Ajabeng Designer Travis Obeng-Casper on the “AfroRomance” Collection
Contemporary, striking, simple and dynamic, Ghanaian fashion brand Ajabeng is all of the above. Creative director Travis Obeng-Casper’s label may only be three years old, but in a short amount of time it has certainly made a name for itself. Founded in 2018, Ajabeng is a self-described “Afro-minimalist” brand that prides itself on easy-to-wear staples and modern tailoring. The afro-minimalist ethos encompasses Ajabeng’s dedication to combining the vibrant styles of traditional African clothing with the DIY aspect of Accra’s streetwear scene and Art Deco-style geometry.
Ajabeng is also committed to sustainable creation by using biodegradable materials, and to fair employment practices. The brand also takes care to provide opportunities for young, up-and-coming African designers to have their voices and designs heard and seen.
Inspired by his mother’s own fashion style – eclectic and retro, as he puts it – Obeng-Casper founded Ajabeng while still studying fashion in design school. His passion for fashion stemmed from a very early age, and may very well be attributed to his early success.
The new collection from Ajabeng, “AfroRomance”, which has already found a fan in recording artist Jidenna, is now available on The Folklore. Inspired by the images and representation of young African love captured by artists Mati Diop and James Barnor, the collection offers wardrobe classics such as short-sleeved button-down shirts and “standard issue” pants as well as directional wide-legged silhouettes made from soft and functional wool-linen blend fabric.
For Ajabeng, fashion has no gender; the new collection expertly combines both masculine and feminine aesthetics to create experimental, but classically conservative designs.
The Folklore spoke with Ajabeng founder and creative director Travis Obeng-Casper about the meaning of “Afro-minimalism”, his creative process and the balance of sensuality and modesty in the new “AfroRomance” collection.
How did you get your start in the world of fashion? What inspired you to create your own label?
My mother’s eclectic fashion sense is what drew me to the world of fashion and design as a young teenager. Her sense of style bucked the fashion trends of the time and was so distinct for our part of the world that it always got a lot of attention wherever she went. I suppose growing up and seeing her experiment daily with various looks made me want to experiment with designs of my own and that ultimately became the catalyst for Ajabeng.
Where did the name Ajabeng come from? What does it mean to you?
Ajabeng a portmanteau of two words “agya (pronounced ayja), which means “father” and “obeng”, which means wise or intelligent. The words come together to simply mean “wise father” or “wise man”. My mother would call me that sometimes and with time it became a generally used nickname for me. The name connects the brand to the person who first inspired it, my mother, but also highlights that this brand is my contribution to the world of fashion.
You’ve developed your own design aesthetic that you refer to as “Afro-minimalist”. What are the qualities of Afro-minimalism and how does it show up in your designs?
Minimalist design is characterised by simplicity of form and structure. Globally minimalism has almost become synonymous with Scandinavian design just as African design has almost become synonymous with maximalism; bright colours, bold cuts and opulent detail. Yet these one-dimensional narratives couldn’t be further from the truth. Minimalism is as much a part of the African landscape and art as maximalism is. From the dunes of the Sahara to the terracotta pots of the Igbo tribe. From the lone acacia tree on the Kenyan savannah to the pink hue of Lac Rose in Senegal, minimalism is everywhere in Africa.
When we talk about Afro-minimalism at Ajabeng we’re simply referring to minimalism inspired by these African elements and as opposed to the pine wood, brushed metal and grey tones of Scandinavian design. This is captured in the silhouettes, colorways and construction of our garments.
Can you tell us about your creative process? How does a design begin?
It often starts with a story, or an object of interest; a film, a song, a textile or even a feeling. We then start to research the story or object of interest with the goal being to understand its essence and its design components. Once we’ve identified the key elements we want to bring into the collection, we then begin the process of sketching the collection. After several months of refining, sampling, sourcing and production, a collection is birthed.
What was the inspiration behind the “AfroRomance” collection?
The “AfroRomance” collection is inspired by the work of Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop and Ghanaian photographer James Barnor. The collection seeks to capture the essence and blissfulness of young African love as masterfully as Diop does in her film Atlantics and as Barnor often did for Drum Magazine. The collection’s delicate balance of sensuality and modesty is a nod to the young African women who have come to personify elegant sensuality.
Ajabeng is known for its muted, neutral colour palette but the new collection sees an introduction of solid primary colours. What was the drive behind the new direction?
We call Ajabeng an Afro-minimalist brand because its brand of minimalism is inspired by the sights and sounds of everyday Africa. Sometimes, as is the case with this collection, that means bright colours. In this case, the “AfroRomance” collection was set against the backdrop of the most popular of West African romantic settings; the seaside. It is from the rich blues of the West African Atlantic that the collection draws its colour palette. We’d say this is an evolution in the Ajabeng story as opposed to a “new direction”.
When you design, who are you creating for? Who is the Ajabeng man or woman?
I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of bringing traditionally female design elements into menswear and vice versa without necessarily blurring the gender lines. As such, Ajabeng attempts to be experimental and yet conservative at the same time. It’s less about redrawing boundaries and more about highlighting that haven’t even reached the limits of the current boundaries. The Ajabeng person, no matter their gender, wants simple yet innovative clothes to empower them in a sophisticated, practical and sensual way.
What’s next for you and Ajabeng? What direction can you see the brand moving in the future?
We’re still getting the word out about Ajabeng. Many have heard about the brand but there are still many more to go. We’re currently focused on partnerships and collaborations that can help us tell our story better to bigger audiences. From stylists to buyers, editors and showrooms the goal is get the world out. At the same time, we’re continuing to build capacity to be one of the best run fashion houses in Africa while providing platforms to nurture and increase the visibility of young Ghanaian and African creatives.