Fashioning a new view
Menswear company Ikiré Jones offers unique clothing whose patterns and craftsmanship marry Africa and America, figuratively and literally.
Inside his sunlit Lansdowne apartment studio space, Sam Hubler, the sole tailor for menswear company Ikiré Jones, spends painstaking hours on boldly printed jackets. The brand, founded by Philadelphia lawyer-turned-designer Walé Oyéjidé, is known for its unique, handcrafted jackets in African-inspired prints.
Oyéjidé's 20-month-old daughter, Naima, engages in innocent mischief near a table covered in boldly printed fabrics. On a wooden back wall hang partially hand-sewn men's sports jackets and shirts.
"I actually have no background in menswear," says the 33-year-old Nigerian-born Oyéjidé, wearing a light blue button-down, jeans, a straw fedora, and oversize tortoiseshell glasses. "I had no connections in the industry. You just assume that you have to go to FIT or to design school."
Named after his father's village in Nigeria and his American wife's family name, Ikiré Jones is a brand that marries cultures, literally and figuratively.
The Ikiré Jones brand has managed to snare the attention of men's blogs, including the well-read okayplayer.com dedicated to all things hip-hop. But the big buzz is still to come.
The brand appeals to guys who consider themselves global-scale dandies, too. For example, Ikiré Jones was the sartorial fashion all the marketing materials connected to at a major literary festival in Paris.
"We are working on making international headway," said Oyéjidé.
Oyéjidé sells a few pieces exclusively at Armour Boutique on South Fourth Street on Philadelphia's Fabric Row, but the bulk of the collection is available online at www.ikirejones.com.
Oyéjidé is especially proud of his brand's made-to-wear craftsmanship.
"Right now," he said, "there are very few companies, if any, in the U.S. who can say they do what we do."
Hubler, who has been featured by GQ.com, spends nearly 15 hours on each jacket.
"Figuring out little things to cut the time down but keep the quality up" is an ever-evolving challenge, Hubler says. Machine-sewn sports jackets retain luxury touches like hand-stitched sleeves and collars, meticulous pattern matching, and spacious sleeve lining.
The Ikiré Jones line also rides the made-in-America trend.
Oyéjidé took a circuitous path to the United States and fashion. In what he calls the typical immigrant story, Oyéjidé lived in various countries as a child, bouncing back and forth between Nigeria and other countries, including the United Arab Emirates, before settling in the United States as a teen.
He studied at Morehouse College in Atlanta and earned his undergraduate degree in computer science. Once he graduated, he did what's expected of every computer science kid - became a musician. After being signed to a label, Oyéjidé worked as a producer and vocalist on the independent hip-hop scene under the moniker Science Fiction for about three years. During that time, he collaborated with underground artists like MF DOOM and J Dilla.
For "starving artist reasons," Oyéjidé returned to school, studying law at Temple University, practicing in Center City after graduation.
"I did civil defense litigation, which basically is a fancy way of saying if somebody slips and falls in front of the laundromat and sues the laundromat, I'd defend the laundromat," says Oyéjidé, still licensed but no longer practicing.
Though it provided a comfortable enough lifestyle, law for the self-proclaimed "menswear nerd" was just a source of income, lacking in fulfillment. He found himself justifying his job's appeal for the "fly suits" that got him noticed regularly on the streets of Philadelphia.
He was becoming a "walking billboard" for the brands he sported. In 2010, he was selected by Esquire as one of the five Best Dressed Real Men in the country.
Oyéjidé saw a void in the menswear industry. Brands weren't speaking to confident, forward-thinking men who wanted to dress uniquely. And as luck would have it, he just happened to be law-school buddies with a woman whose brother was a bespoke tailor - Sam Hubler, who then became the official hands of Ikiré Jones.
Oyéjidé designs the scarf and square patterns, which are manufactured in England. His designs reveal a narrative, subtly but definitively, that forms the foundation of the entire brand. On them are scenes of traditional European aristocracy and mythology. But, on the Madonna square, for instance, a black woman and child sit on a throne surrounded by European devotees and caretakers.
Craig Schroeder of the respected menswear boutique Commonwealth Proper was immediately impressed by Oyéjidé's sense of style. "His scarves and pocket squares are fantastic," says Schroeder, "and you'll see me sporting them all summer."
With high-intensity tales of lovers-turned-assassins in Tokyo and stories of ravaged African villages, ikirejones.com is a shopping site of short sci-fi narratives that, regardless of their intention, paint an empowering portrait of Africa and her people.
"We returned to Johannesburg as different men," one story reads. "The kind of men whose hands had become calloused from clutching at ancient treasures and were now strong enough to mold the future."
Oyéjidé says not to read too much into the stories, and the intentional use of design and patterns, as they are merely his contribution to the larger cultural conversation: wax cotton fabric and esteemed black faces in Eurocentric designs create a positive African aesthetic.
"If you go to CNN or Google or Reuters and look up any country in Africa, nine times out of 10 what you read is something horrible, horrific, and tragic almost every day," Oyéjidé says.
For now, Oyéjidé is firmly planting his roots here, and with a mission beyond just making money.
"Sadly, the vast majority of companies who do this will go to somewhere like Asia where they can get super-cheap labor," Oyéjidé says. But that's not how he prefers to play it. He likes to know who's making his clothes and, at the same time, be sure they're able to make a living "as opposed to some ghost thing where you send materials overseas to some kid in a dungeon."
"I think it's a company with a conscience," Oyéjidé says, "but not any more of a conscience than a regular person."
Added Hubler: "A big part of it was just not trying to hurt people and [to] make something beautiful in the process."
See more photos of the Ikiré Jones studio at www.inquirer.com/ikirejones