It’s not often you see a phone number listed on a brand’s Instagram page and website. But communication is what Kemi Telford is about. Founded in 2017 by Yvonne Telford – Kemi is the name she was given by her Nigerian community when she was seven days old, as per tradition – the vibrant print brand known for its voluminous silhouettes, which take up space both physically and metaphorically, grew by word of mouth.
Yvonne, who speaks to her close-knit customer base daily, forged her own path as designer and business owner after photos of her clothes on the blog she began while trying to reconnect with her sense of self after having children started prompting queries. Where was she buying all those fabulous colourful wax print pieces? people wanted to know. Like many women from Kano, where she grew up before moving to England in 1996, hers were one-off tailored pieces. Buoyed by her growing following, and with no formal training under her belt, she fashioned two hardworking swishy skirts with pockets to sell.
Years later, a new collaboration with Tate cements Yvonne as a self-made entrepreneur with creative integrity. Her capsule of artist-appropriate clothing – all breezy, Japanese-style jackets, drawstring skirts and tote bags – took two years to finesse, because she kept pushing the storied institution for more. “No one does African prints in organic cotton, so I had to do a lot of research,” says the woman whose secret to success has been making mistakes and quizzing others for information. “If you really want something you have to ask for help and demand better quality.”
Patience underscores all things Kemi Telford. She eventually found her Tate textiles in India, and worked with a tailor to bring an emotive pattern representing the story of womanhood to life. Each box, zigzag and circle, representing the struggles, obstacles and prejudices females might face on their journeys, is inspired by the work of Sonia Delaunay, Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Anni Albers, who Yvonne believed her clients would have something in common with. The designer’s own story – one of a mother who gave up her career to support her family and found it, like many in the same position, frustrating – is also woven into the very seams of the garments.
“Without the community of women behind me, I wouldn’t have got to where I am,” asserts Yvonne, whose “real” approach to fashion resonated with like-minded individuals who want to express themselves – even if just for their kids to take pictures on the school run. “Modelling everything myself was an important mistake – I never planned it, but people love it because it tells the story of the brand,” she adds.
The Tate project, which Yvonne admits she thought was “someone pulling a fast one” on her at first, takes Kemi Telford to the next level. “I started the brand with £50,” she shares. “I am a one woman band and my daughters have seen how hard I have worked to inspire other women.” This will not be the last you hear of this bright spark who has time for everyone. Just message her and see.
This article was originally published on Vogue UK.