge design celebrating sensuality with a traditional British and bold Ghanaian flair.
What are some of the signature designs, within your garments? These range from leather braiding to expressive sensual knots. We also have accessories including head warmers, bags, belts and chokers.
You’ve dressed a range of celebrities including, actress Esosa from web series ‘An African City’ and singer/presenter Alesha Dixon, how did this come about? Being in the right place at the right time and word of mouth, enabled those connections to happen. Alesha Dixon wore a sample of an emerald dress I made for her music video, which she also wore to the Brit Awards and ended up buying it because she liked it so much!
I’d love to make a dress for Solange; she’s really come into her own and has a distinctive style.
Where can people get Korlekie garments? We are online and do private consultations, when making bespoke pieces.
Any exciting developments on the horizon? There are some new projects in the pipeline, so watch this space!
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.
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.