PARIS — You’ve heard of Made in France, China or Italy. But what about Made in Gabon?
Entrepreneur Teddy Ondo Ella, who grew up between France and Gabon, a country located on the equator in western Africa, is out to set things straight. The self-taught designer a few months ago launched his urban streetwear line, Only Made in Gabon, which is based on Gabonese codes but produced in Portugal. The upcoming edition of New York Fashion Week: Men’s in July, meanwhile, will see the launch of an eponymous tailoring line hooked on an update of the traditional short-sleeved Gabonese suit dubbed the Abacos, short for “à bas le costume,” which in English translates to “down with the suit.”
“It was created by Africans in the Seventies as a [symbol] of anticolonialism. They took all the specifications of a regular suit, but did it their way, with a high collar and short sleeves. It’s supereasy,” said Ondo Ella, adding: “My father’s generation still wears it, but I want to bring it back and put a younger spin on it.”
Whereas the traditional Abacos is cut super loose, Ondo Ella said his take is more fitted, using top-of-the-line cloths such as weighty cottons by Cerruti. The suits will be available in a choice of basic colors and supercharged colorful prints. These range from patterns that have “no obvious African connotations” such as Gabonese flowers and rattan motifs lifted from local furniture to twists on Gabonese symbols like N’gil masks and the country’s striped green, blue and yellow flag, which comes hand-stitched in the collars of garments in the brand’s sportswear line. The suits will be priced at around $2,000 to $3,000 and demi-mesure suits from $5,000 to $6,000.
Ondo Ella said his goal is introduce a modern, authentic representation of African culture and style devoid of stereotype and cliché.
“My biggest challenge was to make a Gabonese, African brand, but to find the right balance, not to go too African or European. My aim is to have people wear the clothes not because they’re African, but because they’re cool, classy and really chic,” he said.
“For me, when you talk about clothing, first of all it’s about creating a feeling, [where the wearer] feels special and different, I want to bring that feeling with my vision of fashion, my style.”
Ondo Ella, who was born in Brazzaville, the capital of the Congo Republic, said he developed a taste for fashion as a kid. He first got his kicks from the business side helping out in his mother’s fashion store, “Teddy Boutique,” in Gabon’s capital, Libreville. As he got older, he started experimenting with designer fashion but “got a bit bored with what was on offer.”
“I found they didn’t represent what I was after and was, like, why not open my own thing? I didn’t know how the industry worked, the process, but I learned through making mistakes,” said Ondo Ella, who was able to test his first apparel capsule in a sneaker store he opened in Gabon in 2012, at age 33, that also stocked lines by friends of his from Paris and New York.
“I set about thinking about the DNA of my brand, ‘Do I want to look like an American brand or a French brand?’ I was feeling a bit confused about it as I was living everywhere, and then I said to myself, ‘You need to be yourself: Teddy from Gabon.’”
For his New York show, scheduled for July 10 with the location to be confirmed, he plans to re-create an African village, with red dust covering the runway and a cast including Gabonese dancers. “It will be an introduction to African elegance, and the way we wear the clothes.”
Currently based between Gabon and the U.S., the entrepreneur said the plan is to be based out of Miami, as the right context for the brand’s relaxed-chic vibe. “I love the city and the climate reminds me of my country. Also, Miami is the place where you can socialize more easily with people than in New York, where everyone is in a rush.”
To make it in Africa, the brand first has to make it in the U.S. and Europe, said Ondo Ella, who hasn’t lost touch with his merchant roots. He plans to open a concept store “like Colette” in Gabon in the next couple of years, with a first store dedicated to his tailoring line slated to open in New York in September 2018, followed by Paris and Miami. His Only Made in Gabon line is sold in five stores in the U.S., including Addict in Bal Harbour, Miami, and Probus in New York, as well as on the brand’s U.S.-based e-commerce site.