Over the past year, we’ve caught up with Reva Ochuba, the 26-year-old designer behind ready-to-wear brand Ifeoma. Working for Eckhaus Latta, Berlin’s 032c, and studying in the Fashion, Fiber and Materials program at Cal State LA, Ochuba developed the skills to delve into this creative outlet that she uses to dig deeper to the root of her being. Primarily working with upholstery fabrics, she loves texture and is deeply inspired by the Middle Ages. Immediately garnering attention from the likes of Solange, Rihanna, Vogue, and the New York Times, her pieces are part of a self-fulfilling prophecy; “...the Ifeoma woman is the woman that I’m working to become every single day.” Now, Ochuba is taking her next steps as a student in Central Saint Martin’s MA Fashion Critical Studies Program. Before she embarks on her next chapter, she spoke with This Generation about the events that have caused her to rethink her goals and the bigger picture of fashion.
This is a compilation of two interviews over the past year, one with Tate over Skype, and one with Ella in person in LA
Editor: Paulina Rozenberg
TG: So how do you pronounce Ifeoma?
Starting off then, how did you get to where you are today?
I’ve dropped out of college a couple of times, but always knew I loved clothes. Especially in high school, I was obsessed with getting dressed in the morning. I would wake up at 4 am just to sew or alter vintage garments I wanted to wear to school that day. Missed my school bus nearly every day too.
Anyway, fast-forward through me figuring out a few things - I moved to New York, then eventually went back to school, studying at Cal State LA. It’s one of the only public schools in Southern California with a fashion course; it’s a super small program with maybe 30 people in the graduating class.
I know you spent some time in New York. How did you like it?
I liked certain things about it. There was a lot of new talent emerging both musically and artistically during that moment. Definitely a great time to be in New York. October 2013, a month after I moved there, I began an internship at Eckhaus Latta. Mike and Zoe took me in when I literally knew nothing about clothing construction or production. I don't know why they let me be a total fashion dunce for those months, but they have always been a great help to me.
What was your role?
I worked there for about three years; they became bi-coastal in the middle of my tenure, so I continued to work with them when I moved back to LA for college. By the end I was a studio assistant, but I started as an intern. Before that point, everything I'd made was like, "Oh, I'm going to put this and this together and see where this goes." It was cute, but I couldn't remake it. I couldn't tell you how I got there.
My project during that season, their AW14 collection, was to sew these thick, long felted strips into tubes. Do you know how hard it is to bring a tube inside out? I think there were like 30 of them. It was tedious, but I was so happy to do it because I was like, "Yeah, I'm making fashion!"
Then in between New York and coming back to LA, you lived in Berlin?
Yeah, I honestly went to Berlin to do nothing. I thought, "I failed in New York. I need to not go home as a failure, so I'm going to spend three months in Berlin." But within the first week, I met someone who was the managing editor at 032c. We were talking about clothes and they were like, "You know a lot about clothes," and I was like, "I guess I do." They said, "Do you want to help us at 032c?" The next day I was in their office doing research for their upcoming Raf Simons issue. I literally spent two and a half months researching Raf Simons.
How would you describe the essence of Ifeoma?
As an ever-transforming entity. Ifeoma is definitely my most intimate side. Reva is who I show on my Instagram or who you meet during a first impression, but Ifeoma is me at home thinking, ruminating, ideating. I use Ifeoma as an engine to dig deeper into who I am. An outlet, I suppose.
SS17 was an insane collection, what was your design process like?
One of my fashion history courses was in discussion around Medieval garments, warfare, life, and nobility. I started looking into medieval wears, quiltings, and Opus Anglicanum. At the time my university was on a quarter system, which meant I would rarely get the chance to fully expand on an idea during the school year. When summer break came around I was still thinking about a lot of that content. All of the research that I accumulated became Ifeoma - this bigger than life undergoing.
What drew you to experimenting with upholstery fabrics?
I love texture. You get more rigidness from those fabrics because they're not meant for clothing - they're meant to be worn in, for decades. When you're reupholstering a couch, you're not upholstering it to use it today and throw it out tomorrow or next year. You're upholstering it for years and years to come. There's durability in those fabrics. It's thoughtful sustainability.
What is something you look for when casting models?
I love a really ambiguous face. The girl in my first lookbook, Iris, is 6 foot 3. She's extremely tall. She has these pointy shoulders so when you put a t-shirt on her, her shoulders stick out. She has this body type that's so amazing to look at, and she has a striking face that's masculine but also extremely regal and beautiful. I love when you can't quite put your finger on what makes that person’s look special. That's what I look for.
From when we first interviewed you to now, you mentioned having a complete mind shift - can you speak a bit about that?
At the end of 2017, I went to Nigeria for a month because my mom passed. It was a traumatically intense experience. This all happened shortly after my first collection so, it kind of put a weird taint on what should have been a successful time in my life.
I now have an entirely different perspective on why I create and what the purpose of it is. When someone leaves you without explanation and you're trying to put pieces together, you add that to your own life and you think, "What is it that I'm even after?" Many frivolous pursuits become futile.
How did that relate to your brand Ifeoma?
