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The Saweetie-approved designer behind the sell-out dress of the summer

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Fisayo Longe’s KAI Collective is the indie label behind the Insta-famous ‘Gaia’ mesh maxi

Despite the many problems the global pandemic has brought upon the fashion industry, plenty of small, independent businesses have gone on to thrive in 2020. With furloughs and lay-offs allowing many to turn their attention to their creativity, countless designers have gone on to turn their hobbies into genuine sources of income, building up cult followings within a matter of months. 

Among those riding a wave of success is Fisayo Longe. Founding KAI Collective while simultaneously studying for an anthropology degree at UCL, Longe is behind the now-infamous ‘Gaia’ dress that you might have seen infiltrate social media across the summer. A long-sleeved mesh maxi-dress with a distinctive blue, purple, orange, and white design, the style propelled the designer into the limelight and spawned countless knock-offs, after it was worn by the likes of Adwoa Aboah and Saweetie, and included in Beyoncé’s directory of Black-owned businesses. Not bad for a brand that Longe admits was previously struggling. 

“I want women to never accept limitations or stereotypes from anybody – to realise how powerful they are” – Fisayo Longe

Given its name, it seems it was probably always destined for success. The word ‘KAI’  is not only an exclamation of shock in the Nigerian vernacular, but also means ‘victory’ in Mandarin, ‘ocean’ in Hawaiian, and ‘strong’ or ‘unbreakable’ in Burmese – fluid and adaptable yet strong and unmovable, all words that Fisayo uses to describe her brand. The terms extend to the community she has built up through social media: with uplifting and empowering women at the centre of her label, KAI is as much about resilience, power, and individuality as it is about pretty dresses. 

“I want women to know that they alone, as individuals, are enough,” she explains. “I want women to never accept limitations or stereotypes from anybody – to realise how powerful they are.” Women are truly at the centre of her world, she adds, with her mum giving her a loan to get her business off the ground, her surface pattern designer providing her with the sellout design that propelled her to fame, and her influencer friends who bought her pieces a big part of the reason she’s been able to grow the community she has. Here, we get to know Longe a little better, as she talks us through how KAI came to be, how she’s found creating in lockdown, and where she’s going next. 

Hey Fisayo! First of all, can you tell me a bit about how you became interested in fashion? 

Fisayo Longe: I have always loved fashion! I watched a lot of American music videos growing up – on my 11th birthday, my outfit had a denim choker, I wore rhinestones as eye make-up, and my hair was styled in a flicked out bob with a fringe – very 90s rapper vibes. Tumblr, however, was my real introduction into the world of fashion blogging. I discovered the OG bloggers like Bryan Boy and Susie Lau, and I was hooked! 

How did KAI itself come to be? 

Fisayo Longe: In January 2012, I started a fashion and travel blog called ‘Mirror Me’ and made it a point to shop for fabric from all the places I had visited to make clothes with. When I started posting these outfits first on my blog, then on Instagram, I noticed a really high demand – I would get countless messages asking where my clothes were from. I always saw my blog as a vehicle, rather than a destination, that would in time help me to build a wider platform and influence to build something bigger – which turned out to be KAI Collective. 

What was it like building a brand from scratch?

Fisayo Longe: So I’ve actually had no formal fashion training, but I’ve come to understand the power of researching and asking questions. I’ve had to sort of make it up as I go along – and not be afraid to ask questions of people who do know (what they’re doing). For example, my sister does my sketching for me because I’m no good. 

Where do you look for inspiration? 

Fisayo Longe: I draw inspiration from so many sources – from podcasts such as NPR’s How I Built This with Guy Raz and The Tim Ferris Show, to women in fashion such as Sarah Blakely (founder of Spanx). After reading Sophia Amuruso’s (founder of Nasty Gal) book I was inspired to set up KAI the way that I did.  Fioye Lanilan, the founder of Virgo’s Lounge has given me so much advice from the very beginning and been a really important mentor!

What is KAI about, and what is your vision for it?

Fisayo Longe: In short, it’s about attainable and sustainable clothing with luxury aesthetics made to help women feel their most confident selves. Although the unique pieces draw people to KAI initially, I think the larger draw is the community that has built itself within and around the brand. 

