Fashion stylist, creative consultant, designer, you name it, as long as it’s in the creative field, Caroline Chi-Chi Chinakwe, has probably earned a living from it in her 20 years in the fashion industry.
In the last couple of years, she has also worn another hat, head curator for African Fashion Week London (AFWL), an event which brings together Africa’s emerging design talent to the international scene. We caught up with her to discuss how she started in the industry, her work with AFWL and her amazing ‘Fashion Art’!
Melan Magazine: What was your early experience of fashion like?
Caroline Chinakwe: I started at the London College of Fashion (LCF), a long time ago. Imagine a 90s Oxford Street, with Shelly’s across the road. Back then it was just about spending grant money! But seriously, what did I learn? I wasn’t really into fashion back then, I kind of fell into it through my best friend who was really keen. But then I learnt to sew, and discovered that I actually loved sewing. My focus then shifted to sewing and making clothes. I had no ambitions at that point of taking things further and becoming a designer. After I left LCF, I got a job as a parser with Nicole Farhi, which is like a quality control person that checks clothes are okay before they are taken to the shops. I ended up with an eight-year career in the clothing manufacturing industry.
MM: Did any of your fellow classmates ‘make it big’?
CC: LCF was disappointing because there were so many amazing black designers, who I always used to think ‘gosh, this person is so talented, they’re definitely going to go far’, but I didn’t know how racist the industry was. I didn’t realise the restrictions there were for black people. My mum never sat me down and told me that as a black person there would be restrictions for me. I never knew that. I was shocked a few years down the line to learn that these talented designers didn’t amount to anything, they didn’t get the jobs that they wanted to get. They didn’t have the careers they envisaged and ended up having careers outside of fashion.
MM: Your designs are stunning, how do you come up with your concepts?
CC: They’re based on my own personal style. I’m not one of those people that will go on long walks and sees flowers and says, ‘ooh, I’m so inspired by those flowers’. It is literally what I feel like wearing, or how I want to see myself.
MM: What fabric do you use?
CC: I used to be a womenswear designer for Soboye when he launched his ‘Africa at Soboye’ collection about seven years ago where we embraced the whole Ankara fabric trend. That’s when I started working with Ankara fabric, but I consciously moved away from that because I didn’t want to be restricted and seen only as an African designer who works just with Ankara. Right now I’m really into scuba fabric. The same one they use for scuba diving. It’s become a lot more commercial and there’s so many things you can do with it and it’s really fun to work with. But I work with lots of other fabrics too.
MM: How did you become involved with AFWL?
CC: I first joined the team last year with Soboye as a stylist. After the event, we began discussions with the founder, Ronke Adeyemi, about how we can develop AFWL, and support the designers a lot more, particularly with manufacturing, which is my background. I was then asked to come on board as head curator. My role involves sourcing the designers, making sure they fit the aesthetic of the show, but also that they represent the diversity and range of talent and style so that those who’ve never come to a fashion show before can see the breadth of what African designers can offer. We also try to get a good balance of those who are starting out and those who are more established.
MM: Do the designers approach AFWL or do you go scouting?
CC: A lot of the designers we work with already know about AFWL so they approach us. However, I do come across new exciting brands occasionally and invite them to be a part of the show.
MM: Does it help you up your game seeing the new talent?
CC: Absolutely! Seeing new talent is always inspirational, no matter how long you’ve been in the industry. For example, a young designer who is showing at AFWL, Abisola Akanni, (she also showed at the recent Graduate Fashion Week), is really exciting. The ways she’s used Ankara; merging the different textures of fabric into her collection, is just so inspiring. Definitely one to watch. So yeah, these new designers, fresh out of fashion school are often very open to new ideas that the older, more established designers may not be aware of.
For tickets to Africa Fashion Week London, click here.