Interview with Sudanese model Digol Deng.
Claret Onukogu is a 24 year old woman from Owerri, Imo State, Nigeria who was born as the first child out of six children to Ray and Kathryn Onukogu. Some of the adjectives used to describe her include enthusiastic, spiritual, charismatic, intelligent, humble, ambitious, independent, goal-oriented, friendly, graceful, optimistic, outspoken, hard-working, open-minded, courageous, and multicultural. She spent her early childhood in Nigeria where she completed her nursery, primary and part of her secondary education.
Her dream started at an early age, 13 exactly. With the inspiration from her mother, Joelle K. Allen left the Congo in pursuit of her education in Europe. But her journey as a fashion designer bloomed when she moved to New York after getting married to former NFL player Ian Allen. Joelle then founded IJO. Design: Inspiration by Joelle, with the dot at the end of the logo representing a beauty mark. Indeed, IJO. is a true beauty mark in the fashion world.
What makes Joelle’s works stand out is more than just the magnificent collections she produces; it’s the fact that she is able to satisfy the desires of the numerous irritated women out there that are having trouble finding shirts that can fit them properly and stay "à la mode." On top of that, she provides a customer service beyond measures for the price paid. Definitely, IJO Design is not just another fine clothing line, it’s a revolution. It’s a revolution that deserves to be talked about.
In this exclusive ADUNAGOW Magazine interview, Joelle K. Allen talks about her journey to success, her life, and much more. If you thought her clothing line is the only best thing she has accomplished, then you don’t know Joelle. Her products are outstanding, but she is amazing.
Joelle: I was 22 years old when I got married. He was a player for the New York Giants for the NFL. When we met, I was in fashion school in the UK and he always knew that this is what I have always wanted to do. So, after we got engaged, I had to leave the UK and move to New York. This was a great opportunity that any young designer would love to have, especially with New York being one of the biggest fashion depots of the world.
AM: So, once in NY, how did you start?
Joelle: At first we didn’t have a clue on how to start in NY, let alone the fashion industry. So we turned to one of my husband’s teammates Michael Strahan, and he had a lot of recommendations as far as who to see in order to move in the right direction in the fashion industry. He was kind enough to give us his support, which in turn allowed us to meet some great people.
AM: Anyone in particular?
Joelle: One in particular is an outstanding designer, Dana Smith (CEO of Finn Creations) that was a blessing for us. He spent countless hours mentoring us about fashion and entrepreneurial things. He basically gave us a Master’s Degree on business…that is how much we spoke. I also met other instrumental people, a gentleman by the name of Portus Raymond a former designer for the Gap and Banana Republic.
AM: Was this what you dream for when growing up?
Joelle: Well my mother always said that she has seen something in me at a very early age. She was always trying to keep me out of messing the house up by cutting bunch of small papers and giving them shapes and drawing hair face and dressing them. But there is something that I remember loving to do as a child: I would cut small peaces of her fabric (She is a designer as well, so she always had fabric and patterns at home), and I would fill them with a bunch of cottons and saw them with a needle to give them girls shape. I would then use some hair extensions and saw them in their heads. After that, I would create different little outfits for them to wear; these were my dolls. I still remember the joy I felt making them. Back then, in my country kids toys were pretty expensive. I had toys, but not as many as I would have loved to have. So this was truly a satisfaction for me.
AM: So, that’s when your love of designing started?
Joelle: Yes. I actually realized that I had a great passion for it and that what I wanted to do. At age 13, I remember there was this girl in my class that used to draw amazing girl figures with cool clothes, shoes, and hair style. I remember saying to myself: "I really want to be able to draw like this." I remember my first drawing. Everybody in my class, my brothers, and sisters laughed at it. But, that pushed me really hard to draw more and before the end of that year, I was proud of my drawing and everybody loved what I was showing them. And that is then that I decided to do some type of art. It was either going in Academy of Art or the fashion school. But the idea of me being able to draw clothes that I can actually wear was very exciting for me.
