The Rise of Kibonen

This Cameroonian's colorful closet

This Cameroonian’s colorful closet

One of my students this week reminded me of those intoxicating days when things first start to happen in your career. The thrill as opportunities open up, and dreams are within arm’s length. Kibonen Nfi speaks about what many designers speak about: color, pattern, cut, drape and inspiration. But it is her inspiration that rings out as different.

She’s not referencing Marie Antoinette or Cleopatra or any other stock fashion icons. Her inspiration is much richer and personal and she describes it with eyes that dance.

Kibonen is from Cameroon where “there are no fashion schools. No one would think of doing this for a career. They choose lawyer or doctor because they don’t see this as an option.” She likens fashion to soccer. Now that people back home see the potential for a career and success, parents are paying for their kids to learn to play. She wants to do the same for fashion in her home country.kibs2-2

She says the fashion magazines there don’t have the talent needed to feature within their pages and must look overseas.

She has just returned from Washington where she spoke before heads of state about her work, her path, the challenges and the need for fashion education in her home country. These talks are child’s play for her; I heard one she gave in school just last month. She is one of our students selected to show at Mercedez Benz New York Fashion Week. Only half of her garments are ready but she is confident she will complete them in time. She has already experienced Mercedes Benz Africa, is currently working on a book which she hopes to release soon, and is interning for a top New York fashion designer. She happily tells me that the process inside the studio is “exactly like how Miss Mallon tells us it is in the classroom”.SS2013-8

In Cameroon, Kibonen worked in a bank. Her boss often told her she belonged in another world, not the bank, and this irritated her. He’s just leading up to firing me, she concluded. She left and followed her fiancé to Missouri and when that didn’t work out, she travelled on to Atlanta, Maryland, Houston and other cities.

“None of them could contain me,” she says.

NYC proved different. She took a job at the cosmetics counter in Bloomingdales, later Saks. There, customers kept asking her who designed  her dresses. Can I buy them upstairs on the dress floor? they inquired.

Kibonen in one of her sought after dresses

Kibonen in one of her sought after dresses

SS2012-10“In New York City, you can absorb yourself in the city and leave behind everything in your past, or you can pull from your past and bring it to the city.” Kibonen chooses the latter. She is determined to expose African prints in unconventional ways, even when others warn her against it.

She is too Westernized now for people back home. They consider her work “diluted”.

What is watered down and lacking for them, is enriched for us. Her inspiring mission wafts from the seams yet the bloggers back home won’t touch her. But she has appeared on the BBC and international fashion magazines have been in touch. She can provide what they want back home, but, like Atlanta or Houston or Missouri, that life wouldn’t “contain” her.

She wants to bring to Cameroon what they don’t yet know they need.

The colors are uncompromisingly bright, the patterns psychedelic, the silhouettes American sportswear.”I am learning so much and it’s so exciting,” she says.

I get excited too from speaking to her. I remember these kinds of feelings. Things are about to happen. Oh, yes, I remember it well.

Kibonen Nfi: one to watch.

 

 

SS2013-2SS2013-11kibs1My novel inspired by my career and telling the story of a similarly bright-eyed graduate designer’s climb to the high peaks of the international fashion industry,  is now available. You can buy Silk for the Feed Dogs here.

 

28 comments

  1. Jackie, Ms. Nfi’s work is fabulous! I loved all her pieces.
    Isn’t it so amazing to see your nurturing develop into something unique and glorious. I love that she sees her way clearly and is not intimidated by what people “want” her to do.
    Brava – Professor/Teacher/Mentor/Coach – Brava!

  2. Would most happily buy the blue flowery top and the long dress. Inspiring story and I bet you feel great you can help her.

  3. What a wonderfully, inspiring story Jackie and how lovely that your paths have crossed, and you’re now emotionally and supportively depositing into each other’s lives!

    I really appreciated your words, “In New York City, you can absorb yourself in the city and leave behind everything in your past, or you can pull from your past and bring it to the city.” What a lovely reminder to us all that no matter what “places” we find ourselves in, whether geographical, relational or positional, we must always remain an “authentic” version of who we are, and bring it to wherever we may be! Like Kibonen Nfi, staying true to our roots is one way we do this…and staying true to what we love—to our passions is another 🙂

    Her African prints are absolutely stunning and her designs very appealing! One can beautifully sense Kibonen Nfi’s roots and passions through her work…just like one can sense yours through your novel. What a wonderful teacher and friend you must now be to each other…you’re both very blessed! ~xo

    • Thanks for checking in, we’ve missed you round these parts 🙂
      Those were all Kibonen’s words, but yes, very poignant. We are the sum of our experiences and upbringing and we shouldn’t run from that. They form who we become, for good or bad.
      It was her unique story that inspired me to do the post. The story behind the road to the catwalk can be almost as engaging as a catwalk. She has a lot of drive as a result of her mission. This will stand her in good stead in this industry.
      Hope you’re enjoying your summer.
      xo

  4. What a really interesting post. A great read. I particularly liked her line describing how she couldn’t settle ‘None could contain me’.

  5. Good luck in shovel fulls to this new talent on the block. Her colours sing and her drive and passion is written all over them. Must be so rewarding for you as a teacher too.

  6. In a way she reminds me a bit of Prada. I used to walk past their window in London and see all kinds of stuff that left me totally indifferent, then all of a sudden something would blow you away from across the street. That yellow jacket in the second picture… wow! And the dress with the cross is pretty hot too.

    • Oh now Prada, Donald, oh you taunt me…I love all they do because I really appreciate the notion of jolie-laide. For an Italian brand, that aesthetic is pretty revolutionary. But my husband doesn’t like a lot of what they do also. If you take the pieces and make them your own, they are all pretty wow, I venture…
      I think Kibonen would take the comparison as the highest compliment.

  7. Wow. What an inspiring young lady. With that sort of determination, I think she could succeed in whatever she chooses.
    I must say, I really love the sound of New York! 🙂

    • When New York is described by a transplant, there’s nothing like it. These are the people that give NYC its heart and keep it relevant and high energy. And it’s such a struggle in this city sometimes that the stories of success sound ever more romantic and epic 🙂

  8. Again, a win-win combination: this bright young mind (and hand) of Kibonen and the brilliant mentoring of Miss Mallon that ”tells it as it is in the classroom”! We’d love to see more of Kibonen in Belgium – her bright colours would be a good contrast to the gray-black-neutral background. 😀

  9. Vanessa Deniece

    Having a girl from home doing such an amazing job can Only make me super proud to be cameroonian
    Keep it up

  10. I love stories with happy endings. And If prose could weave a frock you’d be a recurring recipient of the Gown of the Year Award.

    • You are a flatterer, Mike. But I’m having that gown fitted this afternoon all the same just in case an occasion arises for me to strut about in it. Even at home on a Friday night 🙂

  11. I lived this story. Saw the beginning, seeing its development and waiting to see it fulfillment. Kibonen is made of more. Happy this “more” is being unlocked.

  12. Wow, what a great story, per usual. I couldn’t agree more- she is one to watch for sure!

  13. Thanks, dear. Glad she found a fan in you 🙂

  14. Monica

    No one can hold you back girl … Xoxoxo Monica

  15. Amazing, inspiring! I love her colorful designs. Congratulations for doing such a great job. XO

  16. Jessica Mayela

    she is a true inspiration! I got the chance to do a show with her back in 2009 it was an awesome experience to have met her! Can’t wait to see what’s next !

  17. Betty Atia

    This is such a great piece! I love your work Kibonen and you truly stand out my dear friend. The world is ready for you and I am sure your success shall be amazing. Keep doing your thing and congratulations.

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