Esquire : Africa's Gabonese Culture Is About to Have Its Fashion MomentDesigner Teddy Ondo Ella is bringing his country's aesthetic to the world.
Teddy Ondo Ella debuted his eponymous collection this New York Fashion Week: Men's with the sort of thing you don't often see at a fashion show: a traditional Okouyi ceremony, complete with dancers from his native Gabon invoking Mamisoba, the spirit of truth, in their high-octane performance. At the crescendo, the dancers climbed into a perilously tall human ladder before careening forward to the floor, rolling to safety just before they smashed headlong into the concrete. Then came the clothes themselves, the first model walking the runway wearing oversized silk scarves printed with a graphic Ella created that was inspired by African beer cans.
The presentation went to the heart of Ella's current fashion pursuit: authentic African culture and, specifically, the culture of Gabon. "When you say Africa, it's too general," Ella told Esquire a few months ago in Libreville, Gabon. And his statement rings true: Africa is a continent of over 40 different countries. Simply using "Africa" as a catchall isn't just inaccurate, it also glosses over the aesthetic intricacies of each culture on that continent. "It's about Gabon," says Ella. "That's where I'm from, and that's what I represent."
Ella is the son of a shopkeeper and a steelworker. Born in Congo but raised in Gabon, the global citizen split his time between schooling in Paris and summers back in Africa. "When I was growing up, I was always really interested in design," Ella says, though he admits that only politics and steelwork are seen as viable paths for extreme success in Gabon. "For me, clothing was a way to express myself and the easiest way to express my culture." So it makes sense that eventually he would get into the industry himself.
Ella's first major foray into the fashion space was opening a sneaker shop. The reason was simple: He saw an opening in the market where no one was selling the most current sneakers in Gabon. Before long, the entrepreneur had racked up a bit of clout and Jordan Brand president Larry Miller walked into the shop and requested a meeting.
"When they called me to tell me he asked to meet the owner I made them give me his name," Ella explains. "I didn't believe it. So I googled him and sent the picture back to the girl at the shop and was like, 'Is this him?'" It was. And shortly after, the iconic sneaker company reached out to launch with Ella's shop. Ella turned Jordan down; he wouldn't be getting the company's latest products.
"It made me realize [the fashion industry] doesn't understand Africa," Ella said. But he does, and he plans on not only doing things the right way in Gabon by converting his speaker shop into a multi-brand concept space akin to Colette—the legendary Paris shop that is closing at the end of this year—but also exporting Gabonese culture to the world via his two apparel lines Only Made in Gabon and Teddy Ondo Ella.
The latter is the more high-end of the two, with made-in-Portugal pieces manufactured by some of the same factories that make for Givenchy and Gucci and featuring high-quality silks in everything from printed tops to side-stripe appliques for denim jeans. Prints themselves ranged from afro picks to the more tropical lemons as well as village huts.
"I want to give people the best in terms of quality," Ella says. "For me, luxury is about something simple with a little touch of eccentricity." The basis of the Teddy Ondo Ella line is the abacost suit, a garment with a distinctly anti-colonial social heritage. "Back in the day, they were wearing this to show that they weren't happy about colonization," Ella says. As such, the suit subverted traditional notions, using European materials but shirking a tie, and often worn with the collar up or open. Scarves were also a key part of the full effect.
Ella's updated abacost is set to employ all of those tactics—using signature prints and patterns for the scarves—but with an updated fit. While the suit of decades past was boxy in silhouette, Ella's contemporary version is more tailored. Those suits, which will also encompass a short sleeve version, are set to debut later this year.
But the clothes are only the beginning. All of this is part of a much larger plan for Ella, who hopes to eventually open a restaurant in New York, also steeped in the culture he grew up in. According to him, there's a lot that's undiscovered in Gabon that's worth presenting to the rest of the world. "You know, it's like brands are creating designs with pasta on it and people are buying it," he said, likely referring to an Etro collection from 2015. "We have a lot of stuff to share that's better than pasta."
BY MIKELLE STREET