Kenneth Ize
Photo by Kristy Sparow
Emerging Masters

Kenneth Ize: “Clothes tell us about who we are”

Short Profile

Name: Kenneth Ize
DOB: 5 October 1990
Place of birth: Lagos, Nigeria
Occupation: Fashion designer

Kenneth, as a fashion designer, how would you describe the power of clothes?

The first thing we do in the morning is get dressed. We wake up and think, “Okay, what am I going to wear today?” You can’t go out naked! That’s what makes fashion so strong; clothes hold so much power. I believe in clothes so much. Being a queer person and moving from Nigeria to Austria, I had trouble integrating with people; all I had was clothes. But at the time, there was nothing in the world that gave me confidence like those clothes did. There’s nothing like when I’m wearing something that makes me feel one thousand and one percent myself… If I feel amazing wearing something, it gives me power.

What would you say to someone who doesn’t believe in the power of fashion, or who thinks clothes are frivolous?

Clothes tell us about who we are! And there are clothes for every occasion, and they have power in that way. My favorite example is: Would you wear a suit to go play basketball? No! (Laughs) I mean, even the President needs to wear clothes, you know what I mean? In Nigeria, where I’m from, even the color you’re wearing signifies something different; some tribes wear red and black for funerals. Some wear red for getting married. Then we have extravagant outfits for Sundays at church, for celebrations. And it’s also something we speak about before celebrating: “What are you going to wear?” So you see, how important clothes can be?

“Dressing up made me think beyond where I was to where I wanted to be in life, you know? It made me dream.”

Have you always had such a deep connection to fashion?

When I was growing up, I just knew that I loved wearing clothes so much, you know, I would wear my mom's or my Auntie's clothes in the house, and I would look myself in the mirror and play different characters. It made me think beyond where I was to where I wanted to be in life, you know? It made me dream. Growing up, there was a lot I couldn’t afford or that I couldn’t be, but wearing something special made me feel like I could do it, I could be in that space.

It sounds like it was something really aspirational for you. Does it still feel that way today?

I’ve never just thought, like, “Okay, I want to make this glamorous dress.” I really think that you have to have a reason why you're doing something. I've really taken that so much to heart; anything I do has to not only stand out but also has to help the next person. I really want to do things that will be beneficial for my peers and my community. I don’t want to make things with a selfish mindset. I want to make it out of love. So right now, I’m focusing on: what do I want to achieve in my own country, in Nigeria? What do I want to achieve as my own self? In Africa, we have a big crisis in second-hand clothes. There are tons of second-hand and used clothes that are dumped in Africa by Europeans and Americans, and this really baffles me! So I’m trying to find a way to use this waste in upcycling projects, doing custom pieces, and shifting towards sustainability.

You also opened a textile factory in Ilorin, Nigeria, to produce the fabrics for your clothes — which has not only brought many jobs to the area, but also invests in your community.

Yes, that was a really important thing for me. The factory employs 30 or so asoke weavers, it’s the biggest weaving factory in Nigeria. The weaving tradition is part of our culture, it’s about bringing that into the present. I believe that culture should have a space to exist, no matter what. And now, a lot of Nigerians are into woven fabric, more than ever before! When I see that, it touches me so much. I’m so happy that this story is educating people; because that empowers us, it brings diversity and love between us.

“I know what it feels like not having something, I know what it’s like to struggle. So the thing that I want most is to help the next person who’s struggling.”

Those are the kind of values that fashion should be all about.

I was taught these lessons by my dad! He is someone that has so much sympathy for people, he’s someone that trust everyone around. You know, he never cooks for just five people, he would cook for everyone! My dad was always the type to try to make sure the next person is fine. My parents are really my heroes, they’ve taught me so much about humans and humanity. And in the years that I’ve bene working on the brand, I've experienced so much of people; people have helped me a lot, so I’m happy to help the next person as well.

Do you think this journey of making change in the fashion industry will be a never-ending process?

It has to be constant! Anything that has to do with humanity is truly what I care about. I know what it feels like not having something, I've been in that situation before so many times, I know what it’s like to struggle. So the thing that I want most is to help the next person who's struggling, and that doesn’t stop just by opening one factory.

Would you say you’re also on a constant journey of change in a more personal sense as well? You’ve made a point of taking breaks away from designing in order to prioritize yourself and your needs.

Right, I mean, my career is number one, it’s so important to me, but at the same time, how I do it is very important. At some point, how fast things were moving was just getting too overwhelming for me. I’m a young person, and even I think it’s crazy to try and design a collection every six months. Like, how crazy are you? Even if you’re a creative genius, I mean, come on, it’s too much. One morning I woke up and I just thought, “Okay, I need a break.” And that’s it! The sad thing is that when I took the break, people were asking me what’s wrong with me, acting like taking a break is going to be my downfall. But for me, I know that I'm good at my job, I have so much passion for what I do… that kind of gives me the confidence to be free. It’s easy for me to decide things like this, it's not a big deal. I hope that other young people also have the trust in their work to shut it down, leave, and come back when they need to.