Kenneth Ize Gets Real
The Nigerian designer is staking a claim on the fashion industry, on his own terms.
Back in February, on the first day of Paris Fashion Week, a usually quiet evening where nothing major ever happens, a sizable crowd was buzzing inside the Palais de Tokyo, waiting for Kenneth Ize’s show to begin. It was his first-ever show on the French fashion calendar, after he was named a finalist for the LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers in 2019. What was even more unusual about the evening was that the excitement felt in the audience was not due to clout or a celebrity presence, but simply due to the 30-year-old Nigerian designer’s singular talent. The model Imaan Hammam opened the show in a turquoise-and-red striped zip-up bomber jacket worn over a contrasting striped turtleneck, with a matching miniskirt with a slit on one side made from traditional Nigerian asoke striped fabric. Models of all genders followed through in jumpsuits, printed hooded sweatshirts, and matching suits—all bearing Ize’s signature bold colors—and each model’s individuality shone through the looks. There was a sense that the clothes were for everyone. By the time Naomi Campbell closed the show in a red-and-green asoke trench coat, well, the typically stoic crowd absolutely lost their minds. The mood was buoyant, as if we’d all been dying of thirst, and Ize had come and fed us all, hydrated us with this vision.
“Most of these things that I'm creating, I want to wear [them] first,” Ize says, as he and I are talking via Zoom a few months into quarantine. He is in Lagos, Nigeria, where he has decided to spend the lockdown. “I love clothes. I love dressing up. I love looking good. I'm from a family that, if you're not going to shower in the morning and dress nice, you'll be [thought of as] nuts.”
Born in Lagos and raised in Linz, Austria (“It’s a super white country”), Ize was always drawn to clothes, but thought instead he might study psychology. It was his mother and a few of his friends who suggested he give fashion design a try. He studied at the University of Applied Arts Vienna and, right after graduation in 2013, launched his label during Lagos Fashion Week. Then he put his label on hiatus and went back to school in Vienna to get his M.A. “As a Nigerian person, education has been something very important in my home. That's first thing,” he explains. “And my parents weren't really educated necessarily. So I feel like I have the obligation to acquire as much as I can—which is actually never enough, right?” Hussein Chalayan was one of his professors during his second year, and Ize credits the designer with helping him synthesize his vision. “He's amazing,” says Ize. “He's really, really cool. I feel he also gave me such a different energy, because he came exactly when I was leaving. I remember the last word he said to me: Always make anything that is relevant, and you're good.”
Before Ize even finished his M.A., he had set his sights on showing in Paris. “It wasn't just about, I'm going to Paris because it's Paris,” he recalls. “No, for me, it was more than that. I didn't see any representation of myself. The year Suno showed in New York [was a big deal]. My friend showed me, like, Oh, my God, Ken, this is like the things you'd really like to see.” Because of that, Ize is adamant people know his label is Nigerian. “Mostly people don't understand that the brand is from Africa, based in Nigeria.” The fabrics, like the asoke that has become his trademark, are created there through artisanal processes, and he then ships the materials to factories in Europe that assemble the clothes. “It’s a lot of work because I’m working with the infrastructure we have here in Nigeria,” he explains. “For example, I'm running my generator now to get power supply, and as a young emerging business person in Nigeria, I have a limited time of when to turn this generator on and off.”
Despite these restrictions and difficulties that surely make the struggle of being a young brand in the marketplace that much harder, Ize insists on keeping his production local. “I have to be here because I believe in where I am, I believe in this work that I'm doing, [and] that it's going to benefit not just me—it's just going to create some of the things that we need.” He continues, “People that I work with, for example, [are] really getting into the mood of, like, Yeah, let's do it! They're super motivated, because they've seen the work that we've done just the past two years. They inspire the work, and the work also inspires them.”
When we speak, there are racial protests in the United States and abroad, and a new desire to eradicate old systems that permeate every aspect of our lives—including the fashion industry. What does he think its future will be? “I have never thought about the industry, because the industry has not included people like me,” Ize says animatedly. “Like, people that a few years ago had no interest in my brand are [now] inviting me to speak on panels, and I don’t even know where to begin,” he continues, a slight anger and frustration in his voice. “I’m like, Why am I in the mix? This is not a conversation thing anymore. It's just do it. That slogan Nike did was amazing: ‘Just Do It.’ So I feel like that’s what we need now. We need to speak about humanity. We need to just do it.”