'I wanted to make that excluded girl feel included.'
By Lauren Rae Jun 5, 2017
'I felt there was a girl like me, who was always excluded and I wanted to make that excluded girl feel included,' says London-based stylist Irene Agbontaen.
Bored of the difficulties that came with finding clothes for women her height (she's 5'11"), she decided to create a line of her own that could fill in the gaps in her wardrobe. Called TTYA (Taller Than Your Average), the line addresses all your tall girl woes and screams, 'I'm tall and I'm fashion.'
'It's about being style conscious, not self conscious,' Agbontaen explained. And her ethos is taking off; ASOS, Selfridges and Barneys New York all stock the line, which includes Jourdan Dunn and Iman Hammam among its fans.
This month, she expands her line with a new 'I Do' collection, which focuses on occasion wear. So, what better time to catch up with the woman behind the brand than right now. She opens up to ELLE about her views on body and ethnic diversity in the fashion industry and how her little startup became a global hit.
Tell us a bit about your design background?
TTYA: I just got really frustrated with the current availability on the market for tall women. At the time I travelled a lot and I found it so annoying to just get the basics, so I made my own; maxi dresses, maxi skirts, leggings, all of the basic wardrobe staples I couldn't find. I didn't have any design background at the time, but I've done a couple of courses since and I'm still heavily influenced in the design process.
You were quite the big in the London nightlife scene - how has that helped you in your new career?
I used to work predominantly at a night called YOYO [You're Only Young Once] at the Notting Hill Arts Club. It was a night that broke through a lot of artists before they got signed and then it would turn into a party. It was a massive cultural impact on London because we broke everyone from Jessie J to Tinie Tempah. It was fashion, art, music and was just a really cool underground subculture. I was the door girl at the time, so everyone had to get through me to get in. I met a lot of influential people organically, who became good friends of mine.
You started in an e-commerce and styling background, could you tell us a little about that and your transition into design?
I used to work at ASOS and Selfridges. You know when you go for a job and they mention that the company has 'ideals', Selfridges ideal was 'every woman should be able to come to our store, that's our thing' and I'd say 'well I'm tall and I can't shop here' so your ideals don't really work for me. So it was like, well, there must a market for this kind of girl because I'm surrounded by tall girls all the time and I know things don't fit them. In real life we can't Photoshop jeans to fit us, so that's the premise of the transition.
What struggles have you faced when building the TTYA line up from the ground up?
At the start, I knew how to make things look good because of styling and working at ASOS. No one really tells you the most important thing is how you make yourself visible. I can make it all shiny and amazing and it can be the best brand on the planet, but if no one knows that it exists, it's pointless. For me the biggest learning curve was how to self promote. I took loads of classes on SEO and Digital Marketing to make sure everything was brand aligned.
Okay, so, who is your key demographic?
The go to label for all girls who want to feel inclusive. That's it!
What were the #TallGirlProblems you faced before curating the TTYA line?
Sleeve swingers were a no no!
Very few brands cater to taller women, do you feel that TTYA fills a gap in the market?
My brand is made by a tall woman, so I know first-hand your frustration. You're not coming to a boardroom of men talking about tall fashion. If you want to relate to tall girls, you've got to talk to girls like me and I think that's what my brand does. I'm tall, I'm one of you and I've started this brand so we no longer have to feel excluded.
The fashion world is far more accepting of different sizes in recent times, but do you think the industry still needs greater diversity?
I feel like it's moved on quite a lot, at one point 'Curve' was probably one of the biggest market shares. You only have to look at what Beth Ditto did for Evans. When you've had a customer that feels so neglected and left out for so long, once you cater to them they will keep coming back, because there's a place for them to go. It's like you're giving them a home to keep coming back to. I'm happy that it's gotten so much better now.
You're currently being sold on ASOS, in Selfridges and Barneys New York - where's your dream place to be stocked?
I'd like to have my own stand alone store one day, perhaps a concept store where I can do TTYA Talks and make it more of a home base. For me, it's about reaching as many girls around the world as possible. A place where people can connect, chill and have a cup of tea. More of a community base, that'd be my dream.
Your brand ethos stretches further than just the clothing - it sets out to encourage women.Tell us a bit about TTYA talks.
I started TTYA Talks back in 2013 and set it up as a space to open up my black book. I'm lucky enough to be indulged in a community of women that I really respect. So TTYA Talks focuses on industry and career specific topics and it provides direct access to successful women working across the creative industry. Each series has a specific topic. We did one focused on entertainment and lifestyle - I had everyone from FKA Twigs to Donna Rooney speak at it. I've set up a podcast now so that if you're unable to come to the talks, you can always listen back to the podcast.
One of your recent campaigns features the beautiful Naomi Shimada - does she pretty much embody the aesthetic of your brand?
100%, she's carefree, she's free spirited, she's an activist and she's a feminist - I love everything about her! She makes me look at myself and think 'who am I?', 'who do I channel?', 'what do I represent?'. I went back to Lagos over Christmas and reconnected with my roots.
I shot my lookbook there and found the whole team through social media: the models were all Nigerian based, hair, makeup and photography were all sourced from Nigeria. I'm really proud of that. It's based around weddings/guests at weddings and it'll be live on ASOS from May and in my ASOS Black collection (called 'I Do').
The reason I shot it in Lagos is because, in my culture, it's pretty wild when you're in your 30s and not married. So I thought it'd be a bit lols to be like: 'well I'm going to shoot this wedding collection and I'm not married. I'm going against the grain, but I'm [also] reconnecting with my culture'.
There seem to be so few black women designers leading major brands, what are your thoughts on this?
TTYA: I think it leads to communication. Being a pioneer, doing what I'm doing and pushing a brand as much as I can, opens the gateway for new generations. I feel like it's always about educating the next level down and by doing that you position yourself as a gatekeeper, so you can now open those channels for others. We've got women of colour in our corner who are opening those doorways and kicking down those barriers for us.