When I first met Recho Omondi, she was already going in the opposite direction of every other designer. During New York Fashion Week this season, rather than holding a show or presentation, the 30-year-old held an intimate dinner at Soho House with editors and friends. I arrived late—way past fashionable—but she still made an effort to float upstream, parting the group to give me a firm handshake.
Omondi is warm and inviting, but since starting her colorful namesake brand Omondi in 2013, she has refused to play by industry norms. She doesn’t go by seasons, she casts all women of color, and works on her own schedule. With a handful of loyal investors, a clear vision, and some Instagram-friendly custom embroidered sweatshirts to boot, she’s figured out how to make that work.
“I’m betting on myself,” she said post-fashion week. “I have tunnel vision and I’m focused only on what makes sense for us as a business and a brand.”
Born in Oklahoma to Kenyan parents, Omondi visited Nairobi, the country’s capital, every summer throughout her childhood. She describes her brand as being “the vision of a literal ‘African-American'” and is working to expand and redefine what “so-called ‘All-American'” fashion brands can look like in 2017. In short, Omodni is openly and unapologetically a brand by a black girl for black girls, done by hand with care and intention.
After graduating from the Savannah College of Art and Design where she studied fashion, Omondi moved to New York City in 2010 and began freelancing for The Gap, Calvin Klein and Suno, eventually landing full-time at Theory. For the past few years though, she’s poured everything into building Omondi, and despite her outspoken nature, is only now really coming into her own, with the fans who include Issa Rae, Melina Matsoukas, and Solange Knowles stylist Shiona Turini, to help prove it.
What inspired you to get into the fashion industry and start your own brand?
I fell in love with the make believe of fashion; the fantasy. But all the brand narratives and storytelling felt the same. I wanted to see quality clothing made just from a different point of view.
How is Omondi different than other brands out there right now?
Our perspective is different. And it’s my personality. There’s few brands today where the personality of the designer themselves is communicated. Shayne [Oliver] of Hood By Air is the only person I can think of at the moment whose does.
You’ve described fashion as a “game.” How are you playing it in a way that works for you?
I’m betting on myself. I have tunnel vision and I’m focused only on what makes sense for us as a business and a brand. We’re season-less, direct-to-consumer, and millennial-oriented. It feels true to me and where we are right now.
Is there anyone else you think who’s doing it “right” in fashion right now?
It’s beauty, but I think Emily Weiss of Glossier built a great brand.
Who are some fashion designers that inspire you right now?
Grace Wales Bonner, Telfar, Molly Goddard. I also really like what Demna [Gvasalia] is doing with Balenciaga.
Omondi is auto-biographical. Was there a time when you think you really found your voice? And how do you translate it to clothing?
I’m doing what feels natural to me. It’s difficult to intellectualize something that feels totally intuitive. There are certain things I’ve always liked (cuffs, collars, volume). Then there are other things I’ve always hated (the color navy, lace, grommets). And then there are things that I’m just into right now. I’ve always been very opinionated. I’ve always known what I do or don’t like. That’s my voice. It navigates itself.
You’ve said you wanted to start a brand for black girls, and black femininity was always the DNA of Omondi, literally and figuratively speaking, from your perspective as a designer to the casting and styling of the lookbook. But how has this particular moment in culture and fashion empowered you to really own your identity more and say it louder? In sum: What does it mean to have a brand for black girls by black girls in 2017?
Well don’t get me wrong. The brand is for everyone—not only black girls. I’m not promoting exclusion. But the storytelling is through the eyes of a first generation American, born to African parents. It’s the vision of a literal ‘African-American.’ It was time to redefine what a so-called ‘All-American’ fashion brand could look like.
Fashion right now is obviously getting political, but you meld the personal and the political with your clothes in a way that stands out. Do you think it’s possible to ever be too personal in fashion?
For me there’s little difference between the two. Politically speaking, America has to reconcile its understanding of what it means to be an American. It’s not just cherry pie and cowboy boots. I’m an American. And in 2017 Americans come in all colors, shapes, and sizes. So my personal story and my politics are married. I don’t have the luxury of separating the two.
When you think about your customers, or women looking at your lookbooks online, what do you want to give them that maybe you didn’t have yourself, or that they aren’t getting from fashion elsewhere?
A new point of view. Fashion isn’t this wasp-y, elitist thing anymore. We saw that with the birth of the bloggers, and with the shift in influence and gatekeepers. Luxury consumers are global, multi-cultured, and younger than they’ve ever been. They’re millennials who grew up largely on the Internet. They need brands that speak to the perspectives that they know exist in real life.
What inspired the embroidered sweatshirts originally and how do they represent the Omondi identity and community today?
The custom sweatshirts started as a rite of passage of friends who’d come by the studio late at night while I was working. I’d hand-sew their names into their clothes before they’d leave. When we finally made it available to the public, they started selling like crazy. It speaks to the Omondi identity because today everyone is their own brand, promoting individuality. We wanted to offer people a product that didn’t have our name on it, but theirs.
What were the responses you got to the “Ni—s” sweatshirt in particular?
The majority was positive. It was a tongue-and-cheek offering we introduced for Black History Month. People liked the juxtaposition of this socially charged “curse word” hand-sewn into pastel embroidery. It made some people uncomfortable—but our customer understands it.
What were you inspired by, or where was your head at for the Fall 2017 collection?
We’re calling it “003” or “Drop 3” because I think season-less is the future. But I was very into primary colors, children’s books, and drawings; ’70s silhouettes, collage art, hand-sewing, and rural towns.
Tell me about challenge(s) you faced while designing this collection:
Editing. I’m the type of person who has too many ideas. The edit lies in which ones get to stay and which ones gotta go.
Design rules you live by:
I think Dieter Rams got it right: Good design is innovative, useful, self-explanatory, unobtrusive, honest, long-lasting, thorough, and aesthetically pleasing with as little design as possible.
Style icons and inspirations:
Everyday people; the people who aren’t trying. Also children are great style icons for me right now. School age, but the ones that have no clue. Ages 5-9 is my sweet spot. Most times they’re giving looks and don’t even know it.
Tell me about your beauty routine:
Bobbi Brown Concealer Stick and Bare Minerals Loose Powder, those are a must. After that, filled-in brows and lots of YSL mascara. Glossier Balm for lips. I’m more into skincare than makeup. I like the ‘fresh face’ look. Maybe I’ll do a lip color if I’m going out.
Your best recent discovery:
Sampha’s new album, “Process”
The last thing you read, saw in person, or watched that moved you.
“I Am Not Your Negro,” the new James Baldwin film.
Emoji that best describes you:
The monkey with his hands over his mouth.
Something you would never wear:
What you’re wearing right this minute:
Vintage Levi denim, Brown Omondi Pullover. Acne sneakers.
What would you like to see more of at New York Fashion Week?
Less Shows. More innovation. Less waste. More conversation.
Where would you like to see yourself in the next few years?
Still be in business, making more money, and an expanded product range.