GQ : Teddy Ondo Ella is bringing Gabonese aesthetics to the global stageWe chat to Gabonese international fashion designer Teddy Ondo Ella about bringing Gabon to the international centre-stage.
Following his debut show at New York Fashion Week, Ella was hailed for his vibrant spring/summer collection, which merges the culture of Gabon and silhouettes from modern Europe. His predestined tap into the industry was cemented by years of training as an assistant to his mother who ran a boutique named after him. We caught up with him to chat about his brand, fashion in the African diaspora, his journey as a designer and entrepreneur and, everything he has planned going forward.
How would you describe your personality?
I would describe myself as a passionate, a worker and a perfectionist.
What character traits do you possess, that you believe makes it less difficult to succeed in your industries?
Passion and hard work, because the fashion industry is constantly evolving, it is necessary to be always in the innovation and the passion always allows to surpass itself.
Growing up, did you know that you would end up in fashion or was it inevitable because your mother had already introduced you to the industry through Teddy Boutique?
I would say that it is done step by step. I was always attracted by beautiful clothes from my mother who always wanted me to be well dressed. And then, as I grew up, I began to translate this love of clothes by creativity, a creativity that was expressed in different forms, especially in music where fashion is very present. Very young I had responsibilities in managing some business of my mother, so I also developed a business sense that helped me to create my companies. I have both caps, one of business man and another of creator.
What valuable lessons did you take from that experience and how do you incorporate them into your current business acumen?
The most important lesson for me was knowing how to take time to develop something consistent, because you are judged on the first impression. I have learned to be patient because I am an impatient of nature.
Coming from a culture that hasn’t quite deciphered, accepted and embraced creative careers, would you say that your experience was any different?
I would say that my parents are open-minded and have never put their veto, when I was young I wanted to embrace a professional career in music. It is true that in Africa we place a lot of importance on titles, my son is a doctor, my son is an engineer, but mentalities have evolved, with sport in particular, because African footballers make great careers in Europe, and they build houses bigger than that of the doctors or engineers, it is visual therefore suddenly it moves things faster in the mentalities.
You’ve had an interesting run in the entrepreneurship industry, first opening the marketing agency, then the sneaker store, Sneaker’s Club, for limited kicks and followed by a capsule range titled Only Made in Gabon. Can you briefly take us through your journey from the beginning?
It all started on my return to Gabon. After studying in France and working there, the question of a return to Gabon is a question. But like many Africans, the return is often a great unknown — what is it going to do? Is it a mistake? My logic was the following, with my know-how and my knowledge acquired in France, I could participate in the development of my country, if others do it why not me? Opening a marketing agency was natural because I worked in this industry in France, and I said to myself that would also be a way to make work my creativity in the service of my country. As the business is called business, my company having had some success, I wanted to create a sports shoe store. I am a great shoe lover and I often received compliments on my shoes, I thought why not combine the useful and the pleasant by filling a flagrant lack in this industry in Gabon, and from there was born club sneakers . Having a sales platform, I figured why not create a capsule collection of t-shirts that my customers could be proud of. I created Only Made in Gabon in 2012 with a capsule collection using Gabonese culture as a basis for creativity. And it was a success.
What were your greatest challenges and how did you overcome them?
My biggest challenge was my return to Gabon to get into business. I am very proud to be able to accomplish what I have achieved so far — by being in Gabon, because often in the artistic careers in Africa, the reverse happens. The development is done abroad, and then we return to the country using its notoriety to evolve locally.
What designers do you draw inspiration from?
I love Marc Jacobs, because of what he brought to Louis Vuitton, a lot of colour and eccentricity back then. I also like Ozwald Boateng by the new costume silhouette that he took in the industry.
You’ve now launched your debut luxury menswear collection. Why did you debut in New York City?
For me New York is a childhood dream, hip-hop has rocked my youth and New York is the mecca of hip-hop, because it was through a hip-hop video clip that I experienced such top brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Heli Hansen, because at the time there was no internet, TV was the only means of information. Then New York has this particularity of having a scene very open in the fashion industry, because the city is cosmopolitan. And on the other hand, it is well known that the US newcomers have more easily their chance than elsewhere. The S/S 18 collection is filled with prints and motifs that are synonymous with the African culture and some specific to the Gabon culture. Tell us more. I voluntarily wanted to base my first collection with strong enough prints inspired by the Gabonese culture. I also made sure to find the right balance so as not to frighten people who will say ‘I can not wear your clothes because I am not African.’ My idea was to be able to combine tradition and modernity, the tradition is found in the graphics inspired by the Gabonese culture, and modernity is reflected in the fabrics used, such as silk, denim.
With this collection you worked with silk a lot, are you planning to play with more fabrics and neutral colours in your other upcoming collections?
I used silk because it allows to be able to transcribe the visuals with brilliant colours, and it is elegant and comfortable. For the next collection, I will introduce other fabrics, but I will say no more, secrecy is required at this moment.
As a child of the African soil living in the European space, we imagine it is generally not easy to clearly balance the heritage and culture with the international influence. How do you plan to tackle this?
As I described above, it is important for me to have clothes that everyone can appropriate. I do not see any difficulty in finding the balance between my Gabonese heritage and my European culture, it is me, it is my story that tells through my clothes — a story of a Gabonese, proud of his country and who is a citizen of the world at the same time. Whether you are Japanese, American, French, Gabonese, English, South African, the common denominator will be neither language nor country, but taste and elegance.
And what is the vision for your new brand going forward?
For me the short term next step is to open my own stores, because beyond selling clothes, I want to sell an experience. Having my own stores will allow me to do that, more especially if it comes out the way I envision. I have not decided the first location yet but it will be somewhere in Europe.Then I want to develop the Teddy Ondo Ella experience through other support such as restaurants, lodges. But this is the beginning of a great adventure, I hope.
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