Meet Recho Omondi, The Designer Who Merges The Playful With The Political
An emerging fashion powerhouse speaks on the importance of staying true to who you are and why New York Fashion Week is a dead format.
Recho Omondi is true Americana. Born in Tulsa and of Kenyan parents, she moved around the Midwest during her youth before finishing high school in Champaign, Illinois. Her summers were spent traveling to Kenya — dividing time between Nairobi, Mombasa, and Kisumu. Six years ago, around 2010, she decided to settle in New York City. After completing her B.A. at Savannah College of Art and Design, the 30-year-old soon put her degree to work: cutting her teeth at fashion houses like Suno and Calvin Klein, and later launching her own line with Omondi.
Graceful and lithe, Recho is almost always in a sweatshirt and jeans, adorned with nothing more than a gleam in her eye and a smile as cheeky as the expressions sewn onto her clothing. In mid-February, The FADER sat down with her to discuss Omondi’s singular and collective black aesthetic and how it encompasses every aspect of the line’s identity.
Tell me a little bit about how and why you started the brand.
It started gradually. People ask that question a lot, but it was never a day where I was like, “Okay we’re starting this company today.” I just started over time. I was working for other brands and I was always making clothes. I always had my sewing machine. I was always making and modifying pieces for myself. I guess I started it out of boredom. Like, a space that existed in the market. I was bored. Not particularly in terms of clothing but more so with storytelling and brand narratives.
What was the first piece you made? When did you start taking it seriously?
I made a really great coat that I still wear. Been wearing it for five winters. If you’ve ever seen me in the wintertime I’m [probably] wearing [it]. That was the first thing that I made that I started taking more seriously; people would always be like, “Where did you get that coat?” “Can I buy that coat?”
Getting money was the first thing I needed to do to start taking it seriously. This sounds oversimplified, and I hate seeing shit like this in print and interviews, but essentially I just called someone and asked for it. Not [just] someone but I called like [friends]. Closed mouths don’t get fed, so I asked for money from people until I found it.
That’s funny that you say that because part of becoming an adult for me has been about becoming comfortable enough to ask people for help when I need it. Especially as a black immigrant woman, it feels like an awakening or an overcoming. It sounds oversimplified, but that money is when you realize, “I need a community or a network outside of myself to create.”
When I can’t do something I feel a bit more empowered to ask, because I really am quite self sufficient. So if I’m asking, it’s not because I haven't thought about if I can do it on my own. A lot of people see it as a weakness — and it can be if you're co-dependent. But, for me, I had gotten advice from a mentor who was very successful, and when I spoke to him he was like, “Look, ask for what you need. What do you need for this to be successful? Stop trying to nickel and dime this. There’s nothing wrong with asking for what you need.” But I had no idea what I needed. Me asking for what I needed three years ago is very different from me today asking what I need as a person and as a business. I asked for what I thought I needed when I started.
When you were ready to present it to the world at large, was it just amongst friends and you were like, “I’m ready to put this out in a certain, specific way?”
We’ve been one collection a year. With the first collection we just did a lookbook. I shot that and, honestly, I call it a lost tape because no one saw it. I never showed it to anyone. But, it was weird because it was a real collection. And what I mean is that: it was a collection of clothes and shapes I made in this studio that I just decided to shoot. What designers really used to properly do. Now, we just do it for anything. That’s why that coat has been around for so long and I still wear it. When I shot the first collection, I’d had it for over a year. It was like, “Let’s shoot all this stuff that I wear all the time.” The second one we did a show and there was so much response. Then I paused for two years to figure out what I really wanted to do. Now there’s more press happening, because I’m talking more.
Why are you talking more now?
Because there’s more to talk about. I don’t really like to talk when there’s nothing to say. I don’t like when people are out here just getting press for the sake of getting press. You use the press. I feel like I’ve been cheating and like scamming everybody because, honestly, everyone that’s interviewing me is the homie. But, it’s just funny because I know what it’s like to see things from the other side of the screen and be like, “Wow that’s so amazing. How did she do that?” I’m not having to bang on anyone’s door to come talk to me. I’m blessed in that sense.
So who are some of your best collaborators thus far in your community?
