Nikki Billie Jean of All Things Ankara, the fashion director behind some of Cardi B’s African print looks
Vibrant. Complex. Versatile. These are some of the words that come to mind when one thinks of Ankara, one of Africa’s most popular fabrics. With Dutch and Indonesian roots, the fabric has come a long way from its reception in West Africa in the 1880s until invade global fashion during the last years.
Several things led to this invasion; a rebound in the textile industries in Africa, the affordability and availability of fabric, innovative designers and stylists, and social media. Social media has democratized fashion and, in that sense, has opened up a world of opportunity in a world it has made smaller. Fashion designer, stylist and founder of All things in Ankara, Nicolette Orji, better known as Nikki Billie Jean, knows a thing or two about it.
When Nicolette launched @allthingsankara on Instagram in August 2012, she had no idea it would lead her to work with one of America’s biggest stars seven years later. She only wanted to fill a gap. There weren’t enough platforms showcasing African print fashion at the time, so she created what turned out to be a multi-faceted print fashion and entertainment brand in Ankara, consisting of a online publication, shop and marketplace.
The platform has a considerable number of subscribers on Instagram; it’s no surprise that he caught the attention of American rapper Cardi B’s fashion team. In December 2019, the rapper’s team reached out to Nicolette on Instagram to get clothes for her mini west tour. African in Nigeria and Ghana. This post led to further collaborations and creative opportunities for Nicolette.
In this interview, Nicolette explains how technology is redefining fashion, her collaboration with Cardi B and everything Ankara has to do with it.
When did you first realize that you wanted to pursue a career in fashion?
During my sophomore year in college, I became vice president and event coordinator of the African Students Association (ASA) at Penn State Altoona, for the 2010-2011 school year. The Penn State Altoona ASA hosts an annual event called Taste of Africa towards the end of the school year and I had the pleasure of being the Fashion Show Coordinator. I enjoyed putting on the show and working with Ankara formal / couture print clothes.
After the show, I realized that I wanted to work more with Ankara prints. I started doing a lot of research online to find out more about Ankara’s print fashion culture. I have also been following the Ankara Print inspired pages on Tumblr to stay on top of trends.
In my last year in college, I went to my Ankara print fashion page on Tumblr and realized the page was gone. I searched for similar pages on Tumblr and Instagram but none were up to par. Once I noticed that there weren’t enough Ankara print fashion posts, I launched All Things Ankara on Instagram on August 9, 2012.
How is working in fashion different today than when you started out?
When I started working in the fashion industry 10 years ago, Ankara print was just starting to gain popularity around the world. You had to visit an online blog to keep up to date with the latest news and trends. There weren’t many print and fashion publications. Few brands sold Ankara print ready-to-wear. Only a few well-known celebrities like Beyonce, Solange and Rihanna were spotted in Ankara print outfits at the time.
Things have changed now; Ankara print fashion is widely adopted. Many celebrities wear printed Ankara outfits. Ankara print clothes are becoming a staple in many people’s closets. Ankara’s niche pages on social media platforms are a great place to stay on top of the latest trends. So many brands sell ready-to-wear Ankara print clothing to meet demand.
What is unique to the Nigerian and African fashion ecosystem that you won’t find anywhere else?
The manufacture of Ankara print clothing in Africa is inexpensive and fast. Africans tend to create more detailed Ankara print looks and cheap labor plays a big part in this. This benefits the Ankara print ecosystem around the world, as ready-to-wear brands can manufacture in Africa and sell Ankara print garments to their customers for less.
Technology is redefining businesses and industries; how is it redefining fashion?
Technology makes fashion a virtual experience. It plays a role in product launch, marketing and sales. Technology has helped create awareness around movements such as #BuyBlack and #EndSARS. Technology has forced brands to be creative in promoting their products. Social media has introduced Ankara’s print clothing brands to many people. Ankara’s print fashion industry has grown in popularity due to advancements in technology and social media.
Tell us about your collaboration with rap artist Cardi B. What did you take away from this experience?
It was a pleasure and an honor to work with Cardi B and her styling team. Jennifer Udechukwu, assistant stylist for Cardi B, contacted me on Instagram in December 2019. She sent a message to my page saying that she needed clothes for the rapper’s trip to Nigeria and Ghana. It was on such a short notice, but I made it happen. Cardi B wore an orange dress with Ankara print piping details from a designer selling in the All Things Ankara marketplace.
Almost a year later, in November 2020, Jennifer contacted me again to tell me that she needed Ankara print fabrics and accessories for a show Cardi B was doing with Facebook – “Cardi Tries Ballet” . Kollin Carter and one of his assistants, Reva Bhatt, selected fabric from the All Things Ankara store and gold earrings from the All Things Ankara marketplace. Cardi B wears the same fabric in the show I designed the Nikki Billie Jean boutique Ankaranista costume in 2017.
The main thing I took away from working with Cardi B and her styling team is that there is power in language and it’s good to have people around you who speak positively about your mark. When Cardi B started to gain popularity in 2017, my Creative Director Troy Massa kept saying I was going to work with her. Two years later, it happened.
What other celebrities have you worked with? Who is your ideal celebrity client?
As a fashion designer, I have worked with Jidenna, Yemi Alade and DJ Tunez. As a fashion stylist, I have worked with Gizelle Bryant, Nadia Buari, Spice, Izzy Odigie, Mame Adjei and Sky Landish. As a Fashion Director, I have worked with Cynthia Bailey, Ronke Raji and Kollin Carter.
My dream client would be Janelle Monáe. I would love to design for Monae because she dresses with purpose. Monae had a big influence on my style. This is the reason why I love costumes, and I only wear and work with Ankara prints. Janelle wears mostly black and white as her uniform to pay tribute to her working class family. I wear Ankara prints to honor my African culture. I haven’t seen Monáe in a lot of Ankara’s print outfits. I would like to make her an Ankara print in black and white.
What is the most valuable thing you have learned in your field that: a) you wish you had known sooner? b) would you like to pass on to budding designers?
One of the most valuable things I wish I had known sooner would be the importance of having a strong team. Like me, many entrepreneurs wear multiple hats. Having a team is essential to distribute the workload and build a strong brand.
I have learned some valuable lessons that I would like to pass on to designers: have faith, patience, consistency and be professional.
If you are going to create a product:
1. Create a product that solves a problem
2. Sell your product at an affordable price and
3. Advertise this product to influencers and niche social media pages. I applied it to the All Things Ankara face mask that I took out at the start of the pandemic in 2020, and it is my most profitable product.