For years, the black woman has suffered from the largest plagiarism in the world. While cornrows, neon colors and fishnets, and extensively long acrylics are now deemed as high fashion, the blood, sweat, tears, and struggles behind the now-iconic fashion trends.
Behind every pricked finger, every piece of skin broken by a needle, every sketch pad holding on by its seams, quite literally, is the story of a fashion designer and stylist being born.
Breaking Into The Seams
For 19-year-old Chi Ilochi, fashion was always a passion but she never dreamed of seeing herself actually pursue it. Growing up in the rough side of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the now Hawaiian based stylist found herself at
“I’d say my parents did a great job of sheltering us from a world that was difficult to understand as little black boys and girls,” the 19-year-old explained. “My childhood was definitely an experience.” Illochi, the youngest out of seven brothers and three sisters, found herself at the epitome of a modern-day Brady brunch family of color.
The city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania resides with 74,000 residents being African-American, which make up roughly 23% of the population. While the Burgh is known mostly for its steel industry and famous beer can, and let’s not forget the infamous Abby Lee Miller, not much comes out of there. Aside from the infamous Abby Lee Miller and ‘Dance Moms’, it’s not much of a town that keeps. Pittsburgh has a crime rate that is reportedly 109% higher than the rest of Pennsylvania state.
“My parents made sure to keep us ‘out the mix’ if you will, focused, involved in different activities in school, studying, at church or at home with each other watching cartoons, fighting each other more often than not and eating junk food. My childhood subconsciously affected my choice of career path. Being the weird, quiet, outcast type of girl who often times got teased or ridiculed for how she dressed motivated me to make that the same factor that would set me aside. I’d say it worked for the best.”
In 2011, Pittsburgh was ranked at an embarrassingly high number three on GQ’s infamous “40 Worst-Dressed Cities in America“. While the city slowly tried to redeem itself through Pittsburgh fashion week and other things, fashion was just something that never stuck. Thankfully, Illochi would be the first initiative to changing that.
Sketches to Stitches
After attending Community College of Alleghany County, Ilochi decided to take a break, and focus on living out her dreams of becoming a successful designer.
“In my own life, I’d have to say being misunderstood. People hated how I dressed. Maybe hate isn’t the right word. Maybe the word I’m looking for is misunderstood. You know the saying ‘If people are hating on you then you’re doing something right’. Well, I had to use that to my creative advantage.”
Research has proved that most humans fear what they don’t understand, and that bias’ and fears can be based on artificial aspects, down to eye color.
Ilochi draws her inspiration from Erykah Badu, one of the most iconic and legendary fashion and music icons representing the African-American community.
“The way she graced the world with her unapologetic eclectic style motivated me beyond my own measure. Her style and entire being never failed to leave me in creative awe.”
While Badu is known and often praised for her eccentric styles, including her ever-changing hat/and or hair toppers, the representation of black female designers is still low. In 2015 it was discovered that out of 260 global reach fashion shows, only three designers were black. Unfortunately five years later, the stats have not changed in terms of high-end fashion. It took Vogue 125 years to hire their first black photographer; Only 15 of the 495 Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) members are black and only ten designers to have won a CFDA award are black.
“Black women and men have been cultural influencer’s forever, oftentimes we don’t even realize it,” Ilochi explains. “People fear what they don’t understand, they fear what they can’t control. Our boldness, our creative minds, our fashion genius has always and will continue to influence the world of fashion. The hardest aspect [of fashion] for myself personally would be being taken seriously; because for some odd reason, a black woman in society for as long as however has been someone to laugh at. So it becomes difficult for people to remove that stereotype, especially in the business world. I’m a tad bit shy; I struggle with putting myself out there because I find it extremely uncomfortable. But I’ve realized growth and comfort zones can’t coexist. I’m at a crossroads now that requires me to just take a leap of faith. Fashion isn’t an art form that requires standards or requirements. Your love for it and desire to do it is what matters.”
Knotted At The Thread
For Ilochi, the process of designing is not easy, and it comes with the unfortunate factor that makes the journey twice as hard: race.
“Being a black woman is already difficult as is. But being a creative black woman is like trying to open a can of soda while wearing acrylic nails,” Ilochi joked.
While many designers capitalize off of black fashion trends – renaming cornrows as ‘boxer braids’, and plagiarism from black-owned businesses – the fashion industry is still severely impacted by a lack of diversity.
“I work EXTREMELY hard to establish myself in this fashion world. It’s a very restless process. It annoys me at times I must admit. I have to work twice sometimes three times as hard to get an outfit I’ve styled or designed noticed over another woman of any other race. The process can get depressing as well. I find myself at times feeling very discouraged, even hopeless because this industry and America can make you feel like you’ll never be good enough no matter how hard you try. But I know it’s not all for nothing. It’s hard-earned opportunities such as this, and influencers that remind me everything will be alright. That this is my purpose.”
Starting from scratch, when Ilochi’s mental light bulb brightens up with a new idea, she goes straight to work.
“My creation process changes every time. It usually starts with a pretty chill and relaxing playlist, me laying out different fabrics I may use, sketching out my design, walking away for a moment in search for new ideas or new approaches to my creative process, coming back and setting up my sewing machine and supplies, and getting started. Then there are those other times [that I actually prefer] where I create an item solely off of desire, and being in the moment with my creative spurts. I never really know what to expect with my design process, but I will say it’s a new adventure every time.”
All Sewed Up
While it is well known that to be in any high-end industry and be successful, one must develop a thick skin, it can become extremely easy to become discouraged. When asked what advice she would give to herself five to ten years ago, Ilochi stated the following:
“I would advise her to go with the flow, and stop fighting who she is, what she is and how she is. You are amazing, you are wonderful, you are uniquely made, and those that can’t see it now will see it soon or come around eventually. Everything that is happening right now is meant to happen to shape and mold you into who you are now. I would advise her to be herself, to be fearless, to continue to be creative whether people understand her or not. I would advise her to love, cherish and appreciate herself like there’s no tomorrow because one day she’s going to meet someone just like herself that will need her help. I would advise her to take a deep breath, relax, stay strong and enjoy the ride, because although it’s bumpy, and a bit difficult it’s one for the record books!”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of fashion designers is projected to grow three percent within the next seven years and the employment of the designers in the retail trade industry is expected to grow 22% within the next decade. For Ilochi, and other designers of color, hopefully they will be the designers contributing to the soaring statistics and changing industry standards.
“I see myself well established, at peace, balanced, and a better woman in all areas I aspire to be. I see myself having pop ups, selling my own clothing, preparing for New York Fashion Week,” Ilochi indulged. “[I see myself] creating amazing work, having people model and buy my clothing, inspiring young black women and men, giving back to the community.”
“To be creative is to be undefined. To be creative means expressing yourself Unique, bold, daring – apologetically you. To be creative is to be undefined- to be creative is to give your tithe back to the universe.”