“I’m not a religious person,” explains Nigeria-born, Vienna-raised Kenneth Ize, before reciting John 3:16. A hangover from a youth spent in catholic churches in Lagos, the verse may not guide his choices, but his sartorial memories from the time certainly do. Ize describes the vibrant traditional dress his mother wore to church (and the matching outfits she insisted Ize and his brother wear) as the starting point for the collection showing at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo this season.
Ize, who relaunched his eponymous label in 2016 with menswear, now shows on the women’s schedule with dual-gender collections, thanks to the fact that a majority of his men’s pieces were actually being bought by women. The 29-year-old is now based back in Lagos, but divides his time between Vienna (where he studied at Austria’s University of Applied Arts under the tutelage of Hussein Chalayan), Paris, Italy and Nigeria, where he works with artisans in the craft of aso oke handweaving, a technique developed by the Yoruba people to create the traditional cloth for special occasions.
From this vibrant cloth, he cuts boldly tailored separates that have already found fans such as Beyoncé, Naomi Campbell and Donald Glover.
Speaking to Vogue from Vicenza, Italy, while overseeing the final touches of production of his autumn/winter 2020 collection, Ize reveals the story behind his Paris Fashion Week debut.
“When I moved back to Nigeria [in 2016], I was shocked by how many resources we had, not just natural resources, but artisans creating things with their hands. And then I fell in love with aso oke cloth because it doesn’t consume electricity to create, just a person and the fibre. [The artisans] are incredible; they empower me to open my mind, to think faster, to approach things in different ways and find solutions to problems. I started listening to the stories from the craftspeople and it broke my heart to see that you can have so much talent and you can’t feed yourself from it.”
On the ideas and inspiration behind autumn/winter 2020
“I tried to reflect back to the time when [my family and I] were in Africa and how things changed all of a sudden when we moved to Europe. My mother stopped wearing African outfits every day, only wearing them on Sundays. On Mondays, she would go to work in corporate clothing and be a completely different person. She was always so looking forward to Sundays because it was the only time she could really express where she was from and her culture.”
“I choose my colours by going to the market in Lagos and buying yarn that I love. Then I show them to the weaver, she breaks down what she thinks — she has a very good sense of colour — then we start weaving this fabric, not knowing what it’s going to be. Do I ever have a colour palette [in mind]? I don’t know. You could easily find seven colours in one of my jackets!”
“Honestly, I don’t think I knew that much about LVMH until the prize! I went there so naïve and had the best time of my life. I’m happy that I made so many friends, I wasn’t just focusing on [winning] the prize, I was focused on the relationships I could build with people — and those relationships are what enabled me to show [at PFW]. I’m happy people can relate to what I’m doing, I’m happy that it’s starting a conversation. When I established [my label], it was during the ebola crisis and everything about Africa at that time was about ebola. I wanted to show people a different side [of the continent]. I’m happy with what people are speaking about and to change people’s lives by creating jobs. So the LVMH prize stepped up the game for me.”
“I’m working with aso oke from Nigeria and crepe with embroidery from Austria, which is funny, because that’s where Nigerians would travel to in the 1960s to get fabric. My mum probably went there with her friends to buy fabric back then! This season I’m also playing with knitwear and Japanese denim.”
“For me, this year is about opening the brand to people and growing. It’s also for people to see something different, because I grew up knowing who Giorgio Armani and Gianni Versace were, but I didn’t grow up knowing any African designers. It’s a big problem, that not everyone’s included on this journey. [Designers] may say how much they are inspired by something from Africa or Mexico, but are they really including [people from Africa and Mexico] in the picture?”
“It was very important for me, for this debut in Paris, to go back to my roots, to where I started from, to what I know best. I’m focused a lot on tailoring, it’s something I’ve always really loved. There are no dresses for the girls, just straight, tailored pieces. I’m playing with silhouettes a lot and trying to bring a relaxed feel into the tailored pieces and mix street culture into it — I want it to be for everyone.”