Spotlight: Toyosi Shusi, Fashion Designer
Toyosi Shusi chose to study chemical engineering, but her passion for fashion led her to take classes in apparel and fashion design, ultimately winning the Bernina Fashion Fund and a highlight in British Vogue. Her clothes all use traditional African fabrics that she sources from Africa and Holland, as a nod to her Nigerian heritage.
Tell us about your journey to become a fashion designer. How and when did you learn to sew? When did you discover your passion for fashion?
I’d always been a crafty hands-on kid growing up. I loved the arts and crafts time during summer camp, making plastic lanyards in middle school, and I even used to make and sell friendship bracelets in high school. I was always making something or taking something apart and turning it into something new.
This is actually one of the biggest reasons why I sought out a degree in engineering. I loved math and science and I wanted to be able to apply it to practical applications. At the same time I was falling in love with math and science, I was also religiously watching every season of America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway. When I was young I used to watch Project Runway with my mom and she would always tell me that I could do that, but I always dismissed it as something I couldn’t do.
When it came time to apply for college and pick a major, I choose to major in chemical engineering because I also had an interest in textile science and I knew that having a background in chemical engineering would align most closely with my interest in that field. I really looked up to Iris Van Herpen at that time because she effortlessly blends engineering and fashion and I think that there needs to be more collaboration between engineering and fashion.
My sophomore year of college I decided to not only take chemical engineering courses but I also started looking into UT’s textile and apparel department. I spoke to the advisors there and they were really encouraging about my interests in engineering and fashion.
Before I started taking classes, I wanted to learn how to sew so I could have a better appreciation and understanding of the more creative rather than technical side of fashion. For Christmas I asked my parents for a machine. But I didn’t have anyone to teach me how to use it, and I was really intimidated about starting. So I didn’t learn how to use my machine until the summer of 2015. That summer I started to teach myself how to sew by watching YouTube videos (some of my favorite sewing YouTubers were Rian Phin, Coolirpa, With Wendy, Anika Williams, and KenAndrewDaily) and taking a class at Joann’s.
When I returned to school I took my machine with me and I started taking the textile science courses within the Textiles and Apparel department. I also started doing research with the textiles department with a graduate student who was improving the flame retardancy of nylon fabric. Those studies aligned with my interests in textile engineering. At the same time I also found myself sewing clothes for myself in my free time because it gave me a creative outlet to balance my heavy analytical engineering course load. I continued sewing because it became a form of self-care.
In my senior year in 2017 I decided to take a fashion design course with the textiles department, Apparel 1. This was the first time I actually designed something on my own. Previously, I was just following YouTube tutorials and ready made patterns. From that moment I embraced fashion design fully and ran with this newfound passion while bringing my unique engineering viewpoint to the industry.
Dress I made for my graduation pictures. Taken in the UT Engineering building
Tell us more about how you source your fabrics. Do all of your fashions use African fabrics?
I source all of my fabric from different countries in Africa. When I first started sewing I would use my mother’s leftover fabrics from the bespoke outfits she would have made for her in Nigeria. Now I work with a supplier that sources their fabric from Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, the Gambia, and Holland. (It’s not very well known that the Netherlands is a significant manufacturer of African textiles).
It’s important to me to use African fabrics and textiles in all of my designs in order to maintain and highlight that aspect of my cultural identity, as a third culture kid born in Nigeria but raised in America.
What is your creative process like? How does an idea in your head get to a finished garment or accessory in your fashion line?
I get inspiration from everything and anything, but mainly life experiences. My first collection, Genesis, was inspired by the first sin by Adam and Eve and how their sin led to the realization that they were naked and thus led to the creation of fashion. (Genesis 3:7 – And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves loincloths.)
My second collection, Hometown Glory, was inspired by my time back home in Houston living through Hurricane Harvey. I was inspired by the resiliency of Houstonians after the storm and the way that the city was able to bounce back. My experiences visiting Houston’s art scene such as Smither Park, The Houston Center for Photography and the various art museums also inspired me.
Hometown Glory Collection
The Brooklyn Bridge inspired the piece I designed for the Fashion X Road Trip show in Downtown Austin earlier this month. When designing this piece, I was first drawn to the African Ankara print I used because it reminded me of how the Brooklyn Bridge looks at night.