I always put women first, especially Black women, from my own experiences of the world, and have tried to cultivate KAI as a brand that helps women of all shapes, sizes, abilities and colours feel good. This community includes women who might already be empowered and confident but more importantly, those that are trying to be. The KAI community of women plays such an integral part not only in the outward direction and ethos of the brand but also in the technical process – for example the name ‘Gaia’, which I chose for the famous dress was suggested by a member on Instagram. 

Long-term, although social media has been so instrumental in building the KAI community, I would like some physical pop-ups, maybe in the US as that’s where most of our orders come from. I would love to run some events that allow the KAI Community to connect. 

How has lockdown affected your creativity?

Fisayo Longe: As I haven’t been able to travel to go fabric shopping, I’ve had to find a lot more inspiration within myself and my own ideas by looking inwards and connecting with myself, seeking inspiration from my feelings more than external stimuli. It’s been a great challenge and allowed me to tap into a new realm of my creativity. Most significantly, I have had to make quick decisions and trust my gut more than ever – which has been scary but I have grown so much and have a lot more respect for my creativity. 

You’ve been vocal about the #EndSars movement in Nigeria, and you’ve made it clear that social justice is important to you. How are you using KAI as a platform to create change? 

Fisayo Longe: During the summer, I set up an initiative through KAI that aimed to address the issue of sexual and gender-based violence in Nigeria. I see this violence as part of the wider structure of education, health, employment and all these other areas, being structured in a way that discriminates against women. So we did a #GaiaAtHome challenge with Gaia – which is of course, our most popular dress – where customers took a photo in the dress, with us donating £5 for every post split between two charities that tackle the violence on the ground – The Mirabel Centre and the S.T.E.R Initiative.  

My Nigerian heritage influences everything I do, it runs through the fabric of my whole being. The Irun print for example, Irun means hair in Yoruba, and the most prominent feature of the print is multicoloured afro combs, which speaks to my own relationship with natural hair growing up in Nigeria. Hair has such vivid memories, whether they’re fond, of mothers and grandmothers doing it for you on a Sunday evening before school, or painful, of being roughly tugged at a salon and told that your hair is ‘too tough’.

How did you come up with the design of the ‘Gaia’ dress that propelled your brand to worldwide fame?

Fisayo Longe: I knew I wanted some unique prints to differentiate the brand, but wasn’t sure what, so spoke to Adebusola Adetona of Grape Pattern Bank in Nigeria, and after some back and forth with a moodboard I gave her, she gave me this amazing print that I instantly knew would be perfect on mesh. 

Funnily enough, she told me that the fluidity of the design was inspired by my voice, she thought that the print looked like what my voice sounded like. There would be no Gaia without Adebusola so she deserves all the credit!

How did it feel seeing Saweetie in Gaia and being mentioned in Beyonce’s directory of Black-owned businesses? 

Fisayo Longe: Honestly, it was amazing – Beyoncé is life! Her stylist Zerina Akers had DM’ed me on Instagram so I kind of expected something to happen. Funnily enough, when we were in the first batch of businesses to be posted, but the link on KAI’s took you to the Telfar website. I panicked a bit but it all ended up getting fixed and I couldn’t be more excited. My ultimate dream is to see Beyoncé in a custom-made Gaia. Her commitment to excellence, her elegance and talent… I love her and I feel like if you channel the spirit of Beyoncé in everything you do, everything will be okay.

The Saweetie one was a complete surprise – and I have to thank a photographer named Tayo who is my friend’s cousin for that one. We’ve always talked about him shooting KAI so when he went to LA, I sent him some clothes. I vividly remember him telling me he was going to try and shoot with Saweetie and had messaged her team but they weren’t replying. I thanked him for trying and thought it was nice of him but honestly didn’t think anything would come of it. On the day he was supposed to leave, they got back to him and the rest is history! Both instances really taught me the importance of reaching out irrespective of the fear of rejection. The way Tayo just put himself out there and shot his shot really inspired me.

@kaicollective