GOZI OCHONOGOR: ENGINEERING MULTI-CULTURAL FASHION
Ngozi Ochonogor studied Software Engineering at the Imperial College London, graduating in 1998. Eschewing this path and several opportunities to work in the IT sector to pursue her dream of becoming a fashion designer, she studied menswear design at the Central School of Fashion, London. She also worked at the Anthony Reynolds Gallery in London, which represented Turner Prize winners Mark Wallinger and Keith Tyson,as well as film director Steve McQueen where she learned from these artists through first-hand experience and interaction.
In 2003, she set up her company Gozi Limited and launched her brand GOZI at the London Fashion Week. Since then, she has become a successful designer with global acclaim. Gozi is also the creative director of the menswear brand U.Mi-1 (pronounced youmeone), established in Japan in 2007. This label is a blend of British tailoring aesthetic with the hallmark of Japanese artisan-ship, and Ochonogor’s approach to tailoring is like that of an engineer with a zeal for perfection and attention to detail.
In January this year, she was one of four international menswear designers chosen to show their collection at the Pitti Uomo ‘Generation Africa’ show organized by the Ethical Fashion Initiative, a programme of the International Trade Center—a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization.
She was also one of the curators of the Nigerian pavilion at the London Design Biennale, which took place at Somerset House from September 7 to 27.
You own two labels; Gozi and U.Mi-1. What inspired you to start your labels and why did you go into fashion design after studying Software Engineering?
I went into fashion because I always had an interest in it. I also believed I had the ability to push boundaries. I did not have a vision for software engineering and was less passionate about it. I started Gozi so that I could raise money to pay my fees for fashion school. My parents believed my career change was a phase I was going through and thought I’d sooner see the error of my ways if they didn’t fund it. I am glad they didn’t. It has been an amazing experience from my days at Portobello Market. I have showed on-schedule in Paris, unheard of for an unknown designer, and lived in Tokyo, Japan where I started U.Mi-1.
Besides Japan, you have lived in Nigeria and the UK. How have these different countries influenced or inspired your collections?
Our collections are a blend of the three. The designs are inspired by Nigerian culture or attire but employ traditional English tailoring techniques at their foundation. The Japanese layer is in the precision with which the garment is cut, the clean finishing and the quirky detailing.
Though your last two collections were centred on different aspects of Nigerian culture, they were not overly Nigerian. Can you tell us about them including the fusion of European and Nigeria?
The last two collections were about the Yorubas. Who am I? is a modern and sophisticated collection infused with scarification patterns on the garments, questioning the place traditional African beauty has in contemporary culture. Ode to Eyo, which pays tribute to the Eyo festival is very playful and fun. It has an element of pop art to it. It is important that our collections have a universal appeal and fusing cultures is an exciting creative process.
Ode to Eyo collection. Image credit: Gozi Ochonogor
Who am I? collection. Image credits: Gozi Ochnogor
You started off designing strictly for women but are now focusing on menswear. Was there any reason for this shift?
I studied menswear. I think women look sexier in a masculine silhouette and I have always cut using men’s blocks. U.Mi-1 is a unisex label and I found making the men’s collections more fun. We don’t make dresses anymore but we still have many female customers.
You have worked at the Anthony Reynolds Gallery in the UK. How has this engagement with art enriched your work as a designer?
Artworks are allegorical. Our collections are stories and a representation of abstract ideas. I would say that’s the influence.
Your designs have been featured in international magazines like GQ Style, L’UOMO Italian Vogue, I.D, Elle and Japan Times. How did you get those features and how have they impacted on your labels?
Although we don’t have a press agent yet, we have been so lucky to have received so much press! Stylists or editors contact us and it’s been great to see U.Mi-1 featured in these magazines. It shows the industry recognizes my work and this has opened many doors.
In January this year at the Pitti Uomo fashion show in Italy, you showed your collection as part of ‘Generation Africa’, under the ITC Ethical fashion initiative. Indeed,you were the only female designer and your collection closed the show! What was the experience like and how did you get selected among the four international designers?
We went through the application process and were selected. It was a brilliant show and we are thankful to ITC for putting U.Mi-1 in the spotlight. I am however critical of my work. I see only what we could have done better. Perfection is what I wish to attain and relive.
With three refugees cast as models for the show, do you think the show was able to bring their plight to the fore, and how did it feel working with them?
Yes the show did. Everyone deserves an equal opportunity in life. I dislike labels—refugee, immigrant, Black and so on. We are all from one race and that’s the human race. I worked with three good looking men who had limited catwalk experience. Most of the other models needed direction too so it was all the same to me.
Do you have any plans of returning to your engineering practice?
I sometimes design software applications for companies but I only choose projects that interest me or have a social impact.
What are you currently working on?
Our labels are moving into retail and so we are revamping our e-commerce site. I also took a break last season as I felt a bit like a hamster on a wheel, churning out collections. After that, I am back to the wheel. It has been fortuitous as I curated the Nigerian pavilion at the just concluded London Design Biennale, which covered all design disciplines. Leading designers from 35 countries around the world showcased design concepts with the theme Utopia by Design. The Nigerian team addressed issues faced by river communities in the Niger Delta – oil spills, gas flaring and flooding. This was the first ever biennale Nigeria would be represented in so it was a very special project. The exhibition was held at Somerset House from September 7 to 27.
What’s your favourite holiday destination and how do you spend your leisure?
I love to be near the sea but I don’t have a favourite holiday destination. Any place where the locals are welcoming and I can learn about a new culture is magical. Bonus points if I get into encounters and have anecdotes to tell. Double bonus points if I can laugh it all off on a beach the next day with a friend and cocktails. The Japanese are to date my favourite people. I went to Japan on a 10-day holiday and ended up living among them for 5 years.
Gozi Ochnogor with some of the other designers and the Ethical fashion founder Simone Ciprani (holding the microphone). Image credit: Giovanni Giannoni
Gozi Ochnonogor takes a bow at the end of her Who am I? show. Image credit : Giovanni Giannoni
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