1. Please introduce yourself, tell us a bit about your background, where you are based, and what led you to a career in fashion design?
My name is Nyorh Awum Agwe and I am a Cameroonian-American Fashion Designer. I was born in Cameroon but moved to Italy with my mum when I was 3 weeks old. My first language as a Cameroonian was Italian. After I was 4, we moved back to Cameroon only to move to the United States just 2 years later. Our family had a very nomadic lifestyle. Because of it, I always found myself having to re-adapt to spaces. Being African was never cool enough unless I invented extremely exotic stories of my life and being African American was not even an option. Therefore, I went along with any identity given to me so I could at least belong to some group. As a result, I became a sort of shapeshifter connected to everyone else’s identity but my own. But somehow, I found a home just for me in art.
Art gave me space and a voice to share all my insecurities and desires to belong in ways that words could not. Being a shapeshifter in my art world did not eat away at my spirit as it did in the real world. I found this especially true with clothing as an art form. In high school, one day I was Lady Gaga and the next day I was a Fon’s wife. I found my freedom of expression in fashion but I did not even know or see it as a career path until I saw it on Project Runway in 11th grade. After that, I made up my mind that I was going to be a fashion designer and I chose to go to whatever school Project Runway filmed at. That school happened to be Parsons; one of the top fashion design schools in the U.S. I applied and by the grace of God I got in! I graduated in 2015 and situated myself in New York for about 2 years. Now, I find myself being a nomad again moving from NY to MD, and then Florida. I am now based in Florida to finish my MBA at Nova Southeastern University.
2. You set up your eponymous fashion label NYORH AGWE not long after graduating, what was the motivation behind working for yourself as opposed to working for someone else?
I never really saw myself working for someone else. Being an entrepreneur has been in me ever since I was a little kid selling gimp bracelets I made in 5th grade. Though, now as a young adult, the stability that comes with working for someone else is tantalizing it always makes me feel like I am wearing someone else’s skin. I never feel comfortable and I never feel satisfied. I just know it is not where I am meant to be. So, I started my brand a couple of months after I graduated because that is what I’ve always wanted to do. I had no idea what I was doing or what running a brand would entail but I knew that it was the only thing that felt right.
3. What have you found to be the most rewarding, and the most challenging aspects of running your own fashion label?
The most challenging aspect of running my own fashion label is coming to the realization that designing is only like 30% of the business! Parsons equipped me with great concept, innovation, and creativity skills but it did not teach me what it would take to bring a brand into reality. I was running the business as a one-man-band since I had no team. I was the designer, the seamstress, the accountant, the marketer, the photographer, etc. Though I had some amazing moments like being featured in New African Women Magazine and Essence Magazine, I kept hitting a wall. I had a beautiful brand and amazing ideas but I had no business foundation. Now, as I am in Florida studying for my MBA, these challenges become more rewarding. I can now track the results of my intentions and strategy built from my own process rather than from the influence of someone else’s process. So, when I see that a customer chooses NYORH AGWE to wear in the celebration of her engagement party, or when a customer comments on her joy and deep appreciation for our tailored services it brings a whole other level of happiness to me. Those moments are more rewarding than any magazine spread.
4. What is the one thing you wish you knew when you started out?
One thing I wish I knew when I started is that it is not a race. Life is not a race. You don’t get the gold star because you are the first one to do it; you get the gold star if you are the first one to do it WELL. I think the influence of people and social media, the pressure of finding/creating a job, and the struggle that is adulting geared me in the wrong direction. Art that I was creating to heal myself and for my own enjoyment was becoming something I was making to please other people and to fit into their timelines.
I wish I knew taking your time does not mean you are ‘losing’. I wish I knew that just because I did not do it the same way they did does not mean that I ‘failed’. I wish I knew that failing is a beginning, not an end. I wish I knew that my creativity was never meant to be a burden or a machine. And though I know all of this now, if I knew it back then I would have never doubted my journey.
Starting out…I wish I knew that failing is a beginning, not an end.
– Nyorh Agwe
5. What are the key influences behind your work, what stories do you try to tell through your designs and how does this translate into the collections you produce?
The stories I love to tell through my designs are the same stories I have experienced or am experiencing as a Cameroonian-American. Being a nomad, an immigrant, and a citizen all bring complex experiences that create so many different concepts and ideas to share. The art, pop culture, politics, and the social constructs I experience through both Cameroonian culture and American culture always inspire me. And since I am a product of multiple nations, I tend to create work that merges all these experiences together. That is why one cannot just assume my work looks ‘African’. Because really, what does that even mean? Humans are so beautifully complex, and stereotypes limit that complexity. And yet, that is how most of us make our initial judgments about someone or something. It is unfortunate but true. Therefore, much of my work challenges these kinds of stereotypical statements. Because look at me! I myself am not at all close to the stereotype made about Africans.