AM: So, which one did you pick?
My parents decided to send me in the same fashion school as the one my mom attended: ISAM (Institut superieur des arts et métiers). It is a High school and fashion college for girls only; the biggest fashion school in Congo and one of the biggest in central Africa. After High school, I pursued my education in a UK Fashion school, where I got even better at drawing, making sketches and designing collections.
AM: So, you were born in Congo (former Zaire), and at what age did you leave Africa?
Joelle: I left Africa for the first time when I was nineteen years old. That’s when I went to pursue my education in The UK, which was a great experience for me. I really love and enjoy traveling. Living in the UK actually gave me the opportunity to visit other part of Europe like Paris (where I got engaged), Belgium, The Netherlands and Others. I really loved Europe, and I enjoy it every time I go back.
AM: Who are your role models in the fashion design world?
Joelle: My mom. She is a very creative and hard working designer. She design clothes for very important personalities in Congo and has dressed numerous politician wives and ministers in Africa, as well as great regular women. I watched her tailoring to them. I used to dream to do the same and she has never given up on pursuing her dream. It wasn’t easy for her to get to that point, but she is a strong woman and an amazing person. She still amazes me until these days.
Also, Alphadi he is a wonderful African designer. The fact that he gives back to the community by giving other young designers a chance to expose their works along side with his great collections gives me a big level of respect for him.
AM: Tell us about your first project as a designer.
Joelle: I remember my first biggest project as a young designer. I was about 18 years old and I was working along with a great stylist from the Congo: Bibiche Nzolatima. We were invited to expose our work at Alphadi’s "La caravane d’Alphadi" show collection. We were very excited and I remember the first day checking into our hotel; we couldn’t wait to meet him. We got in the elevator and stopped in one level. A group of people got in and Alphadi was one of them. We wanted autographs and everything. He was just one of the most down to earth people and was actually happy to see us being so excited about being part of his work.
AM: So, how did you do?
Joelle: Our collection was presented in front of Congo Brazzaville’s president and his wife and other great politicians were there. That raised my confidence as a young designer just coming out of High school. It made me feel like "anything is possible. I can achieve my dream and I can do anything." I will always stay grateful to him for that amazing experience.
AM: What’s a typical day for you?
Joelle: Well, I have three jobs that I do not take lightly: I am a wife, a mom, and an Entrepreneur. Lots of my regular days are spent in what I do: Fashion designs. I often have new designs in my mind that I put in sketches. I always try to stay creative, either by the clothes I wear or getting updated on what’s going on in the fashion industry.
AM: Do you travel a lot?
Joelle: Yes, I do a lot of traveling between NY City and Montreal as I have a team set in both cities for my fabric, photo shoot, and sample etc… work. Also my husband and I spend a lot of quality time with our two year old daughter teaching her the best things that we can. I actually teach her French.
AM: So, you speak French?
It is my first language. I would like for my daughter to be able to communicate with my side of the family back home. But, she speaks both English and French.
AM: It looks like you do get quality time with your family.
Joelle: I am very grateful to be able to spend a lot time with my husband especially. We are both business owners, but we still manage to do quite a lot together. I don’t take that for granted.
AM: When you’re not working, what are your favorite things to do?
Joelle: Traveling. I travel a lot with my little family. My daughter is fortunate she has been in more country than I was at age 19. But, as a child and growing up, I always traveled a lot with my parents. We made a lot of "Safari trips" in Africa, which just means a trip in Swahili.
Other than traveling, I also love News, especially Politics, whether it’s American or African. I love watching TV5 for the French. I grew up in a house where at 8 p.m, everybody would sit in front of the TV and watch the news. So I still do it, I guess by habit. Plus, it keeps you cultivated.
AM: Currently, where is home?
Joelle: Right now, home is New York. I totally love NY and I really enjoy living there.
AM: Tell us a little about your family.
Joelle: I have a lovely husband. He really is what I’ve always wished for. He is very supportive at everything that I do, very loving and caring. He is also an inspiration to me, a strong personality and very funny. He’s also very successful at what he does.
