I spotted Akoma as a must-talk-about brand because of the amazing pairing of tribal prints and modern silhouette. If you’ve been anywhere QC’s instagram page in the past few weeks, you may have noticed my call to all cool, edgy, stylish responsible brands out there. I love being ethical but fashion is first and foremost about looking good and feeling incredible to power through the day. That’s exactly what Akoma does.
I met Stephanie Theis Fajardo, the Founder and Artistic Director of Akoma 1260 through a common friend I met in Tunis when I was working there. With Akoma 1260, Stephanie chose to express her commitment to ethical fashion by working first and foremost to preserve traditional craftsmanship in communities where ancient forms of art would otherwise quickly become obsolete.
Our conversation was one of the most fun I had in a while. Because of the time difference between Paris and Miami (6 hours), I started the call at 9pm, pretty spent from a full day at the office and three hours of daily commute. But when I hung up, an hour and twenty minutes later, I felt incredibly energized and inspired by Stephanie’s work. One of my goals for 2018 is definitely to get one of those jackets!
In this interview, Stephanie shares how she was inspired to change course after majoring in political science, the incident that led her to founding Akoma, the craftsmanship that makes every piece entirely unique, and how to succeed when you’re learning by doing. Ok, now on to the interview!
QC: Tell us about your background!
I’m half Colombian half German but I have lived in the US for about half my life now. I didn’t study fashion, I studied Political Science, but fashion was always a passion of mine.
After I graduated, I moved to Colombia for a year. That’s where I founded Cote d’Or Swimwear. That was my first brand. It was focused on digital designs and innovative silhouettes, aimed at designing statement pieces for the pool or the beach.
After that, life took me in a different direction so I left Côte d’Or but I wanted to continue with a new project. At first I wanted to start working with ready to wear, and played with the idea of doing nightwear. But then something very unfortunate happened. Six months of work went missing: my computer was stolen, along with all the work I had done on that company I wanted to call Lazul. Of course I didn’t have a backup. So I was faced with two options. I could be really angry and ask “why is this happening?” Or I could look at how the universe works sometimes in and say, “Ok. This wasn’t meant to be, this may be a wakeup call that this wasn’t the right way”. So I started looking for new opportunities and that’s how I founded Akoma.
Kente cloth used to have a lot of meaning : it was only made for chiefs and kings.
I was in Africa and I fell in love with this fabric called Kente cloth. It’s hand-woven, it used to have a lot of meaning : it was only made for chiefs and kings. It’s so colorful, which isn’t really me, but I made a jacket for myself and when I wore it I felt so special. I had a lot of compliments on this jacket, especially in Spain. And that was my “aha” moment. So I started investigating further and further into the making of the fabric and that’s how I fell in love with ethical fashion. Before that, I wasn’t as conscious about my lifestyle choices and that changed drastically after living in Ghana and building Akoma.
I was in Ghana for about 18 months and I started getting conscious of the daily things that we don’t appreciate to their full value: running water, electricity at all times, internet at all times. All these things are available in Ghana but sometimes water turns off and sometimes there’s no electricity. That was one of the main reasons I started to get conscious about sustainability.
QC: Let’s back up a little bit, how did you go from political science to fashion?
My first semester senior year, one of my professors asked the class who was going to law school. Twenty people rose their hands, so he said “Look around, this is called supply and demand. It’s not gonna work out. I would highly suggest that you try to do something different when you graduate. Law school and grad school will always be there, you can always go back. But certain things you can’t do afterwards. Do something to widen your horizons.” That made me realize that I wanted to pursue my passion. And fashion was always my passion.
Law school and grad school will always be there. But certain things you can’t do afterwards, so do something to widen your horizons.
Once I graduated I moved back to Colombia for a year and I started from scratch, and I was really learning by doing. I was blessed to meet people that would help me achieve what I wanted to do. I would go to people, tell them about my plans and they would tell me “No you’re going about this the wrong way, try this”, they would send me to their contacts, give me advice. I made a lot of mistakes but I also listened to people and learned from them.
