Raised in Abidjan and Silver Springs, Maryland, Loza Maléombho is an Ivorian-American fashion designer. Graduating from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, she then moved to New York City, where she interned for fashion brands Jill Stuart, Yigal Azrouël, and Cynthia Rowley. Back in Abidjan, Loza Maléombho introduced her eponymous fashion brand in 2009. Loza Maléombho dresses modern and urban women who do not want to break with traditions and black culture. She owns a shop in Abidjan and gives new life to African fashion. In 2015, Solange Knowles fell in love with her style and solicited her to be the artistic director of a shooting dedicated to black American designers for the Saint Heron label. She dressed Beyoncé in the SS16 Zaouli collection for “Formation” and dancers in Nigerian rapper Wiz Kid’s “Come Closer” video with Drake.
Meet Loza Maléombho
Loza Maléombho’s pieces are also on sale in showrooms around the world, notably through Lago54, an e-commerce site dedicated to African fashion created by French journalist Emmanuel Courreges. Her brand regularly shows in Lagos, Johannesburg, and Dakar. She is also making herself known through a series of photographic portraits on the theme of the Black woman, Alien Edits, published on Instagram. The Ivorian designer is one of the leading figures of African fashion, helping to popularize both Abidjan and local fabrics. For All The Pretty Birds, we chatted with Loza Maléombho about the importance of telling her own story, craftsmanship and fashion industry in Africa.
All The Pretty Birds: What would you say is the difference between being a black designer in Africa versus the US?
Loza Maléombho: That’s funny because you don’t think about it while you are in Africa. You aren’t specific, you know. In the US, you’re constantly reminded that you’re black, that you’re consequently a black designer; the first black person to do so and so. In Africa, the majority is black so that’s not a conversation.
ATPB: Why do you think Africa is the best place to be a designer right now?
LM: I think there’s a movement right now. The creative industry is booming in Africa because the population is younger and younger and it can’t count on government positions anymore. A lot of young Africans are turning to the creative sector, whether in graphic design, photography, painting, fashion design, or textile. It’s becoming more and more liberal as opposed to back in the day when our parents didn’t want us to go into the creative industry and would rather have us study business management or law. The conversation is changing. People are valuing the creative sector more and more. That we’re feeling right now. It’s exciting to be part of it. It’s exciting to think of ideas and how to develop them. That’s where I am at right now. I am in the middle of it and loving it.
ATPB: Too many brands are African by name but their companies are based in Paris, London or New York. What are the difficulties to exclusively produce in the Ivory Coast?
LM: Lots of challenges. We don’t work on the chain yet. It’s very artisanal, crafty. You can carry on a product from the beginning stage to the end, which can be an advantage because it makes it original. It makes it special. It makes it valuable. But at the same time, it’s still artisanal and crafty. You can’t have a mainstream production, there’s only a specific amount of things you can make. I take it rather optimistically because I feel like this is the time to make things special.
We have craftsmanship that we’ve carried from generations, it’s time to value it. Once you put it on a bigger scale it devalues craft. That’s the mistake not to make. The same mistake they made in China or in India, where mass production is taking over the value of craftsmanship. It can be a challenge or it can also be an asset depending on how you look at it. I understand why some brands would rather produce overseas or have their brands based in Europe or the US, but some of our responsibilities should be like: “If you are not developing this area, no one else will.” It justifies why some of us are taking the risk of settling in Africa rather than going abroad and taking advantage of the infrastructures and the advantages for the industry.
ATPB: How do you feel about the changes and the public’s enthusiasm for African fashion? Does the media exposure and the keen interest by the Africans Americans celebrities have a positive impact on your sales?
LM: I am very optimistic about the fact that finally African Americans are paying attention to what’s happening in Africa. You see it in music, you see it in fashion. You see Beyoncé reaching out more and more to African fashion designers, Kelly Rowland as well. You see Ruth Carter, who is a famous African American costume designer, for Black Panther she reached out to African designers. It’s super encouraging because these are the chances to build a bridge between these two communities, empower each other, share our culture. I think it can only be beneficial. I am very enthusiastic about that.
