2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Making Fashion Good with Walé Oyéjidé

Designer Walé Oyéjidé talks Afro-Euro-Philadelphian couture.

For the next two weeks, this show will be in Philadelphia, to give just a taste of this fine American city.

Over the past few decades, Philadelphia has had some real problems, but more needlessly, some image problems—a police detective decided to label a whole part of the city’s north as the Philadelphia Badlands and just last week someone noticed that Google Maps was still actually labeling it that. Which is bullshit. Back when I was a reporter covering the northeast U.S., I dipped into Philly quite a bit, from the upscale Gayborhood in Center City to, yes, that 25th police district in North Philly, and it’s a hard town not to like, from grit to Gritty.

The place I got to know back then is well represented by this week’s guest, fashion designer Walé Oyéjidé, a Nigerian-American designer, writer, musician and lawyer whose designs, under clothing label Ikiré Jones, have appeared in Black Panther and elsewhere. The man is good with a strong drink in the morning (The Trip editor Tafi Mukunyadzi fixed us up with some caipirinhas), he’s got strong ideas about how fashion can engage with the global south, and he was a pleasure to talk to. —Nathan

The following is an excerpt from the conversation. You can listen to the full episode, for free, on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Nathan Thornburgh:  You just got back from Rome.

Walé Oyéjidé:  Probably six hours ago.  In and out of Rome. And, the middle portion in an area of the country called Calabria. Which is the southern countryside. The bottom of Italy. It’s economically depressed. There’s not really any reason to go there, for tourist reasons. But, we get there, and it turns out to be an incredible place for the work that we do. I have this ongoing project, called After Migration, in which I, as a designer, photograph and tell the stories of migrants and refugees, using my fashion design as a way to sneak their stories into the world.

Thornburgh:  Alright, let’s talk about that. Because we kind of do this, a little bit, with food. Where we’re trying to use food to tell some tough stories. And, there’s a line that you can never cross. And, actually, I think there have been some examples where fashion has crossed that line.

Oyéjidé:  So, fashion, generally, is one of the worst industries in the world.

Thornburgh: As a rule?

Oyéjidé: Yeah, there’s a common effect, that is actually inaccurate, but, still makes the point well. People say that fashion is the second-most pollutive, if that’s a word, industry in the world. As far as the waste and damage it creates. It’s actually not accurate. But, still, the point is fair. Because, generally, as an industry, all it does is makes you feel insecure about who you are. You’re too fat, too thin, too short, not blonde enough, not young enough. You can’t fit into these clothes, so, therefore, you’re not cool, you’re not sexy, you’re not worthy of being a person. Or, you’re not rich enough. It’s an industry that feeds upon this false sense of exclusivity.

And, so, it’s like, if you’re a poor person in wherever, you want to get that Gucci. ‘Cause, your friends can have Gucci. And, Gucci itself sees no value in you. Because, to them they’re just a part of their bottom line.

Thornburgh:  And, even on a base level, just the messaging that they’re going to tell you, to constantly be buying new clothes.

Oyéjidé:  Absolutely.

Thornburgh: So, you’re saying the industry being that way means that when they dive into serious issues, or, try to make something thematic around the refugee crisis, it’s gonna get real fucked up, real quick.

Oyéjidé: It’s almost always exploitative, when the fashion industry turns its lenses towards people who are not the makers of fashion. I haven’t seen too many things, specifically, towards refugees. But, I mean, for me, it’s very, very common to see images of some random, huge fashion conglomerate in, like, Kenya, with a Masai population. And, you see these Masai guys. And, they’re almost like furniture. It’s like this cool, exotic background. Dangerous animals, Africa, the wildlife. And, you see this thin, anorexic model, who’s very beautiful.  They’re stage settings. And, these are human beings, these are a culture, these are people who are storied for generations, if not centuries, of their own, very sophisticated in their own way, lifestyle. And, you use them as, basically, decoration.

Thornburgh:  Through fashion, how do you do that dance? Like, how do you use fashion to tell [the story of the refugee crisis?]

Oyéjidé: It’s almost the idea that tools that are very powerful. These are all tools. The idea that people say, money has no morals, money is a tool you can use. It’s not evil inherently. I think storytelling imagery is very much the same way. So, in the same way that fashion can be a tool for insecurity, that’s very profitable for whoever’s sitting in a boardroom, that looks nothing like you, it can also be a very effective tool for making people stop and looking at those who they wouldn’t look at, ordinarily.

