Nataal spends a sunny afternoon in Recho Omondi’s Brooklyn apartment discussing the designer’s singular approach to fashion
Steam rises steadily from Recho Omondi’s iron as she methodically works it around one of her popular custom sweatshirts while telling me about her childhood spent moving around the Mid West (Oklahoma, Kansas, Michigan and Illinois) and enjoying her summers with her wider family in Kenya as well as Sweden, Belgium and France. “I didn’t grow up thinking I was American. The opposite was said at home. ‘We live in America but we’re not American. You can’t do what your friends are doing, it’s not our culture,’” the young designer recalls. “I didn’t know what that meant growing up and resented it. Now I understand why we didn’t do as the Romans do.”
Omondi’s early memories of Kenya are of “the normal stuff – spending time with aunties, playing with cousins, going to their lands eight hours from Nairobi,” but it wasn’t until later that she realised how different her upbringing was to her peers. “It was formative but it wasn’t cognitive. As an adult I can see that I was a lot more cultured than most people I knew then. As Africans, as Kenyans, as black Americans – it’s important to understand how other people live. If you don’t see things, you don’t know that they’re possible. That sounds like a simple statement but it’s true.”
She puts the iron down and proceeds to expertly fold the sweater and add it to a rising pile of them, each with different hand embroidered words on the front - ranging from customers’ names to ‘Niggas’ and ‘Original content’.
“The brand is autobiographical. It’s about me. I reference my heritage, I like fashion and I have a great sense of style”
We’re in the designer’s BedStuy apartment in Brooklyn, the same one she’s lived in since landing in New York from Savannah College of Art and Design in 2011. “I always had the sewing machine – before a couch, before a bed,” she says, nodding toward a substantial piece of professional equipment by the window. She started out in the industry working as a pattern maker for brands including Calvin Klein, Suno and Theory, but all the while creating pieces for her own wardrobe at home. One heavy woollen overcoat received so much attention that she naturally developed a first capsule range and her eponymous label was born in 2013. She’s spent most waking hours since then building her influential contemporary luxury offering that brings her multi-cultural experiences together.
“The brand is autobiographical. It’s about me. I reference my heritage, I like fashion and I have a great sense of style. I have an eye for quality and for detail, and there are certain shapes I like to wear,” she explains. But beyond her personal love of oversized and workwear inspired silhouettes; beyond her predilection for washed silk, collars and cuffs; and beyond her current obsession with primary colours, Omondi’s broader vision has been to create a brand that represents women of colour.
“I cast black girls for my lookbooks because I grew up loving fashion but never seeing myself in it and not understanding how racist the industry was. Up until around 15 years ago, high fashion was an aristocratic experience. Now the voice of fashion as it pertains to style, which isn’t attached to any price bracket, has been democratised by the internet. In that same shift, there’s people like me who can maybe start a brand where the narrative is different.”
“I think it’s interesting to have a brand that is strictly built on the black or brown experience, which is such a vast story”
Omondi speaks on this subject in an honest and focussed manner – the way I'm sure she approaches everything she puts her mind to. Passionate but measured, she’s determined to make her own mark on the world without a fanfare and with a crystal clear point of view. “There has been black women in fashion but it’s tokenism. It’s like they need a black girl on the runway to fill a quota, and thanks, we’ll take it, I guess. But at the end of the day, the storytelling at brands like Prada or Calvin Klein is still about the same white girl. So I think it’s interesting to have a brand that could possibly, over time, compete with these other great brands but be strictly built on the black or brown experience, which is such a vast story. I could go on forever. I could go to every country in the world and find a different sub culture or a tribe. Or I can look at black America, which is such an orphanage of experience from across the world. Having grown up in North America and Africa I know that even Africans can identify with it. It’s alluring, and it’s become a global export.”
This bold ambition isn’t the only way Omondi bucks the status quo. Eschewing seasonal collections and the brouhaha of fashion week shows, she brings out her functional yet fanciful designs when they’re good and ready, and sells them directly to clued-up, independent consumers who appreciate their simple intention. Recent pieces include a pair of canary yellow wide legged trousers, an acid green jumpsuit and a satsuma orange, raw-edged babydoll dress, all inspired by “children’s drawings and 70s horror movies”.
This unapologetically under the radar approach is working. New York magazine calls Omondi ‘the real deal’ while Harpers Bazaar has named her a ‘designer to watch’. Nataal says she's a formidable young entrepreneur who isn’t about to get blown off course any time soon. “I have a business strategy and am trying to execute it. More offerings more often, more money spent and made, more distributors. I don’t just want a popular Instagram account,” she says, sagely. “We’re still a fledgling brand and I have lots of ideas that haven’t come to fruition yet but it’s about lasting power. If everything goes the way I want it to go, this will all just be a wrinkle in time, that period I was working out of my studio in BedStuy. Of the whole movie, this is the prequel.” Whatever the ensuing plot reveals, original content is surely guaranteed.