From the red lights of the passing cars to the geometric lines in the print mimicking the bridge’s cables. While at a surface level a bridge is seen as something very industrial, with my chemical engineering background I also saw the bridge in terms of the natural elements that make up metal such as copper, iron, aluminum, etc. So I sought to juxtapose the industrial Ankara print with a wood grain textile. The pattern placement variation on the shirt was meant to replicate the New York skyline and the open back replicated the arches in the Brooklyn Bridge.
Fashion X Road Trip Outfit
How do you stay organized when working with multiple design ideas and processes?
I write everything down. And I write it down multiple times and in multiple places from a physical notebook to the Notes app on the phone so that I always have access to my ideas, deadlines, and schedule.
What is your typical day like?
I have a full-time job where I work as a technology consultant. So on weekdays I usually work 8-5 at the office. Or work from home since I am able to do my job virtually. Usually during my lunch breaks I will go to the post office to ship orders, answer emails for my clothing line, take calls with suppliers, or I will pop by my local manufacturers for fittings or to look at samples that they are creating for me.
Once I’m done with work, I transition into full-time designer mode. Currently that has meant designing and sewing my next collection. That process includes sketching, pattern making, draping, cutting and sewing. Then I go to bed and repeat the process all over again. The weekends are when I can fully dedicate myself to fashion. So I use my weekends to go fabric shopping or do a photoshoot.
What is your favorite tip for organizing your stash of creative supplies?
Filing cabinets. Yes, sewing involves a lot of fabric. But it also requires a lot of paperwork in the form of patterns, blocks, etc. I like using filing cabinets to help me organize my patterns. They are also great for storing fabric and supplies. It’s always nice to be able to close a door/drawer on all the chaos.
What does your studio look like? Where does the magic happen?
My current studio is in the “dining room” of my current apartment. During my apartment search I knew I needed a space that could serve as my living, working and creative space. When I first found my apartment I fell in love with the floor to ceiling mirrors in the dining space. I knew instantly that I was going to convert it into my sewing studio.
I have all my sewing machines on a desk that is on a wall facing a large window. It overlooks a beautiful tree in front of my building. On the adjacent wall is a clothing rack and my dress form. Current outfits I’m working on for my collection are there. Opposite that wall are the floor length mirrors. They fill the entire wall where I currently have sketches, model lineups for my upcoming shows, post-it notes and important deadlines taped to the mirrors. Below that I have rows of filing cabinets filled with fabric, patterns, and sewing supplies.
How has your style changed as you’ve grown your line?
I think my style has matured as I have grown up and been more exposed to different types of people. I’m sort of in the limbo space transitioning from college to adulting. I think my brand’s style reflects that. When I first started, my clothing was very youthful. Now it’s more sophisticated – but still fun. Now I aim to make clothes that anyone would want to wear from a freshman in college to a middle-aged woman navigating corporate America.
Which of your creative accomplishments gave you the most satisfaction, and why?
Winning the Bernina Fashion Fund showcase during Austin Fashion week and being a featured designer in British Vogue. Both of these accomplishments made me realize that I’m actually good at this fashion thing. I’m doing the right thing. It really helped me acknowledge that I can actually do this and be successful, even though I took an unconventional approach to entering the fashion industry.
Bernina Fashion Fund Win
Who or what are your main influences and inspirations?
Some of my fashion inspirations are Iris Van Herpen, Jeremy Scott, Virgil Abloh and other young black fashion entrepreneurs such as Teni Adeola from Slashed by Tia, Taofeek Abijako from Head of State, and Briana Shanee from Matte Brand.
My non-fashion inspirations are my mom, Rihanna, Issa Rae, Jackie Aina and Oprah. Plus so many more strong black women who have paved the way. I am able to accomplish everything that I have so far because of them.
Which current trends are you following?
Menswear. I’ve been obsessed with menswear for the past year and a half. I find myself following more menswear designers, fashion bloggers, and trends as of late. I’m more excited for men’s fashion week than women’s. I think that has a lot to do with where fashion is headed with genderless and gender neutral clothing. I tend to think that womenswear is more creative, but menswear is more innovative. And I think that in this day and age innovation is where fashion needs to be more focused.
What’s next for you?
I will be showing my third collection in October during Fashion X Houston and Fashion X Dallas. And hopefully you’ll see me at NYFW one day.