ATPB: Do you think there are ways for a brand to succeed both financially and environmentally?
LM: We’re all trying to figure this out. There’s a fine line between mass production and being disastrous for the planet. My mission is to remain very artisanal and value my heritage. It’s harder to have a mass conception brand and do that at the same time. As a designer looking to elevate the value and the view on African luxury, my responsibility is to involve the local artisans and elevate their craft. Although it’s remaining in small production, it’s still going to have global visibility and orders from all corners of the globe.
ATPB: How do you work with the local artisans? Do you offer training?
LM: It’s a two way. When I came back from the US with the training I learned, you’re thinking you’re experienced and you have more understanding of how a fashion brand should be carried. Then you come to Ivory Coast and you realize that the local realities are completely different. Rather than saying: “I’m gonna pass on everything I know and this how we gonna operate”, I decided I wanted to learn how and what they are doing, and add value to it with the experience I had. It’s a two-way exchange of knowledge and training.
ATPB: Why is it important to raise the issue of disconnection and the inconsistency of fashion week schedules in Africa?
LM: I’m glad you’ve asked this question because I have a follow up to that. I came up with an event I am marketing right now, which is called: AFRIQ VISION. It’s going to be a trading platform, a professional trade show from all the different chains of the industry. It’s going to be for artisans, suppliers, fashion designers, manufacturers, retailers and buyers all on the same platform to give them a chance to have global visibility and be able to sell it to international buyers. That’s what I think was missing from having all the different fashion weeks. Yes, it’s great we have a platform to be visible, to exhibit the work that we do, but how can we monetize on it if we only focalize on the fashion show?
ATPB: There’s this idea that Africans only wear wax print commercialized by Vlisco and many Chinese companies present on the continent, but you’ve chosen to only use African fabrics despite the popularity of this kind of fabric, is that on purpose?
LM: It’s on purpose, but it’s not against wax because African Wax is part of our identity now. Our mothers wore wax. Our grandmothers wore wax and still wear it. It’s part of our identity. What I am fighting for is those millions of artisans still practicing their craft for generations. They are experts on weaving, Kente fabric or baoulé fabric or fabric from Burkina Faso. They still don’t have a platform to capitalize on their craft. I think that every designer is now getting a chance for global visibility. It’s a chance to work with them, help them develop their craft and add value to what they’re doing. We all win. It’s not going against wax, but it’s for other fabrics to get their fifteen minutes of fame as well.
ATPB: When did your inspiration to draw from Akan culture happen?
LM: My mother is from Akan culture, and it’s part of my identity. It came from the beginning. This is the reason I wanted to go back. I felt the African culture was underrepresented in the clothes that I wore. I wanted to explore that idea. This is before the wax trend went global. I wanted to move back and see what has made locally and see what I could come up with. We get taught occidental history, different world history and all we’ve known, all we were taught about Africa is colonialism and everything after that. Moving back to me was enlightening, in the sense that I wanted to know what happened before. There were different empires. There were different cultures, what were their practices, what were their aesthetic. I was reading books, getting art books, visiting villages and studying the aesthetic and the goal was to interpret into the collection.
ATPB: Social media platforms can be beneficial for designers like you from Africa. Do you feel it’s the right time to be an independent designer?
LM: I think it’s great. It also causes the capacity to be flexible. Many designers were resisting for a long time before joining social media to market their products. I think what helped me, is being flexible enough to say: “Hey, I’m starting. I don’t necessarily have to budget for a brand marketing team, press bureau and all of that. This is what I have. How can I use my creativity to get productive and make it work for me?” A lot of people, at the same time, have realized that. It’s great, but it doesn’t come without its challenges. You’re exposing your products first hand and people are copying it. They have access to your material. That’s one of the reasons why I started using the masks as an identity. Even if you want to copy, everybody knows that the masks are from Loza Maléombho.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Image Credits: Loza Maléombho portraits by @_izcee, Kelly Rowland at Wearable Art Gala 2019, and Runway Images of Loza Maléombho AW19 at Essence Festival