Award-winning Congolese designer Tina Lobondi on why African prints are more than just a ‘trend’.
WITH EXCEPTIONAL attention to details and her classic and chic designs, Congolese-born designer Tina Lobondi has positioned herself as one of the biggest names in African fashion.
Known for bringing together both elegance and edginess to create contemporary African-inspired women’s wear, Lobondi’s designs have been featured in top fashion and lifestyle publications including South African Marie-Claire and ELLE, Look, New African Woman, Hello!, Pride and Black Beauty.
“My collections are very eclectic. I believe this is why it attracts my clientele,” Lobondi says. “I was brought up in Africa and Europe so I guess this has a big impact on the influences in my work.”
Born in Kinshasa, Congo, Lobondi grew up in a small town in Lorraine, France where she studied fashion design realisation. After three years and with her diploma in hand, she moved to Paris and started internships at various designers’ studios.
In 2006, the businesswoman moved to London, aiming to pursue a career in her field. Another fashion design degree at the prestigious London College of Fashion helped in the pursuit of the dream and in 2010 she created her first collection, which was showcased in a show to help raise money for the Princess Diana Foundation.
Fast forward five years and Lobondi has become a regular name among the elite of African designers. Under her eponymous label, which was established in Notting Hill in 2011, Lobondi has dressed stars for the red carpet, including singer Lianne La Havas, MOBO founder Kanya King, EastEnders actress Shona McGarty and Crash star Thandie Newton.
The label has continued to expand, and last week, Lobondi celebrated five successful years on the catwalk at the Mercedes Benz African Fashion Week in Johannesburg.
Though she is proud of her achievements, Lobondi admits that her unexpected popularity and success has been quite overwhelming – so much so, that she’s decided to rebrand the Tina Lobondi label early next year.
“My goal was never to be the next [Stella] McCartney or whoever,” she says. “It was just about doing something I liked. It was a plus that I started selling abroad and dressing celebrities for the red carpet, but that was never in my initial thought as a designer.”
ROCK THE RUNWAY: A model in one of Lobondi’s designs
The fashionista, whose fabrics are often printed with African-inspired patterns, continues: “Everything in the beginning happened quite fast. And because I didn’t have an initial business plan and an idea of how I wanted things to go, it took a while for me to realise what I wanted and how I wanted to develop things.
“This is why I will be re-launching the brand. Before, I always focused on small volume and only approaching a few boutiques. But now I’ve seen the impact of what I’ve done, because when I started five years ago, you didn’t see African prints as they are now.”
In recent times, ‘tribal’ African-inspired prints have become very prominent on the catwalks of fashion houses including Michael Kors, Versace, Burberry and Roberto Cavalli, as well as in high street stores. And while Lobondi is pleased that African prints have become more ‘mainstream’ in the industry, she warns that African designers shouldn’t become complacent.
“It’s good that we are being seen more,” says Lobondi, who won a Pride of Africa award at Barcelona Fashion Week for her high-end creations and was named Designer of the Year 2015 at Women 4 Africa. “African print has been here forever – it’s nothing new. It’s just the way that we’re using them that’s changing slowly.
“I enjoyed when Burberry did it because it was a high-end brand and it was done well. But I don’t want to see it as a trend that will vanish in the next season.
“I think for us – whether H&M or whoever uses it – I think for us African designers, we need to keep our own standards. Having African prints in high street shops is not helping us at all. We should take it as a compliment, but that shouldn’t stop us thinking that we’re there just because they’re inspired by us.”
Now, with more than seven years experience in the fashion industry, the designer hopes to use her brand as a platform to help raise awareness for her birthplace, with her newly launched initiative Esimbi.
Esimbi, which means “it works” in the Lingala language, is a non-profit social enterprise, set up primarily to provide vocational training to young adults in the UK and in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in collaboration with its alliance charities, Rejeer, Educate Congo and Malaika.
“When I lived in Congo, I went to a private school and I didn’t realise how lucky I was, but I do now,” the London-based designer says, whose initiative has been picked up by high-profile ambassadors including Hollywood actress Thandie Newton.
“I know the situation that these kids are in at the moment, so if we don’t prioritise educating the future generation of the country, then we won’t have a future at all.
“If those kids stay on the streets with no opportunity of employment then this is the future of Congo. That’s why education is now so important to me and to my work.”
Written by Rykesha Hudson