Born and raised in the cultural melting-pot of London, Jai Eleven – like many of us – has learnt early on being safe just won’t cut it in fashion. “[Our clothing] came about in an effort to break from the traditional mind-set & not allow convention to dictate. We attempt to question what is accepted in society.” Fast-forward to today, and that speaks true to his current line with Vivendii. The minimalistic hoodies and jogging bottoms are emblazoned with the phrase: ‘these are my church clothes’ in a font that resembles sacred Roman script. It gives me a flashback to the peoples-preacher Young Jeezy’s 2015 album, ‘Church in these Streets’– still relevant today – a message honouring the politics & religion of street culture. And as of 2017, Jai Eleven is bringing church to the streets of London, Tokyo and Lagos.
This is a new wave of young UK designers intent on launching reputable streetwear brands off the back of their strong, African upbringing. The two reigning champs at separate ends of the clothing spectrum: Jai Eleven of [Nothing] and Christopher Kutoya of 1 Figures – are both currently in their element. Endorsing the grime-scene saviours and cultural innovators of our time, the names include the good one Lancey Fouxx, wolf Yxng Bane, Ghetts, Kojey Radical, Aj Tracy, Bonkaz, Kojo Funds, SNE, Frenzy, Dave… you get the picture.
When I first spoke with Jai Eleven, as of this week, he’d just launched a fire collection for his line [NOTHING] in collaboration with his fellow design peer Vivendii. Jai gives us an insight into how this team-up speaks to the remix of African principles of “supporting your own” in London youth culture.
It began in the streets, and that’s where Jai’s brand NOTHING was first received. In 2014, at age 17, Jai’s unorthodox vibe was picked up by tastemaker and street-style connoisseur Ian Connor. It led to a whirlwind of events, from meeting A$AP Mob to being invited to Red Bull Culture Clash. “I was just thrown into a madting [fashion industry]”. But his exposure blew to another level that same year when he decided to host a pop-up store. A roadblock of kids locked off the whole area, “we had like 300 kids come to a space where only 40 people could fit…sold out all [inventory] in the first hour”. To top it off Skepta came to support and show love to the up-and-coming designer… “I love Skepta and everything he stands for, especially him being from the same area as me and having the same background as me”. He stops his train of thought to recall something hilarious. “I’ll never forget…imagine a few days before my pop store some girls in my Year group were sending for me on Twitter, calling my brand dead… I walked into school later that week with £3k… it was a flex”. The commitment to individuality paid off for Jai. His brand brought a surge of conscious style – “the DIY gen” – with kids opting for no name brands and expressionist design. “We do fashion, we didn’t study fashion”.
There’s a whole ‘nother system of youth culture away from the Western World, happening in Nigeria and other parts of Africa
But Jai’s London upbringing was only one facet to his style influences. As a second-generation African, along with Jai I was never short of hearing words of wisdom from parents; to “work twice as hard” as the other guy, or never to “do as they do”. A plea for us to always use our position as minority to our advantage – “like a house on a hill”, my mum would quote. Speaking to Jai, I realise straight away that these African truths are engrained in his demeanour. He carries a sense of high standards and unwavering professionalism, a sense of cultural consciousness. It’s definitely a West African thing. You’ll oftentimes catch him on Snapchat vibing to the sounds of Fela Kuti, empowering himself for his next meeting, in the back of an Uber. Jai has an old soul, uplifting the new generation. Ironic. And he doesn’t shy away from it. “I think it’s important to understand heritage…there’s a whole ‘nother system of youth culture away from the Western World, happening in Nigeria and other parts of Africa. The Nigerian diaspora is so large.”
The 7-piece capsule collection incorporates striking symbols, similar to the Ghanaian Adinkra symbols – which represent phrases of power, ideology and religion. Upon first glance, the floral embroidery on the hoodies resemble intricate tailoring of the Lagos textile weavers – who gain their prominence from making one-of-a-kind pieces for any and everyone. African expressionism in art, more than ever, plays a big part in Jai’s inspiration for this collabo. “Vivendii were one of the first to understand and pioneer the wave in Nigeria [UK style meets African tradition], hence why I mess with them so hard, the Nigerian diaspora is so large and contains so many talented youth and that’s what we wanted to bring to life…I want this art to reach everyone, regardless of taste, style or background”.
Africa’s cultural influence is undeniably breaking through in the UK. Chris Kutoya of 1Figures clothing is another headliner of the movement. Chris, or FiggyOneTime is a designer who attests to the art of supporting thy brethren. An endorser of the culture, he dresses the top veterans and newcomers of grime and Afro-swing in the UK, from Ghetts, Kojo Funds to Afro B. Chris attributes his principle of giving back and endorsement to his African upbringing. “I feel it [African background] channels how I treat everyone with the upmost respect… and 1Figures is about unifying people regardless of social positioning…whether you have 1k or 100k, I see personality as the strongest currency”.
After all, one famous Ghanaian proverb about interdependence states, ‘Ese Ne Tekemeraa…’ – ‘the teeth and the tongue work well together’. Kutoya and many others have provided the teeth and the bite for up-and-coming music in the UK, in order for the culture to be revered and acknowledged from all angles. “It’s a great time for everyone doing great things in the UK especially London as a lot of attention is being bought to our city….I feel the next couple years is going to be game changing.” His brand is somewhat a uniform for the scene: signature “1F” logos, staple black tones and cultural references such as “I’m broke baby” from Paid in Full, 2002 movie produced by Jay-Z. “Growing up in an African household has taught me my discipline and attention to detail…” Though he describes the brand as simple and unconventional, Chris devotes his eye for detail into customer relationships. “I [attentively] create experiences for customers that come with being heavily invested in the brand”. Chris ensures the artists’ fans and followers have a brand image they can attach themselves to. A raw and organic blueprint for fashion.
To make it in fashion in the UK, you make fashion and allow yourself to be seasoned by what you find. Digging deep into your ancestry, only makes for higher levels of creative flair.