So, again, to use the very first example for me, we go into these areas. Generally, it’s been Italy, because of the interesting overlap between the fashion industry. Because, it comes from Italy. And so do the migration crises. So, that’s where this project I’ve been working on has been. But, we go there. And so, you cast these individuals who are either spat at or ignored on the street. You put them in some beautiful clothing. And, all of a sudden, people are stopping. Asking, oh, is this person Kanye? Literally. By the way, this guy looks nothing like Kanye or Jay-Z.

Thornburgh: Is that progress? I’m trying to place that.

Oyéjidé:  Well, it’s an interesting irony. In their minds, you’re somebody who I should respect and love. Because, you are now within my definition of gorgeous. Now, that’s not to say that we should present ourselves in a way that’s respectable. Or, present ourselves in the way that others will accept us. But, it’s really more of, almost a social experiment, to show that when people are presented in a way that we deem classically beautiful, our biases strip away.

Thornburgh: So, tell me, I’ve heard a version of this story, but I’d love to hear it from you: How you ended up getting involved with Black Panther.

Oyéjidé:  It’s less interesting than one would think.

Thornburgh: Alright, listeners, are you guys ready for this? It’s gonna be less interesting than you’re expecting.

Oyéjidé: Yeah, it’s like two seconds. Well, actually, what happened was I got a call, to work on a thing for a singer/hip-hop producer. And, that didn’t pan out. But then, the individual, the stylist who called me, I think, kept me in the back of their head. And then, the Black Panther thing comes up. But, I think this happens because, I’ve been working on this for six years now. And, I think it’s been a very, very small, but pretty strong voice, to what we’re doing. And so, it’s like, when the guy who does X, Y, and Z. I’m that guy. Because, there’s nobody else who does this point of view. And so, even though it’s very, very small, it’s the gift and the curse of having a strong voice.

Thornburgh: Right. It’s not gonna be for everybody. But, for those for whom it is, you are the option.

Oyéjidé: On the nose, exactly.  So, we get a call, and it’s like, we’re working on this thing we can’t tell you about. So, this Marvel and Disney, if you don’t know. But, it’s like, very CIA-esque. And, they’re like, we’re working on this thing involving royalty, and Africa, and superheroes, are you interested? And, it was basically that. And, I was like, I know. We all know what this is here.

Thornburgh:  Unfortunately, there’s not a wide palette of options of royalty, Africa, superheroes in the Marvel universe.

Oyéjidé:  Pretty limited. And, it had a codename the entire time. Even in the NDAs.

Thornburgh:  What was the codename?

Oyejide:  I don’t know if I’m allowed to say the codename, I’m not sure. I don’t know, maybe it’ll be the same codename for part two. I probably shouldn’t say it. If there is a part two, if I’m involved, hint, hint, help, help, please.

Oyéjidé:  So, I get a call. And, it’s like, we have a thing we’re working on and we think your work is interesting. Can you send us some stuff? So, basically, over the next several months, we send them a bunch of things. And, as it happens, spoiler at this point, they only use one thing. But, it was used in such a grandiose and absurdly beautiful way that, like, you can’t buy that sort of advertising. It’s, literally, billion dollar advertising.

Thornburgh:  So, tell the listeners, where did it end up?

Oyéjidé: So, my first exposure is, I’m watching a Super Bowl ad, probably in 2017 or 16. And, you see Chadwick Boseman, playing the Black Panther, and he’s wearing the scarf that I designed. Which is nuts, it’s fantastic. So, it’s like, ah, we tell the world, people are excited. Fast forward to a year later, the film comes out. Everybody I know has been told I’m in this movie. And, we’re like, yes, we’re in the movie. I go with my wife to a press screening. It’s amazing, it’s fantastic. You’re sitting in a room with all press and they don’t know who I am. Everybody should know who I am.

Thornburgh: Come on, press.

Oyéjidé: Yeah press, do your job. For me, it was really surreal to watch them be excited, to watch this cool thing. And, for me, the significance of, like, this is great for me because, I’m actually kind of in this thing, right? So, we’re watching this film. It’s great, we’re loving it. Watching, watching, watching, watching, watching. And, it ends. And, the credits roll. And, I’m doing the math, like, I have to go home and tell everybody I’m not in this film, I’ve just spent the past year telling you I’m in. And, also, I’m like, what happened?

Thornburgh:  What happened?

Oyéjidé: Then there’s a post-credits scene. And then, you see Chadwick Boseman wearing my thing. And, he’s the size of a wall…

Thornburgh:  That’s fascinating. Somehow, so, the makers of the film really found a fashion moment. It sounds like you’re describing, almost a fashion shot of him at the end.

Oyéjidé:  It was, like, bang on. Like, if you were gonna write a money shot, for lack of a better phrase, it would be that. So, it happened that way.

You can listen to the full episode, for free, on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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