Akintunde Ahmad, in one of his custom creations
“Versace, Versace, Versace, Versace, Versace, Versace...” -– Migos
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been enticed by designer clothes. Whether it be Versace shirts (Migos knows what he’s talking about), Gucci belts, or Balenciaga shoes, the environment that I was brought up in made me value these items. The coolest people, both in mainstream Black culture and my Oakland neighborhood, wore these brands. They were icons, and they had everything that I thought I wanted in life at the time.
As I got older, these brands became a little more accessible to me. I have older brothers who are about the same size, so I could borrow their designer clothes without spending my money on them. In high school, I was known for wearing expensive clothes, shoes, and even jewelry. Whatever was trending, I would have it, thanks to my big brothers. If a song was made about it, they’d find a way to buy it, and they’d make sure their little brother had it too, as I was an extension of them.
But around my junior year of high school, things began to change. One of my brothers landed in prison. The fast life caught up to him, and when my family actually began to talk about the reasons why he participated in criminal activities, it became clear that a big part of the story was his quest to have money to spend on these tokens that gave him the image and status that he desired.
Our culture of status and symbolism made us idolize these things. In our quest for individuality, we tried to buy stuff that reeked of exclusivity and made us stand out. But as I got older, I realized that, in reality, it only made us all look the same. There was no freedom of expression in this. I hadn’t designed any of these clothes. I didn’t even like them because of the way they looked, but rather because of the name brand and the social status others associated with them. On top of that, these brands often didn’t represent anything that had any relevance to or benefited my community or others like it.
Since starting college, I’ve made a concerted attempt to develop my personal style and explore my ability to construct my image through the clothes that I wear. It has allowed me to better understand why I desired to wear what I did and how a change in my environment from the streets of Oakland to the grassy campus of Yale influenced what I value and subsequently how I choose to dress myself.
So it should come as no surprise that one of the most liberating experiences I’ve had at Yale came when, while studying abroad in Ghana, I designed my own outfits and had them tailor-made to fit me. As soon as I got of the plane, I noticed the abundance of patterns all around me. My mother was, at one point, a professional West African dancer, so these styles weren’t necessarily new to me. However, I’d never seen so much that caught my eye at once. I immediately knew I wanted to put my unique spin on the patterns and fabric, so I started browsing markets and sketching different styles I thought would look nice. Once I brought these to a tailor, it usually only took a week or two to receive the finished product, and all along, I kept looking for new inspiration and designing more items.
Being able to dress yourself is one thing, but having the autonomy to create the outfits I wear, from the fabric to the fit to the accents, truly makes me feel unique. And, perhaps the best part about it is that these custom-made wears were still cheaper than any designer outfit.
I'll definitely continue to design clothes, and I'm currently planning my next trip to Ghana and Nigeria, where I aim to put new threads into production. Back in the U.S., I regularly jot down different ideas and inspirations I have, and I eagerly await the day I can see these visions come alive.
“Blue has always been my favorite color, and this pattern is one of the coolest prints I've ever seen. I didn't want to overdo it, so I keep the face of the shirt blank.”
“After going to Africa Fashion Week, I was inspired to design something that I could wear when I dressed up. I wanted it to be loud but also nice enough to wear to a formal event, so I chose this orange and dark blue fabric.”
“This kind of fabric is actual usually only worn at funerals, so I'll probably never actually put on this outfit except for a photoshoot or an actual funeral. However, I liked the pattern so much that I went with it.”
Images courtesy of Darrin B.