She may have been born in Brazil and raised in the US, but Loza Maléombho really feels at home in Côte d’Ivoire, Central Africa and Chad.
So that’s why the 30-year-old New York-based designer recently decided to relocate to Abidjan. And with her trusted ally – the Internet – by her side, Maléombho feels like there are no boundaries.
I met Loza Maléombho at her showroom in the city’s business district: the Plateau. It’s a modern, boudoir-type space in bronze, concrete and wooden hues. There’s a production room (the collections are manufactured entirely locally) and an airy office (with a Mac, of course – she holds a bachelor’s degree in animation).
I asked Loza about her decision to move to Abidjan. She’s shown collections at New York and Boston Fashion Week, Johannesburg’s AFI and Lagos’ Arise Magazine Fashion Week so why not stay in the US where it seems to be working? She smiles and says, without hesitating, ‘the quality of life’. She knows I’ll get it because I embarked on that same exact journey not too long ago.
How would you describe the Loza Maléombho design flair? Who do you create for, and how did you come to be a fashion designer?
Loza Maléombho is best described as a fusion between traditional culture, subculture and contemporary fashion. When you think about Loza Maléombho, I want you to think about the urban millennial fashionista but I also want you to think about a tribe in Africa, as well as other global traditional influences. It is the energy generated by this medley that really motivates the brand.
After graduating from college in Philadelphia, I decided to move to New York where I interned with local designers. I also took some retail and buying jobs to get familiar with the industry on different levels. But I decided to quit my day job and travelled to Abidjan for three months to start a collection.
What I want is to make clothing that is cool and that identifies mutually with different cultures.
I really was testing the waters at the time, and when I came back to New York with what I called then a ‘pre-collection’, the response among my friends was overwhelmingly positive, which encouraged me to continue.
Every piece you design seems beyond fashion – it’s almost artistic. Is that your approach to fashion?
Thank you! I take that as a compliment! I want every piece that I create to be evocative because that’s really how ideas pass through my head: strong visuals accompanied by meaning and emotion. If that means transgressing fashion into art, I am OK with it but it’s not my original intention. What I want is to make clothing that is cool and that identifies mutually with different cultures and subcultures.
Speaking of culture, you launched your brand in New York and are now based in Abidjan.
I started the label in New York in 2009 but already intended to come back to Abidjan. I wanted to establish some form of contact with the US market before moving back. In Côte d’Ivoire I am just inspired. I am also exposed to new raw material and resources that I want to try out in my collections. I am a different person here; I can express artistically without limit.
On a more practical level, tell us about the experience of setting up shop here.
It took me a while, about a year, to settle the business in the beginning. Administration is very slow here in Côte d’Ivoire so it can easily set back a startup. I try to remain flexible by always reinventing… I try one product and test it locally and internationally and see where it’s better received before I launch it.
Coming here with an untouchable Western vision is unrealistic.
I strongly believe that you have to adapt to the local culture, religion and politics. Coming here with an untouchable Western vision is unrealistic because it is just not adapted to local values. The showroom is not open to the public here quite yet because I am still studying the local market.
How would you distinguish the energy here in Abidjan compared to New York?
It’s so different! I love the go-getting energy of New York. It keeps you competitive and inspired. In New York anything is possible. From meeting celebrities, dressing celebrities to becoming one yourself. You meet so many people with inspiring stories and ambitions. It’s contagious!
Some markets are still virgin so you won’t necessarily encounter competition.
In Abidjan, there is that exciting feeling that many business opportunities are waiting. And some markets are still virgin so you won’t necessarily encounter competition, especially in the creative fields. I also believe there is more emphasis on the quality of life – you know, the appreciation of ‘now’ as opposed to spearheading towards future goals. All in all, I think both places have their advantages and inconveniences. That’s why I like to sit in the middle… and social media platforms have made this possible!
So what do you do here?
I love to go to Grand-Bassam on sunny weekends and stay at La Commanderie hotel.
Grand-Bassam is part of UNESCO’s Historic and Cultural World Heritage. It’s a beautiful town that preserved its colonial architecture and infrastructures and houses villagers and artisans who all make this city magical for me. I also often take trips to my village (on my mother’s side), Grand-Lahou, for a nature escape that I call ‘Mindscape’.
I also love to visit other cities than Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire and venture into villages in order to learn about local traditions and practices. It always influences my work in some kind of way.
On that note, back to fashion: your designs have been subject of increasing media features as of late. And then came your ‘Alien Edits’ series on Instagram.
Yes! For starters, it allowed me to express in a medium other than fashion design. I’ve always been cautious not to confuse too many things at once by choosing one art form when I really wanted to do it all.
‘Alien Edits’ opened that door for me. I no longer intend to limit my self-expression.
Photography, film, illustration, art direction, fine arts, interior design… And I felt limited thinking it was important not to confuse my audience. But ‘Alien Edits’ opened that door for me. I no longer intend to limit my self-expression.
I started the selfie series as a way to express my frustration towards the US judiciary system when it comes to black people. I wanted to show pride, aesthetic and raise cultural awareness in order to confront racism and stereotypes and I did so by placing it in the accessible form of a selfie. It is something that a millennial can easily relate to.
What should we expect from Loza Maléombho next?
That’s funny because I don’t know. I get asked this question a lot you know and I’d say something like I would like to see Loza Maléombho as a lifestyle brand in five years. Menswear, kids, fragrance, home furniture… That would be the typical aspirations of a fashion designer right? But now that I have created this mini universe of self-expression that conveniently works to my advantage within the arts and fashion, I know one thing: I have no intention of being typical.