Luxurious, elegant, multi-textured glamour with impeccable architectural precision: These are the thoughts that come to mind when examining Mimi Plange’s collection. New York’s It Girl by way of Ghanian origin has been characterized by patriarchal figure Andre Leon Talley as “one to watch” and one with “great promise.”
Her private label, ready-to-wear journey began in 2010. But the path that set her on course for being one of the industry’s burgeoning elite of new designers started long before. When Plange was just a little girl with a passion for fashion, her mom, a professional model in Ghana, and her uncle, an accomplished architect, help to foster her dream.
We caught up with the rising talent to discuss her personal principles of design and what she sees ahead in her ever-so-bright future.
The Lady Loves Couture: Describe the Mimi Plange design formula…
Mimi Plange: Most of my time is spent researching. I’m always looking for images of African bodies before colonization, because I am interested in the decorated body-different forms of adornment, scarification, piercings and old rituals. I’m interested in former ideals of beauty and how they have changed over time and become predominantly western. Though I was born in Ghana, I now live in America, a huge melting pot of cultures. Growing up in America has deeply influenced my work as far as creating my own real and surreal melting pot of different cultures and tribes across the Continent of Africa and the Diaspora. There is no specific country I am particularly drawn to, I want to know about them all. I am mixing and merging different influences together, with the goal of creating modern American fashion. I’m looking for geometric patterns that can inform my seam lines and details. I do not want to replicate anything from the past, I want to make something entirely new that is very modern and in some ways forward. I am referencing beauty that is most often times overlooked. There is so much rich history and beauty from the lost civilizations of Africa, and we want to celebrate it in a subtle way that touches all women across the globe.
TLLC: What moment would you describe as the real genesis of your career?
MP: I don’t think there has been one moment I can describe, but there for sure have been a series of moments that have let me know we are on the right path. We know for sure that at the end of the day, its about our products. Our collections are what has helped us grow over the years. We have had many blessings, the first, getting the opportunity to collaborate with famed shoe designer Manolo Blahnik, then dressing Rihanna first for her birthday and second on her world tour in 2012, and probably one of the most motivating moments was when the First Lady, Michelle Obama wore Mimi Plange, such a huge honor, I still don’t quite have the words to express the huge thrill it gave us, it was such an honor-mind blowing. Over the course of 5 years we have dressed some of the world’s most amazing women and been named both Emerging and Designer of the Year International by AFI and Mercedes Benz Fashion Week South Africa. We still have a long way to go, but every day we take a step closer to our ultimate goal, of building a global lifestyle brand that engages and empowers.
TLLC: Explain the Democratization of Luxury…
MP: Luxury is no longer the token of social status.
The Democratization of luxury in my point of view means taking care of yourself, loving yourself, in order to improve your quality of your life, your personal satisfaction. It has become more of a personal experience than a social one, and it is becoming more and more available for a large amount of people. Luxury isn’t anything that any one person or institution owns or dictates to the masses. Luxury is personal, and anyone can create it, not just a select few. We can find value in new things and buy into things that we love for what they are and how they make us feel, not a logo or monogram that is needed to prove status. It’s about freedom to make the best choices that reflect who you are as an individual and not what you think you should be. Anyone can be part of the experience, but as a creator, in order to define your work as luxury it must be of the highest quality, with the best fabrics and finished by the most skilled artisans. You must be able to compete in the luxury goods market. Its not about bringing luxury down, it’s about redefining luxury on new terms.
TLLC: It’s known that your Accra heritage influences your designs. From your perspective with visionaries like yourself, Olivier Rousteing, and Reuben Reuel pulling from African origins, describe the vibrancy/influence you believe Africa’s cultural influence has on fine apparel?
MP: All design principles come from Africa. It is the birth place of modern design. It is the birth place of all design. The most beautiful creations come from nature. I would say that almost if not all designers reference nature for color, patterns, and textures. Culturally, different tribes from the West, East, South and North African countries have always looked to nature to dress and adorn themselves using leathers, body modification, various dyeing techniques, plants, flowers and meticulous embroideries. Africa has a rich history of couture. Everything was handmade, and everything is always about individuality. That is the essence of representation, how can I stand out? How can I look different. In fine apparel and high fashion designer goods, it’s all about finding a distinctive voice, something new and something inspiring. There is no better place to look than Africa. There is so much to pull from and so many things that have yet to be explored. Africa as a whole is untapped and an endless source of inspiration for all designers throughout the world. Africa today is the new and final frontier for Couture.
TLLC: Do you have a favorite design… if so what and who wore it?
