In the throes of a public health emergency compounded with civil unrest in his native Nigeria, Kenneth Ize has been working in a different tenor, which he explained candidly: “I’m not happy as a designer right now and I’m not trying to make you wear happy clothes.”
This from a designer who electrified Paris Fashion Week last February during the Fall-Winter 2020 season in an exultant paean to West Africa with the support of a coterie of supermodels including Naomi Campbell, Imaan Hammam, and Adwoa Aboah. The collection was aglow with rich hues and featured painstaking details that used traditional Nigerian weaving techniques.
Ize’s Fall-Winter collection is still true to his aesthetic and plays out with his signature relaxed proportions, tactile use of fabrication, and traditional weaving techniques including the hand-woven cloth aso oke, made by the Yoruba people in West Africa. However, the politics of the season – including the ongoing END Sars protests – led him in the direction of darker shades like blue and brown and symbols like the ouroboro. Furthermore, he pared back his use of colour in tonal studies. Despite the somber mood, Ize assures that he is as determined as ever to portray the beauty and potential of Nigeria.
“I don’t know how this collection is going to be perceived, I’ve done stuff I’ve never done before but I’m speaking my truth,” he said, on a Zoom call from Vicenza, Italy, where he’s overseeing the production of the collection, he delves deeper into what this means.
What was the starting point for this collection?
I’m confused about the situation now, I’m confused about life, and about so many things. I’m sad. When I started this collection, I didn’t know what I was going to do; like everything starts, but it got to a point after two months, I realized that things are changing, people are thinking differently, people are being hurt by other people, diversity is an issue – there’s been so many things that have led to confusion. When I stopped researching, I noticed that what I had done is quite dark, or dark for where I’m from. Seeing something like snakes, it’s this scary thing; or your mom wouldn’t let you wear black or red because they feel like it’s a symbol of the devil. I had to pull myself together and think, ‘Why is my mind here?’
What answer did you find?
I’m not going to be happy during this collection because of what has happened [in Nigeria] with End SARS. That really got to me because my work is about empowering the youth in Africa, and empowering Africa itself; I want to make Africa look rich from its own resources. End SARS showed me that military men are killing normal, young citizens just asking for basic necessities in life. My work is from this space, I do Paris Fashion Week, but I want people to understand the situation of what is happening in my country.
We can’t lie about what we’re going through anymore. Nigerians want to show you that everything is good and happy, that this is the ‘best country’ but this is not the time for those things. It’s time to speak about what’s happening here. I’m making dark clothes; it’s not colorful; there are symbols like the ouroboros. It’s been very beautiful for me to see this process and be comfortable with things I was never comfortable with.
I’m not trying to make everyone feel pity or feel sad about where I’m from – the struggle is everywhere – but it’s about a country with so much potential that doesn’t even have electricity needed to store enough of the vaccine to save people’s lives. You want me to be happy? You want me to create beautiful clothes when I’m working from there?
The use of color comes from a different place this season. Can you speak to that?
The reason I chose the colors this season was because, at the end of the day, I am still someone who believes in making Africa look beautiful. Within all this madness, I still want to look good. I want to wear beautiful clothes that are nicely made.
How are you presenting the collection?
I have never really done digital stuff before. I never really shoot my collection because I don’t have the time. It’s not where I’ve channeled my energy into so much. I have to say it’s really hard for me to present my work digitally. Because of how everything is going, it keeps changing every five minutes. Now, I think I should explain the collection myself because it’s different to my usual stuff.
What impact would you like the work to have?
I hope it has an educational impact; I think that’s key right now. I want people to also understand the honesty I use in creating my work. For me as a young person, being a designer working in Nigeria, I believe in what we do there and I want to show the quality of work we can do there if we have the possibility. The possibility is what I’m trying to create and it’s what led me to open my factory in Nigeria. I want people to see that we still have potential in all of this so they’re still interested to be involved in the story.