OkayAfrica catches up with streetwear designer, Ebele Ojechi, of BËLË, where she talks inspiration and thinking outside of the box.
African women are bringing a fresh perspective to many industries that have been traditionally male and white. Despite there being a new renaissance of African women integrating in high end fashion markets, not many are pursuing high end streetwear—until now.
Ebele Ojechi is the epitome of new wave design. As a streetwear designer she incorporates global influences from around the world. A key source of her brand aesthetic is her Nigerian and British heritage that has been a prime part of her brand BËLË. BËLË premiered its first collection, AREA BOYS, during London’s fashion week in the Fall of 2016 and has since been featured on major platforms like Vogue.
Not only is she looking to put Africa on the map through her brand, she is also showing other young women that although streetwear is a male dominated industry, they too can make an impact. Her unique approach to design is changing the game and elevating the culture of fashion.
I got a chance to talk to with Ebele about her inspirations for BËLË, her cultural heritage and African artists she admires. Check out our conversation below.
Amarachi Nwosu for OkayAfrica: How did the idea for BËLË come about?
Ebele Ojechi: During my final year of university, studying fashion sportswear design, we were tasked with developing our own brand. I wanted my brand to represent my identity and what makes me the 23-year-old Londoner of Nigerian heritage that I am today. So my concept for BËLË was born from me wanting to combine the two cultures that have influenced my life the most; Nigerian and British culture. These cultures have been a constant source of inspiration for as long as I can remember, so it made sense for BËLË to be a way for me to channel these inspirations into functional men's sportswear.
How has growing up in London shaped your perspective on art and design?
Growing up in London has had a massive influence on my perspective, I actually didn’t realize how much so until recently. As London is a mixing pot of many different cultures, growing up here has taught me how to combine various cultural influences into one work of art. For example, in London you'll often see Muslim boys wearing their traditional thobe with a Nike puffer coat, some sick Nike trainers and a man bag. I've always loved that! The way they mix their religious attire with the typical wears of London youth; you can tell so much about their identity by just looking at them. Seeing things like that on a daily basis has definitely shaped the way I design. With BËLË I wanted to explore how I could represent my identity in this way.
You recently presented your first collection during London’s fashion week, what was this experience like?
That was the best and craziest day this year! My body was running on a couple hours sleep, Pro-plus and an insane amount of adrenaline. Despite not eating anything until after the end of the show, I was energized by the experience. Having never presented my designs to the public in such a way, I was quite anxious in the weeks leading up to the show. It went so well though and the turnout was amazing! The energy and atmosphere in the room was perfect; everyone was vibing, dancing, and checking out the clothes. There wasn't a dull moment and I can't wait for the next show now!
Ebele Ojechi. Photo courtesy of BËLË.
How has your African identity inspired the colors, silhouettes and designs of your first collection?
Looking through my parents photos from 1970s/80s Nigeria is what initially ignited a desire to incorporate my heritage into BËLË’s first collection, AREA BOYS. The colors captured in those photos and the silhouettes are what I loved the most. The oversized nature of men's traditional wear; the large sleeve openings and the traditional layering of various garments; all informed my core design features for the collection. The rich red clay of Nigerian grounds, the jungle greens, the tan youth service uniforms and the bright yellow taxis; these all formed my color palette for AREA BOYS.
Who are some of your favorite African artist right now?
I sadly don’t know too many current African artists. But I can tell you that my favorite African author, and author in general, is Chinua Achebe. His writings have had a big influence on my ideology and concepts. I also admire the late Malick Sidibé, the way he captured the authentic culture and lives of his subjects is unparalleled. Another photographer and illustrator I love right now is Yagazie Emezi; her photography is so honest and powerful.
There are not many women in streetwear, let alone African women, what do you hope your presence in the industry will bring about?
I want to add more cultural diversity to the industry. That's why I created BËLË, because I was seeing a lot of similar styles and colors from brand to brand. Not many sportswear brands take risks these days, unless they are collaborating with a fashion brand. So I hope for BËLË to give people a type of sportswear that they haven't been offered before. I also hope for it to teach people a bit about the aspects of African and British culture that have influenced my life. For example, the accents in my logo represent my Igbo heritage. They are semi circles to represent the half of the yellow sun in the Biafran flag; a topic that is very important to me.
Where are some places that you’re keen to visit and display BËLË products?
I would love to showcase BËLË in Nigeria! That's definitely the first on my list. I also love the design scene in Amsterdam, so to show there would be amazing. I want BËLË to be a global brand so I'm open to opportunities that arise in any country.
What is the most significant thing you have learned in the creation process of BËLË?
Inspiration can come from the most unlikely sources. I've always been proud of my Nigerian heritage, but before creating BËLË I was adamant that I would never want to do a collection or project inspired by Nigeria. Especially nothing to do with using traditional textiles to make western silhouettes. It was too obvious. But I have learnt to look past the obvious and focus on core details and how I can manipulate those in my designs.
What advice would you give to African creatives who want to break barriers in fashion and design?
Think outside the box! It's sounds like a generic thing to say but it's so key. Africa has a wealth of unique inspiration sources. Tapping into them and channeling them into design that is authentic to you is in my opinion the best way to break barriers.
What can we expect from BËLË over the next year?
Global domination!!!! Haha. No but seriously, over the next year I'd like to gain stockists globally and become more recognized in the sportswear industry. I'm also excited to start working on my second collection in the new year; which I will present early next summer. 2017 is definitely going to be a major year for BËLË!