There’s so many for one. Shout out to [art director and stylist] Corey Stokes, he’s the OG! I collaborate with people I have real genuine relationships with. If I don’t, it’s not to say you don’t make great work, but I feel like my work is the best when I’m working with people I have a relationship with outside of what we’re working on. Because then the egos have fallen away and there’s a different energy that ricochets. I don’t know what that is. That could be a good thing, that could be a bad thing. But what I notice is there’s a lot of people that will hit me up, cold email. That’s fine, but I personally would never respond to a cold email like, “You shoot my lookbook!” I don’t know you.
Corey [has] styled everything we have done. Cary Fagan, who's a great friend and photographer, just shot the last lookbook. Even the model I work with every time: we have a great real relationship. I continue to work with her because she exudes everything. There’s no reason for me to look anywhere else yet. I would say the brand is autobiographical but everything, down to the people, is an extension of me.
You introduced the sweatshirts with messages like “Original Content,” then started doing custom orders, and this past month you’ve released ones that say “Niggas.” Why those words?
The sweatshirts I just stumbled upon. They started off as a joke and a rite of passage from friends who would come to the studio late when I was working, [but] I loved it so much. Part of the experience was that in order to get one you had to be here with me to receive it. I wasn’t shipping it to anyone. It was personalized because you came. But, it’s such a great product that it marketed itself. I sent it to a lot of editor friends — like, “Oh I fuck with you, here!” — and of course they started wearing it and it was rapid fire. So we just decided to make it available to the public. I didn’t want to at first, I wanted to be super snobby. Then I was like, “Nah, let’s get this money.”
But I’m just talking some black shit. It’s nothing crazy. I’m just making clothes and talking some black shit freely in the meantime. People want some grand concept but, nah, I’m just making clothes. The clothes part isn’t hard. It’s like you have a shirt on; I have a shirt on. We can make clothes. I just want to spit that black shit while I’m making clothes. That’s all I’m saying.
You said the brand is an autobiographical look at yourself. Do you find it hard to stay true to yourself, to tell the story through your experience?
No, cause that’s the whole point of self. It’s not hard to be yourself. That sounds very patronizing [for people] who are still trying to find out what that means. But once you find it, it’s not that hard. It’s the most natural thing you could ever do, you never really second guess it. It’s really fucking easy. It’s the greatest scam of all time.
I feel like we [black women] are the only ones who are willing to say black shit in everything we do because it’s our very existence. Even in the way you present the clothes in the lookbook. The skin of your model registers just as much as the clothes. The clothes shine, the model shines. You can’t not look at the whole picture and see the clothing on the person. Why did you choose to present yourself — which carries political implications — in this way?
A lot of it, I believe, is perfect timing because I’ve been on this shit. In the beginning when I started with the idea of a company, I was just going to do it like everyone else. That’s what I was thinking at the time. Even as a kid, I’ve always had a pretty strong sense of self [and] style — being able to like what you like and stand behind that. Even in school, everyone gets the same assignment but I’m thinking, “What’s gonna make it specific to me?” In starting a brand, my whole life is a project. So, I was like, “How am I gonna swag mine out the most?”
What I wanna say is so much bigger than these clothes. But, it’s also so cultural and political — it’s not even really political, but you know being black in itself is political — that I’m just lucky I can do it now. So many things opened up on the way that I didn’t even know were going to happen. [Four years ago] I said I was gonna do a brand for black girls and only some black shit and that’s all I wanted do, but I didn’t make Trump become president. I didn’t make Solange put out one of the best albums of the year about being black. I didn’t make Beyonce bring Black Panthers to the Super Bowl, or Kanye do a refugee camp at MSG, or Kendrick come out at the Grammys with the chains on. There’s other people talking about being black in the mainstream, so it made my job easier and opened gates for me. I’d always been on it, but who knows, seven years ago I might have been too soon or too much and maybe in the future it might have been too late.
Do you find it hard to stay this honest and run a business?
I don’t find it hard because I knew how this shit works. I’m not in bed with anyone that would financially get in the way of me saying what I’m saying. The problem was, in the past you had to be in order to get on. But I’m not in that situation. I’m in complete control. Also being black is the most culturally relevant thing that you could possibly ever be. Honestly. I been known that. Now, other people are realizing it. Black American culture is the biggest global export there is. When it comes to our music, our food, our dance, our slang — everything that people think is popping they get from us. So, there’s no reason to feel any type of way or dumb down and dilute anything.
