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.
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”.
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.
“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.
My 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.