Irene wears ‘LINDA’ Ruffle Sleeve Top & Matching Skirt, TTYA. Jewellery, Irene’s own & Grace wears Green cheetah-print dress, Alexandre Vauthier. Jewellery, Grace’s own.
Anyone with even the smallest finger on the digital media pulse will have come across the two powerhouses that are Grace Ladoja MBE and Irene Agbontaen. And if not, you should have at least come across their work. Irene Agbontaen is the founder of TTYA London (the “TTYA” standing for Taller Than Your Average), a global fashion brand which caters to women standing at 5”9 and above, is championed by the likes of Karlie Kloss, Jessie J, Elle Macpherson, Daisy Lowe and Jourdan Dunn and which debuted its latest collection at Lagos Fashion Week last year. As a “cultural curator”, her reach expands not only across the fashion industry but also music and culture; her work with afrobeats giant Wizkid to curate “Starboy” pop-ups selling Wizkid merch and creating physical spaces in London, New York and Lagos for afrobeats fans to connect and meet the artist earned a prominent feature on Vogue.com.
As the founder of Metallic Inc., Grace Ladoja MBE covers music management, brand direction, production and 360-degree services for musicians. Perhaps best known for working as UK grime artist Skepta’s manager (“my work with Skepta has all-round been amazing. He’s the best person to work with; he’s got an amazing vision… it’s really amazing and inspiring to work with him every day”), Grace is quickly becoming a key player in the fields of music, the arts and culture. And last year, her contributions to and achievements in the creative industries earned her an MBE from HRH the Prince of Wales as part of the Queen’s New Year Honours List 2018.
And if that wasn’t impressive enough, the Nigerian-British women, whose friendship began when they first met in New York early in their respective careers, have also collectively worked with the likes of Nike, Vans, Selfridges, ASOS, Converse, Pepe Jeans, Levi’s and Polydor Records, to name a few.
For both women, trailblazing doesn’t stop at the United Kingdom. Much of their work focuses on the importance of shining a light on their Nigerian heritage and on African culture in general: “I think that Africa’s always had its own voice”, Grace told us. “If you look through the ages, it’s always been iconic movements, shifts, [in terms of] music coming from Africa. I think the difference now is that the spotlight’s on it because it’s big business for the West. D’you know what I mean? *chuckles*”
“Our main thing is that we as a collective community make sure that we highlight and push the right message of the people that have actually pioneered things, the people that have done all of the groundwork”, she added. “There are so many people that have done so much work in Africa to get it to the point that it is [at]. So it’s so important that when this ‘boom’ happens, they are at the forefront of that. And that’s what we’re all responsible for, through any collaboration.”
And whilst both Grace and Irene continue to forge paths to success through shaking tables and disrupting the creative industries, perhaps the most important ingredients to their success are simple: friendship and collaboration.
For Grace, “being in an industry where you’re on the back foot essentially, you just need to get as many things that power you up as possible. So that’s why that friendship between myself and Irene is so important. That woman is a force of nature, and she does so much for me. She helps me; when I’m low, she brings me up. When I need to be told real talk, she’s there to do it. That’s a real friendship that helps me push in the business space [as well].”
“[People need to have] people around them that can just give them the real. You dint want someone around you that’s a ‘yes’ person or that’s sugar-coating [the truth]. If I’m doing something, I’m going to run it past Irene and see what she thinks… She’s coming from a different point of view that is more fashion driven. But [she’s] still an important person to cross-reference your ideas with.”
For Irene, aligning with positive people, not just the “cool set”, is crucial. “A lot of people ask us, ‘you guys seem like you’re in a clique; what advice would you give [on getting into the London scene?’ And I always say that it all starts with your own personal network and how you grow that organically. Align yourself with people that have similar goals. I call Grace crying about things all the time, but we [also] sometimes exchange words with each other where we can uplift each other, we can empower each other.”
“[Grace and I have] just been talking in the back just now about next moves and December and what each other is working with, and [asking] ‘how I can help with what she’s doing [and vice versa]?’ I feel like that’s why we’ve always aligned with each other; we have a similar skill set but [we] also have similar objectives. So in that way, no-one feels like someone’s taking more or less [out of the friendship than the other person].”
It seems that for both women, however, international brand collaborations, fashion week collections, prestigious awards and magazine features are just the tip of the iceberg. For Grace, it’s education and sharing the journey that really matters. “We’ve set a lot of blueprints and new ways of working; it’s amazing to do that but if you don’t tell people how you got there, it’s pointless. That [sharing]’s really important.”
For Irene, sharing the journey is a crucial part of her work as well, and her #TTYATALKS panel discussions aimed at young diasporans coming up in the industry are a way of doing that. “Sometimes you get caught up on things being perfect, or things being how you envisioned it to be; a lot of the time the journey is gonna come with enjoying the ride”, Irene told us. “So I would say, enjoy the ride, connect with the right people, have a good structure [around you] and know your craft.”
Photographer: Phillip Raheem
Stylist: Felicia Brown
Items pulled from Matchesfashion.com.