I have a shirt that says “Niggas.” Who’s going to be able to tell me I can’t do that? It doesn’t matter because the majority of people that support me are people of color. Even if no one else ever fucked with me, ever, I’m still straight. Because, the buying power of people of color in this country is in the trillions. I feel good. I feel safe.
“I’m just making clothes and talking some black shit freely in the meantime. People want some grand concept but, nah, I’m just making clothes.” —Recho Omondi
You’ve stated publicly that you will not show at Fashion Week. Can you speak about why?
Because it’s a dead format. Quote that if you quote anything. You’re hustling backwards. You don’t need to do them shows. What you need to do is get these people those JPEGS, get them GIFS. Get them that PDF and stop doing these shows. Not to say, that it doesn’t work for some people. It’s just that the space has become overcrowded. If I was an old brand that had been around and built a traditional wholesale I probably would be doing shows, or at least the market appointments. I didn’t want a show because I didn’t feel like it was necessary. For me, it was not necessary and a lot more trouble than it was worth.
What was that experience like, doing that show two years ago?
It was great. I did a show with all black girls, beautiful clothing. I took pictures of it and put it on the internet. Not to minimize it, we have 15 thousand and that’s from one show two years ago. I haven’t put out another thing since then. I appreciate that but I also did something from my heart and my soul. I wanted to do a show with all black girls and I put them in beautiful clothes. I wanted to see it, so that’s why I did it. But, I didn’t know that it would really just be pictures of people seeing something they hadn’t seen before, that was really powerful. For me, I just took two years to figure out I don’t want to do the traditional format.
I never set out to be a person who makes sweatshirts. My degree was very expensive. But, it just so happened from, again, being myself that it became my tag. I could tag people. I’m not a graffiti artist, I’m a seamstress and that was my way of saying what’s up to people. It just so happened that it was a great revenue stream but I didn’t plan to do that. It’s a good way for people to care about these clothes that will be coming up.
What themes are you exploring with this new lookbook?
Working class. That’s one major theme. Underclass maybe, but I don’t know if underclass comes off enough in the lookbook, it’s a little too pretty for that.
What’s next for you?
I want to build business. Big business is a goal because [we] all know you gotta have money and legislation to do shit in this country. I’m not mad at money, but I feel I can be that way because of the way I make it. Because I’m here and speaking to my people for my people. Inspired by what I’m inspired. If I’m making money that way, I don’t feel guilty about it and I want to make more of it in that way. I don’t know what’s next. Nobody knows.
There’s such an assured sense of self and purpose that resonates in all your work. Are you ever uncertain about the way people will receive your message?
If anything makes it to the site let it be this: black men and women have faced some of the most egregious acts to have ever happened on this planet. I don’t feel any type of way or like I owe anybody shit or an apology. If you’re really paying attention and watching this movie and you really know your history, you can’t be mad at me. You can’t feel any type of way. Me making a shirt that says “Niggas” is tongue-in-cheek. Some people that don’t like it, [even] black people who don’t like it, it’s not for you. If you don’t like it don’t buy it. Don’t click. It’s Black History Month. Even if you in a Benz, you a nigga in a coupe. So, it’s like, why are y’all feeling some type of way about being black? Everyone knows you’re black. You’re not hiding it from anybody. You like Migos but you don’t like the word niggas? What are you talking about? We talking about real shit, we talking about rhymes? [laughs]
I want people to feel proud. I’m glad. No matter what it said, it’s a cute ass sweatshirt. And two, it’s funny and makes other people feel uncomfortable and that’s what I think is really great about it. I want to inspire people and I want to talk to young black women and young black men. I’m lucky fashion is one of those things people give a fuck about. They think it’s cool. I fell in love with fashion and this fantasy too. But it’s not about that.
Whatever it is, I just want it to provoke. Because, who’s to tell a black person they can’t wear it? It’d be one thing if someone else [does], but if a black person wants to wear a shirt with “Niggas” on it? I feel like it’s empowering. You should be able to walk around and say it. It’s one thing to say it, because that’s a fleeting moment. But I’m asking you to wear it. Own that shit. Wear it.