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African fashion designer Mimi Plange in conversation with Glamour

The African Proverb, “However far a stream flows, it doesn’t forget its origin” encapsulates Pan-African fashion designer Mimi Plange. She grew up in the US but was born in Accra, Ghana, and attributes her success to her African heritage and roots. Her deep study of African people and their culture pre colonisation serves as a source of inspiration in her design aesthetic and gives her work a unique edge. The trailblazer coined the term ‘Unfashion’, and Since starting her brand in 2010, her rise to the top has been steady. She’s collaborated with some of the biggest brands in fashion and lifestyle, and Rihanna and former First Lady Michelle Obama are amongst the high-profile celebrities who’ve worn her designs.

G: What inspires your designs?

Mimi Plange: Growing up in the US, I’d see images of various parts of Africa and photographs of Ghana that my mother would share with me, and I always felt like there was a disconnect between what I was seeing at home and in our society. My mother’s pictures of her life with family and friends were awesome, full of fashion, fun and beauty, and they inspired me to share African stories through my lens with the world. I noticed the people in her images had scars. My mom had one across her cheek, and so did many of her family members. Some had them on their arms. I wanted to know what they were about and why I didn’t have one. I discovered more elaborate designs from Benin and East Africa.I feel modern punk style is rooted in pre colonial Africa, a culture of individualism, uniqueness and identity. I started studying various forms of body modification, piercings, tattooing, rituals and spiritual meanings. I loved the superstitious stories my grandmother would tell me and the nuggets of history she’d share about our Akan people and her life in Abeti , a small town in southern Ghana. Those and my experiences growing up in Southern California inspire my designs. I’m interested in combining different cultures to formulate a new identity, and sharing various forms of beauty, honouring art and history.

G: How has your African heritage impacted your work?

MP: My approach to design is rooted in who I am and the beauty of African people before colonisation. I’ve always been curious about what Africans believed back then. I want to know how they dressed, what they thought about and their idea of beauty and expression. My constant curiosity fuels my work. Each of my collections explores pre colonial African design and how we can express it today.

G: How has fashion changed since 2010?

MP: Back then, fashion was a reaction of the old guard. You’d have a show, meet with buyers and get press. That’s the original blueprint of having a fashion line. Since then, a younger generation of designers has disrupted the industry, who, like us, believe they can build their brands on their terms and in their own way. We stopped doing traditional runway shows in 2014, preferring to build our brand by inviting consumers into our creative process. Fashion has become more than just clothes. Collaborations are key to building a solid foundation and generating business and awareness. We’ve gone beyond the traditional runway and have learnt there are many paths to building a fashion brand, which makes this journey of style and expression even more exciting. The world has gotten smaller, and fashion is now what the people decide, not what others decide for them.

Photography: supplied

G: You’ve dressed many influential people. Who’s your favourite?

MP: I love seeing anyone wearing our brand! I honestly can’t choose a favourite, but two incredible women stand out. Rihanna because she was the first celebrity who wore our brand, and we loved how the looks reflected her playful, sexy style. We also put together looks for her The Anti World Tour, which was incredible! Former First Lady Michelle Obama in Mimi Plange was our biggest honour. That took a long time to settle in. She was and is such a champion of emerging designers across the globe, giving us all a voice and recognition in a sea of global brands. Our former First Lady is a change-maker, and a positive voice with a distinct style. We love being able to dress such a wide variety of smart, motivational, inspirational women.

G: What lessons have you learnt on your journey that have shaped your life?

MP: I knew starting this journey would be tough, but it’s been more challenging than I could’ve imagined. I’ve learnt to focus on my vision, allow for flexibility, and not compare myself to others. To exist in this competitive market, you must have your own identity. If you haven’t seen a path that looks like yours, perhaps that’s because you’re creating something new, and that’s OK. That’s what you’re supposed to be doing. So what if things around you don’t look familiar? Trust your gut and judge your success by looking at your progress. For me, that means it’s OK to be different, forge my path and have a unique voice with which people mightn’t be familiar. And lastly, you must be consistent if you want to evolve. Being focused and trusting myself are the universe’s gifts given to me for pushing forward with my business. We fail many times. But we get up again and again and again. Embrace the failure, learn from it and then move on. Failure is inevitable and there’s no need to fear it. It’s what you do when you fail that sets you apart.

G: What’s your greatest achievement?

MP: Being able to walk into our 13th year of business. To continue to do business and grow is the ultimate success. I get to do what I’ve wanted to since I was a little girl, which is a blessing.

G: Talk us through your design process when conceptualising a new collection.

MP: I spend a fair amount of time researching African tribes and pre colonial Africa. I’m trying to mould my ideas of what it means to be an individual within a tribe. As a brand, we’re celebrating forms of beauty adornment sometimes frowned upon, such as scarification, piercing and body augmentation. I’m saying it’s all beautiful, even if we don’t understand it. We want to bring different cultures together by celebrating African traditions and US sportswear through design. My inspiration never changes. We’re building on these ideas, season after season, and we’ll never stop exploring these beauty ideals.

G: Tell us about your new collection.

MP: We’re currently working on leather garments that reflect our ideals of identity and individualism, treating each item as an art piece and leather as a representation of our skin and adorning each piece as a celebration of various forms of body modification throughout Africa. We’ll launch our collection along with our latest sneaker collaboration with Lebron James and Nike, inspired by scarification and South African Bantu symbols.

G: Which Brands Would You Still Like to work with?

MP: We’re lucky to have had a wonderful experience with every brand we’ve collaborated with. As mentioned, we’re working with Lebron James and Nike on an incredible sneaker collaboration saluting Africa that’ll launch alongside our newest collection. We’d love to collaborate with an African brand in the future.

G: Is your brand all you imagined it’d be when you started it?

MP: My business partner Ibrahim Ndoye has been an incredible visionary for our brand. I’m proud of what we’ve built together. It doesn’t always hit me right away when wonderful things happen, but sometimes I reflect on our achievements and feel very blessed and overwhelmed. I enjoy it for a bit, but then it’s back to work. Mimi Plange isn’t what I envisioned when we first started. It’s better. I wasn’t thinking big enough back then.

G: What’s next for Mimi Plange, the brand and the woman?

MP: Our next step is continuing to build upon our foundation as we strive to grow a global brand with worldwide store locations that are experiential and modern. Our woman will continue to be herself and enjoy clothing and lifestyle products that speak to her sense of self and identity. We’ll continue to explore her experiences out of work, at the office and on holiday. Beyond clothes and aesthetics, we seek to build a community, contribute to the global economy, express our voice and champion those who disrupt the status quo.

G: What wellness practices do you follow to stay focused?

MP: Designing in complete silence helps me focus, and I find peace in the soft background sounds of everyday life. I try not to dwell on things I can’t control and spend time with uplifting, happy people. Now and then, I have to get out of New York. Travel seems to be the most healing of all pastimes for me. I love seeing how other people live. I like visiting sunny countries such as India, Senegal and Ghana. At home, I go for long walks every day and am a big fan of hot yoga.

G: Who are your favourite fashion designers?

MP: They include Azzedine Alaïa, Hussein Chalayan, Ozwald Boateng and Rei Kawakubo.

Photography: supplied

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