As a result, my work takes the shape of a diary open for all to see. It is my way of reflecting and asking my inner self the tough questions. And I believe by exposing my self-exploration, it presents a deep experience that many others can share and connect with. I believe that this is why when clients try on the clothes it feels much more than just material. It is an experience. Possibly a time machine for some. The clothes themselves become complex, giving the wearer many opportunities to explore their own selves.
The stories I tell through my designs are the same stories I have experienced as a Cameroonian-American.
– Nyorh Agwe
6. You are based in the US but travel home to Cameroon quite a bit where you work with local artisans. What is the importance of incorporating artisan craftsmanship in your work?
Incorporating craftsmanship from Cameroon is extremely important to me because it amazes me how Cameroon went from being celebrated as ‘Little Africa’ to almost being unknown now. Did you know that Cameroon used to be a top choice for shoe production in Africa?! Or that there was a thriving Theatre tradition? I sure didn’t! And I would not have known if I did not research it myself. It sure is not evident back at home either. Every time I visit back home, my heart cries out because what I see at the core are innovators, designers, architects, and creators but what others see is poverty. Cameroon is positioned as 119th (out of 140) most competitive economies in the world, it’s poverty rate is increasing, corruption is increasing, unemployment is increasing, and so on and so on. And IF there is any sustainable development being done in Cameroon it is done more in the Francophone areas than in the Anglophone areas. The worst thing is that at the same time we are not growing, we give away our resources (including our culture through our art). What then do we keep for ourselves??? How then will Cameroon ever develop?
Finding the answers to these questions is why I find it necessary to not only incorporate Cameroon’s craftsmanship into my work but to also cultivate it. To answer the real question ‘What will Cameroon become?’ organizations and systems need to be put in place that will give fresh inspiration and spark up new ideas. At NYORH AGWE, we do so by providing jobs, creating a source of stable income for our artists, sharing a platform for their work to be seen on a global scale, and most importantly, cultivating a space for them to hope and dream again!
7. What challenges have you faced in producing in your home country and how have you sought to overcome them?
There are a lot of challenges with producing back at home. One of them is communication. One thing I know I need to do is learn French and learn French quickly. I also need to learn Pidgin and learn it quickly. Though I have a team that is fluent in speaking both languages, when I am managing them from abroad our communication can become a problem. Some information gets lost or reinterpreted. That is why I know I need to learn both languages for myself.
Another challenge is the cultural atmosphere back at home. For example, though I am the leader of my team, in some places I am simply seen as a young woman. There are certain ways to address a man and there are certain ways to address elders as a young woman. One has to be careful not to be disrespectful. And you would think because I am Cameroonian and because I have visited home quite often that I would know everything in the book about these various cultural interactions. However, America is where I grew up, therefore, I carry an American mentality more than anything else. I overcome these challenges because I have an amazing team of born and raised Metta speaking Cameroonians. They teach me everything I need to know.
A third challenge is corruption. Unfortunately, Cameroon is very well known for corruption and it can even spill into our business. For example, an artisan that we asked to do a shoe prototype for us almost took all the money without presenting the final product to us. We now have been able to avoid such challenges by the getting to know the artisan more on a personal level first before collaborating with them.
Finally, the last challenge is the resilience to change. Many artisans have been doing the same thing the same way for many years because their consumer has not changed either. In a lot of the cases, their consumers are either tourists who want a hold of something distinctively ‘African’ or missionaries who sell their work to exotic interior design stores or museums. Therefore, when I come about asking them to show me how they would use their techniques with maybe a different material, some answer back with a sharp “we don’t do it like that” without even trying! That is why we spend so much of our time and resources finding artisans because, though there are a lot in Cameroon, they have to be the right ones. For example, our artisans, Madam Fifen and Auntie Reggie, truly, they both live under conditions that one would not be happy about at all. However, they find so much joy in their work and in their own explorations. They still see hope. They still see a chance. Those are the people we like to work with.
8. How do you keep challenging yourself to grow and develop your craft, and what can we expect to see from NYORH AGWE in the near future?
Man, I haven’t even touched the surface yet! We are still a very new brand trying to define exactly who we are, and exactly where we fit in. I call stages like this ‘The Journey’ or our ‘Process Stages’. These stages of discovery are my favourite because it is in these stages of getting lost in exploration where one actually finds themselves. I am always finding out new things by challenging the way I look at myself and my environment. When I find something that piques my interest I let it lead me to wherever it wants me to go. I sometimes go on research tangents of the strangest things! But doing so often leads me to concepts I become completely engulfed in.
There are so many ideas that need to be deciphered. All I can say with much confidence and assurance is that this brand is not going anywhere. You will see a lot more from this brand in the future, probably sooner than later. The work will never end.
When I find something that piques my interest I let it lead me to wherever it wants me to go.
– Nyorh Agwe
We thank Nyorh for taking the time to share her experiences with us. You can find out more about her work by visiting:
youtube: NYORH AGWE
Facebook: NYORH AGWE
[Image credits: The images shown belong to NYORH AGWE. If downloaded and used elsewhere please credit accordingly.]