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?”
According to the UK Greeting Card Association, in 2015 we spent around £1.7 billion on greeting cards. We sent £564 million worth of birthday cards to each other, with Christmas Single Cards accounting for more than 10% of total retail value for all cards.
Cards are definitely popular in the UK; they’re a personal way to communicate a message. But is it always easy to find the right greeting card?
It was my sister’s birthday and I was looking for a card with a young black female on it. After trawling most of the big high street card shops, I couldn’t find one, Says Nicola Lespeare of www.nicolalespeare.com. There are cards out there for black people, but they’re not always easy to find and can sometimes look a little old fashioned. So, I decided to create a solution to my own problem!
Tell us about your latest business venture
Nicola Lespeare is a new greetings card brand, showcasing illustrations designed by me, of mainly black women. However, my Christmas collection, launching on 14th November, does include a black Santa and kids…Santa’s little helpers!
I’ve already had people ask, “What about the black guys?!” I’m open to designing male illustrations and other family members but as I’m at the experimental stage with designs, I’m paying attention to what customers like before creating new designs.
When did you start your business?
From inception of the idea in July this year, I officially launched on 4th September 2016, it was a crazy 6 weeks!
You’re originally from Nottingham why did you move to London?
After the recession, job opportunities were few and far between in the property industry. I came to London 5 years ago for new opportunities.
How did you start your business?
Although I have a background in fashion illustration, I was a little daunted. I’ve never run a business before. I designed my first collection of cards, emailed my friends to spread the word, and received fantastic feedback!
What is fashion illustration?
Sketching garments on models, using personal drawing techniques to make the outfit look stylish. I can also pattern cut and make garments too, but I’ve been there, done that and ready to try something new.
How did you get started as an illustrator?
After graduating in Fashion Design a while back, I freelanced for a few years before working full time in a variety of office based roles to support myself. I’ve been in Operations Management for a few years but now want to return to my creative roots. I have no intention of going back to fashion design, but started drawing again. I didn’t foresee designing cards so it’s been a brilliant discovery for me.
I read a book called, ‘Be a Free Range Human’, which talks about remembering the passions of your younger self. Mine was drawing, so I went to a stationary shop got some pens and started drawing again.
The most challenging thing about running your business?
Setting up a website! I didn’t know anything about buying a domain name, finding a host etc. When first designing the cards, I realised that water colours didn’t photograph or print well. I had to work out how to make the illustrations pop and look great, which involved a lot of trial and error. Working full time while setting up a business is never easy, but I’m determined to make the business a success.
I went on a steep learning curve; I wasn’t even on social media at the time!
The main highlight of running your business?
Selling my first card! I was so excited when I got my first order via social media. Overall, the whole journey has been a highlight, especially as I set it up in a short space of time and the response has been amazing reaching all the way to NYC!
What’s the nicolalespeare.com ethos?
To design memorable celebration cards reflecting aspects of black culture, characteristics and trends. My vision is to become a brand synonymous with high quality black celebration cards, where people of African/Caribbean heritage can choose from a diverse collection of cards & gifts for every occasion.
Do you do bespoke cards?
Not yet, but I’m considering doing personalised cards in the future.
Any exciting developments?
There’s a wedding and Valentine’s Day collection coming in the New Year, which I can’t wait to start working on.
Where can we get your cards?
On my website nicolalespeare.com. Cards are posted within 24hrs all over the world; prices start at £2.49.
Any other card illustrators that inspire you?
I try not to look at what other card designers are doing, I want to maintain my own creative style. I’m inspired by anything around me…a piece of fabric, a person’s hairstyle that I’ll see on the bus, hot air balloons – which helped inspire the first collection.
Do you have any tips on starting a business?
Your social media game needs to be on point! It’s easy to become insular and paranoid that someone will steal your idea if you put it out there, but share it with friends and family because you need feedback. Most ideas are alterations of what’s been done in the past, but only you can put your own unique spin on it. What’s most important is that you act and keep progressing to reach your goals.
Talk about finding a gem! I just happened to stumble across the Meena design label; established over 5 years ago. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to find the Nigerian fashion house and its Creative Director, Uju Offiah. As soon as I saw the SS16 collection, I was like, “WOW”.
The Lagos based designer has showcased previous work at regional fashion shows, Music Meets Runway 2011, Arise Magazine Fashion Week 2012 and the 2012 MTN Lagos Design & Fashion Week. However, it was at the Heineken Lagos Fashion & Design Week 2015, where she revealed her SS’16 collection of structured dresses and custom made prints, that stopped me in my tracks while surfing the net. The SS’16 lookbook, entitled ‘Ochiagha’ from the Igbo language, translates into ‘Neoteric Warriors’.
According to Meena, the collection was inspired by ‘Nsibidi’ – a pre-colonial symbolic method of communication among the Igbo people, in the south eastern part of Nigeria: Symbols were arranged in clusters telling a story of victory, resilience, love & hate, peace and unity of Nigerians.
The collection artistically evokes unity and peace in spite of the recent challenges and insurgencies in northern Nigeria.
A modern person; a person who advocates new ideas (noun).
Belonging to recent times; recent (adjective).
Credits: PHOTOGRAPHY: Lakin Ogunbanwo (@lakinogunbanwo) | ART DIRECTION: Lakin Ogunbanwo & Uju Offiah | Model: Aduke (@adukebey_) of@bethmodelafrica | MAKE UP: Stella (@stellasaddiction ) | HAIR: Bernard (@bernardsmiless )
Snippets of an African legacy from a colourful perspective