It’s a good thing that Ugochi Iwuaba took that random message in her Instagram inbox, seriously. It led to the realization of a dream — seeing one of her dresses among the most celebrated fashion designs, at one of the hottest events in fashion, the Met Gala.
Iwuaba, CEO and fashion designer of her eponymous brand, was approached by the stylist for Nina Parker, a host for E! Entertainment Television, about dressing the television personality for the event. Parker, who released her own size-inclusive clothing line with Macy’s earlier this year, was specifically interested in wearing something created by a Black designer who could create something that fit with the theme of the Met Gala earlier this month, which was celebrating the ingenuity of American style. Iwuaba created a gold, floor-length gown with intricate beading and mirror-work embroidery, a deep V neckline and a matching gold cape (photos can be found on Parker’s Instagram account, @mzgossipgirl).
“I didn’t want to believe it too much at first, so that I wouldn’t wake up and find out (the opportunity) was not real. Then, I started fussing about everything that could go wrong. It only dawned on me that this actually happened when she shouted me out on E!, as her designer. I cried and screamed,” she says. “The Met Gala is the biggest fashion event on the international fashion calendar. Very few designers get to have their clothes worn to this exclusive event, so it’s a big deal, and I am grateful God allowed me to be one of the very few.”
Iwuaba, 37, lives in National City with her husband, Cyprian Iwuaba Jr., and her three children. Her Ugochi Iwuaba line debuted in 2017 at San Diego Fashion Fest. She’s gone on to have her work showcased at fashion week events in London, New York, and Orange County, along with partnerships with brands that include Aston Martin. She opened her flagship store in Mission Valley in 2020. She also mentors and volunteers with young creatives in the San Diego Community College District. Iwuaba took some time to talk about her experience dressing a celebrity for something as highly visible as the Met Gala, the differences she sees in San Diego style versus the kind of style she grew up with in Nigeria, and adjusting to being in a bit more of the spotlight.
Q: So, this year’s Met Gala. First, congratulations on having one of your designs selected and worn at such a notable fashion event. What was your experience working with Nina Parker?
A: Amazing! She is a great person and very respectful. She didn’t have any pompous air about her, and I honestly felt like I had been designing pieces for her long before now. She specifically wanted to showcase an upcoming Black designer, and she did just that. She made sure I got all of the recognition and made sure I received every picture from the event. She didn’t really have to do that, but she did. She used her platform to shine a light on another minority talent, and to me, that’s everything.
Q: What was your goal in dressing her for this occasion? And how did your gown fit in with the gala’s theme this year, in paying tribute to the ingenuity of American style?
A: She is a queen. She symbolizes the beacon of hope that is America, a land where an immigrant like me can live a dream. I wanted her to shine like Lady Liberty, and she did. It doesn’t get more American than the Statue of Liberty. Shining and regal, Nina Parker’s look symbolized the hope that every minority in America holds in their heart: the ability to live freely and prosper in this land.
What I love about National City…
It’s very close to my in-laws. We all live within a five-minute drive from each other, and my in-laws have lived in Encanto for almost 30 years.
Q: What is your own perception of American style? How would you describe it, especially having grown up in Nigeria?
A: American style is very, very diverse. Coming from Nigeria, where our fashion flair is mostly influenced by our local culture and the infusion of British style, American fashion is super diverse. It’s influenced by so many cultures, a depth of history, and the diverse topography. I mean, we don’t even all live in the same time zone in America.
Q: Aside from your own, whose look was your favorite from this year’s gala?
A: It would be Iman, dressed in Harris Reed’s design. Not only is that design exceptional, but Iman’s story also tells the story of dreams coming true.
Q: Had it been a goal of yours, to have your work worn by someone attending the Met Gala?
A: I don’t know what serious designer doesn’t dream of their designs gracing the red carpet at the Met Gala. I did have that dream, but, quite frankly, I wasn’t expecting it to happen and this quickly.
Q: Let’s back up for a bit and talk about how you got your start. Your website says that you’re originally from Nigeria? And that you have degrees in history, international relations and real estate?
A: Yes, I am from Nigeria, born in Onitsha, and grew up in Lagos city. I have a bachelor’s in history and international relations from the Obafemi Awolowo University, where I graduated in 2009. I have been a licensed real estate agent in California, and I have about 10 certifications in business and real estate.
Q: How did you go from these fields of study to pursuing a career in fashion design? What did that path look like for you?
A: Fashion has always been the only career path I wanted, since I saw a brochure from FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising) as a 9-year-old girl in Nigeria. I’m still not sure how I got my hands on that brochure, however, no one in my family took fashion seriously as a viable career path; my mom wanted me to become a doctor or a lawyer. I was only able to even imagine following my dreams after I came to America 10 years ago. After I got here, everyone told me I needed to get a job before I thought of a career. That’s how the diversion into real estate came about. I only went into fashion full time after I got fired from my job, and I was fired because I got pregnant almost immediately after coming back from a maternity leave. After that, I was also told that my baby would have Down syndrome. He also had some heart issues, and this meant that going back to a regular job might not be an option for me. These were the darkest days of my life; fashion saved me, though. I threw myself into building my new fashion business, and here we are.
Q: What inspires you in your fashion design work?
A: The royalty lurking deep inside each of us.
Q: If you could raid anyone’s closet, who would it be and why?
A: Coco Chanel. I know it’s very cliché, but I honestly love how she could take the simplest things (like costume jewelry) and make luxurious. I also loved how much fun she had with sporting fabrics and concepts, to create fashionable pieces.
Q: How would you describe the San Diego fashion scene?
A: Hmm, honestly? Laid back. We are the most beautiful beach city, after all. So quite “beachy,” but I am changing that! I host two shows every year, and I see women stepping up the fashion game at these events. I would like to say that I am doing something to encourage that.
Q: How does San Diego fashion and style compare to that of Nigerian fashion and style?
A: Oh my gosh, they are at two very far ends of the spectrum. Nigerian fashion is flashy, colorful, creative, and bold, where San Diego fashion is comfortable, not colorful, and perfect for enjoying the sun.
Q: You opened your flagship store last year; what’s next for you?
A: I would love to get into stores like Neiman Marcus and select luxury boutiques around the country.
Q: What’s been challenging about your work in this field?
A: Networking and meeting the right people in the industry to push my brand further.
Q: What’s been rewarding about this work?
A: The ability to be my best self and live my dreams. This is a blessing, as not a lot of people get to live their dream.
Q: What has this work taught you about yourself?
A: That I am more than I give myself credit for.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: Everything happens in God’s time, so worry less and do your best.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: Lol, I actually do not like being in the spotlight. I think that’s why I loved making clothes, it was just me and a piece of fabric. I guess that has changed a lot now!
Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: At my in-laws’ home, with my big family, eating a lot of Nigerian food and watching Nigerian movies. I look forward to Sunday evenings.