Emmy Kasbit founder, Emmanuel Okoro, talks to Industrie Africa about his evolution from tailoring as a hobby to outfitting the stars.
Aug 5, 2020
Photo: Emmanuel Okoro. Courtesy of Emmy Kasbit
Storytelling and Akwete textiles—the handwoven fabric from Emmanuel Okoro’s hometown of Abia State in Eastern Nigeria, recognized for its distinct patterns and motifs rooted in Igbo customs—are the two driving forces behind Emmanuel Okoro’s ready-to-wear label Emmy Kasbit. Based in Lagos, the fashion designer studied computer science in Calabar, Nigeria before setting his sights on fashion design as a career. Sparked by a need to earn an income during his university years, he started making clothes for peers—a side project through which he garnered popularity in the small southeastern city. The money was good too, prompting Okoro to advance his tailoring hobby into a full-time job.
It’s been six years since he launched his brand, and in 2018, without any formal fashion education, he became the winner of Lagos Fashion Week’s Fashion Focus Fund, a talent scouting initiative that offers a grant and year-long business mentorship to next generation talent. Noted for his mastery of developing unique Akwete textiles, this opportunity propelled his nascent label to the next level. Until then, Okoro had honed his skills by working at production and fashion houses where he learned the basics of making and cutting patterns. He pauses in thought for a moment when asked about his brand's signature. “[The brand is] bold and confident,” he explains with pride. “Womenswear is inspired by menswear. Our womenswear is made up of pants and jackets so we design for the career woman. We don’t go deep into dresses.” The Emmy Kasbit label has cultivated a staunch following for its trend-setting tailoring and unconventional details—from Akwete panels on suit jackets to fringed hemlines, subtle cut-outs to deconstructed necklines; a cutting-edge mix of traditional materials and unexpected silhouettes.
In Lagos, Okoro is part of a cool, young crop of exciting creatives that include his collaborators: fashion photographer Michael Oshai, creative director Kwen Mayè, and Adebayo Oke-Lawal, founder of Orange Culture, whom he describes as a close friend. Industrie Africa chatted with Okoro about the origins of his moniker Emmy Kasbit, the importance of creating textiles, and running a young fashion house in arguably Africa's most bustling city, Lagos.
In the beginning...
Okoro, the sixth of seven children, was born and raised in Abia State, Nigeria, then moved to Calabar to attend university, before finally settling in Lagos. “If I wasn't a fashion designer, I would be in the Navy”, he reveals to us. “My dad wanted me to join the Navy.” Okoro is a man of few but precise words; at least that's the impression we get from him in this interview. He began his tailoring journey in college and by the time he graduated, he was convinced that working in fashion was his destiny. “After university, I knew that I wanted to continue this passion. I wanted to make a living out of it.”
What’s In A Name?
The brand’s catchy name is from his college days in Calabar. “It’s a nickname. I was a fan of a record label called Kasbeat Records, so people called me Emma Kasbeat in school. Before I launched my label I tweaked it [to Emmy Kasbit]. I wanted a name people could relate to since I was already known [by that moniker] in Calabar.”
Not Design By Numbers
Okoro’s design process is extremely detailed and requires a high level of precision. Working on a collection for instance, involves textile making, sampling the handmade materials, designing motifs from cultural references, and working with weavers. Only after this dynamic and detailed process does the actual designing of a collection commence. “It takes three to five months to produce a [single] collection,” he explains. “We can’t make any mistakes [at any stage of production]”.
Photo: Adesuwa Aighewi in Emmy Kasbit SS‘19. Via @emmykasbit
If Textiles Could Talk
Akwete textiles are the foundation in each collection. In other words, the designs and sketches are developed from the fabric. “I’m telling an African story with every collection. Generally, I’m inspired by nature, culture, and things around me. With textiles, I can tell that story because the brand is purely African. I can’t tell [an African] story with a Western fabric. [By making my textiles] I can create and customize my motifs based on the inspiration of the season. Textile is very important to me.”
From Pocket Change to Global Change
2018 was a turning point for Okoro. In addition to winning Lagos Fashion Week’s Fashion Focus programme and learning about the power of branding, it was also around this time he began incorporating sustainable practices in his work. “When I started I was doing it for money, but as time went by I learned that fashion was more than just making clothes. It’s about community and the stories you’re telling. When I moved to Lagos I [started to focus on] sustainable fashion and started working with artisans. Right now I would describe [my brand] as a movement [that is] pushing the African narrative.”
A Supportive Family Tree
There’s a resonance of gratitude in Okoro’s voice, when he talks about his late father and the tremendous support he always gave him. “My parents have been my biggest inspiration. I think my family looks up to me as much as I look up to them. They always support everything I do. My FW‘20 collection was inspired by my support system. I look back at this year and what’s happening with COVID-19 and I think this is the right time to take a step back and appreciate the people around me.”
Lagos: A Cosmos of Creative Energy
Driven by Lagos' vibrant social scene, there’s no other city where Okoro would rather be, as a Nigerian creative. “It’s the [center] of the [Nigerian] fashion scene,” he says about the city. “When you’re surrounded by lots of inspiration you’re happy. Lagos is not a city to wake up and lie on your face in, you have to get up and see people and that motivates me. There’s a lot of competition too and it’s good, because competition [makes you work harder].”
A Visual Language
Emmy Kabit’s vivid and striking visuals can be attributed to his team, and the designer’s own hands-on and experimental personality. Okoro is just as involved in the conceptualization and creative process of every season campaign as he is with making clothes. “I’m passionate about visuals, and one of the things that stands out at Emmy Kasbit is the visuals we put out. [For our campaigns] I select models and choose the photographer. I look for strong faces and dark skin. I work with light-skinned models too for the runway, but for photoshoots, I like dark-skinned models because the textiles we use complement their skin.”
“I’m telling an African story with every collection. I can’t tell [an African] story with a Western fabric. [By making my textiles] I can create and customize my motifs based on the inspiration of the season.”
Outfitting the Stars
In 2019, a photo of model Adesuwa Aighewi in Emmy Kasbit’s unisex SS‘19 Akwete set went viral. Since then he has become the go-to designer for Los Angeles-based trap-house-jazz musician Masego whom he has dressed on multiple occasions, and refers to as the quintessential Emmy Kasbit man and a friend of the brand. “Masego first reached out to me to try out some custom looks. Now, whenever he calls he orders [as much as] ten pieces. He wanted every single piece in the collection last season”.
The Stars Are Not The Limit, Love is
Like many designers around the world, the Covid-19 pandemic has slowed down production for Okoro, resulting in limited resources and the designer having to lead his small team remotely. “We are still in the early stages. I haven’t been able to see the artisans, and I’ve been doing everything online. While I was in lockdown I had time to think about what the next season would look like, which will be revealed in the coming weeks. It has to do with hope, perseverance, and love.”
Photo: Emmy Kasbit FW‘19. Courtesy of Emmy Kasbit
Photo: Emmy Kasbit SS‘20. Courtesy of Emmy Kasbit
Photo: Emmy Kasbit FW‘20. Via @emmykasbit
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