Being “yourself” is easier said than done but according to Walé Oyéjidé – who designed a particularly dashing scarf for Black Panther, the Afro-centric superhero flick – it becomes easier when you see positive representations of folks who look like you in the media. It also helps if you take a little inspiration from his fashion label, Ikiré Jones; whose mission is to help everyday people feel akin to royalty. I caught up with Oyéjidé at New York Fashion Week and asked the former lawyer and hip-hop artist about the key to unlocking your inner king.
How do you start on a project like Black Panther?
It sounds trite, but it’s another day at the office. Not the spectacle, but the work itself. Everything we make is intended to show people who haven’t been represented positively in the best possible light, no matter where they’re from. It happens to be inspired by my African heritage, but it’s for everybody. Making [garments] for the character King T’Challa is very much the highest apex of what we do every day for ordinary people. We dress people as kings, whether they be refugees or people of immigrant descent; it’s what the brand is... People who haven’t been presented as nuanced and humane by the media we're showing them as the best possible version of themselves so that we – society at large – can see them as complete human beings.
And do you find that a storytelling medium like film really allows you to have the biggest impact on that front?
Absolutely. As much as people say that film and fashion are trivial, it’s really a product of the people wielding the engine. Even though it’s a multi-million dollar corporation deciding to shine a light on people of colour, you realise the impact that can have, and you realise how special it seems to people who obviously have been starved for positive representations of themselves. Until this becomes normal, it’s going to be a big deal to have black designers and people of colour seen as kings and sexy James Bond-looking stars and tech geniuses. These are all things that are pretty normal for different segments of the population, but for people of colour, it’s very unusual, sadly. It takes a film like this to kick the doors open. And it’s my sense that after this happens, we’re not going to be able to go back; we’re going to want more of this.
When you talk about feeling like a king, I start thinking about the importance of a sense of self, and I think on a deeper level that’s what it’s about. When you have a strong sense of self, your power becomes unlimited.
The stuff that I wear, for example – I’m wearing Ikiré Jones of course – is obviously very bold, but it’s intended to be elegant while also being aggressive. It’s that idea that you can walk into a boardroom and people will take you seriously. It’s not a costume. I think the mistake people make, especially men, is they think that colour and being bold somehow makes you seem less serious. Something that women have figured out is that you can make a powerful statement without being a caricature. You can be assertive and you can be loud and still be saying something of merit. The reason people are dressing up to go to the film is that they’re finding an opportunity to express themselves. They haven’t felt comfortable wearing quote unquote African-looking clothes to work because it’s been seen as not serious or not professional. And so this – my work and this film – show that you can be you and still be your best self. And in fact, you are your best self when you are you. Because that’s when you are most comfortable and you shine the brightest, versus when you force yourself to comply and to fit into a box that isn’t necessarily built for you. That’s when you shirk and you don’t shine as brightly.
What you’re saying changes my concept of fashion; I have felt at times that fashion is oppressive.
A lot of fashion preys on our insecurities. It’s intended to be unattainable and fit a subset of people that are human aberrations. How many of us are six foot seven and 120 pounds? Very few. But if that’s the only version of beauty that you see – if the only beauty you see happens to be blond and blue-eyed and very skinny – then by default you are not beautiful, because you do not fit into the version of beauty that you’ve been presented with. In the year 2018, so many of us – whether we be designers, filmmakers or writers – are writing from our perspectives, and showing that we can be just as elegant and just as gorgeous as we are. And the more of that that gets presented, the more people feel accepted into the definition of what beauty is, and then we all feel better. Being a size zero is not the only way to be gorgeous. You can be a size whatever; it’s irrelevant. It’s a shame that the vision and version of beauty that’s been perpetuated in the world historically has been a very narrow scope, and perhaps that’s been a function of who has been allowed to create beauty.
Why do you think that this is happening at this moment in time?
People have been waiting to be let in. But if you’re told for long enough that you can’t come in, at a certain point some people are going to say, “Well, why don’t we just make our own thing?” And when you start making your own thing, people realise the party’s actually more fun out there, then they start saying, “Oh, come into the party.” So it’s great to be let into the party, but we’re having our own party anyway.
One piece of advice for aspiring designers?
Be you. I’m here because I’m me. I’m not here because I’m trying to be Ralph Lauren or Louis Vuitton or Yves Saint Laurent. Those guys exist, there’s no more of them. And it’s foolhardy to try and be them because you’re not going to have the resources of Ralph Lauren; it makes no business or creative sense. Truth and authenticity resonate with people the most. When you are as you as you can possibly be that’s when people tap into it. Obviously, it takes longer, but what always prevails is honesty.