When your grandparents, mother and aunts are tailors, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be a fashionista. Dede Reelia Kouevi was born in Togo to a fashion-forward family, now she’s made her mark as an accessories designer. Her brand UniqueByReelia features vibrant, colourful jewellery and accessories but Reelia isn’t limiting herself to accessories.
In the three years since UniqueByReelia launched, Reelia has showcased her designs in shows such as Black Fashion Week Montréal, Fest Africa 2014, African Fashion Week DC and Ankara Fashion Week Miami. Now she’s trying to host her own show in Italy, the Afro Expo Fashion Week. Reelia is very familiar with the difficulty that comes with getting into shows as a young designer and wants to provide a platform for designers like her.
Why start Unique by Reelia?
I started UniqueByReelia because I always knew I was going to be a fashion designer. I started showcasing at different fundraisers since I was in high school with clothes my mother used to make me from Togo. I knew that I wanted to move to New York to pursue my dream and find a way toward my goal.
When I moved to New York, I was hoping my school will have a few designing classes. But that wasn’t the case! It was just a regular private university. In my sophomore year, I decided to start making accessories. One day, I went to a $1 store, bought a Christmas ornament and turned it into an earring.
I wore it around my campus and my friends loved it. That was the beginning of UniqueByReelia. I thought to myself if I can start with accessories and make my way up, in the future I will be able to dress people from head to toes.Dede Reelia Kouevi: I wanted to be ambitious and a go getter, somebody who empowers others Click To Tweet
What was the spark that lead you down this path?
When I was in high school, I attended modelling and acting classes at John Roberts Power. I wasn’t getting gigs and I met other young dark-skinned African girls who were in the same boat as myself. There are people who are driven to be models and willing to learn, yet they were not given the opportunity to do so.
I thought to myself; instead of waiting for other people to give me the opportunity I’ve waiting for, I can create that opportunity for others. I loved the idea of being a designer and helping other young models live their dreams. Since I started UniqueByReelia, I have inspired other girls to find confidence through modelling as well.
I’ve worked with all types of models, curvy, skinny, tall, starters, pregnant women, as well as some super models and top models.
Tell us about being at the Black Fashion Week in Montreal. How did you get there?
The Black Fashion Week in Montreal, was an amazing experience. I’ve been looking up to Adama Paris ever since I started my brand. Adama is ambitious and fashion icon, I felt like that was the woman I wanted to become. I wanted to be ambitious and a go getter, somebody who empowers others.
So, when an opportunity presented itself, I did everything to make it happened. I’ve became friends with her on Facebook and Instagram. She posted about the Black Fashion Week event and was looking for designers.
I applied, they loved my designs and accepted me in. The show participation fee, the transportation and my accommodation came up to a total of $3000. My school refund checks, my fiancé and my dad helped me go to the Black Fashion Week project.Reelia realized at an early stage that many people don’t really value accessory designers Click To Tweet
Do you believe you’re limiting yourself by focusing solely on accessories?
No, I am not limiting myself by solely focusing on accessories. I recently launched my clothing line 6 months ago and I’m currently working on my swimwear collection for spring/summer 2017, which am very excited about.
I just wanted to push my accessories line to the top. First, because I get to create them myself and I wanted to do something different through my brand. I realized at an early stage that many people don’t value accessories designers the way they value clothing designers.
So, I promised myself that I will be the best in order to inspire other accessories designers. Being an accessories designer is not easy, we brainstorm too, we sit down and create stuff. We use our hands more than machine. How can you not value something like that?
Sometimes I cry when I bring some of my designs to life. I remember going to shows where I had the privilege to showcase my pieces on my own. At these shows, other accessories designers had to pair their pieces with clothing designers. Don’t get me wrong, pairing up designers is not as bad as it sounds. Still sometimes you just want the stage to yourself, you know.Sometimes Dede Reelia Kouevi cries when she brings her @UniqueByReelia designs to life Click To Tweet
We stumbled upon your IndieGoGo page for the Afro Expo Fashion Week Italy. Can you tell us how you first heard of this event?
Well, Afro Expo Fashion Week Italy, is my own fashion show. This is a show I’m organizing in Italy. My initial idea was to tour Europe and to do shows like I’ve been doing it here in the States. I wanted to start with Black Fashion Paris. But I thought about it and realized that, with all the experiences that I have already acquired, it was time to do my own show.
Then again, most of my friends have had their shows here in the States already. I wanted to do something different, so I decided to bring my fashion week to Italy. The idea is to bring the celebration of diversity and culture, and to give a platform to young designers to showcase at this event.
It is hard for young designers to showcase at events that I showcase at. This is because entering these shows can be pricey and unaffordable for some young designers. I wanted to break that barrier and give the opportunity to other designers to showcase their talent.
Why did you decide to go the crowd-funding route to make Afro Expo Fashion Week Italy a reality?
I didn’t have all the fund necessary for this project. Plus, I didn’t have the luxury of time where I can sell and save the money for this project. Being a full-time student and managing a business is frustrating, especially since I am in my last semester. I knew it was going to be a tough year for my business as well as for my education.
However, I wanted to get my networks involved in my project, I wanted people to contribute in a project they will be proud off. I wanted to inspired my peers through this campaign, as well as let them know that it is okay not to have it all and still make your vision come to life.
Being the first person doing a crowd-funding campaign from my country, it was also a way for me to put bring more awareness to Togo. I was raised in a community where we don’t ask for help, we are too proud. Even though we might need help, we let our pride get hold of us, so my crowd-funding was meant to break barriers.
How has growing up in a family full of tailors influenced your business choice?
To be honest, I think fashion chose me because I was born in a family full of creative tailors. My maternal grandmother was a tailor, my mother was a tailor, my mother’s sister is a tailor, my father’s mother was a tailor, my dad’s father was a tailor…so for me I think it was more like a calling.
Looking back at my mother making my clothes, and how she used to dress me up and how stylish she was, growing older I knew I had no other choice but to follow that path. It was a shared passion of ours.
Do you think it’s necessary for women who want to work in fashion to go to fashion school? Why?
Personally, I will say yes. Even though some people grew up in an environment that enables them to know how to sew clothes on their own, I do value education. It makes everything perfect and teaches you different strategies.
Things are improving everyday so in order to be at the top, you must keep your game up. Today, I look back and wished I just went to a fashion school instead. The good news is, it’s never too late to rewrite my story!
Going to school to perfect your passion helps you master it!
Tell us how you live your dream through your business?
The best part of my business is when I get to inspire other young women to pursue their dream. I often receive messages that say, “because of you I want to do something”.
And when I go to fashion weeks and hear Togo read next to my name, I get excited and feel fulfilled. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to live my dream.
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