In less than two years, Hogoé Kpessou and her self-titled womenswear label has blown up thanks to the popularity of her leather handbags.
What is luxury when not white and dripping with European heritage? This is the question that Togolese-American designer Hogoé Kpessou is trying to answer. Her namesake womenswear label is winning over a small following with its leather handbags. They are crafted as messenger backpacks, saddle bags, purses, and rendered in a variety of colors like hunter green, honey brown, and lavender. But it’s the ingenious details that elevates the product, the cresting of bumblebees and fireflies.
In October of 2020, Kpessou established her brand in the crucible of the COVID-19 pandemic. In barely two years, the label has caught the eye of mainstream pop culture. Its messenger bag was featured on an episode of Bel-Air. Janelle James, star of ABC’s hit show Abbott Elementary, held a saddle bag at the premiere last December. This September, Kpessou will debut her label at New York Fashion Week.
It's been a long journey for Kpessou. At six, Kpessou came to the US, where she grappled with racism. “My experience in America was rather a love-hate relationship for a long time,” she said. “Coming to terms with racism at a young age, watching my mother experience it but not be aware fully of it.’’
There was also xenophobia. In school, her name was mocked, ridiculed as “hoe go away.” She found this puzzling, mainly because she didn’t expect to be mistreated by people who looked like her. “I grew up hearing it and it strained the relationship between me and my cultural identity,’’ she said. “What was once normal became uncomfortable in this new world that had its rules and regulations.’’
Hogoé, which means “light of God/chosen one,’’ is also a name given to the first daughter in Togolese families. The microaggressions she faced only motivated her to succeed even more. While working jobs as a way to pay for school, she did modeling on the side. It wasn't always smooth, though. She didn’t work for the big brands. She modeled for friends and smaller brands on Instagram, where she was consistently underpaid.
Today, her name is no longer a punchline for jokes but a symbol of luxury. For Kpessou, luxury is an experience, which is why she incorporates convenience more than ever into her designs. She’s also diversifying the concept into other products. “I’m making candles and some gift sets as well. Simple and small accessories, because not everyone can afford my prices but there is kindness in those who try to help and support me.’’
She started with making clothes, but bags were made first in the end. “It was just easier to get a bag right before the clothes which required countless samples and correction for proper fitting.’’ She said.
The bags, seemingly, are the label’s catchiest merchandise across its product categories. With the insect motifs, the bags also carry a kind of sentimental storytelling for the label.
“For the bees, it means you can find the sweetness in life,” she said. “For the firefly, it’s for guidance in the dark. I was a writer at one point so it only makes sense to have the same metaphors find themselves in my work.”
As an emerging label, she does the running of things mostly by herself but gets assistance from friends and a small team. “I have a gorgeous woman named Reka that helps me with tech packs and designs,’’ Kpessou said. “Being new to the industry, it’s helpful to have my designs looked at with experienced eyes since I’m still learning.’’
She also oversees quality control and checks before shipping. While purchases can be made via the brand’s website, she hopes to partner with huge retailers like Selfridges and Nordstrom in the future. She counts the appearance of her messenger bag on Bel-Air as a personal achievement. “It meant my items were being associated with luxury and Blackness, the two being synonymous. It meant my items were in rooms I wasn’t even in yet and it was reassuring. I do hope that my items gets to appear in more shows in the future as my brand grows.’’
While she may want to collapse Blackness and luxury, Hogoé Kpessou is also driven by a greater cause. Aside from reinvesting into the label, some money goes towards relief support and funding community projects in Togo. Intentional donations can be made, too. It’s a gesture that keeps her rooted in her identity, as she wants better for those in her native community.
Kpessou would like to design a dress for a celebrity or two, especially for the red carpet. She wants her label propped up in movies. This critical mass positions her better to help those in her country. Here’s a young designer who isn’t just dreaming for herself, but for others too.
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