The first time I meet Kenneth I’m struck by his guilelessness. There’s something boyish about him, even though he’s a man, and an accomplished one at that. His face is open, and his body language suggests someone who is finally at ease with themselves. He lives a little bit in Nigeria, a little bit in Italy, a little bit in Austria, and all the travelling seems to have given him a particular way of engaging with strangers.
I was born in Lagos, and when I was four my family moved to the Austrian countryside. My dad got a job at Ikea and my mum eventually started working as a cleaner in a nursery. In Nigeria my mum had owned a restaurant, so when I was really little she was always beautifully dressed. In Europe she continued wearing a lot of African clothes, for going out or to church or just on a regular day. She would wear head-wraps and import fabrics from Nigeria and have her clothes made. She used to get clothes made for the rest of the family too, but my dad always preferred his three-piece suits. He worked for the government when we lived in Lagos, and he had a really good sense of Western style even then. On weekends, he would wear nylon tracksuits – this was the Nineties – and Nike sneakers but on weekdays he was always in a shirt and a tie. He was super precise about everything: his shirt had to align with his trousers and his tie had to be just so. I grew up in a super African home, moving to Austria didn’t change that. My way of dressing did change though. I hardly ever wore my African clothes anymore, maybe once a year or so. I preferred Western styles: Nike, Adidas, Timberland, Fubu. I suppose traditional clothes felt too much like costume to me in Vienna, they made me feel self-conscious. I already stood out like a sore thumb. For my mum though they were just clothes, her clothes, and she always carried them beautifully. I still remember the silhouette of her kaftan sleeves as she was making a particular gesture. There’s actually no one who has influenced me as much as my mother has. I think of my collections as a part of my mother’s story and legacy, and I can see her wearing most of the pieces. My mum always had a great eye for detail. I remember her getting ready for church on Sundays, and putting on her extravagant trads with Italian shoes and gold jewellery.
When he was alive my dad was the dandy in the family – I really looked up to him. His attention to cut and silhouette is something I’ve tried to emulate in my work. My parents really instilled in me the importance of self care: my dad wouldn’t let me leave the house if I hadn’t showered, and my mum taught my brother and me to lotion our bodies every day. I really think my parents are the reason I love clothes. Even though I knew nothing of the Western fashion industry, I always knew the value of beautiful clothes, and of looking good. My parents had their work clothes, and their traditional garments, or trads as we call them, for special occasions. They were always dressed for the occasion. Eventually, in Austria, my mum started wearing Western clothes too. I think I must have been ten when I saw her in jeans for the first time. Throughout my early childhood she was always this very traditional African woman, and women like that don’t wear trousers. As a married, traditional, African woman you don’t wear anything that shows your body off too much. But moving to Europe changed her, and with time she adapted to the customs of her new country. I still remember being with her when she got her first pair of jeans – she was so excited, ‘Oh my god, my body is so nice. It’s so nice to see my body!’ She started wearing sneakers and hoodies, and I’d be like ‘Mu-um you’re wearing my shoes!’ [Laughs] I’m still really close with my mum. We’re the same star sign – Aries – and we’re both really stubborn and hardworking, always looking out for others and trying to provide.
I didn’t know much about Western designers or the fashion industry until I got to fashion school. We never had any fashion magazines in the house, and my parents didn’t take us to museums or anything like that. A friend of mine showed me Vogue when I was a teenager. I’d heard about Giorgio Armani and Versace but I didn’t know who Margiela was until I started studying fashion at university. I remember when I first had the idea of becoming a designer: I’d already enrolled in psychology at university when my friends told me about this place where you could study design and fashion. I knew immediately that’s what I wanted to do. So I called my mum and said, ‘Mum mum I think I want to study fashion!’ And she told me, ‘I’ve been waiting for you to say that Kenneth.’ She already knew. So, at nineteen I moved to Vienna. I loved studying; if I could I’d do it again and again and again. I loved the freedom and the sense of experimentation and acceptance: wearing skirts in the street, or just a piece of fabric wrapped around your body. The first day of uni I wore a cheap fabric from the market wrapped around my waist with a shirt and platform shoes. My hair was styled straight up, punk style. I felt great.
It’s funny actually, when I was a student the people who wore their own designs were never seen as cool. I stopped wearing the clothes I made then. The anti-fashion trend was really strong back then, norm-core, plain and sombre pieces. People wanted to look as if they didn’t care too much. Now I love wearing my own designs, and if I wasn’t working so much I’d wear them all the time. I’m not yet at the stage of my career, when working means looking fancy behind a big desk. I move around constantly, between all sorts of environments so I can’t wear anything too precious. Also I can’t afford too many of my own clothes yet. [Laughs] That’s the reality. I tend to be quite pragmatic about my work, I think about how comfortable the clothes will be, and how people will be wearing them in real life as opposed to in a magazine or Instagram picture. I don’t want to make something that isn’t relevant. Actually when I talk about ‘comfort’ I think of it not just in terms of how a garment feels on the body but also about the story behind it. I think clothes should make their wearers feel comfortable, in their own skin and in the world. If you feel comfortable, confidence follows. I want my clothes, the ones I wear and the ones I make, to have something to say. A lot of craftsmanship goes into my work and the details are really important. In my own clothes I also want to feel, and be seen as, aware. Aware of what’s happening around me, on a micro and macro level. I’m talking about awareness on multiple levels: about the history of the garment, and its provenance, about where the wind is blowing.