MP: I do not have one favorite design, but I do have a very special love for any garment that we do our signature quilting pattern on. Though it is signature and recognizable, it varies from garment to garment, no two are ever the same. The geometric lines are based off of African Scarifications. There are so many versions of Scarifications that I find beautiful, I especially love the fine lines of those from the Benin culture. We often do it on leather, though we have also ventured out and done it on other fabrications as well, but I love the idea of it coming from skin and being done on skin. The scarified leather pieces we make are all done by hand, each line stitched individually on designs I hand draw onto the patterns. It takes a lot of patience to draw and sew each line that varies from 1/8″ to 3/8″ apart. Our pieces featuring this technique have been on display in various museums here in the US and in Hong Kong. They are definitely special.
TLLC: What is your approach to developing a new collection? How do you keep designs fresh?
MP: At this stage of our company, its about expressing our story. We try to remain consistent by layering on from the previous seasons. We take a look back at items that did well and had a great reaction and think about how to improve them and evolve them. I need to think about having a distinctive look that is recognizable all the time, and that becomes the foundation. The fun part is researching what the inspiration will be. Though, there is always this underlying idea of Scarification, I also look at clothing, other types of body adornment and sometimes even the Victorian period, because it was a defining time when Africans changed their dress dramatically adopting more western styles. I’m never bored. If you have strong inspirations, you will always have fresh new ideas. It’s also important to look at what’s going on in the world. For instance, our take on evening wear is more about separates. What is the modern woman interested in? I think she is really busy, and needs clothing that is not fussy, but makes a statement. Those things have to influence design as well. I’m always thinking, where is she going in that? That helps me edit out the noise. The clothes have to be beautiful and functional. I try to stay on top of world events, even like climate change. 2016 is supposed to be one of the hottest seasons ever, that will change my outlook on the way I design outerwear. Its about reading and being informed about history and the world around you today.
TLLC: You’ve already dressed some serious A-listers, but is there anyone left on your wish-list that you’d love to see in your designs?
MP: There are so many! I don’t even think I can name them all!
For style and individuality I love Cate Blanchett, Naomi Harris, Kerry Washington, Angelina Jolie, Zendaya, Charlize Theron, Ann Hathaway, Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Marion Cotillard, Zoe Saldana, Cameron Diaz, Salma Hayek, Taylor Swift, Madonna, Katy Perry, Adele, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Tina Turner, Janet Jackson, Rihanna (again)! The list goes on and on, and of course Marjorie Harvey and the other amazing women who are not on the screen or the red carpet but A listers in real life!
TLLC: What advice would you give an emerging designer about beginning a label and the fundamentals of fashion as a business?
MP: I highly recommend working for someone else first, especially a start up if you can unless you have a GREAT deal of capital to begin with-but even then, I still would recommend it. Learning the business of fashion is just as important as learning how to design for the women or men you want to dress. A design company involves many people in order for it to work correctly. You have to understand how to work with buyers, merchandisers, stylists, salespeople, seamstresses, showrooms, your customers, the list goes on and on. This requires learning how to do business with people, understanding different personalities and being able to navigate through them. It’s not just about design, that’s the fun part, but that is only a small portion of what you will actually be doing as a designer on a day to day basis. Have a point of view that is distinctive. There is no reason for you to exist if you are creating something that is already there. Have a story that is genuine and remain humble, the learning never stops. Learn about the industry, voids in the market and the craft of design before you do ANYTHING.
TLLC: How do you feel you have been able to create a niche for yourself in this industry?
MP: By staying focused. When you carve out a niche for yourself, you understand that what you are doing isn’t for everybody, and that’s ok. Everyone isn’t going to love what you do, and that’s ok too. But you have to be able to speak to the people who do love what you do. You have to be flexible enough to adapt to change but also be firm enough to stick to your core story. I look at it like layers. Every season, I have to build on top of the previous season. Make the story tighter and express the message clearer. You simply can’t be satisfied, I’m never satisfied with my work, which doesn’t mean I don’t like what I do, it just means I’m always striving to do more. Ultimately, people have to trust you, see your quality and be seduced by your story.
TLLC: Can you tell us about any future collaborations/projects you are working on? What’s next from Mimi Plange?
MP: We are currently working on our new collection which will debut in early 2016. Next year, we are super excited to be collaborating with the UN’s ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative with the launch of our new handbags. We will also begin production in Ethiopia and Kenya. We currently make all of our garments in New York, but it has been a dream to be able to manufacture in Africa as well. We will continue to grow our business organically and beautifully one design at a time. There is no destination for us, only evolution.