Nigerian-born Ngozi (Gozi) Ochonogor left Nigeria for England at the age of 19, where she studied Software Engineering at Imperial College, London, and graduated with Honours in 1998.
Although, like she stated, she has had loads of opportunities to work in IT, she decided to pursue her dream of becoming a successful designer.
To fulfill that dream, she later enrolled at the Central School of Fashion. In 2003, she set up her company Gozi Limited and launched her brand GOZI at London Fashion Week. Since then, ‘Gozi’ has become a successful designer with global acclaim. She owns menswear brand U.Mi-1 (pronounced youmeone), different from your stereotypical idea of vibrantly coloured print-based Nigerian designs.
In this exclusive interview, she talks about her life as a designer, her brand, U.Mi-1, style, and Nigerian art.
Sam Umukoro Interview: How did you become a fashion designer?
Gozi: I’d been toying with the idea of a career change before I graduated as I was not happy in IT but I wasn’t sure what. How it came about? I’d say I kind of fell into it. I studied Software Engineering at Imperial, and at the time in the UK, if a company needed to hire a foreigner, it needed to prove that there was no other British person that could do that job. So while job-hunting, I decided to try something new with my time. I decided on a fashion course because in my mind’s eye, I had visuals of what I wanted to wear but could never find in the shops. My principal said that there was something special about me after day 3. After a week of being there, I knew it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I’ve had loads of opportunities to work in IT, so it is a choice I have made.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Why didn’t you come back to Africa or Nigeria at that time, where there is still a high demand of software engineers?
Gozi: IT began with programming and I found that painfully boring enough. I wasn’t ready to return to Nigeria. I had discovered new things, people, music, a new way of living and freedom of expression in cosmopolitan London. Plus, you have to remember that in 1998, IT was still new. At Uni, we were using the first Macs so you can imagine where Nigeria was at the time. I remember when I left, only one other person I knew had a computer. Even in London, my friends and I used our computers to play Tetris.
Sam Umukoro Interview: How successful have you been as a fashion designer?
Gozi: I used to think that when I became wealthy, that would mean success for me. But when I look back at my journey, at where U.Mi-1 is, I realize that the journey is the success story. I am still a start up in fashion terms because you really become a business in fashion after you have been in it for ten years; that’s when things really start happening for you. And things are happening for U.Mi-1, it is actually 5 years old.
When I look at where I started off 10 years ago, from Portobello with the Gozi label, to being probably one of a few unheard of designers to show on-schedule in Paris, going bankrupt and paying my debts funnily enough through a software I developed; starting U.Mi-1 in Tokyo and collaborating with notable artists including Puma, I smile. My business model is pop-up stores. I now have a team but I’m really a glorified travelling-sales girl, going to different countries selling U.Mi-1 wares. Not bad for a Nigerian story.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Like you said, you turned down jobs in IT. How did your father or family react in general?
Gozi: Well, my father was very upset most especially when I refused to go for Microsoft’s interview. My uncle had sent in my c.v. I just said, no, I wasn’t going and it was very difficult. My parents do appreciate fashion and the arts, but having an appreciation is totally different from being in it and they are not in it. But I believe they respect me for sticking to my guns.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Would you say you are privileged?
Yes, I am from a middle class family, but it was a hard grind starting up a fashion brand. Being privileged doesn’t mean you wouldn’t fall or fail, it only means there is a safety net underneath you to break the hard fall. I remember I met a bad patch in Tokyo, where I was homeless and broke for three straight months. I lived from my friend’s floors but everybody sleeps on floors in Tokyo, so it didn’t really matter, but I was hopping from one friend’s place to another, until I could find my feet. It was very easy to say, ‘okay, I don’t really need to suffer, I can go home and my parents will help me’; but being independent and succeeding at it was something I needed to do. I did, but I had options. So, I would say that I’m privileged in that sense.
But we all are privileged. That’s the thing about the universe, if you put your mind to doing something, and believe in it, the universe will always support you. It doesn’t have to be your father or mother; it could be a friend or a passerby. The successful people in this world do not all have wealthy parents. It’s just about being determined and finding someone, a friend, an angel, or call it what you want, that will help you along the way.
Sam Umukoro Interview: It is interesting how you referred to the universe… Does this excuse you from having a religious affinity?
Gozi: There is only one God, call him what you like. The universe is us and everything in this earth or beyond the skies that help us somehow… We are gods. The universe is you, it is the person who gives me a discount or does a shoot for free because he believes in my work, who smiles at me and makes my day. The universe is actually everything in it, and there is God in every single one of us and every single thing. With every project that I do, I meet so many different people who help along the way. Sometimes, it doesn’t work out the way I plan it, sometimes it works out beautifully, and those people factor in it.
Sam Umukoro Interview: If you didn’t have that safety net, would you still have gone ahead with your decision to become a designer?
Gozi: Yes. My parents brought us up to be go-getters and their support has always been earned. By safety nets, I mean a rethought. Some people think my going to Tokyo was very brave. I say, no, it is not being brave. I had an exit plan; I had a return ticket home. The safety net is really my education, more than the fact that my parents can support me, which would never be forever. I’m not their only child. I have the ability to work in any industry if I put my mind to it. That’s my net.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Do you think Nigerians are stylish?
