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Fair Trade: Graduate Aims to Bring Fashion to Cameroon

By Jackie Mallon

Oct 16, 2015


Kibonen Nfi hopes that her country of Cameroon will soon realize that fashion is as legitimate and rewarding a career as being a doctor or lawyer, and will support its immense homegrown talent.

“After all, it happened with soccer,” explains Kibonen. “At first Cameroonian people were very sceptical the sport could be a professional pursuit, but now that they have seen the success it can bring, parents are encouraging their children in that area. Studying Fashion in Cameroon should be like studying any other subject.”

Since Kibonen graduated with an Associates Degree in fashion from the Art Institute of New York City in June, she has been busy on a worldwide scale but it started during school. While preparing her final portfolio, she was contacted by the stylists of both Thandie Newton and Lupita Nyong’o to create garments for them. I find out what has been happening since...

Thandie Newton photographed wearing your designs provides a nice addition to any graduate’s portfolio, right?

Yes! And all of this was happening when I was going through my last days in school when everything––final garments, portfolio––was due! It was overwhelming but the attention made me feel I was in the right place. I received an email from the Editor of the New African Woman Magazine with a list of designers Thandie had selected for her photo-shoot in which she wanted to celebrate the African Diaspora. Among the 12 designers whose work she wanted to feature, my name was right there. It was such an honour. She is such a graceful woman and the embodiment of the KibonenNY brand. As for Lupita, She has been an inspiration for a long time. I received an email from Michaela, Lupita’s stylist, stating that Lupita will be traveling for a long overdue visit to Kenya, making a variety of public appearances and speeches throughout her time there. They included a couple of pictures which Lupita’s stylist loved from my past collections from my website and asked for other pieces. Lupita did not get to wear any during this trip but I’m just really glad to be on their radar.

Your graduate collection was then picked up by Vogue Italia?

I received an email from Sara Maino (Senior Editor Vogue Italia & Vogue Talents) with regards to pre-selection for their Vogue Talents issue. They asked me for professional photos of my FW 15/16 collection as well as the mood board, sketches and illustrations. The inspiration was the royal regalia of the Tikar people of the Bamileke and Bamenda regions of Cameroon. I felt lucky to be selected and appear with some of the best new designers from all over the globe in the feature which ran in September’s Vogue Italia.

(Accolades are becoming par for the course for Kibonen who was nominated by Africa Fashion International as Emerging designer of the year 2013; she has also showcased her talent at the Art Institutes Mercedes Benz fashion Week NY SS15, Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Africa SS13, SS14 and SS15 and has been featured in BBC Focus on Africa, GQ SA, Forbes Africa and the New African Woman Magazine. Her works have been exhibited at the National Museum of African Art – Smithsonian Institution.

But the driving purpose behind all of her success is to provide change in her home country which she is approaching in a number of ways...)

What is the Ethical Fashion Initiative and how did you become involved with that?

The EFI Designer Scheme is part of the Poor Communities and Trade Programme from the International Trade Centre (a UN Organisation) which focuses on engaging artisanal skills through job creation to reduce poverty and generate export and trade opportunities for micro-producers in the developing world.

The EFI Designer Scheme offers participating designers building and marketing opportunities in the luxury fashion industry, along with other support and the training of artisans along the fashion value chain. They launched a competition which I applied for. I had been following their work for years and had seen what they have been doing with designers like Stella Jean, Christie Brown, Studio One Eighty Nine. We need a more structured system to mentor us as young designers and I knew they could provide that for me.

Can you describe some of the struggles that you have encountered before getting to this point?

There have been many twists and turns. My experiences in some cases were so devastating that I could not even put my thoughts together. From being duped while executing a huge order for my country of over 250.000 dollar, to being homeless on two occasions...but I will not stop at any situation to feel bad. Yes I cried, got into a depression but I knew I had thousands of people looking up to me as I followed this path less travelled by my kind.

Nothing frightens me now. I go with the mind-set I can be the best in what I am doing and I want to one day see my work on Fifth Avenue. Besides, I always want to inspire and motivate people from my experiences and achievements. The way I had to develop myself through this process was exceptional but not everyone has to go through what I went through. They can definitely skip that trauma by listening to my story.

Do you believe it is important for you to be based in the U.S. or do you go back and forth between U.S. and Cameroon?

I go back and forth but I have to be based in the U.S. There are many techniques, skills and inspirations I get from Cameroon and other parts of Africa. There are so many untold stories and we have to be able to take these stories to the world. There are opportunities everywhere however I want to break through the American market. I really do not see many people doing what I am doing in America. My space is carved and I believe I can serve as a link between the two worlds.

What do you plan to do next?

I am in the process of launching my online store. The exposure of Vogue Talents has generated a lot of interest in me. I have been contacted by several boutiques requesting my look book so I am following up on that. Getting my financial foundations right too is ongoing. We might not be visible to consumers at the moment but there is a lot of work happening behind the scenes.

Ultimately, my plan is to inspire the people of Cameroon and elsewhere by the strides I am making and the stereotypes I am breaking so that they permit their children to pursue fashion as a career. That is my hope.

By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.