It's cool to make clothes, but even in the past six months, I’ve felt that the fashion system is moving in a way where it's kind of becoming a monster. I keep asking myself, “What is Ifeoma even about?”
Going through that process ultimately forced me to think about the bigger picture of it all. What do I want to leave behind? How do I want to be remembered? How much time do I have and how far can I go? What became most prevalent was the idea of doing something bigger than myself. That sparked the thought of stepping away from design for a bit. I want to solve a problem; to fulfill a need. Not to say choosing to be a designer is contributing to anything terribly detrimental, but I've got a plethora of skills, talents, and ideas that would be much better used to help others. I’ll always love design and will make things here and there, but for now, I feel that my true calling is much broader.
Photography by Dicko Chan, Styling Greg Ross
Who is the Ifeoma woman?
I've been building this self-fulfilling prophecy; the Ifeoma woman is the woman that I'm working to become every single day, she is the woman I design Ifeoma around because that's really all I can do. I don't know any women in my position who look like me or do what I'm doing so it's imperative that I make it inwardly focused. I'm working through it every single day. I think that makes my work more genuine and will attract the people it’s meant to attract.
If you're a strong woman who's more opinionated and more straightforward, you should feel okay being that person, and there should be a wardrobe that allows you to explore that. I've been wearing suits a lot, and one day I thought ‘Why can a man go to Men’s Wearhouse or nearly any other place to buy a suit, but I have to scour the internet, or eBay for hours to find something that should be so simple to acquire.’ I also love to wear Dickies in the full, super structured mechanical look, but who's really designing that for women, as a woman?
How do you plan on carrying the brand aesthetic throughout new endeavors?
I think it'll materialize as time goes on. I've gone through so many phases. I have so many different types of friends and so many different types of people in my life. Ifeoma is really just a living organism growing and evolving like you and me. It would be hard for me to say, ‘I'm into insert vibe forever.’ I'm too sentimental and emotional to commit to that. I can only say that it'll transform as I do. I think this is the most relatable way to foresee any creative process.
What is the fashion scene in LA like for up-and-coming designers?
I used to say, "I can't wait until I can move back to Europe where I belong." I still want to, but I wouldn't be ashamed to say that I'm from LA now either. I think we have a lot of amazing talent here, and what makes LA fashion so interesting is that a lot of people come here to study art: fine art, or sculpture, or painting. When that's transferred into fashion, it brings with it an interesting perspective. There is more of a “crafted” touch to the clothing people make here. We also have loads of factories and production houses available, so designers are able to get a lot of things done.
What are some of the changes you’ve noticed in the fashion industry?
I felt some type of way when Virgil Abloh was appointed as the art director of Louis Vuitton. Not even about him or his work, but I have always had this underlying negation toward the fact that men ultimately control fashion. Men control fashion the way they control every other industry. Men carry a lot of power within this industry and ultimately dictate what women are meant to wear. Your favorite fashion houses are run by men, you know?
Celine is now Hedi Slimane. It was a long shot, but I hoped Phoebe Philo would go to Louis Vuitton and do menswear; maybe Martine Rose could have done it or even Grace Wales Bonner. Things are changing, as they always do, but I would love to see more houses with strong female leads.
What is your take on your generation?
I love how real everything is. I love that reality TV is most of television. That sounds bad, but I feel like we're all becoming more human because we are exposed to so many different kinds of circumstances through social media. I feel like our generation is less judgmental in a lot of ways because of that, which I think is really cool. I feel like we're more united because we're all connected. Also memes, I think memes are great. I think memes bring people together, because you all realize, "Oh, we all think the same thing." It’s interesting how someone could tap into everyone's brain with a picture and 10 words.
What’s next for Ifeoma?
I plan to remove myself from the fashion system. I still want Ifeoma to be a brand and operate on a system somewhat parallel to the fashion schedule, but I want it to be something bigger than design. Committing yourself to the fashion system as a whole is not a way to ignite any real change. For example, Miuccia Prada, a woman I really look up to, studied political science. She's made huge waves in fashion because she's not coming from a didactic point of, "I'm making clothes and clothing is all I do." She has a well-rounded set of interests motivating her to create an extension of the world she is apart of. Even with Virgil Abloh, he studied architecture and engineering so he understands the idea of building something from the ground up - blueprint to structure.
Where would you like to go?
Well, I had always planned to go to graduate school. Before even committing to undergrad, studying fashion theory in post-grad was the goal. A few months ago I was accepted to Central Saint Martins’ MA Fashion Critical Studies program. It’s a big undertaking and a bit overwhelming. I’m just a girl from South LA, but it's very, very exciting. I love London.
What advice would you give to someone who looks up to you?
Take your time. Don't rush. I'm 26, still in school, still live at home with my parents. I, too, think to myself, "Am I ever going to move out of my parents' house?"
I wouldn't take back the experiences that I've had for anything. I would not be where I am if I hadn't dropped out a few times and really thought about where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. Don't get too caught up in whatever pressure social media creates to make you feel like you need to do more, or that you're not moving fast enough. Do things at your own pace, but always have some kind of goal. Even if it isn't your end goal, it's important to have something that you want to accomplish in a year, or two years, or five years, but remember to take your time and do those things well.