Loza Maléombho isn't a newcomer. The designer launched her namesake brand more than a decade ago, after graduating with a fine arts degree from the University of the Arts of Philadelphia and paying her dues with high-fashion internships in NYC. She moved back to her hometown in Côte d'Ivoire three years later. She's been worn by Iman and Kelly Rowland, but it was her Beyoncé Black Is King moment that had the most notable impact—it caused her website to crash and her sales to spike 300 percent. Consider it the Beyoncé effect. But Queen Bey isn't the first queen to inspire Maléombho.
The designer counts West African royalty as a source of inspiration. She effortlessly melds traditional craftsmanship and fabrications from the region to create a modern aesthetic that honors her history. Her brand also has sustainability in its DNA and a thoughtful approach to growth, putting an emphasis on digital before it became the only way to go in the COVID-19 era.
BAZAAR.com spoke with the designer days before she gave birth to her first child, and just a few days after Black Is King dropped on Disney+ to see how she's managing during the pandemic, her thoughts on the rise of interest in African design, and keeping mass production out of her plans.
You actually launched your brand more than a decade ago. What has changed most since you first started until now—both for your label and the industry overall?
I first launched the brand while I was still in New York in 2009. I wanted to move back to Ivory Coast, because I wanted what I was creating to have a bigger purpose than just a fashion brand. I also wanted a long-term sustainable project that would create jobs for local artisans. I wanted to use it to explore different textiles within the continent and the different local craftsmanship and find a way to incorporate that in a language that's universal. So, from the very beginning, my feeling was to empower local craftsmanship in Côte d'Ivoire.
From the beginning, my brand was always about the heritage behind it, the history behind it, and to establish a storytelling narrative within each collection that always centers around royalty and the regal artifacts that are so relevant to West African culture.
What have been some of the challenges associated with producing in Côte d'Ivoire?
We don't necessarily have the production facilities to produce. You can have a clothing line, but to be able to produce it in a bigger quantity is challenging. Sourcing the fabric can also be difficult since there's a craftsmanship level that needs to be there. So, you kind of have to work with the local realities and see how to make it work within the brand, and that's what I've been doing so far.
I'm so interested in brands that work with artisans who have been honing their crafts for generations, but also making those pieces really modern. What has been your process of working with these skilled men and women, but showing them your designer sensibility? How does that process work?
What I learned being in the U.S. is that you kind of go towards trying to impose your ideas on the locals. And what I've learned the hard way is that that's not the way to go. So, at some point, I had to switch it up and actually study for myself and ask, What is it that their craft is? What is it that they do best? And then find a way to incorporate that within my designs. For instance, one of the symbols that I use a lot is the gold mask. It's symbolic of the Baoulé tribe, which is part of a larger group of the Akan group. And it's a prominent ethnicity in West Africa. It symbolizes union and joy.
I thought it was perfect because the whole idea is to create a bridge between a traditional aesthetic and the more futuristic and modern fashion from my influences in New York. So, it's really about adapting my vision to what the artisans are already making or have already mastered from a different generation. I'm not looking to change what they're doing, I'm just looking to empower whatever they're doing and use it in a way that would value their craft—but also bring a fresh look to the collection.
When you were in school and working in New York, was it your ultimate goal to return home, or were you surprised to realize that that's where you wanted to ultimately be?
I think I kind of worked my way through it. I started in Philadelphia, and then moved to New York, wanting to work in the fashion industry. I interned for different designers there, but then figured out the vision that I had. I wasn't able to express it being in the U.S., because I didn't have the resources available to me, like the traditional craftsmanship and all the different things I'm working with now, I didn't have it there. So, it's the void of that access that led me to move back.
Let's talk about Beyoncé. Your website couldn't handle the traffic after Black Is King dropped. Obviously, you have worked with Zerina Akers on Beyoncé videos in the past. What has that experience been like for you? What is the Beyoncé effect for your brand?
Well, it's always uncertain, because Zerina works with a lot of different designers. So, when you get the call, you never know that the items are actually going to end up on Beyoncé. For instance, in the "Formation" video, she pulled a whole bunch of different items that were destined for Beyoncé but ended up on the back-up dancers—which happens a lot in the industry. But this time, it was a custom-made piece.
Zerina came to me and she said, "We want an urban look, but also with the feel of Africa that you have mastered so well." And she said, "Maybe do something with one of my post popular shoes—a strappy high heel with a little platform." That shoe has the actual masks on them. So, I just used inspiration from that. And she said she wanted bold shoulders. So I brought that in. I had fun with the graphic design within the look itself, because I work with lines and because it kind of reminds me of tribal lines. I use a lot of geometrics within my designs. So, that's kind of how we come up with the look and was very pleased with the results.
Was the Beyoncé effect immediate, as soon as the video showed?
Yes, it was overwhelming. We had a spike in sales over 300 percent, and like you said, the website crashed and we're still trying to get that back up. I'm getting a lot of demands and a lot of orders for the belts that I made accessible for the public. I think the overwhelming feeling behind the whole thing is gratitude.
There has been an overall heightened interest in African designers and African-influenced design in recent years, especially more recently. As someone who has African design in your company's core DNA and in your personal history, what has that been like to see?
It's exciting. Also, a lot of us are placed at the front line of this, the spike of this interest. So, it's scary, because it puts us in a position of responsibility to structure the industry so we don't repeat the same mistakes that have been made in other countries, maybe. We get a chance to actually define our own institutions and our standards, and our ecosystem of how to function so that we don't lose the value behind the craftsmanship or the heritage that's here. So, it's exciting, but it's also heavy in terms of responsibility.
In the past, you've shown at Lagos and South Africa Fashion Weeks. Obviously, so much is still up in the air, but what are your current plans for releasing new collections?
Yes. Even before the pandemic, I was already questioning marketing that way, by doing runway shows, because social media today gives us a window to pretty much anywhere internationally. I get buyers reaching out to me through Instagram, from the U.K., from the U.S. And I was already thinking of maybe showing digitally rather than actually presenting during a fashion show, and instead focusing on trade shows—however those are going to work now.
Sustainability has always been part of your brand. Why has that been a personal priority? Do you think it's easier to always structure your brand in that way, rather than trying to back into it?
I've always liked the sense of organically growing the brand. My purpose was to value the heritage and value the craft, and you can't do that if you're going into mass production. Mass production was never the goal. So, if it's going to be a luxury brand on a smaller scale, then I really want it to be sustainable. I really want to be closer to the artisans because I'm here. So I'm working with them, I'm overseeing the whole process, and it's enriching to me, as well as them. It's more like a mutual learning process that I really appreciate. And so, I guess we can say it's a personal choice that I wanted to do it that way.
We already talked about Beyoncé, but is there anyone else on your short list you would love to see in your pieces?
Rihanna. She would be next. I came close to dressing her as well. You send out a whole bunch of pieces, but you're not really sure that they're going to be worn or not. But, yes, she's definitely on my list.
What are your thoughts on social media and working with influencers?
I've been approached by influencers a few times. It's just not my priority at this time, but I can see how it has worked for some brands in the past. But I usually don't like to follow the trend on how the marketing is being done, because it's a trend, so it can work for some time and then not work afterwards.
Where would you like to see the brand in the next five years? You already have one brick-and-mortar store, would you want to grow in that space?
I want to start by trying to develop ways to market online and sell online like I've already done, but maybe develop that further by finding innovative ways to make my pieces accessible. I think that's where I'm heading and maybe grow to different departments, kids, maybe men's, and more accessories, because that works so well.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
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