I'm from the Midwest. I say “the Midwest” as a general region because we moved around a lot. I was born in Oklahoma, and then I lived in Kansas, Michigan, Illinois, and Georgia. So at the end of the day, it's just easier to say that I'm from the Midwest because every other year I was somewhere new. By the time I was one, I had already moved three times. I just got used to it. You have to become very agile.
It didn't really get difficult until I was 16. That was the first time that I put up a fight about it because I had just made my friends and found my groove, and then we had to leave again in the middle of my sophomore year. I was like, “If you do this, I will be on Intervention.” That was in Illinois. Both my parents are from Kenya. I spent almost every summer of my life there. I'm pretty grateful for that. There are a lot of African-Americans—well, first generation African-Americans—I know who have never been back because their parents are immigrants. I'm just lucky that I have contact with my family there. I'm still not great at the language, but I do understand it if someone is talking to me. I can do what they’re telling me to do.
I grew up in small towns where fashion wasn't really something that was celebrated.
I was originally pre-med in college. I was just on autopilot and wasn't really thinking. My dad is a doctor, and I spent a lot of time in hospitals growing up, so they weren't a scary space. We used to hang out in the cafeteria. He was also really big on academics, so not getting good grades wasn’t really an option, especially compared to a lot of my American friends. I just did what I thought I should do. It never occurred to me to be passionate about something.
I’d always been interested in fashion, but I grew up in small towns where fashion wasn't really something that was celebrated. It was always considered kind of superficial and dense. I was a smart girl, and I liked music and fashion and dance, but those were things I did extracurricularly. That’s another reason why moving so frequently didn't really bother me: all of the things I did “outside of school” were truly outside of school. They never had anything to do with sports or peers. If I moved to a new town, I would just find a new piano teacher.
One night in college, I was supposed to be studying for a chemistry test, and instead I was procrastinating by reading a magazine cover to cover. My friend said to me, "Why don't you study fashion?" I was like, "What are you talking about?" Then I got on the computer and started researching it, and that was the beginning. I lied and told my dad I was hanging out with my friends for spring break, and instead, I left and visited schools. I came back, and I made a PowerPoint about the school that I chose: Savannah College of Art and Design. I knew that if I was going to approach him about leaving school, I would have to have a full-on plan. This is the same man who made me write a three-page paper about why I needed a new bike when I was nine.
But I sold him on it. He came up with the terms because he is very much a terms guy, which were that he would pay for school and a portion of my rent, but anything else had to be all my own cash. That was a huge blessing. It's probably the greatest gift he ever gave me because I don't have any debt.
I always knew I wanted to start my own company, but I assumed it would take a decade.
I guess I'm always open about that because I think a lot of people don't really explain how they got somewhere. A lot of people are still like, "Oh, I just made it happen." I graduated from a great school with no debt. That's a huge, huge, huge leg up. But I didn't get another dime the minute I walked that stage. He was like, “You're good.” I didn't have any money saved because I was just naïve and stupid and in college. And that's how I arrived in New York.
I definitely thought I was going to work way longer than I did in the industry. I always knew I wanted to start my own company, but I assumed it would take a decade—that I’d do it once I was really seasoned and everyone knew who I was. And then I realized that the industry was just so, so competitive and full of nepotism. I was going to be waiting in line forever if my goal was to become the creative director of whatever brand. I was like, I'm going to be 45 by the time I get my dream job, and I just don't have time for that.
I'm a huge fan of training people how to treat you.
I decided I’d rather be broke for the first 10 to 20 years of my adult life and try to hit it big later than be super secure the minute I got out of school. I wanted to focus on the idea of starting my own company, so I started nannying because it paid more than any design job I was being offered. I didn't even go out the first three years I lived in New York; I was so focused on getting everything set up. I was also insecure, I guess. I would always think, if I go out and people ask me what I do, I can’t say I'm a designer. I’m clearly not that because, if I were, I wouldn’t be out. You know what I mean? I told myself, when I do actually go out, people are going to know who I am because I have been working.