I like to show my body off, yes, but it depends on the context of course. I love the waist, the shoulders, the arms, on both men and women. I’ve been making backless jackets for my collection recently, and I love wearing those. Sometimes, in Lagos, I’ll put a sleeveless, backless T-shirt on, just to provoke. Lagos society is traditional and conservative: it doesn’t fully allow you to express yourself, or even be yourself. If you see a woman in a miniskirt, people assume she’s a prostitute. Gender roles are conformist, and respectability is extremely important. So that makes me want to rebel a bit: I want people to be like, ‘What is going on here?’ I get a lot of looks. I want to provoke the system, question it a bit and make a statement. In Europe I dress differently. That tension that’s so pronounced in Nigeria isn’t there in Vienna or Milan or Paris. People also don’t dress up like they do in Lagos. They wear the same clothes day and night – I do too. I dress in a more relaxed way, and I’m not really concerned about making a statement. A few years ago I loved wearing super-tight sports clothes, top and bottom. I’d put a pair of tight running shorts on and go about my day. Like I said, I like showing off my body! But now I dress differently because I’m always working so I have to be comfortable and able to move around. On a typical day I’ll put on a cashmere hoodie and white denim trousers. But then if I’m invited to dinner at a friend’s house say, or if I’m going out for drinks later I’ll get changed. Then I don’t dress for practicality anymore – I dress for fantasy. Fantasy is actually a really important part of dressing. Mostly though I just dress for happiness. That’s a state of mind I try to invoke: joy.
When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is put on body lotion, just like my mum taught me. Then I think about what to wear that day. I sleep naked so I always take all my jewellery off before going to bed. In the morning I put it back on again. My jewellery is usually delicate, and all gold. A lot of it I got from my mother: necklaces, rings, earrings, bracelets. I wear them everyday so they start feeling like a part of me. I’ve probably worn most pieces at least a decade, some I’ve had for fifteen years. When I’ve had a shower and put my jewellery on, I think about what I’ll be doing that day and what clothes to put on. If I’m in Lagos that’s particularly important. I mean, yes I like to provoke but I also need to get work done. So if I’m going to an area that’s more conservative and homophobic, I’m obviously not going to dress in transparent trousers or a backless jacket. Then I wear classic, practical pieces: shirts and jeans. Or I’ll wear trads. I like wearing traditional clothing in Nigeria, people take you more seriously then. You can get more money wearing trads actually. If I have a meeting in an office I’ll put my trads on and hold my mobile phone in a particular way so as to command power. When I’m dressed like that, I hear ‘Yes sir yes sir yes sir!’ You really get treated differently depending on what you wear in Lagos. If the police stop you, and you’re young but wearing trads, you’re much safer. Then at night I’ll change into something more fun and experimental: Issey Miyake or my own design. Night time is for play. How to dress to attract a lover? Well I think about my body first; which part of it do I want to show off? I like to dress sexy for moments like that. There was a time when I was super into ankles: I wouldn’t wear trousers that came below my ankles and I paid attention to everybody else’s ankles too. Now I love necklines, how they frame the face and shoulders. It’s important to think about proportion. I like tank tops to show my shoulders and arms and I like see-through – up and down. I love a see-through pant. And I love it when people show their bodies – as long as it doesn’t look cheap. That’s a fine balance though and there isn’t a precise formula for how to avoid that particular pitfall.
Sometimes in Nigeria I get frustrated, like, ‘If I was in Europe I’d be able to wear that jacket. Oh my god I wish I could wear it right now!’ That actually happens to me all the time. Things are changing slowly though; a lot of people from the diaspora are returning and they’re bringing different, less conservative, ways of being and dressing with them. I love wearing kaftans in Nigeria but I would never wear one the West. I don’t wear my trads in Europe at all anymore; I get looked at in the wrong way. Moving between continents and cultures like I do requires some skill when it comes to dressing. I have to be mindful of how much I push rules on both continents. I mean, I try not to care about what people think or if I’m being stared at. I want to retain the power; I don’t want the wrong looks to make me waver or feel insecure. But it doesn’t always work. I remember once, six or seven years ago in New York. When packing for the trip, I was thinking about how multicultural the city is, and how many black people live there. This was during an Afrocentric moment in fashion; Solange was wearing headwraps and colourful patterns and fashion was full of ‘African-style’ prints. So I packed a bunch a trads. The first day I went out wearing a kaftan people wouldn’t stop staring at me in the street. And the ones who stared the most were other black people. I felt so uncomfortable, I just turned around and went home to change. [Laughs] It was really bad actually. I felt like Eddie Murphy in ‘Coming to America.’ That was the last time I wore trads in the West.
Growing up as an immigrant in Europe was really difficult. In small town Austria I stood out in too many ways. My headmaster actually said to my face that I would never amount to anything, and then I was kicked out of school. I was spat in the face by my classmates. There was a lot of racism. At the time I didn’t really understand why I was being singled out, and when I would get back home and tell my parents they would make it seem as if it was nothing. They were scared I think. Imagine coming to a new country as a refugee. When you’ve finally been given permission to stay you don’t want to rock the boat, you don’t want to fight. You put your head down and get on with it. Don’t make a fuss, is the attitude I grew up with. I still carry the grudge of everything that happened inside me, and the only way I know to move on from it, is through my work. I want success I do, but more than that I want my work to be meaningful. I’m not a power hungry person. I don’t care to be the number one of anything. I just want to do what I love.
A version of this article first appeared in Extra Extra magazine issue 16 under the heading ‘Kenneth Ize on Dressing to Feel Good.’