A chat with Walé Oyéjidé, the man behind Ikiré Jones, a Philadelphia-based fashion line with a truly global aesthetic.
Walé Oyéjidé’s unique designs merge and meld the aesthetics of vibrant African textiles and the art of Renaissance Europe with the design traditions of European haute couture — creating wearable art that sparks a conversation about cultural inclusivity. Most recently, Oyejide’s fashions were seen on the big screen and red carpet in Marvel’s Black Panther.
We asked to Oyéjidé tell us about the ideas that informed the creation of Ikiré Jones, what the world’s response has been so far, and what’s next.
You are both Nigerian and American. How did growing up between cultures influence you and the designs you produce with Ikiré Jones?
I was born and raised in Nigeria, in a city called Ibadan. A bit like the Philadelphia to Lagos’s New York, it’s not the huge, giant city nearby that the whole world has heard of. It’s a bit more suburban. I traveled back and forth the US as a child, as many immigrants do, because my parents were always looking for better job opportunities.
I also lived in the United Arab Emirates with my mother for a couple of years. I was probably about 12 to 14, and it was the early 1990s, right before Dubai became the monstrosity that we know now. It was a fascinating place: at the time, they imported people for everything because they were wealthy enough to do so. So there was a huge expatriate class, and I went to an international school with a bunch of kids who were English, American and European — a little bubble of kids from all over the world.
Living this kind of life between cultures can leave a kid feeling like you have no real anchor. For me, going back to Nigeria was like, well, I’m not quite Nigerian enough, and in the US, not American enough. It’s a familiar conundrum for anyone with an upbringing that straddles different cultures. Over time, I learned to be confident in my amalgamation of experiences as part of who I am. But I’d have liked to be able to tell myself at 15 that it’s okay to be so culturally mixed. Now I’m happy to talk about my experience so that maybe people can be less hesitant to embrace those with complex cultural backgrounds.
This speaks to my work, which is ultimately about pushing people to be more accepting and inclusive. Ikiré Jones happens to do this through the medium of clothing, from the perspective of somebody of African descent. But the overarching idea is to make room for perspectives that haven’t historically been heard. There is Asian culture, African culture, Arab culture — so much out there that society hasn’t given space and a voice to. The more perspectives we get to hear, the more we’re exposed to the myriad stories of human culture, the more we’re all enlightened and enriched. It’s a mission of mine to remind people that elegance comes in different forms, and there is enough room for all of them to shine.
Were you always interested in fashion?
I was actually interested in music first. After we moved to Alabama, during my high school years, I played guitar in indie rock bands, then did hip-hop, even putting out a couple of instrumental albums after college. I quickly realized that the starving artist life was as described: not very lucrative. It’s the pressure on those of us whose parents are immigrant doctors. Standard story, basically. “What is our child doing?” Not to mention, I wanted to be able to do nice things for my then-girlfriend (now wife), and the Z-list musician salary wasn’t exactly cutting it.
I decided I’d go to law school — it seemed like a smart thing to do for people who want to be secure and responsible adults. I figured, it’s fine on paper: I did moderately well, and ended up getting a gig as a civil defense attorney at a big firm in Philly. Perfectly adequate for those who write their lives that way — but two and a half years later, I found it to be soul-crushing work for anyone who has a scintilla of creativity to them.
How did you make the leap from law to fashion?
When you’re a lawyer, you wear suits! By the way, lawyers generally don’t really dress well — that’s the TV aspirational version of us. Most of us just show up to court in whatever won’t get us yelled at by a judge. My job was uninspiring, and fashion ended up being the the vehicle through which I expressed my frustration. I turned to retail therapy, spending exorbitant amounts of money on brands that we’re all familiar with, and writing a menswear blog. I ended up developing some notoriety as the one peacocky lawyer at the office, to the point that in 2010, I was chosen as one of Esquire magazine’s best-dressed men.
Finally it occurred to me that I perhaps could use fashion as a vehicle to break out of law, and instead make something that’s relevant to me. I thought, “Well, I like clothing, I love all this Italian, European stuff. But how do I do it my way? How do I make it relevant to the huge swaths of people who are not being spoken to by these brands?”
By this time, my partner and I were about to have our child, and I thought, Why don’t I actually do what I would love to do, and have a relationship with my daughter? So a little over five years ago, I broke out of the legal industry to become a stay-at-home father and designer.