Visual Arts » Fashion

Sew Inspired



When Yemisi Sanni leaves her regular 9-to-5, she doesn't go home and curl up with a good book or watch her favorite Bollywood movie. She often sits for hours in front of her sewing machine, releasing the buildup of creative thoughts that have been swirling around in her head.

Indianapolis fashion designer Yemisi Sanni wears one of her best sellers -- skirts she creates in a HiLo style. She creates all of her fashions using authentic African fabrics. - PHOTO PROVIDED BY STYLENSPIRE
  • Photo provided by Stylenspire
  • Indianapolis fashion designer Yemisi Sanni wears one of her best sellers -- skirts she creates in a HiLo style. She creates all of her fashions using authentic African fabrics.

The end result is colorful skirts, pants, dresses and tops made from traditional African fabrics. Yet, there's nothing traditional about the pieces that Sanni creates.

"The fabrics are African, there's no doubt about it. But I consider my style Afro-contemporary," says Sanni. "If you think about the traditional women and what we wear back home in Nigeria, it's completely different from what I make. The pieces I make are statement, key pieces that you can wear over and over and over again. In Nigeria, women make clothes for every special occasion. Everyone wears the same fabric. It's a culture, it's a tradition, it's an art."

Sanni has been creating her designs under the Stylenspire label for a little less than a year, but has quickly gained a following both locally and nationally thanks, in part, to her online Etsy store.

Her clothes have already been seen this year on the runways of Midwest Fashion Week (as an emerging artist), at RAW: natural born artists in Indianapolis, and the POSH Fashion Show in Chicago.

On July 18 she will unveil a new collection at the Indiana Black Expo Fashion Show Fashion Here and Now inside the Indiana Convention Center. The 10-piece collection will feature a mix of old and new, with an edge.

"I'm mixing more contemporary pieces into the African collection. It's not just narrowed down to the African fabrics," says Sanni. "There are going to be bits and pieces of surprises of European styles."

Unlike many designers, Sanni's journey into the world of fashion didn't begin at one of the top design schools in the country, as a contestant on Project Runway, or under the tutelage of a fashion designer icon.

She actually earned a degree in biology from IUPUI in Indianapolis in 2008, but fashion has always come naturally for her.

Sanni's first stab at creating her own clothes was at age 14, when she decided to re-create a black sheath dress with spaghetti straps she saw in Vogue magazine. "In my teenage years, I started complaining about wearing the same thing for every occasion."

She persuaded her mom, a fabric merchant, to give her fabric, which she cut up into pieces she needed for the dress. There was one catch: Sanni didn't know how to sew. So, she took the pieces to her mom's tailor who turned her vision into an actual garment.

Sanni will present 10 new pieces during the Indiana Black Expo Fashion Show on Saturday, July 18th, 3 - 4:30 p.m.  - COURTESY OF YEMISI SANNI

She eventually taught herself to sew and began creating her own clothing. The thought of turning her love for fashion into a full-fledged career and clothing line didn't happen until years later while visiting family in Indianapolis for Thanksgiving.

"My sister was going to a wedding and she kept saying, 'Well, you make clothes for yourself so you can make something for me,' " says Sanni, who didn't move to Indianapolis from Nigeria until 2005. "After a week, she wore me down and we bought a sewing machine."

What Sanni made was a two-piece navy blue top and skirt with a train made from African French lace and adorned with rhinestones. The outfit was a hit at the wedding, which she attended with her sister, and requests for Sanni to make clothes for others started to pour in.

"The more that I did, the more that I grew, and the more that I became aware of other women's body types," says Sanni, who had always before used herself as the prototype.

Her understanding of a woman's body is just one of the many reasons her designs resonate with women of different ages, nationalities and fashion sensibilities.

The skirts, which are her best sellers, are made to follow a woman's curves.

"The way that I cut my skirts is in the circle shape. It's more of a full-blown type ballerina skirt and it just flows and carries your body type," says Sanni. "It just cinches in the waist in a certain way.It allows the flair to go through with your curves, with your hip size, and you don't have to worry about that."

Sanni recently spoke with the podcast Chictechnista about the intersection of her STEM training and the world of fashion.

The African fabrics and prints, along with the pockets that are designed into each skirt, and the occasional bow that she includes on some skirts are other selling points.

"The bow is about femininity. I know it's a skirt, so it's already feminine, but there's something about a woman and a bow that, for me, just gives you that "ahh" effect. It just stuck after the third try, and a lot of people like the bow," she says.

For Sanni, the design concept always begins with the fabric, which she sources from a company that has been around since the 1800s -- the same one her mother also used as a fabric merchant.

"I fall in love with the fabric first, and I fall in love so many times," she says, laughing."There's a new (fabric) collection that is out that I'm already totally in love with. It's incredible."

According to Sanni, new African prints are made about every 60 to 90 days, which allows her to create one-of-a-kind pieces for her clients.

"When I purchase my fabric, I don't buy too many, because I want that (unique) niche for my clientele," she says. "So if you have a piece in a certain pattern someone else in Atlanta might have exactly the same pattern, but in a different color. I like for each piece to be unique, each piece to tell its own story and each piece to be just for that client."

There's always a little bit of a twist or a surprise to what Sanni creates, which, she says, always evokes an "ooh" or "ahh" from clients when they see their pieces for the first time. "That makes me feel really good."

Actually, it has taken Sanni awhile to get to a place where she is proud and unashamed to call herself a designer and not just a hobbyist.

She's finally at that place.

"I truly see myself as a designer," says Sanni, who wears one of her creations every day. "Personally, I guess, it's also my own walk and how I'm growing and becoming my own woman. Spiritually, for me, it's how God is shaping and molding me and using my art and my craft to tell a story about me to the people that wear my clothes."

In the end, Sanni says she is proud of what she makes and how she creates.

"The interest that I have gotten from people has just grown and has just improved my confidence," she says. "I'm beginning to understand that that every woman wants a piece of unique, and that's what I provide for them."

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