“My clothing is a vehicle for being a cultural ambassador between Africa and the West,” declares Walé Oyéjidé, designer and creative director of the Philadelphia apparel company Ikiré Jones.
Q&A with Designer Walé OyéjidéOne fashion brand to feature African wax-print textiles in its collections is 2016 Best of Philly winner Ikiré Jones. Walé Oyéjidé, the company’s designer and creative director, shares his inspiration and artistic vision.
Tell us how the Ikiré Jones fashion brand came to be. What was the inspiration?
Ikiré Jones arose out of an irrepressible need to find a creative outlet during a time when most of my waking hours were consumed by my work as a practicing attorney. For me, it was also very important to devote myself to work that was meaningful and could have a positive effect on society. I set out to create work that was aesthetically pleasing and culturally impactful. Ikiré Jones was my answer.
The brand name symbolizes a literal marriage of two cultures: Ikiré is the town that my father grew up in, in Nigeria; Jones is the family name of my American spouse. By putting the two names together, I sought to commemorate the artistic union of Western and African cultures.
What sort of customer do you have in mind?
This may run contrary to the philosophies of some business people, but I don’t spend much time envisioning a particular demographic or consumer base for my work. In my experience, artists limit themselves when they corral their work to address a small segment of the population. Instead, I make work that seeks to address complicated issues with beautiful textiles, and I open my arms to whoever appreciates it. All are welcome, regardless of culture, race, or social status.
What drew you to Vlisco fabrics?
As far as wax-print textiles are concerned, Vlisco has established itself as one of the preeminent brands in the field. Because of its storied history and deep archive of print patterns, Vlisco is sought after by most artisans who use wax-print fabrics as their chosen medium. Before I began designing my own custom prints for Ikiré Jones, Vlisco was the brand to which I would first look for inspiration and ideas. The name is synonymous with quality.
Vlisco fabrics represent a unique relationship between the industrial history of Europe and the cultural landscape of West and Central Africa. Furthermore, Ikiré Jones marries African textiles with European tailoring. As a designer, how do you negotiate these dualities of European and African aesthetics? I do so by openly confronting the complicated history that has brought us to this point. For better or worse, we (as human beings and as artists) are all products of the triumphs and tragedies of our shared past. Over time, I’ve become less infatuated with the notion of cultural ownership. It is more interesting to me to acknowledge the mixed origins of the things that influence us (in this case, textiles) while using those old things to create something new. I often relate my use of African textiles and old European artwork to the process of sampling in hip-hop music. Out of the vestiges of old culture, new stories can be fashioned. As long as we respectfully acknowledge where older things come from, I see nothing wrong with using them to create new narratives. In my hands, paintings about old European beauties have been adapted to recount African-centric stories about ancient love and contemporary migration. There is certainly an intentional irony in using the work of former colonialists to create narratives celebrating people from Africa. How did your work come to be a part of the Vlisco exhibition? I asked to be involved. I’ve found that in life doors don’t open for you unless you demand (or ask politely) that they be. I believe that the work was initially intended to mostly feature female designers. Upon hearing about it, I introduced myself to the curator, Dilys Blum. She was kind enough to review my work and include me in the exhibition. To her credit, this was an enormously generous gesture on her behalf. I’m not sure that many other curators would be so open-minded. Ikiré Jones’s vibrant collections stand out in the world of menswear. Was this a conscious decision and, if so, why? Yes. I’ve always been of the impression that there is really no point in doing anything if it isn’t executed with a unique perspective. From the beginning, I knew that if I was going to start a brand it had to be one that was an honest reflection of my history and personality. The world has already had its Versace and Ralph Lauren. We need much fewer imitators and more original voices. My clothing is certainly colorful, but more and more men are becoming more comfortable with the idea of wearing bold colors. A guy can only own so many navy and gray suits before he decides that it’s time to try something new.
This scarf, entitled “Portrait of a Mother from Chibok,” accompanies Ikiré Jones’s Vlisco pattern suit.
“Before I began designing my own custom prints for Ikiré Jones, Vlisco was the brand to which I would first look for inspiration and ideas,” says Oyéjidé.
Your work shows a conscious engagement with past and present African society. What does the future of Ikiré Jones look like?
I think we’re at a fascinating point in history. The internet has shrunken the world, making us all increasingly aware of the issues that ail and bring people joy around the world. As we all become more educated about neighboring societies, it is my suspicion that Westerners will become more comfortable with the idea of respectfully assimilating the cultures outside their borders.
I see my work as being about much more than tailoring. My clothing is a vehicle for being a cultural ambassador between Africa and the West. There is a lot more to the continent of Africa than wildlife and natural resources. Not everyone can afford a plane ticket to the other side of the world. But perhaps, with a piece of clothing, they can get a small taste of a distant culture that is waiting to be shared.
Your work has taken you all over the world. Is there a reason you’ve chosen to remain based in Philadelphia?
Philadelphia may not have the winding waterways of Venice. It may not have the colorful tapestries of Marrakech. But where else on God’s Green Earth can a humble soul find a perfect cheesesteak? Nowhere but here.
This interview was conducted by Blake Schreiner, Summer Intern, Interactive Technology. It has been edited for clarity.