AM: What is his profession?
Joelle: He recently retired from football (NFL) and he is focusing on his entrepreneurship. He is dealing with a numbers of hotel chains, having his music album "Nova53 Record." He is also involved with NFL media and does analysis for Sky Sport NFL only football game in London and he has recently became owner of a football team in England.
AM: And you do have a daughter as you said earlier on?
Joelle: Yes. We have a 2 year old daughter. She is very energetic and alert. I am fortunate to still have both my mom and dad, and they have been together for 33 year now and still together.
I have one brother in Canada, one sister who lives in England and 2 sisters and one brother who lives and study in South Africa. So all together, we are 6 kids all over the world (laughs). It’s good because I get to visit each one in different parts of the world.
AM: Tell us, how can someone get into the Clothing Design business? How do you become designer?
Joelle: First of all, you have to be passionate about it. I meet so many people in the fashion industry that are in there just for the money and the glamour. They become what I call "fashion groupies." They should not just go for what other designers are doing out there. I strongly believe that there is something special and particular in every single one of us that others may not have. And that is what the focus should be on. I encourage every one that is interested on becoming a fashion designer to get a type of education about it. I will never trade my education for anything in the world. It taught me so much patience and skills. I used to be very clumsy, and that changed a lot when I attended fashion school. Perseverance is a must. Always finish what you start. You can not sale a piece of clothe half made, can you? (laughs)
AM: I guess not.
Joelle: Get as many information as u can about it and never stop getting informed. I don’t know how many times I walked down New York fashion district trying to get specific information and still didn’t get an answer at the end of the day. So, determination and perseverance will get you the answer. Last but not least, never give up your vision. Complete your vision. You are the only one who knows what your vision is.
AM: Do you have a special market target?
Joelle: Many women that come to see me are so frustrating trying to get a nice shirt that fits properly to buy, at the same time they don’t want to look like everybody else. They love classic, not boring, but fun at the same time. They also want a shirt that they can wear next year around this time and will not feel like they’re out of style. I make sure that when a woman finally finds IJO and buy a shirt, she becomes part of this dream we offer her: an IJO membership at her first purchase.
AM: Can you elaborate more on this?
Joelle: Let’s say she is taking a trip in London; she can stop by in one of our IJO sponsor lounge and restaurant and have a free glass of wine as a thank you for your business. That’s how IJO shows appreciation to its customers. I don’t know how many times I have purchased a $280 shirt and didn’t hear anything back from the seller a year after I bought it. That is kind of my inspiration behind this. IJO is a new revolution. We are not just selling clothing; you become part of IJO culture. It is a realization of a dream.
AM: Tell us more about your design: where can we purchase your clothing line?
Joelle: it is currently available in Chicago. It will soon be available to buy now online on my website at www.ijo.ca . We also have different events where we present the collection and people get to touch and feel it for themselves. They also get to meet me and get my fashion prospective.
AM: How and where do you get your inspiration from?
Joelle: There are lots of things that inspire me, from Congolese and African fashion. We have amazing details, especially on the fit. The Congolese woman wears a lot of what we call in Lingala "Mabaya" . It is very curvy and shows what women are proud to show, and men appreciate looking at it (laughs). As you can see, my shirts are very detailed and curved. In Congo, we also have a lot of unbelievable gorgeous embroidery and fabrics that truly are an inspiration to me. I would love to use them for my future collections. Also, designers like Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Michael Kors, Alphadi, and Ungaro are the fabulous designers that I have always loved to watch. We actually had to learn about some of their works back in school, and reading their stories and biographies, seeing how they began and that they also had to go through the same struggle that I had. It wasn’t always easy but they made it. That is truly an inspiration to me.
AM: How do you promote yourself?
Joelle: Right now, I have people working for me on the aspect of advertisement. I also like to do some on my own, because I love learning new things. I am fortunate to have some good friends that also help promote my products. For example, Noella Coursaris, the model portrayed on the photos, is beautiful from the inside and out. She has been very supportive of what I do.