I also have the attitude that nothing is impossible until you prove me wrong. With Cote d’Or Swimwear, I always wanted to create new silhouettes and the pattern maker wouldn’t want to try it, but I had to insist that we had to, and if it didn’t work we could go back to the drawing board. I don’t know if it’s comfort or fear of taking risks but people are often afraid of going this way. It’s an analogy for life too, you will always find people who don’t want to swim against the current without ever trying.
QC: Back to Akoma, it sounds like you were inspired by the fabric but also by how it made you feel when you wore it.
I first started with Kente cloth and what made the fabric so special was the cultural background behind it. It truly is a royal cloth that has been used for hundreds of years, and for people in Ghana it is used as a document to capture history. The motives, the patterns, the colors all have very different meanings. In Ghana, I got to see the weavers work and create their own fabric and it was the complexity of the work, the beauty of the textile that I fell in love with.
Because of the nature of the fabric and how special they are, every single piece is made and cut by hand.
In contrast to that, I wanted the silhouette to be very simple, I didn’t want it to overtake the pattern. I knew the design should not compete with the fabric, it had to work for itself. At the same time, Ghanaian fabrics are very rich in color. I wanted to have a more balanced portfolio and that’s how I came across the Ethical Fashion Initiative, headquartered in Burkina Faso and supported by the UN and by WTO. They work primarily with artisans in Burkina Faso and Mali but also other parts of Africa and Haiti.
Kente Cloth is very unique: you can only make one piece in one size. So logistically it’s always a little bit like throwing the dice to know what size we are going to manufacture this textile in. So that’s why we created the made-to-measure option on our website.
QC: When the fabric is done, where is the collection manufactured?
My original idea was to manufacture in Ghana, however I wanted to create very sophisticated pieces. Every piece is lined with 100% natural silk charmeuse. In Ghana I felt that the skill to work with the fabric, with silk in particular, wasn’t there yet. I already had a lot of contacts in Colombia so all pieces are made there now.
In Colombia everything is also made by hand, I work with a very very small manufacturing facility there. Because of the nature of the fabric and how special they are, every single piece is made and cut by hand. So a jacket takes anywhere between 17 and 20 hours of work to make.
QC: When you brought the fabrics to Colombia, did you get surprised reactions from the tailor and seamstresses?
Yes! When I showed it to the pattern maker, his first reaction was “What is this going to be? A carpet?” It was fascinating to see the transformation, how they looked at it then and how they look at it now. That to me has been an incredible gift: to be able to share with other people the beauty and the talent of these fabrics. The people who work in the manufacturing facility have never been to Africa. To them it’s such a faraway world, but they found such an appreciation for it and to me that is fascinating!
Every piece of fabric, even with its flaws, is perfect in its own way.
QC: What are some of the challenges you had working in the ethical industry that you didn’t have or wouldn’t have in the classic fashion industry?
The main challenge when working with artisanal products is consistency and quality control. Because everything is handmade, you always find inconsistencies, but at the same time it’s what makes it special. Every piece of fabric, even with its flaws, is perfect in its own way. That is what gives it so much soul: someone’s story and emotions are woven into every single inch.
Another challenge, but this one we haven’t been able to turn it into an opportunity, has been timing and shipping costs. In terms of our supply chain and sustainability that’s the weakest link in our supply chain.
QC: Right now, all of your fabrics are from Africa, do you plan to explore textiles from other regions?
Yes, right now the fabrics are all handwoven in Africa. The one from Ghana is Kente Cloth. The one from Mali is Bogolan: it’s dyed naturally with fermented mud. And the fabrics from Burkina Faso are also Cotton and handwoven.
In the future I would love to work with Latin American fabrics starting with Colombia, but also Ikat. Ikat is produced in many traditional textile centres around the world, from India to Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Japan, Africa and Latin America.
Our core concept is to take these traditional fabrics and transform them or rather adding a modern edge to it. If you take Kente cloth, at first when you see it it’s difficult to figure out how to use it, it looks like it may be a bed throw, curtains or a carpet. This was my way of finding a solution to that. It came out of wanting to do something just for myself but then I also wanted other people to appreciate the beauty of these fabrics.