So far as feminists go -- she's an unlikely one.
Her glamorous presentation, charming manner and family anecdotes suggest Ufuoma Ekpecham is what she prizes most: being a loving wife and dedicated mother. Yet they also belie exactly what brings Ekpecham to New York City on this crisp fall day: her role as founder of Josh & Nicol, a London based label with plans for American expansion.
Ekpecham's warm embrace of her juxtaposing roles as doting housewife and shrewd brand owner echoes the uneasy alliance between fashion and feminism. That conversation once again took center stage earlier this month at Chanel's S/S 2015 collection. The show culminated in a sophisticated staged protest which saw a riot of models including Giselle Bundchen and Cara Delevingne storm the catwalk in protest of womens rights. As they marched on the catwalk, Chaka Kahn's 'I'm Every Woman' blasted as they waived placards announcing "Feminist but Feminine" and "Boys Should Get Pregnant Too." By show's end, the message seemed clear -- but for the media, it was murky. Was fashion promoting feminism, "or just using feminism to promote themselves?" asked Amanda Hess at Slate. At BBC, Susie Lau equally confused by the Karl Lagerfeld engineered spectacle pondered -- "What [does] it all mean? Was he mocking feminism or rooting for it?" Their skepticism is valid.
But so too is the legacy of fashion as a feminist manifesto -- authored by non-other than Chanel's founder. Gabrielle 'Coco' Bonheur Chanel, built her namesake business as a single woman at a time when building families was the norm for women. The steely spirit which guided her life, and subsequently her legend, is summed up in a quote commonly attributed to Chanel: "A girl should be two things: who and what she wants to be." Decades later and miles away, Ekpecham heard that message loud and clear as she began her fashion career. Ekpecham officially launched in Port Harcourt, Nigeria where she saw constant examples of women sweeping their ambitions aside to focus on family.
"I knew that path was not for me," shares the designer. "It was important for me to be able to explore myself, not just as a family woman but as a career woman."
To that end, Ekpecham pursued her undergraduate degree in Microbiology and began a working at Shell offices in Nigeria. Her growing success in that role was routinely overshadowed by her star turn in another -- as a part-time designer creating pieces for friends and family. After two years, it became clear to Ekpecham that while she was good at doing it all, she was passionate about doing just one: fashion. Her first formal foray into the field was a modest boutique which employed one tailor. Her shop immediately earned a steady clientele and rapidly expanded from a sole employee to a ten person team servicing the city's elites.
Then tragedy struck.
In three short months Ekpecham lost both her mother and father unexpectedly. She decided to move with family to London where she would be able to unpack the unexpected turn of events. The cosmopolitan city provided more than a distraction from her pain -- it became the a major inspiration for the next chapter of her journey as a fashion entrepreneur: Josh & Nicol, a line named after her two children.
"It was because of my husband," says Ekpecham, who credits her partner of nearly two decades with helping her decide to launch her label. "He said as far as I'm concerned, you're a local tailor. Go to school take it to the next level. Every step of the way, he has been very encouraging."
And with good reason. Visually, Ekpecham's contemporary line is a departure from the work done by a new wave of African designers gaining popularity beyond the continent. Feminine, classic silhouettes are crafted from rich silks and satins and topped with unexpected, playful details and color combinations. The whole of these parts constitutes a clever, modern nod to Ekpecham's proud Nigerian heritage.
"It's a powerful collection," says Arieta Mujay, Creative Director at A.C.C, a London based firm which is working with Ekpecham on her brand's strategy. "I believe strongly in its message and its connection with women from all walks of life -- from Africa and beyond"
This creative vision underscores the business mission for the brand, which is slowly putting its expansion to America in place. It tested the waters this season when it graced the catwalk at Harlem Fashion Row's S/S 2015 collection. Their show, which boasted a brilliant rainbow of sorbet colored dresses, separates and gowns, was well received by the nearly five hundred insiders who lined up to watch them close the event.
For Ufuoma her success marks yet another chapter in the growth of the brand.
"We are are already looking to return next season," says Ekpecham. "The goal is to produce our own stand alone presentation, and service our American clients by expanding our availability to U.S. boutiques," she reveals.
It's an expansive vision, which, coupled with the momentum the brand is building in London, could double the workload for the designer. If the rigours of this schedule will impede on her treasured family life, Ekpecham is not worried.
"It's not about picking," says says, "It's about having it all. And women can do that."
Her singular response answers the larger question posed by Chanel earlier this year: fashion and feminism may make strange bedfellows -- but at least they're effective ones.
Additional reporting and research completed by Juwon Ajayi.
Learn ore about Ufuoma Ekpecham & her label here.