Philly designer Ikire Jones is adding Africa to the conversation

The Philadelphia InquirerJuly 16, 2014 

Inside his sunlit apartment studio space, Sam Hubler, menswear company Ikire Jones' sole tailor, spends hours on boldly printed jackets. The brand, founded by Wale Oyejide, has a clear mission to offer unique, handcrafted jackets for every type of man. Naima, Oyejide's 20-month-old daughter, is somewhat of a mascot for the company and engages in innocent mischief around the studio daily.

In the far right corner sits a wooden table covered in boldly printed fabrics and a wooden back wall of partially hand-sewn men's sports jackets and shirts.

"I actually have no background in menswear," the Nigerian-born Oyejide starts. In what he calls the typical immigrant story, Oyejide lived in various countries as a kid bouncing back and fourth between Nigeria and countries like Dubai before settling in the U.S. as a teen. He's wearing a light blue button down, jeans, a straw fedora and oversized tortoiseshell glasses.

Oyejide is a former (still licensed) attorney whose only clothing design experience comes from his expert eye for fashion. In 2010, he was selected by Esquire as one of the five best-dressed real men in the country and Craig Schroeder of Philadelphia bespoke menswear boutique Commonwealth Proper was immediately impressed by his sense of style.

"I had no connections in the industry," Oyejide said of the beginnings of his company. "You just assume that you have to go to FIT (the Fashion Institute of Technology) or to design school to do that."

To FIT, Oyejide did not go. Instead he earned his undergrad degree in computer science. And once he graduated he did what's expected of every computer science kid - became a musician. After being signed to a label, Oyejide worked as a producer and vocalist in the independent hip-hop scene under the moniker Science Fiction for about three years. During that time he collaborated with underground artists like MF DOOM and J Dilla.

For "starving artist reasons," Oyejide returned to school where he attended Temple Law and began practicing in Center City. "I did civil defense litigation, which basically is a fancy way of saying if somebody slips and falls in front of the laundromat and sues the laundromat, I'd defend the laundromat," says Oyejide of his former source of income.

Though it provided a comfortable enough lifestyle, law was just that for the self-proclaimed "menswear nerd" - a source of income lacking in fulfillment. Rather than enjoying his career inherently, he found himself justifying his job with the fact that he could buy the "fly suits" that got him noticed regularly on the streets of Philadelphia.

He was becoming a "walking billboard" for the brands he sported. Oyejide saw a void in the menswear industry. Brands weren't speaking to confident, forward-thinking men who wanted to dress uniquely. He just happened to be law school buddies with a woman whose brother was a bespoke tailor - Sam Hubler - who then became the official hands of Ikire Jones.

Named after his father's village in Nigeria, and his American wife's family name, Ikire Jones is a brand that marries cultures literally and figuratively. Driven by wax cotton used customarily for casual African clothing, Ikire Jones jackets are special because of the fabric choices and incredible expert craftsmanship. Hubler, who has been featured on GQ.com, spends nearly 15 hours on each individual jacket, a huge decrease from the 40-hour minimum he was spending on bespoke suiting. But time consuming, nonetheless.

"Figuring out little things to cut the time down, but keep the quality up," Hubler says is an ever-evolving challenge. Machine sewn sports jackets retain luxurious touches like hand stitched sleeves and collars, meticulous pattern matching and spacious sleeve lining. This is what's putting Ikire Jones jackets in their own made-to-order menswear category.

"Right now," said Oyejide, "there are very few companies, if any, in the U.S. who can say they do what we do."

Oyejide designs the scarf and square patterns, which are manufactured in England, and as a result they reveal a narrative, subtly but definitively foundation to the entire brand. On them are scenes of traditional European aristocracy and mythology. But, on The Madonna square, for instance, a black woman and child sit on a throne surrounded by European devotees and caretakers.

"His scarves and pocket squares are fantastic," says Schroeder, "and you'll see me sporting them all summer."

Quirky stories accompany each piece in every collection, strengthening the brand's narrative - so far there are two and they are working on a fall/winter collection for the upcoming seasons.

With high-intensity tales of lovers-turned-assassins in Tokyo and stories of ravaged African villages, ikirejones.com is as much a shopping website as it is a webpage of short sci-fi narratives that, regardless of their intention, seem to paint a completely new portrait of Africa and her people.

"We returned to Johannesburg as different men," one story reads. "The kind of men whose hands had become calloused from clutching at ancient treasures and were now strong enough to mold the future."

While he says not to read too much into the stories, and the intentional use of design and patterns, as they are merely his contribution to the larger cultural conversation: wax cotton fabric and esteemed black faces in Eurocentric designs create a positive African aesthetic.

"If you go to CNN or Google or Reuters and look up any country in Africa, nine times out of 10 what you read is something horrible, horrific and tragic almost everyday," Oyejide says. He hopes to convey an authentic, honest point of view about Africa not marred by catastrophe.

Honesty and transparency are trademarks of this cool company. "Sadly, the vast majority of companies who do this will go to somewhere like Asia where they can get super cheap labor," Oyejide says. But that's not how he prefers to play it. He likes to know who's making his stuff and at the same time be sure they're able to make a living, "as opposed to some ghost thing where you send materials overseas to some kid in a dungeon."

"I think it's a company with a conscience," Oyejide says, "but not anymore of a conscience than a regular person."

Says Hubler of Ikire Jones, "A big part of it was just not trying to hurt people and (to) make something beautiful in the process."

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