Omondi started out very autobiographical. I wanted to tell a different story than what I was seeing elsewhere in the industry—the story of a girl who looks like me. Then I did our first show, in February of 2015, I cast all Black women. There was no grand idea there. I had done a lookbook before that, and then I was like, “It's time to do a show because people aren't taking me seriously.” It was a beautiful show, and I got a lot of attention and respect from it, but after we did it, I thought “I'm never doing that again.” Publications started asking to pull clothes, and editors and stylists were asking why they weren’t invited, because I didn't even invite anyone from the press! So I looked at the one-plus-one-equals-two of it all and thought, If most of the people asking me about the show weren’t even in attendance, then why did I do it in the first place? And that’s how I arrived at three rules that I’ve since set for myself: no shows, no lending clothing, no wholesale. I very, very, very rarely lend clothes. For anybody. For anything. I'm a huge fan of training people how to treat you. If I gave everything away for free, then everyone assumes that they should get it for free.
For the first three years, I never said a word. I would just put out really good visuals. But that was actually doing me a disservice because people thought Omondi was way bigger than it was. It was because of that frustration that I was like, “Let me just explain to people how the fuck this is actually working, because it is so not what you think it is.” That’s why I developed the podcast. People need to understand that the fashion industry is privatized. There are so many people who have, say, a mysterious loan from their family members, and then they publicly pitch the story, like, “I was just selling clothes in my bedroom one day and now here we are!” What? How did you get from your bedroom to here? There are so many stories like that, and I didn't want to be one of them.
I don't bring anybody on my podcast who I don't think is going to keep it real. I also try to do a really good job of making sure they understand the nature of it: it’s not a press thing, it's a community thing. We have 24,000 followers on Instagram. This is not going to be broadcast to the world. It's a very niche group of people that are paying attention. And because word-of-mouth marketing is far more loyal and engaging, the people that are listening are really tuned in.
I don't really remember a time before Chanel—it's always been a staple in the fashion landscape. But Chanel doesn't really have a community of people who all believe in the same thing. That, to me, is so much more powerful. That’s why I'm doing the podcast: it allows me to engage with people on a semi-regular basis without them getting used to seeing my face, and without me wasting money on shows. Eventually, I hope Omondi gets to a point where it's not about me, and it just lives on its own.
The only way I can really feel good about getting behind any of these new weed brands is if there is some solid effort made to combat the social justice side of things.
I use weed in the same way I use makeup: I use it every day, but how I use it varies. If I don't need that much that day, I don't really use that much. And if I'm feeling super indulgent, I’ll smoke all day. It’s weird, because sometimes if I'm feeling anxious, I won't smoke because I know it’ll make it worse, but sometimes I will, because I know it’ll help. But only I know the difference between the two.
I feel very conflicted about cannabis because I know that it's a growing industry, but I also know a lot of people are sent to prison on these minor misdemeanor weed charges, so I feel guilty about indulging in it in a super hipster new-wave way. I don't really know how to resolve the two. The only way I can really feel good about getting behind any of these new weed brands is if there is some solid effort made to combat the social justice side of things. Because they are one and the same. It's very much how I feel about being a Black person: by nature, it's political, so if I’m talking about it, I have to include the whole scope of what that means. I don’t necessarily always lead with that, but I can't be negligent about it.
That's why I still buy from who I buy from. It’s my own little way of balancing out the Bed-Stuy economy. It’s a multibillion-dollar industry, and there's a lot that could happen with it, but I just—I don't know. I have a lot of friends whose whole lives were wrecked. At 16, we were all doing the same stuff. Getting in trouble for something that everyone is now celebrating in fashion magazines—that's bullshit. That's bullshit.
I read this quote from Ozwald Boateng a while ago. I believe he said that in order for there to be a revolution, there has to be a group of people saying the same thing at the same time. When I think about the fashion industry and how privatized, bourgeois, aristocratic, exclusive, and elitist it's been, my mission now is to champion the underdog. I think people genuinely want to see someone like me get to the top—someone who really shouldn't be here. So these days, I think much more about what it means to be a founder creating a vision than I do about what it means to be a designer.
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