AM: Tell us about your upcoming collection. Also where can we preview your past and present collection?
Joelle: My new collection is called the "chocolate factory." The theme of each clothe is based on different flavors of chocolate. It is a really an amazing collection, which really gives you bubbles. It will soon be sold on my official website at www.ijo.ca
AM: Let’s talk about Africa. In your opinion, what’s the number one issue to deal with in Africa?
AM: What’s your take (solution) on it?
Joelle: We need more leaders that are ready to serve their population in a very unselfish way and who are willing to fight through to rebuild what we have lost, maintain the positive things we have and build what we need to have in order to give everyone a chance to live a safe and decent life.
AM: About Africa: what will you keep?
Joelle: Its natural beauty, the great variety of food, the strong culture of respect of others, the warmness, welcoming and Kindness to all man kinds.
AM: What will you change?
AM: What’s the best food you always crave for when you visit Africa?
Joelle: Well, it is too hard for me to live without my Congolese food. So I always find a way to get it. Also, I love to cook it; that is what I eat almost every day. I introduced it to my husband and it looks like he loves it more than me sometimes (laughs). But there are a lot of fishes that I miss from Congo. We have a big variety of fishes there and the best part is how we cook it. I really miss that. Also, there are some great fruits and type of foods that I can’t even name in English that I can only get in Congo; and I miss all that.
AM: What do you see in the future for Africa?
Joelle: Africa is already a very natural beautiful continent. I mean, you can not even explain the natural beauty of it; you have to see it for yourself to believe it. You can actually walk in some parts of Africa where its beauty makes you think "this is heaven."
I see a great number of brilliant, intelligent, wise and talented people in there. So, I see all of us putting our pride, selfishness, division and fight against each others aside and being more united. First, we have to start being happy and supportive of each other at a very small level. We can not all make big differences, but the small difference that me makes for the better can really make Africa a better and brighter place to be.
AM: Tell us, what is the craziest thing you ever done?
Joelle: Getting a tattoo on my back. It’s crazy because of the pain. I don’t think I will be having more tattoos. And to think this is just a very small tattoo that says love in Chinese. Now when I walk around and see these people with giant tattoos on their back, I wonder how did they do that?!? The pain was greater than I ever expected (laughs)
AM: Other than the Fashion Design world, what other projects are you involved in at the present?
Joelle: I was involved in a project for prevention of domestic violence in NY. I did this because I think it is a subject that is not discussed enough about. In my country, a lot of it is "taboo." But yet, a lot of people are suffering from that. This is something that I would love to change at least at the best of my ability.
AM: How do you stay in touch with Africa (Congo)?
Joelle: I have been quite around. I can list some: Congo Brazzaville, Ndola in Zambi, Harare, bulawayo, Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe), cape town, Johannesburg SA, Edinburgh and Glasgow Scotland, almost all England, Paris, Brussels and Anvers Belgium, Netherlands, Montreal Canada... I have been in about 16 states in the U.S.A. so far. Favorite place of course Cape Town, South Africa: it is a breathtaking place and that is why I decided to get married there. Paris, France: I love almost everything about it; the food, the City, and I get to speak French too.
AM: How can someone contact you for more information about IJO Design?
AM: Any words of wisdom for all our aspiring fashion designers out there?
Joelle: Do not follow the crowd. Follow your heart.
AM: Any last words?
Joelle: It was a wonderful interview. It allowed me to go back in the past and pull out some great memories of my journey and to appreciate every aspect of them. I do not take anything for granted. For all my readers from all walk of lives, I just want to say if you have a dream- it doesn’t matter how big or small - if they told you, you can’t make it…You have a dream, it’s already a start. Now you have got to Start, It doesn’t matter where or how you start it, just make sure you finish what you have started. Do not just dream but complete your dream.
Thank you Joelle for your time. We wish you success in all your endeavors and we will keep you in our radar.
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