On an all-new edition of The Cover, we caught up with our Amazonian sister, Irene Agbontaen; a Nigerian-London based fashion designer, whose label, TALLER THAN YOUR AVERAGE-TTYA has taken the world by storm.
One of the few female fashion brands focused on catering to the needs of long-legged ladies everywhere, TTYA has been featured in multiple internationally-acclaimed magazines like, Elle, Oprah magazine, i-D, Vogue, just to name a few.
No stranger to the industry, a former fashion stylist and now the founder and CEO of her own flagship fashion house, Irene Agbontaen stands at a sultry, neck hurting, five foot eleven inches, so she understands first hand, the frustrations all tall women face, when shopping for clothes.
Set out to change the scope of fashion for women of all sizes, for well over five years, Irene continues to push the boundaries, believing all women deserve to feel style conscious, not self-conscious.
While her clothes continue to caress the shelves of luxury shops like, Selfridges, Barneys New York and ASOS, with a stellar catalog of clientele, including, Karlie Kloss, Jessie J, Wendy Williams and Elle Macpherson, TTYA big boss lady Irene Agbontaen, comes home to talk to us about her journey so far, and what she has been up to.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO THE INDUSTRY?
“From the beginning, my brand was born out of necessity. I myself, I stand at five foot eleven, and I just grew frustrated with the lack of wardrobe essentials that were available to tall women in the market.
So because I have worked in fashion, and travelled a lot, I just wanted some basics that I could fold up, throw in my suitcase and go.
So I just started the brand with six to seven basic staples; from your basic leggings, to staple tee’s, your long sleeve maxi dress, just all the essentials that you need, that any woman would need as a foundation to her wardrobe.
And it kinda grew from there really. I thought, if I can’t find anything, then there must be women like me that can’t find anything, and it just exploded from there.
My first stock was at Selfridges in London, and my second stock was with Barney’s in New York, and then my third stock was with ASOS, and I still stick with ASOS till today.”
HOW DID YOU GET TO THE INDUSTRY BEFORE YOU DECIDED TO START TTYA?
“Prior to TTYA, I worked as a fashion stylist, and it was working with the models that was the brainchild, because on set, everything can be photoshopped. They always Photoshop the jeans longer or the sleeves longer, and that is kinda what gave me the idea originally, because I thought, these models are as tall as me, and we don’t even have basic essentials.
So, if they don’t have it, and I don’t have it, then, I might as well just make it. So that’s kinda how it all started.”
APART FROM FASHION, WHAT ELSE DO YOU DO?
“Well I’m kind of a cultural innovator. I work with a lot of mainstream brands, from Nike, to Beats by Dre, I kind of just connect the world of culture with business.
I’ve done everything from Wizkid’s merch, his pop-up shop, to Tiwa Savage’s merch and pop-up shop as well, to album launches, to working with artists, because I feel like being a creative isn’t just one-dimensional. At the moment, there is a massive merge of music, fashion, art and culture, so I try to always incorporate that into my lifestyle and brand.”
APART FROM TIWA SAVAGE AND WIZKID, WHO ELSE HAVE YOU WORKED WITH?
“Erykah Badu, Chance the Rapper, Francis and the Lights, Halle Berry, Nas, just to name a few…”
THERE’S A HUGE WAVE AROUND BEING BLACK RIGHT NOW, DO YOU THINK IT’S ALL A FAD, OR IS IT HERE TO STAY?
“I definitely think it’s here to stay, I think, currently black culture is popular culture. And I think it always has been, but we haven’t been at the forefront of it.
I think it’s really important that we’re forcing change, and I think that the words, “diversity” and “inclusivity”, have become buzzwords, and I always say this, that for a brand or business to be truly diverse, it needs to start inside the business, and not just using coloured models, or more black artists to promote their brands.
The conversation really needs to start internally, and I feel like we are at a good place where we are the hand that is gonna force that change. I’m really excited about it, to be honest.”
