This big win meant that the designer got the opportunity to showcase her brand, Ikojn, at the prestigious Mercedes Benz Fashion Week 2016 in Johannesburg, South Africa that features top regional designers, such as David Tlale and Mille Collines. Despite the prestigious recognition she has received in such a short duration since she launched her brand in May 2015, this bourgeoning creative manages to remain humble and approachable; but with a strong desire to succeed. TDS [finally] caught up with the designer to find out more about her journey so far:I didn’t know ‘Ikojn’ is Njoki spelt backwards
[Laughs] Don’t worry, many people don’t know how to pronounce it either. (FYI, it’s pronounced ‘icon’). I feel like it’s one of those names that you know you’re saying wrong if you are, and when you do find out how to say it you never forget. To be honest, I had a hard time finding a name for the brand. I needed something that wasn’t cliché and I wanted something that you could easily distinguish as mine.
Why did you follow fashion in general?
It’s something I’ve been doing since I was 14 years old. At the time, I had found an old suitcase full of clothes which I would try and alter by hand. So, my father bought me my first sewing machine which was an old, rickety machine procured from a tailor. But I remember that every time I’d come home from boarding school during the holidays I’d make really cool retro clothes, not even sure how I used to pull them off.
When I finished high school I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. My dad is very strict and doesn’t believe in people just sitting around idle. So he pushed me into business school which I did for about a year. But it was so boring! My head wasn’t there. Interestingly, when I told him how I didn’t enjoy school at all, he suggested that I go into fashion since I did it so much as a hobby; which I didn’t even know was an option at the time.
So I went searching for courses at the polytechnic level to learn the basics of stitching. It was during this hunt that I found the first school I attended; which was the Evelyn School of Fashion. I was there for about a semester and then the Mcensal School of Fashion and Design opened. I remember I went to see it and they gave me the tour for about 10 minutes before I knew that, without a doubt, it was where I wanted to go. That was on a Friday and by Monday I was in a class at Mcensal. I was the very first student in that school and it was about a week before any other student joined.After you graduated, how did you get to the decision to start your own brand whose trademark would be ‘sensual femininity and lady-like strength’?
I really knew I wanted to start my own brand but I was a bit hesitant and scared because I wasn’t sure people would accept what I was trying to do. Sometimes as an artist, it’s really hard putting your art out there because you’re not sure how it will be received. So for about a year and a half, I run my own fashion business where I sold other people’s stuff. Then one day it dawned on me, ‘why was I doing this for other people and not for myself?’ So from the money I had been saving, I just bought machines, did the set up in my little studio and began Ikojn.You mean that just you and your tailor produced all those pieces you took to the Africa Fashion Exchange? That’s a lot of work…
Yeah, we did. But it was so rewarding. The best thing about fashion is that you literally get something from nothing because you have to come up with the concept, you get the fabrics and finishing’s…you have to do everything yourself. And to see something come of it; something that is actually being worn somewhere and it looks good is the best feeling in the world.So why did you decide to concentrate on making clothes for women emphasising on the combination of soft and strong elements?
I’m drawn to women’s wear because it’s more adventurous and you have more leeway to try new things. No offence to men – and I’m hoping to get into men’s wear soon – it’s just that I find women are a little less cautious when it comes to experimenting. With guys, they want a certain, brand, look and colour code.
About the soft and strong theme, I’m very inspired by women and the very lady-like characteristics of women who know what they want, are independent and are very strong. So essentially, the Ikojn woman is someone that’s not scared to go for what they want or even to believe in something that is a bit different from the norm. They are able to channel who they are as a woman.Is that why your first collection was a lot of flowing materials and maxi’s?
At that time, I had just taken my first trip to China because I needed to see what my options were concerning fabrics. There was so much, it was overwhelming! But I had this pressure to leave there having produced something and at that time, I only had a very small collection that I wasn’t even too sure about because I felt that it wasn’t refined. So I went to the factory and I had them produce these pieces for me. Which I feel I didn’t plan ahead for.
How I want to structure the business is: I have my lookbook, I give it to interested parties and then they decide which pieces they want to stock in their shops and then I produce that. This move is to minimise on waste or trying to push a product that you’ve already produced yet lacks demand for. It was a mistake, but it’s one I learnt from.
That collection – in terms of the soft and strength – you can see that I use juxtaposition. For example, if I use a really light fabric I like it having very strong details such as a strong zipper or very bold block colours as a stamp of strength.Then you put out your second collection… it seems more structured
It is. Once I was done with the first collection and realised how difficult it was to sell it once it was already there, I thought of every single detail and restructured the brand’s plan. This led to the current collection [which is broken into three phases]. There was the first collection I did, that was the personal one that I did for the brand and had about six looks. It was inspired by women’s strength and it had stand out pieces like the coat with the open back or the shirt with the bird print. I wanted a collection that you could wear every single day. It didn’t have to be loud or for a function. And I think that’s what the brand is trying to achieve; to tap into the market that just wants to wear something locally produced but they can walk down the street without feeling that they are announcing something.
And then there was the one I did immediately after that for AFI Fastrack which was inspired mainly by Kenya. And then for the one I showcased and launched, it was a combination of the first two and a bunch of other pieces added on to create cohesiveness. The additional pieces combined the strong woman and the Kenyan inspiration.What changed the most between the two collections?
Having a clear voice as Ikojn. I felt that the first collection was too similar and didn’t really define the brand for me. For this one, I gave myself three months to do my research and fabric hunting so that when we started we had a clear vision. We even had our models and would do three fittings for each piece. So we’d do the first fitting with sample fabric, second fitting with the final fabric and the last fitting with the final piece. This was to ensure that they fit correctly.But it wasn’t all smooth sailing to AFI and this talented proves it takes more than talent to bring your brand to fruition. On the blog tomorrow, Chris breaks down what happened when she finally got the opportunity of a lifetime… and then life happened.
Till then, catch up with Ikojn at: