by Nevena Rousseva
Neodandi is a brand that wants to make fashion healthy. The Seattle-based, but soon to be New York based label is about creating fashion for the individual that will bringing health and well-being to them. The inspiration for the brand is the spirit of humanity. Their tagline is “your inner vision is your outer exhibition.”
I met Niilartey De Osu, the Ghana born designer behind Neodandi and Mani, the director of operations, Niilartey’s muse and “other brain” at a tea shop in Chelsea to learn more about the line. Walking in they stood out as individuals, carrying a strong presence. Originally a Neoillusionist painter, Niilartey started designing for a small boutique in 2004 when the owner who knew him as a painter asked him to do a collection.
The name Neodandi stands for perpetually birthing elegance. Niilartey describes the first part ‘neo’ as “perpetual motion” and ‘dandi’ comes from for the dandy style movement in the late 18th and early 19th century that birthed the tuxedo. To illustrate the importance of dressing well to the dandies, he tells me of a letter George Washington wrote to his nephew during the American War advising him what to wear. “These people knew the power of clothing, the power of presentation” marvels Niilartey.
He has a different approach to clothing. His focus is on the individual rather than the fashion. For him “it’s the individual that determines the fashion.” He thinks about how a piece of clothing he creates can serve the individual wearing it. “For me it’s all about health. [The clothing] has to be able to somehow psychologically improve the persons outlook.” By better health Niilartey is talking about mental as well as physical health. “If you are thinking the right thoughts you think about taking care of your body. It automatically becomes part of your activity. If you create to serve the person you are creating it for, the object starts to generate life of its own, without that design has no meaning.”
Niilartey does a lot of custom design for individual clients. The client will give him a general idea of what they want and the design idea comes to Niilartey by looking at the client. “When you walk into the space I’m feeling your energy what kind of person you are. Then I start talking to you, I usually don’t have anything in mind, I try not to anyway. If I do I always know I’m going to discard it right away.” He doesn’t formulate the idea, nor does he show the client any sketches. Instead he makes the clothing directly on the client. “I drape it on them and I start cutting. The whole time I’m asking questions- how does it feel?, do you like this?, how is the fabric?…I don’t let you look at the mirror so you don’t know what I’m doing. You’re just feeling it in the process….it’s very akin to medicine.”
And the results? “Almost 100% the person loves it”
This is his way of work. He doesn’t sketch because “sketching predetermines outcome, which means that I’m imposing onto the design, and the design I believe has its own realm, own timing, and a good designer is someone who is aware of the timing…and the timing really determines the cut and the direction …and by following these nuances a design comes out that first you didn’t set out to do, that is completely surprising to you and the one who is wearing it, and you get to experience it with the person who is wearing it, and I’m saying wow as the person is saying wow. Usually the person will do a spin or a dance.”
The time it takes him to create a piece of clothing varies. It could take several days if the piece is elaborate or it could take several hours. He tells me of a project he did with a photographer friend of his who photographed him working from the moment he grabbed the fabric and started draping on a model to the actual creation of the garment. It took three hours.
Niilartey has no enthusiasm for the way clothing is made today. Designers today he says “are not thinking of a specific individual they are thinking of a blank cutout person that everyone will go and fit themselves into. But each person is not alike and yet we pretend everyone is alike and we make clothes for everyone to be alike.” But with Neodandi he says “you have a few pieces that you just switch around because they are all you every time you put it on your body it fits every curve on your body it goes into every part, the design is cut on you so when you put it on your body there’s alway a memory attached, what you felt like when it was first made, so you are always re-living that memory.”
He is not keen about traditional runway shows either saying “runway has been done so many times that people are dead to it now, it’s become standard, and yet nobody ever walks through life walking down a runway, nobody.” To him a fashion show is what we have been doing for the past 20 minutes, sitting around a table talking. This more normal situation is where “all of a sudden you see life happening just like you see it all the time you see how the pieces are worn in a situation, you see that the piece is moved and enjoyed around the body.” Mani adds another good point “you also see how fashionable life really is and it brings your attention to the beauty that we do experience at all times in our way and we can all see it as opposed to abstracting it thinking that beauty is there for models walking back and forth on the runway.”
This turns the conversation to the larger issue of the mostly unhealthy modeling industry. Niilartey says”When I look at models they look dead, they look like they are not eating, they have no energy to give to anything, you wanna see them having fun. They are wearing amazing clothes and they are like [he makes a face to portray the misery he sees on models’ faces on the runway].” He continues “seriously, you are putting 15 year olds that are so skinny into amazing garments and you are expecting them to convey adult ideas to adults, and you are expecting adults, who are not these 15 year olds, to buy this idea, and yet adults are doing it.”
So who does Niilartey want to see on the runway? “We want the person who is going to be wearing the clothes show you the clothes. If it’s you that’s going to be wearing them we want you on the runway so that people can see you and they can see themselves in you.” For the most recent Neodandi show he used real women who danced rather than walked the runway. The opening model was Mariya Hristo, who Niilartey describes as “short but powerful, really powerful woman, her walk is incredible and she is so into it” You won’t see skinny models at a Neodandi show. They want models that portray health. He continues talking about Mariya saying “she is very well fit and the idea for that is healthy model, this is our idea of a beauty, this is our idea of a person.” And the models aren’t supposed to be models. They are performers. “Mariya as a singular performer, we are creating models that are performers, They are performing modeling, they are not modeling.” The concept of health is very important to their presentation “we look for these types of women because that’s what we want to put out. That’s the kind of image we want to represent, the healthy image, a healthy person, because the world needs that, we need that.”
He believes designers are ultimately responsible for the kind of images they feed society and that most designers are “irresponsible in that they are feeding the public this stuff, and they are expecting the public to consume it and yet the public does not represent any of this stuff that is shown to them and the public should just boycott the whole thing, they should do it because it’s disrespectful and degrading.”
His hope for the fashion industry is that more designer will start to portray healthy images of women so that the industry can transform into “a very healthy industry where people running marathons are champions and people who are challenging themselves to do more are stepping up and showing what they can do.”
Designing is not about money for Niilartey. It’s about the emotional connections we create to clothing. To him “that emotion money can’t buy, and that’s all we are. That emotion is what you are creating for…If it’s just making clothes to make money, there’s many things I can go make money at, many different things. This business is a hard business and if I’m going to make clothes it has to be more than just making money I have to serve.”
Mani tells me a final story about a client to illustrate the healing power of Neodandi. This woman wandered into the Neodandi store and soon became a regular customers. Over time she shared that she had been diagnosed with a disease that caused her large amounts of pain. As the client became more acquainted with Niilartey and Mani she would say “I’m coming to you because I feel better when I wear Neodandi I’m coming to you because I feel like I’m getting health into my body when I put Neodandi on.” Mani says there have been other instances of clients proclaiming health benefits from interacting with Neodandi.
So what can we expect from Neodandi as it transitions from Seattle to New York? For one thing everything in the store will be for sale including furniture and artwork. “The way we see the brand is as a total service to the individual.” In terms of clothing, the store will be a mix of small collections and seasonal pieces. “I observe design as a musical composition, you are always composing, you are always going. In the store you will see a seasonal change happen and the items in the store will be changing daily.” And of course the custom design component, will be kept. In fact Niilartey says custom will be done the most because “a lot of our customers, we’ve become friends with them. Once we have this kind of intimacy they are connected to you.”
Stay tuned for the store opening!
For more on Neodandi click here.