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Kente Gentlemen’s Aristide Loua on his journey to finding his personal style, and founding one of Africa’s most vibrant new labels.

By Sandiso Ngubane

Oct 26, 2022

‘Birth of the Cool’ is the seminal Miles Davis record the Ivorian label Kente Gentlemen’s most recent collection borrows its name from. An ode to the artistic and cultural achievements of Africans on the continent and its Diaspora in the post-colonial era, the collection takes inspiration from the likes of Davis and other artists of his generation—Fela Kuti and photographer Gordon Parks, among them.

"It’s a very personal collection to me. I can’t imagine how these incredible artists were able to create such magic while being oppressed,” label founder Aristide Loua says of his muses. Despite that, he can relate on some level, having faced his own personal struggles on his way to establishing Kente Gentlemen.

Loua originally founded Kente Gentlemen out of a sense of “a loss of identity,” as he puts it. Having left his home country of Côte d’Ivoire and living in the United States at the time, fashion became his way of reclaiming said identity, but the journey there was not without struggle coupled with a sense of displacement.

Aristide Loua. Photo: via @arristide

Discovering a personal style

As a mathematics graduate, fashion hadn’t always been something Loua gave much attention to. “I remember wearing oversized shirts and baggy jeans, mimicking hip-hop style trends. I didn’t really have my own personal viewpoint, and I was mostly focused on my studies, being a nerd, and all the stereotypes that come with that. It was only after I moved to New York and saw people having their own individual style that my own sense of fashion began to develop.”

It was then that he started asking himself questions like: “How do I showcase my unique personality?”

Born in Gagnoa, south-central Côte d’Ivoire, Loua’s family later moved to Abidjan, the capital city, but he only spent a few years there before another move to India came about. He would spend four years in India before his studies took him to Utah in the United States. Here his appreciation for African-American culture began with hip-hop and the discovery of artists like Nas, Gang Starr, and Common, among others. This would soon evolve towards neo-soul and an appreciation for jazz and other art forms. New York happened, but it was only later, when he moved to South Carolina for work, that his desire to start a fashion label crystallized.

“My mom sent me two wax shirts, which is something I recalled seeing elders wearing back home,” he explains. “That’s really what triggered my journey into fashion. I wanted to get more of those pieces in the US. I hadn’t been to Côte d’Ivoire in a long time, and the shirts gave me a sense of home because I felt I was losing my identity. Fashion became a way of reasserting that. By wearing these shirts, I represented my culture or at least what I believed to be my culture at the time. It felt important to me.”

However, on closer inspection, through research, Loua came to realize the wax shirts were not so African after all but merely what West Africans had adapted to. “We’ve been told and sold the idea that the wax print fabric is everything African but a major part of those textiles, back in the 70s, after Independence, this was something that was made for the Indonesian market. The product didn’t work out in those markets and eventually got adopted in West Africa. Our grandparents and parents loved it and simply made it their own. That’s how the wax fabrics became synonymous with African fashion.”

Birth of Cool. Photo: via Kente Gentlemen

Birth of Cool. Photo: via Kente Gentlemen

Birth of Cool. Photo: via Kente Gentlemen

The Birth of Kente Gentlemen

Back in South Carolina, Loua started conversing with his mother—a fabric collector—about his desire to create a fashion brand that would fulfill his desire to feel closer to home. “I had no plans to move back home; I would keep working, save money and start the business.” The plan was to work remotely with his mother, but in 2015 issues with his work permit threw a spanner in the works. Loua had to leave behind the life he had built in the US and return home.

“It was quite depressing for me. I went through clinical depression because I felt like I didn’t have a social life. I was back in a country I hadn’t been in for over ten years, dealing with a new type of mentality. I had no personal assets. I’d lost my car. I’d lost my apartment and others things I had invested time and effort into.”

He would eventually shift his mindset and focus on starting what was then called “Kente Boys”—the name informed by his discovery that wax fabrics had merely been adopted by Africans. On the other hand, Kente originated in nearby Ghana around 500 years ago.

After discovering the kente fabric and others like alkebulan, he became interested in their preservation and that of local industries devastated by cheap imports from China and secondhand clothing dumped in many parts of Africa from the West. This would become the brand’s essence—contributing to the local economy by preserving history. “The plan was to add value to something that our people had already been doing since the 16th century."

Birth of Cool. Photo: via Kente Gentlemen

Coming of Age

A short while after the brand’s establishment, a friend advised Loua to change the name from ‘Kente Boys’ to ‘Gentlemen .’ “I’ve thought about changing the name more recently, but the way it has been received, I’ve decided to stick with it. This is our story now, and this is who we are,” he says.

Since the brand’s founding in 2015, Kente Gentlemen has asserted itself as a gender-fluid contemporary African brand with elegant and colorful collections of menswear-inspired suiting, putting a modern spin on the traditional. At the recent Portugal Fashion Week, where he presented the ‘Birth of Cool’ range, Loua finally felt a sense of belonging in a fashion industry he once felt like an outsider. It was the brand’s third showcase in Europe, having been in Geneva and Paris before that.

The Portgugal show, supported by the Lullubelle Group and Creative Africa Nexus, included fellow African designers Emmy Kasbit, David Tlale, Christie Brown, Orange Culture, and others—company Aristide says he felt honored to be among. “It was affirming for me on a personal level because sometimes I suffer from imposter syndrome. It felt like, ‘yes, you are a designer, and you belong here.’ To see people appreciating the work of African designers felt really good.”

Shop the collection

Aya Dress
Aya Dress
Aya Dress
Aya Dress
Aya Dress
Aya Dress

Kente Gentlemen

Aya Dress

$395
Ernesto III Shirt
Ernesto III Shirt
Ernesto III Shirt
Ernesto III Shirt

Kente Gentlemen

Ernesto III Shirt

$175
Djedje III Pants
Djedje III Pants
Djedje III Pants
Djedje III Pants

Kente Gentlemen

Djedje III Pants

$175
Djedje I Pants
Djedje I Pants
Djedje I Pants
Djedje I Pants
Djedje I Pants
Djedje I Pants

Kente Gentlemen

Djedje I Pants

$175
Chano II Pants
Chano II Pants
Chano II Pants
Chano II Pants

Kente Gentlemen

Chano II Pants

$195
Davis II Pants
Davis II Pants
Davis II Pants
Davis II Pants

Kente Gentlemen

Davis II Pants

$225
Pendergrass II Overcoat
Pendergrass II Overcoat
Pendergrass II Overcoat
Pendergrass II Overcoat
Pendergrass II Overcoat
Pendergrass II Overcoat

Kente Gentlemen

Pendergrass II Overcoat

$545
Baba V Suit Jacket
Baba V Suit Jacket

Kente Gentlemen

Baba V Suit Jacket

$395