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE FASHION INDUSTRY IN LONDON AND THAT OF LAGOS?
“To be honest, I feel like they mirror each other, quite a lot. I feel like the fashion industry in London is very similar to that of Lagos- they are both very bright, very bold, very strong- and I feel like that is something a lot of people have been using as “inspiration” for a long time. To be honest, I feel like Lagos is the roots to the culture, and the roots to the industry, and that it is then highlighted and placed on a platform elsewhere.”
TELL US ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE AT LFDW
“It was my first time showing in Lagos, I was super excited, but it was hard work if I’m going to be honest. It was really, really tough, but the best thing about it, was that it pushed me to my limit, and showed me that I had an amazing team that was here with me, I met so many amazing women. I re-casted my show in two days, and what that gave me, was a real connection with all the girls, and it was so exciting- we did the recasting in my hotel room.
The whole experience was incredible, from the dyers in Surulere, to recasting and connecting with all the models, shooting my campaign here- we shot it in a bus station actually, all of that, I was a bit naïve actually, I thought we could just come and it would be quite straight forward, but it wasn’t. But you know, that was all part of the journey that made the experience so special. It was amazing.”
HOW OFTEN DO YOU COME TO LAGOS?
“I’m usually not in Lagos more than four or five times a year. It’s April now and this is my third trip to Lagos, and it is always a nice, touching, base point to come and reconnect with my family and friends and to be inspired.
On this trip we came with Nike, and I had the privilege to use the traditional tie-dye method on a football jersey, which was awesome. So, I love coming back to Lagos all the time, because it keeps me grounded (to my roots), and keeps the struggle and inspiration real.”
WHAT DO YOU HAVE COMING UP?
“Well, my collection that I showed at Lagos Fashion Week actually launches in June, exclusively on ASOS.com, so that’s the next big thing that I’ve got coming up for the brand.”
WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE FOOD?
“I love jollof rice with beef stew and plantain, and gizzard, it’s my favourite. With a chapman and Hennessy to wash it down.”
WHAT IS YOUR MUST-HAVE FASHION ITEM?
“A black, slinky, midi dress. It can be dressed up, it can be dressed down, and it literally rolls into the size of my fist, so it is the best thing to travel with.”
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE ON CULTURAL APPROPRIATION & ITS INFLUENCE ON CULTURE?
“I think at the moment; Africa is in the spotlight for music. I’ve always said that music is like, the wheels of the bus, and now everyone is getting on board; fashion, art, but music has always been the driving force, and I just feel like we have to be really careful that we collaborate with each other, we push each other, and that we work together.
I feel like when things are highlighted and in the spotlight, that allows real leverage for outsiders to come in, and I feel it is very important for it to stay organic and true to who we are as Nigerians.
As Nigerians, we are powerful. I always say, Nigeria is like the source. They can’t take away the source from us, and even though structurally and systematically, things don’t always work the way we need them to work, the source is always going to be here.”
IF YOU HAD THE CHANCE, WHAT WOULD YOU CHANGE ABOUT THE WORLD?
“Poverty in Africa. I think literally, we have been raped. They have taken everything from here, but sometimes we sell ourselves. So I think for us to be able to enjoy our riches and worth, we need to understand that, it starts with us first. The only way the world will respect us, is if we respect ourselves first.”
WHAT IS YOUR MESSAGE TO ANYONE HOPING TO BE LIKE YOU SOME DAY?
“I would say keep it authentic, make sure you are working with the right people that can do the job; especially local people, there is no need for so much outsourcing, there are so many people here on the ground that can do the job. Know your purpose, think about what your purpose is, and make sure that everything you do feeds into that purpose. Work hard and be persistent. Consistency is key. If you work hard and be consistent with it, it will work for you as long as you know you purpose.
My name is Irene, and this is my Cover.”
Watch Full interview session below.
Creative Directing and Styling: Tokyo James
Photography: Kelvin Oladiran