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Summary: Here at U.Mi-1, our plan for the future entails establishing a fashion school in Lagos, Nigeria.In this post we talk you through our history, what has helped shape our core values and ethos and what we plan for our school.
Our Creative Director Gozi Ochonogor started U.Mi-1 while she was living in Japan. She wanted to create clothing that is valued for its design, craftsmanship and comfort and make the wearer feel great in the knowledge that they own something of value. But because of her experience of Japanese culture, she also wanted a brand that showed that cultures shared more similarities than differences. In Japan, she saw there were many similarities between Japanese people and Nigerians which amazed her. For example, their society was also patriarchal, their languages is tonal. She heard people in Japan called Fumi and Chika which are Nigerian names. Their culture of never washing their dirty linens in public, the manner of greeting all reminded her of home in Nigeria.. So, dialogue became the foundation of U.Mi-1.
In our early collections, Gozi collaborated with Japanese artists and companies to foster this artistic exchange. The collections’ themes centred on this new identity – an African in Japan.
This Afro Japanese mix was evident in our first collections. They were conceptual, playful and about Gozi’s love for Japan – the people, architecture etc. She also organised art workshops in Nigerian and Japanese orphanages inviting artists to foster this cultural exchange with children.
Through her experiences with other foreigners in Tokyo, Gozi began to see identity differently. She saw how U.Mi-1could connect people to the heart beat of Africa, but through their own lens, as part of something they truly loved and belonged to. Our collection Repartiation became her blueprint. She began to experiment with and fuse Nigerian cultural aesthetics with European design elements, in particular cubism.
Gozi deconstructed traditional Nigerian styles, and recreated modern fashionable items. Buying U.Mi-1 means owning a quality item and a piece of real Nigerian culture and heritage.
Gozi moved back to the UK after the 2008 global economic crash and re-established the studio in London. We started doing pop-ups in Nigeria which at first was unscathed by the crash. No-one had heard of pop-ups then. Our first was at the newly opened Radisson Blu Hotel Lagos. London changed the spirit of our collections. It took on a more Savile Row look and feel and was more refined than our Tokyo years.
Every season was a discovery and added a layer of progress. We started telling stories about Nigerian tribes. From Locus inspired by the Ibos, Voyager about Hausa conquest to Who Am I? inspired by Yoruba tribal marks, we tell stories about Nigeria’s tribes, that would bring its beauty and diversity closer to our clients.
The collections incorporated all the essence of the three countries Gozi calls home. It had all the elements of all the three cultures – British tailoring, Japanese craftsmanship and minimalism with an essence of Nigerian tribes. We were selling to department stores in Japan and concept stores in Nigeria and London.
Fashion evolved with the advent of social media particularly Instagram, which Gozi felt changed the industry dramatically. Designers and buyers no longer dictated what people should wear but the customers looking through hundreds of feeds dictated what was cool or not. As Gozi puts it, “Fashion became homogenous. I resented it as I do all things technological that takes over natural human connections. I thought of quitting. Instead I took time out to rethink. I spent the time working on a design project which was about gas flares and oil spills in Nigeria”.
This heralded a new mood for U.Mi-1 where community became another of our pillars. We began to talk about issues that affect people. Our last two collections Mood Indigo about the indigo dye process which is now a dying tradition because of the influx of imported goods, and Blood and Belief about the conflict between the pastoral herders and farmers in Nigeria, illustrate this.
In all this our Aso-Oke pieces emerged as one of our most loved items. Aso-Oke is a 15cm wide traditional Nigerian fabric. It feels like denim. We call it African denim. It has become one of our beloved staple fabrics because it is a sustainable option to regular denim and we can support the weaving communities, creating beautiful original patterns. Inspired by Japanese denim, we are working on evolving the weave and hope it becomes adopted as universally too.
The future of U.Mi-1 involves our fashion school, which we intend to open in Nigeria. The idea of the school started with the need to be vertically integrated and control our supply chain. Also with the majority of the Chinese population becoming middle class, we are aware African countries would become the next low cost fashion manufacturing source. We see this as an opportunity for many Nigerians to escape poverty. But to produce high quality garments, we need to train people. The school is also very personal to Gozi. “There were few African designers to inspire me when I was studying. My inspiration came from Balenciaga, who was an excellent pattern cutter. I still cut most of U.Mi-1’s patterns.”
Much like U.Mi-1, the school will be built on the ethos of excellence, dialogue, diversity, community and transparency. The plan is to start with short courses and give people the opportunity to build on skills gradually, within their own pace. As we grow, we hope to award scholarships, empower women to start their own businesses and have a bigger tribe. We hope it would eventually become a university – one that not only Africans can hone their skills at, but Europeans come to learn at too so there would be a better understanding of who we are as indeed, We Are One. Diversity and understanding of other narratives other than the European one is still lacking even in the UK’s most prestigious fashion universities. We hope we will be the leader in this regard. We invite you all to follow U.Mi-1 on this wonderful journey.