The Nigerian Designer Pushing Boundaries in Fashion and Culture
Award-winning international designer Ugochi Iwuaba always had a love for fashion. However, being the firstborn girl in a traditional Nigerian family, her parents disapproved and wanted her to pursue a more “prestigious” career as either a doctor or a lawyer. Hence, her fashion story starts after she emigrated to the United States. Though she did launch her luxury brand in 2017, she started with no capital after being wrongfully terminated from her job and discovering that she was pregnant with a child diagnosed with Down Syndrome. In spite of these circumstances, Iwuaba did not stop herself from moving forward, and her efforts have paid off with her designs being showcased at various international fashion week shows and appearing on the 2021 Met Gala Red Carpet.
Iwuaba’s designs are luxurious statement pieces heavily influenced by her Nigerian background. Made of bold colors, trims, and silhouettes, the designer describes her style as a fusion of African and Western elements. Each piece that Iwuaba creates is also an extension of her “flamboyant” and energetic personality.
Born and raised in Nigeria, Iwuaba recounts how a brochure from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in San Diego (now closed) found its way to her house when she was young. Flipping through the brochure, the young designer was intrigued by the ability to create well-tailored clothing and felt inspired by the idea that she could create such quality pieces. Unfortunately, Iwuaba was unable to attend the school and instead pursued degrees in international relations, history, and real estate from a Nigerian university.
Iwuaba left Nigeria to meet her now-husband, whom she met on Facebook. Although her friends had originally warned her not to go, she “took a chance on love” and immigrated to America. Initially, when she first arrived ten years ago, she worked a typical 9-to-5 job in real estate, but her love for fashion never faltered. Recounting how her brother-in-law gifted her a sewing machine as a wedding present, Iwuaba remembers how she couldn’t even sew a straight line at first. Gradually, she improved as she started sewing daily and realized that it felt like a natural skill to her.
In 2016, Iwuaba was wrongfully terminated from her job after finding out that she was pregnant with her third child. Her child was also diagnosed with Down Syndrome, and Iwuaba realized that she couldn’t go back to working at a 9-to-5 job because of how much her son will need her in the future. “It was a dark time in my life, and I put that darkness into making clothes, and that’s how I was able to survive that period in my life,” confesses the designer.
After her son was born, Iwuaba registered her business in 2017. She had no capital and used the money from unemployment and the settlement she won after being wrongfully terminated from her previous job. She also didn’t have the support of many people when opening her business, especially since she didn’t know anyone who bought luxury fashion themselves. However, her biggest supporter was her husband, who encouraged her to pursue her love for fashion.
Since the launch of her brand, many of Iwuaba’s creations have been inspired by her Nigerian background. “Nigerians have the most flamboyant culture in Africa. My clothes are very bold because the colors I go for are very bold. I don’t shy away from adding anything to my designs. I also like a clean cut. I like well-tailored clothes, and it also shapes my designs. As much as I add a lot of fashion to my designs – a lot of creativity – I also need it to be extra me and well made,” stresses the designer.
Within this year, Iwuaba’s pieces have appeared on the red carpet of the 2021 Met Gala. Nina Parker, an E! News reporter for red carpet coverage, wore a goddess-inspired golden caped gown paired with a matching headpiece. Iwuaba has also attended women empowerment events that occurred during Fall 2021 Fashion Week. Positioning this passion at the forefront of her career, Iwuaba presented her designs at the Women’s Empowerment Conference hosted by Discover Magazines, a local San Diego magazine publishing company.
One core belief that the designer holds is that fashion can truly empower women to take agency over themselves. She has a goal to inspire young African women who may be in a similar position that she once was, stating that, “If you empower a woman, you can empower a whole village.” It’s obvious that Iwuaba herself is a fearless woman who is pushing boundaries within herself, her culture, and the fashion industry.