Gozi: I think many don’t have personal style. A lot of people look the same. Importantly, there is no Nigerian style; everything we wear is kind of borrowed. Take the English for example, they have their own style. Even if they borrowed suits from the Arabs, they’ve put a twist on it and it is now English. No Arab can put a claim on Savile Row. The kimono is traditional Japanese attire, but that has translated into modern dress. When Japanese people wear western clothes, it’s all about layering, which borrows from the kimono’s layers. I’m yet to see what the Nigerian style is. There’s a difference between cultural dress and style. Beautiful and colourful as ours may be, it is not style, it’s just cultural dress.
Sam Umukoro Interview: So, you don’t think we have internalized it enough for it to become ours?
Gozi: No, an Ankara skirt is just a skirt made from a kind of fabric. I’d like to think U.Mi-1 internalized it in our Repatriation collection where we had shirts inspired by the agbada, merging all the layers into one flat plane. I follow the cubism movement so Picasso’s influence can be seen in that collection. We also made outfits in denim where the trousers came with a matching shirt, a reference to the laid-back traditional men wear daily, shirts and shokoto made from one fabric. That to me is internalizing.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Do you think the English are stylish?
Gozi: London is very cosmopolitan so it’s hard to tell who is English these days but no two people look the same here, even if they are wearing the same item. That’s personal style.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What drives you?
Gozi: I’ve never sat down to think about it. I have contentment now. But when I first started, my biggest fear was to be mediocre. If I was not the best or felt that I could give my best in something, I didn’t want to do it. And with fashion, I felt that there was something else I had to give that nobody could. It was quite strange because throughout my journey, I’ve met designers who are clearly better than I am.
It’s not about being the best overall but finding your own niche and giving your best in that little space of yours. That’s adding to creation. For example, famous artists such as Picasso and Van Gogh found their niche. We respect them for what each brought to art. So that’s what I try to do, be the best in mine.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Would you say making men clothes is your niche?
Gozi: I won’t say making men clothes is my niche, I think my niche is much smaller than that. U.Mi-1 makes the best casual shirts; that’s our niche. I am a good tailor as mathematics and 3-d modeling comes very naturally to me; that’s my forte.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Do you have a factory?
Gozi: Yes, I have a factory, a few factories actually, although they are not owned by me. I design, make patterns and fittings at my studio in London. Once it’s perfect, I send it to the factory and they give me a perfectly sewn item.
Sam Umukoro Interview: How does your engineering background factor into your designs?
Gozi: I would say my love for maths more than my engineering degree because there wasn’t a lot of mathematics in IT. Like my mum always says, knowledge is never lost; you just sort of build up on it and it helps you sort of evaluate things and see things differently. So, yes, it’s obviously a contributing factor.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Who are your favorite designers? I mean as someone who is into fashion, if you go out there to buy a particular cloth or something, who will you go for?
Gozi: I like Balenciaga, Cristóbal Balenciaga. He could cut and sew the perfect sleeve on a real model. Making jacket sleeves is one of the most difficult things to do. He could sew it by hand. He was known among the designers of the time, Dior included, as “the technician”. I felt at home after discovering him. That was really how I became a fashion designer, by discovering him.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What kind of music do you listen to?
Gozi: I listen to House music, a lot of electronica these days. But my favourite artists are Nina Simone, Fela Kuti, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Jack White and Prodigy.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Do you socialize?
Gozi: Well I’m a fashion designer, socializing is part of the job. My work and play are intertwined. Everybody wears clothes, so it’s easy to strike up conversations. I’m always working and partying. There’s no sort of distinction between the two.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Do you see yourself doing something outside designing, such as taking an acting role for example?
Gozi: I once dated a very good Italian director; he won a Cannes award for short stories. We got into a conversation about acting and he asked me to do a scene; he told me not to give up my day job. So no, i would not be going into that (laughing). I love art and I am into forging collaborations with other artists. It’s the ethos of U.Mi-1. I recently collaborated with sculptor artist Richardson Oviebo for U.Mi-1’s latest exhibition, Staples. I got him to make these beautifully crafted wire mannequins in poses inspired by Picasso’s Blue Period. I also host a social networking event PechaKucha Lagos with the Goethe Institute which gives designers, architects, artists, anyone who is creative, a platform to show their work. It is a great way for Lagos artists and designers to meet and collaborate with one another. I do a bit of art consulting for galleries and firms. I’d like to change the West’s view of Nigerian Art. Just like Nigerian fashion doesn’t have to be the same tale of African-inspired fabrics, African art doesn’t always mean tribal. There is a new wave of contemporary art and it is getting noticed internationally. I’m passionate about contributing to that.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Do you have a mentor?
Gozi: I’d say two good friends of mine – Nigerians. One owns a luxury brand. The other, I ran a fashion label with briefly. It is in the form of informal friendly conversations of how I’m doing, where I’m going. So they probably would not think they mentor me.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Where do you see U.Mi-1 in the next five or ten years?
Gozi: I’d love it to be one of the most recognised menswear label worldwide in ten years’ time… five years is probably too soon.