FROM LAW TO DESIGN: HOW ADELE DEJAK BUILT HER RENOWNED FASHION HOUSE
FEATURED ON INDUSTRIE AFRICA
This post was originally featured on the Industrie Africa website.
With a new collection on the way, the Kenya-based designer and photographer talks about her early influences and her fashion house.
Jewelry designer Adele Dejak is on a mission to build a global fashion house and she’s well on her way. Over the years, Dejak has become a trailblazing luminary in Kenya and across the continent, paving the way for fellow designers like Ami Doshi Shah who has followed in her footsteps. “Her bold and unapologetic aesthetic has redefined cultural norms and [she] has also been inspirational when it comes to working with locally sourced materials and artisans,” Shah says about her role model.
Dejak developed a deep interest in beadwork, African textiles, and the art of adornment as a child, growing up in the Kano region of Nigeria, the country where she was born. “My love for African fabrics and beadwork started at a young age and I remember going to the market to shop for fabrics and observing Hausa artisans who were skilled in beadwork and leatherwork,” she says. “I was fascinated by how the [North/West African] Fulani and Tuareg ethnic groups dressed and adorned themselves,” she continues. Through her mother, whom she describes as one of her earliest fashion influences, Dejak spent her early years learning how to sew while sharing a mutual love for beads with her grandmother.
Dejak initially intended to study art, a dream that her parents strongly opposed. After attending boarding school in England she went on to pursue an LLB Law degree from Middlesex University in the late 80s and then a decade later, still determined to fulfill a creative career, graduated with a Higher National Diploma in Typographic Design from the London College of Communication. Her unlikely path to owning a fashion house she says, “laid a foundation” for her passion.
Her short lived career working in typography design in England and Italy in the early 2000s, became a stepping stone for the next stage of her life. She launched her eponymous accessories label in 2008, three years after moving to Nairobi, Kenya from England. Her label is known for its chunky, armor-like, handmade statement pieces with a raw finish, crafted from recycled brass and Ankole cow horns found in the pure breed of cows native to East Africa. Her line of handbags is made from a mix of cowhide, brass, and Kitenge cloth (a wax print fabric). Dejak’s pieces are created with purpose, to empower herself, , a self confessed reserved loner as well as people like her, who need a courage boost. “Being an introvert my bold statement pieces are crucial in giving me the confidence to step out”, she says.
As she prepares to launch her latest collection, the designer chats with us about her journey and inspiration.
1. YOU STUDIED LAW IN THE LATE 1980S AND TYPOGRAPHY DESIGN IN THE EARLY 2000S BEFORE YOU STARTED DESIGNING JEWELRY IN 2005. COULD YOU TAKE US THROUGH THE TRANSITIONS BETWEEN FIELDS?
I [initially] wanted to study art but my parents advised me against it. Law allowed me to get a solid educational foundation while still pleasing my parents and I have no regrets about that. [However] in my final year, I knew I would not practice law. After graduating, I knew I wanted to get into the creative industry and perhaps own a fashion house. I even toyed around with the idea of becoming an interior designer or photographer. My husband’s job involved quite a bit of traveling so I decided [to study a profession] that could be done [remotely], [which led me] to typographic design.
2. YOU’VE SAID THAT YOU ARE INSPIRED BY PHOTOGRAPHY BOOKS AND NATURE. WHO OR WHAT IS INSPIRING YOU RIGHT NOW?
As a fashion designer, I am especially inspired by Malian photographers [like] Seydou Keïta. [I think] powerful photography is important, not just to capture the essence of my work, but because I am genuinely passionate about photography and the ability to tell a story.
African heritage is the foundation of most of my collections although I make slight modifications to incorporate some Italian elements. My husband is Italian, and I have also been influenced by Italian designers and artists. My favorite Italian artist is Alberto Burri. There are specific periods in his artwork that I think would make amazing sculptural pieces. I am also inspired by architect extraordinaire Zaha Hadid. I had the pleasure of meeting her in London and I think her architecture is amazing. Before she passed away, she had started designing jewelry. I am toying around with the idea of [collaborating] with artists for my collections.
3. COULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS FOR YOUR NEW COLLECTION? WAS IT ANY DIFFERENT FROM BEFORE, ESPECIALLY CONSIDERING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC?
Creatively, nothing has changed. When I work on a new collection at my fashion house, I have done the research already. I [like to] think about what I can do [and] what I can improve on. When I’m working on a new collection, I pull from my research and start from there. Working during the pandemic has been challenging. I have had to get creative to communicate with my team in Nairobi and technology has been a life-saver. Remote working, especially when working on prototypes has been a bit frustrating but my team and I adapted.
Margaret Bangle. Photo: Courtesy of Adele Dejak
Arewa Ami Gold-Tone Neckpiece. Photo: Courtesy of Adele Dejak
Bahati Almaz choker. Photo: Courtesy of Adele Dejak
4. THERE IS A CERTAIN EDGINESS IN YOUR PERSONAL STYLE THAT IS ALSO REFLECTED IN YOUR COLLECTIONS. WOULD YOU SAY YOUR DESIGNS ARE A REFLECTION OF YOUR PERSONAL STYLE?
I think I have always been edgy. When I was studying law, I was often mistaken for a fashion student cum fashion designer. People would try and emulate my style and I always took that as a huge compliment. I would say the collections at my fashion house reflect my personal style. Sometimes though, I find I cannot do that all the time (take inspiration from her style) and have to consider the market. I often start my design process with bold concepts and tone down certain aspects to turn them into practical jewelry that can be worn on a day-to-day [basis].
5. TELL US ABOUT YOUR WORK WITH THE UNHCR IN WHICH YOU TRAIN REFUGEES AS ARTISANS AND WHY THAT IS IMPORTANT TO YOU AND YOUR BRAND?
Whilst in living Uganda, I was approached by the UNHCR and the Lutheran Foundation to train the refugees in the Kakuma Refugee Camp to acquire a skill that they can use to advance themselves and give them a sense of purpose which I found incredibly important. Refugees find themselves in a challenging and life-changing position and being able to impact their lives and helping them rediscover their sense of purpose was the reason I got involved in the project.
From the photographs sent to me, I had seen a lot of the sacks that were being sent in with donations. I had a light bulb moment, especially since I use recycled bags in my production. I sent a team of my tailor and then my production manager to Kakuma, to train them on basic tailoring skills. It was challenging since I was working remotely with my team who also had to turn into trainers, but we had amazing results. We started with a simple bag that I named the Billy Bag after Bill Gates who is doing so much to tackle malaria in Africa. The bags are still being sold at the United Nations Commissary in Nairobi.
Being a fashion designer, one of the most amazing things about this project was receiving letters from men and women thanking us for training them and updating us on how their acquired skills had changed their lives. One woman [in particular] said she had made enough money from selling her bags to send her three children to school.
6. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE BIGGEST LESSONS YOU’VE LEARNED ABOUT ENTREPRENEURSHIP AND THE BUSINESS OF ACCESSORY DESIGN?
I have learned many lessons over the years, one of them is to trust your gut feeling. I am extremely naive and I am constantly giving people the benefit of the doubt and that often comes back to bite me. [Secondly], you have to make sacrifices. When you become an entrepreneur owning such a fashion house, you take on the responsibility of providing for your employees [and] that means ensuring they are paid on time.