Celebrating Black History Month with Jokotola Edu-Phillips
In the current climate, Black History Month 2020 is more important than ever. As the world celebrates the contributions of black creatives, intellectuals and activists, we've taken the opportunity to catch up with Nigerian designer Jokotola Edu-Phillips, to find out more about her brand and her heritage following her appearance at Fashion Together back in September.
How do your Nigerian roots influence your designs?
My history is an integral part of my roots.
For years, I have been drawn to the quality over quantity values that my parents and grandparents espoused. They always preferred to buy fewer quality items that will last a long time. This in turn influenced my childhood and how my mother dressed us as her children. From primary school, my mother started buying me real gold earrings, which I had a habit of always losing one earring. This continued until she forced me to wear two different earrings (the single pieces that I always returned with) for a full year which I surprisingly did not lose. I think the embarrassment of being told by different people over and over again that my earrings were different made me more mindful in caring for my things. This is why when my mother gave me my first gold necklace when I was 10 years old, a piece that I still have more than 2 decades later, I took good care of it and plan to pass it down to my daughter. Although I briefly deviated from this value when I moved to the United States by diving into the world of fast fashion, I soon learnt how wasteful and unsustainable that lifestyle was.
In returning to Nigeria, I quickly learnt that it was important to understand that my identity was not simply rooted in my wardrobe and I had to focus on creating my own style and stop chasing after fleeting trends. This is why it is important that at Joko Edu, we create classic items that can be worn over a long period of time. I want custodians of Joko Edu products to be able to pass it down to future generations.
"A lot of Nigerian cultures are bright and colourful, with our colours even signifying different meanings. For instance, in Yoruba culture, my ethnic group, Alaari aso-oke, a wine-coloured woven fabric, is usually worn for celebratory events"
Another way that my heritage has influenced my designs is that I am drawn to bright colours. A lot of Nigerian cultures are bright and colourful, with our colours even signifying different meanings. For instance, in Yoruba culture, my ethnic group, Alaari aso-oke, a wine coloured woven fabric, is usually worn for celebratory events such as weddings, the birth of a child or the celebration of a chieftaincy title. Although our use of colours do not always mean the same as they do in Yoruba culture, our handbags come in many shades and patterns, an important part of our culture.
What does inclusivity in the fashion industry mean to you?
Inclusivity in fashion means creating a brand that connects to its audiences’ different needs through relatable storytelling, products and services. Most times, when I flip through fashion magazines, I am usually bored because I see pictorials, editorials and other content that I don’t understand or cannot relate to. The air of mystique and fantasy woven within the fashion industry will probably get an A+ for creativity but this doesn’t mean much when it does not speak to my real needs or concerns.
With Joko Edu, I want to tell stories that are largely ignored by mainstream fashion brands, stories depicting weakness, struggle, pain and how one has learnt to live with it or overcome it altogether. This is very important to me because I know that when I personally battled feelings of purposelessness and unending sadness (still not sure if it was depression), I connected more with brands that told real stories, the ones that were not afraid to show the unattractive side and how they dealt with it. This lifted me up and served as a form of encouragement and inspiration. Of course, we want to also share the success stories and tell feel good stories too but we have to be honest, that is usually interwoven with seasons of downfall too.
"With Joko Edu, I want to tell stories that are largely ignored by mainstream fashion brands, stories depicting weakness, struggle, pain and how one has learnt to live with it or overcome it altogether"
Inclusive fashion has to be authentic. It has to dismantle unrealistic fashion and beauty standards that make the rest of us feel inadequate if we do not meet up. It needs to focus more on who we are as people and not simply what we look like on the outside. We must accept and speak about beauty in diversity, be it in the form of showcasing people from different cultures, different kinds of bodies, different hair textures, disabilities, different struggles and much more.
How are you recognising Black History Month?
I am participating in the ongoing protest against police brutality in Nigeria. The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit of the Nigerian Police Force, has been known for its brutality and excessive use of force especially towards the Nigerian youth. Today, they have killed, raped, extorted and kidnapped many innocent Nigerians and have become terrors, instead of protectors, in society.
Recently, a video depicting SARS brutality went viral and this has led protesters around the country and in other parts of the world, to speak up against the injustices that we are facing. SARS officers usually profile youth and believe that tattoos, dreadlocks, a laptop or an iPhone is enough reason for a person to be deemed a fraudster.
If we do not speak up, there would be no Nigerian youth to celebrate which in time will kill several industries. But more importantly, we all have a right to life and dignity and deserve nothing less as citizens of Nigeria.
Do you have any role models within the black community? Who inspires you?
Yes I have several role models but most recently, it would have to be Aisha Yesufu, Rinu Oduala, Feyikemi Abudu and the several unnamed women who have boldly lent their voices to the #EndPoliceBrutality and #EndSars movement.
Although they have by no means done it alone, a lot of women have risen up in a country that usually treats us as second-class citizens, and have now taken centre stage to fight for justice. This has put them in a vulnerable position because they are now susceptible to future government harassment.
Although we operate a democratic system of government, there are many traces of our oppressive military past. Our government officials are usually not open to free speech and are always looking for ways to curb the citizens from keeping them accountable. We were raised to just accept whatever it is we get even if it is not fair, a lot of our parents did it, so it is inspiring to see my generation rising up and saying no to injustice.
How can we ensure that awareness around black history is extended beyond just a single month?
Interest goes both ways. People have to genuinely be interested in learning about black culture and should feel free to ask questions if they don’t understand something. Black culture is by no means homogenous, but there are so many ways we can incorporate different parts of our culture into mainstream culture. We have seen this happen over the years with rap, street fashion and so many other things.
"People have to genuinely be interested in learning about black culture and should feel free to ask questions if they don’t understand something. Black culture is by no means homogenous, but there are so many ways we can incorporate different parts of our culture into mainstream culture."
I must admit that being born and raised in the most populous black nation in the world, Nigeria, I was not really aware of my black identity until I moved to the United States for my university education and became a racial minority. Although a lot of people knew one or two things about Nigeria, they really did not know much but I was always willing to educate more about my culture if a person was willing to listen.
Within the fashion industry, I think it is important for us to preserve our traditional craftsmanship and techniques, showcasing aspects of heritage within our design.
You can find out more about the Joko Edu brand here.