We’re as interested as you are in those movers, shakers and innovative creatives deserving of a brighter spotlight, and Wale Oyejide is definitely a young man you should know. So we asked Wale to tell us about his background, brand and future plans.
TIA: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and where you’re from?
Wale: As most will have gathered, I am Nigerian. I grew up in Ibadan, but like many of our people, did a lot of international traveling before settling in the U.S. as a teenager. After college, I spent a few years as an indie musician and put out a few records (including One Day…Everything Changed, an album that fuses afrobeat, hip hop and soul).
Were you always sartorially inclined? How did you get into fashion?
No actually. I didn’t have more than a passing interest in fashion until quite recently. After being named one of the 5 best dressed men in the nation by Esquire Magazine, I decided to take clothing a bit more seriously. I was practicing as an attorney, and somewhere around this time, I started blogging about menswear in my off-time.
What’s the story behind LessGentleMen?
LessGentleMen was ultimately a vehicle for me to talk about life, and the choices young men make when seeking to discover themselves. It was in the guise of a menswear blog, using clothing to carry the message. Most of the writings were as much about my own self discovery and motivations as they were about anyone else’s.
Your brand is Ikiré Jones. While there is a lot of “African-inspired” fashion these days, yours is a bit different. For one thing, the range is a bit more focused. The product catalog isn’t overflowing with superfluous items like kente cloth umbrellas and things of that nature. At the moment you have jackets and pocket squares. Do you plan on expanding the product range to include things like shirts, trousers, shorts, hats and scarves?
While expansion is in the plans, for me it has always made sense to learn to do one thing really well before moving on to the next. At the moment, we are focused on jackets and accessories (scarves and pocket squares). It makes sense that other ancillary items will follow, but I prefer a gradual approach.
I think the best way to address that is kind of an over-arching one. I think that at the core, I’m someone who sees himself as a story-teller. I spent half of my upbringing in Nigeria and the rest in different countries. As a child, I was very sensitive to stereotypes about Africa that I found to be unfair and inaccurate. I’ve spent most of my creative life telling stories that related to Africa in my own way. As you noted there is a plethora of Africa and Africa-inspired brands and artists. I think it’s great, but even better when people express themselves in an individual fashion.
As someone who is a fan of traditional (English/Italian) menswear, I wanted to create products that were just as good, but provided a unique African slant without being disingenuous. It made sense to use elements from Nigerian culture in the same manner that one might see other brands use decorative elements from European culture and folklore.
New Lagos concept
Is afrofuturism a part of Ikiré Jones? I’ve noticed the ‘New Lagos’ branding, and they have a really dope afrofuturist vibe. Was that the idea?
I hesitate to say that afrofuturism is hard-coded into the identity of the brand. This goes back to the story-telling aspect. Anyone who has taken a look at ikirejones.com will see that each product is accompanied by a fictional anecdote or story of some sort. The premise of the first collection (“Escape to New Lagos”) was to present an unapologetic and triumphant view of Lagos in the future. Sadly, the images of starving babies are still at the forefront of foreign minds when Africa comes to mind, so I wanted to present a completely different view. One can see it as world-building a better Africa, with the Ikiré Jones products as guides to accompany the vision.
Our next season (Summer/Spring 2014 – “The Untold Renaissance“) takes the reverse approach. Instead of projecting to the future, we appropriated 18th century Renaissance art and married it with African images; the idea being that while people of color were generally invisible in European artwork from that period, those people were there, and still had stories to tell. It’s pretty ambitious and I’m curious to see how it will be received.
Who’s the artist behind the ‘New Lagos’ concept?
After coming up with the “New Lagos” concept, I got together with Lekan Jeyifous, who is a brilliant Nigerian/American architect, based in Brooklyn (see: vigilism.com for his work). He was able to put a face to my idea. The result looks very much like Star Wars set in Nigeria, and is visually striking.
African fashion is exploding, and with that comes the potential for commercialization. The Maasai scarves have been enriching everyone but the Maasai. American Apparel is now selling kente cloth items. What is your opinion of that? Should Africans be concerned about cultural appropriation through African fashion by non-Africans?
It’s an interesting phenomenon. It isn’t unusual to see fashion brands use African, or even Native American prints and designs, while showing no overt connections or relationships to those cultures. I don’t think I’m necessarily in a position to judge whether that is right or wrong. I do think that some nod or acknowledgement should be offered toward the cultures being appropriated from. But how that should be accomplished is not for me to say. I do appreciate tasteful adoption of other cultures in different mediums. After all, what is art if everyone colours in the same box for the rest of their lives? We’re on this planet so we can learn and inspire each other.
The issue of cultural appropriation from Africa and Black people in general is a long and storied one that is not often acknowledged by the majority. It is a shouting match that the minority will never win. My personal way to address it is to tell the best African stories possible (at the moment, through the medium of fashion) and hope that the message shines through. As the adage, goes “Real Recognises Real.”
Where do you see Ikiré Jones in the future? Do you envision a day when ready to wear options of your apparel are a reality, or do you only want to work with orders customized and tailored to the buyer?
I’m hopeful that we can continue to grow. We’re still a very young company with a focused message. What we do will not be for everyone, and I think that is okay. If you try and satisfy everyone, you will end up appealing to the common denominator and looking like Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart serves it’s purpose, but appealing to the middle ground ultimately dilutes whatever message one is trying to convey.
It’s my hope that we’ll continue to grow and maintain our integrity.
Thank you for your time, Wale.
Of course, it’s my pleasure.
Photo credits: David McDowell (with the exception of the New Lagos art concepts).