Behind the Design: Ikiré Jones Founder Walé Oyéjidé on Amplifying Black Storytelling Through Fashion

Image: courtesy of Walé Oyéjidé

We are, each of us, Children Of Migration. Some of us came against our will. Some of us are the offspring of those who wrestled waves, outwitted customs officials, and abandoned the glory they once held—for promises of better futures their descendants might one day meet. Often, we forget that we are here, but we are not at home. And that no matter how far removed we are from our beginnings, we’re forever bound by the journeys that brought us.

You might know me simply as a designer, if you don’t know me well. A conjurer of ornate threads commonly worn by luminaries of Black culture in Hollywood’s fictional African nations, activist athletes who kneel in defiance of repressive governments, and hip hop legends who grace the cover of this illustrious publication. Runway shows, model fittings, and collections photographed in exotic locales are part of my professional repertoire. But, if we have the fortune of becoming better acquainted, you’ll see that all these things are forms of pretense. The finery, as all finery eventually reveals itself to be, is a ruse.

We come from a rich culture. Beautiful, broad-nosed women with bright head coverings who sing too loudly in their houses of worship. Brash young fathers who threaten to ruin every party by shouting politics and spilling drinks until the spinning of their favorite records reminds them why they came.
A silk scarf from Ikiré Jones. Image: courtesy of Walé Oyéjidé.

It began, for me, in Nigeria. (Your story may have started elsewhere, but many of the notes will ring the same.) We come from a rich culture. Beautiful, broad-nosed women with bright head coverings who sing too loudly in their houses of worship. Brash young fathers who threaten to ruin every party by shouting politics and spilling drinks until the spinning of their favorite records reminds them why they came. You know them. Radiant people who, over time, have been forced to dull their own shine. At their feet, sit bold ­­­children who hide who they really are—because the only version of history they’ve consumed is an ugly caricature that subjugators have spent years feeding to them.

There are lengthy chapters of shame in all stories which end in transcendence. And there are many who are highly invested in ensuring you never turn past the pages of your life that provide them with a profit. They will offer to sell you an escape (from your own). They will offer to sell you exclusivity (into spaces you aren’t truly welcome). But how many of them will offer you self-acceptance on your own terms? The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. But perhaps, different tools can be used to build us a new one.

A printed silk jacket by Ikiré Jones. Image: courtesy of Walé Oyéjidé.


After a decade of using my art to illustrate the triumphant narratives of those who refuse to be defined by their sufferings, I’ve come to understand that beauty is a veil to be worn proudly. But, all beauty is squandered when it is not wielded as a weapon towards a higher purpose. For me, finery, in the form of fashion design, is a Trojan steed that smuggles narratives of empowerment into spaces where they wouldn’t be embraced.

Nasir Jones understands the strength of speaking truth to power. When creating a custom silk coat in his honor (as seen on EBONY’s October cover), we found inspiration in the journey that led him to stride across stages around the globe. “How does one dress a King-Among-Wordsmiths?” we asked. The answer was simple. You drape him in symbolism that befits the weight of his words. Nas’ coat is emblazoned with baroque images of a defiant Black woman holding her child and a sword, as onlookers gaze in wonder. In addition, he wore the scarf Pieta, which depicts a Black boy bravely gripping a bouquet of flowers as armed soldiers approach. These images would live comfortably in the cinematic scenes he paints on his albums. Worn as clothing, they are no less vivid. In an undisclosed New York City location, a silence fell upon us as Nas took his throne while wearing garments that had been made in his honor. Suddenly, “royalty” wasn’t just an ideal. It was a man with humble Queensbridge beginnings that had risen to become one of the greatest writers of our age.

Nas wears custom silk jacket by Ikiré Jones for EBONY’s October 2021 Legacy Issue. Photographed by Joshua Kissi.

“How does one dress a King-Among-Wordsmiths? You drape him in symbolism that befits the weight of his words.”

Ikiré Jones peddles its silk scarves across borders, and flips its scarves on every block. The works begin as illustrations which are hand-painted in oil, before being printed as fabrics by Italian artisans. The final products are ostentatious tapestries which evoke our greater glory. The scarves appear on the shoulders of dignitaries. But more importantly, our art is also seen on the shoulders of asylum seekers and refugees. In our hands, the inoffensive medium of fashion becomes a subversive vehicle which advocates for cultural acceptance.

What we aim to accomplish is more grandiose than anything that could fit within a garment box. To raise daughters who will fly freely without the insecurities that weighted down their parents. To show our nephews that while they may never find marble busts which match their likenesses in the Louvre, there are antique bronzes from the kingdom of Benin that resemble close relatives. “Why be a sunflower and turn towards the sun?” the prophet Ousmane Sembène asked. “…When you, yourself, are the sun.”

A silk scarf from Ikiré Jones. Image: courtesy of Walé Oyéjidé.

With this work, we refute the falsely held notion that elegance is a trait owned by a particular ethnic group, hue, or nationality. With this work, we hold a mirror to those who may have forgotten—and remind them where we’ve come from. No longer willing to be dictated to, we instruct the world on how to properly see us: As we have always seen ourselves.

There is a certain clarity that comes from working with intention. A focus that comes from knowing why you’re here. Those of us who are blessed to live long appreciate that we aren’t defined by the places to which we have arrived, but by the journeys that led us there.

We are, each of us, Children Of Migration.
And our journeys continue onwards.

You may not be ready tomorrow.

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Or next year.

But one day, it will call to you.

And you won’t be able to refuse.

Come home.
We’ll be waiting.


***

The designer Walé Oyéjidé of Ikiré Jones. Image: courtesy of Walé Oyéjidé.

Walé Oyéjidé is a writer, filmmaker, photographer, lawyer, musician and founder of the brand Ikiré Jones.

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