Out of Africa and on to the high street

To celebrate the V&A’s landmark Africa Fashion exhibition, Frankie Graddon meets Yvonne ‘Kemi’ Telford, whose boldly beautiful designs inspired by her Nigerian homeland have been a runaway hit.

Stephen Tayo/Courtesy of Lagos Fashion Week, Fabrice Malard/Courtesy of Imane Ayissi, Victoria Adamson

Fashion’s hottest ticket right now? Africa. This week sees the opening of the V&A’s landmark exhibition Africa Fashion, which celebrates the continent’s vibrant and eclectic looks and includes showcases by LVMH prizewinner Thebe Magugu, whose designs have been worn by the likes of Miley Cyrus.

One such designer who’s bringing the ingenuity of this fashion scene to the British high street is Yvonne Telford, the woman behind cult label Kemi Telford. Her bold wax-print clothes, which are inspired by her Nigerian upbringing, have caught the eye of John Lewis and last month saw the launch of her second collaboration with the store.

‘Kemi Telford was one of our fastest-selling new brands last spring and we can’t wait to see the response to this new collection,’ says Jo Bennett, head of buying at John Lewis.

‘My brand wasn’t planned. I’ve never had a business plan – I still don’t,’ says Telford, 48, a former credit risk analyst who since starting her label (Kemi is short for her middle name Oluwakemi) in 2017 has amassed a 75K-strong Instagram following of dedicated fans.

It’s easy to see the appeal. Her signature bold prints and bright colours offer a sartorial mood boost, something particularly needed following a greige, athleisure-filled past couple of years. ‘The pandemic taught us to enjoy our lives. Colour is a big part of that, no matter what you’re going through,’ says Telford. Pieces are feminine without feeling fussy and come in easy silhouettes.

If the why seems obvious, the how certainly isn’t. Born in Kano, Nigeria, an interest in fashion was sparked early on in Telford’s childhood by her clothes-loving community. ‘Nigerians are very into fashion – it’s a way to prove who you are as a person,’ she says.

However, her parents’ ambition for her to become a lawyer quashed any design dreams. Instead, in 1996 Telford moved to England to study law ‘with £250 in my pocket and my father’s blessing’.

During these years, she says, she all but lost her sense of style. ‘When I came to the UK, I shrank myself. I wanted to fit in so I wore black and navy.’ But becoming a parent shifted her mindset and, 20 years after leaving the riotous colours of her homeland, fashion came back into her life. ‘When I become a mother, something switched; I had to embrace myself again. So I started doing the school run in the boldest clothes.’ This led to her starting a blog in which she posted her colourful outfits and sold totes and T-shirts. The idea for her own brand came after she noticed her followers were especially interested in her bright skirts. ‘I got two designs made in an African wax print and they sold out within an hour. Then I moved on to dresses.’

Her brand’s success has been anchored by Telford’s refusal to over-extend herself. It wasn’t until 2019 that she moved the business out of her home in Carshalton Beeches, South London, into a nearby warehouse, and last October was the first time she used a professional photographer; up until then her husband and children (12 and 14) took the photos for her website. This humble approach has meant that from her initial personal investment of £50, she has grown the brand without any debts or external investors.

Kemi in one of her own designs

‘My gut instinct has always been my compass,’ she says. it’s also given her a keen idea of how women want to dress – arguably more than any formal training could. ‘I don’t have a fashion background. I’ve learnt everything through courses, books and my mistakes.’ Her unbreakable rule? If she can’t wear it, she won’t design it. This means she creates clothes for women who aren’t a sample size, a point demonstrated by Telford modelling her clothes on her website and social channels. Pieces are stocked in sizes s-xl, with xxl coming soon.

Her intuitive and inclusive designs appeal to a broad demographic. While the brand’s core age bracket is 32 to 45 years, customers range from teens to 50s: ‘I remember seeing a 20-year-old wearing a pair of my palazzo pants with a crop top.’ It’s a fanbase as committed as it is varied; devoted customers even have a Whatsapp group where purchases and styling tips are discussed. It’s this loyalty that has meant Kemi Telford’s growth is due to word of mouth; the brand only began paying for advertising in late 2020.

‘Without the community I have no business’ says Telford, who is as dedicated to her fans as they are to her. While she’s on first-name terms with her longtime customers, every time a new one buys a piece from her website, before shipping it, she phones them to check they’ve picked the right size. When a design flaw meant a dress faded in the wash, she refunded everyone and called them to explain how to ensure the colour stuck: ‘I had to in order to sleep well at night.’

Being able to sleep well is also why Telford operates her business responsibly, from plastic-free packaging to making patchwork dresses out of leftover fabric. ‘I’ve got young children so I need to think about the planet.’ She pays above minimum wages to manufacturers and gives financial support to those she can – even eschewing profit to do so. ‘Kemi Telford is about doing the right thing, it’s not about profit. helping people gives me joy.’

And us, too. from her smile-inducing clothes to her big-hearted brand, Yvonne Telford is having a great time – and she’s making sure everyone else is as well. kemitelford.com

THIS YEAR’S GO-TO SHOW

V&A’s landmark exhibition Africa Fashion celebrates the work of 45 designers from over 20 countries, and features pieces by the continent’s most iconic creatives, including Nigeria’s ‘first fashion designer’ Shade Thomas-Fahm, and its biggest contemporary talents such as Laduma Ngxokolo (above) and Imane Ayissi (below, his 2019 catwalk show). It opens on 2 July, tickets £16; vam.ac.uk