When I heard that African fashion designer Aristide Loua of Kente Gentlemen originally had his sights set on Wall Street, it didn’t quite compute. Loua has the aura of someone who was simply born to create, with a clothing brand that carries the fitting self-description of “sartorial poetry.” With this origin story in mind, his artistic journey has been anything but linear. But of course, it’s the twists, turns, and tangents that have molded Loua into the colorful artist and business owner that he is today.
Loua’s aesthetic is informed by a highly enriching multicultural upbringing. He was born and raised in Côte d’Ivoire, then relocated to India at the age of 15 for his father’s government job. He then went to college in the US, first landing in Utah, and then making the trek to New York City.
Loua felt stifled by Utah’s lack of diversity. “I felt like I needed to move somewhere where I wasn’t the only Black person whenever I entered a store,” he says.
The eventual shift from Utah to New York provided a much-needed shock to Loua’s system. “I immediately connected to the city,” he continues. “Obviously, New York is such an influential city in terms of fashion and arts and culture. I discovered the artwork of Basquiat, for example, music from John Coltrane and Miles Davis. When you walk the streets of New York, you see that everyone has their own sense of style, an individual perspective. How to associate personality and style was very evident. People rotate through their own personal and cultural identity.”
Loua’s understanding of self-expression through fashion began to crystallize in New York, especially considering the melting-pot identity he was still grappling with. “At that point, I had been away from home for over 10 years,” he tells me. “Spending four years in India and then six to eight years in the US without having gone back, I felt a sense of identity crisis. What is it like to be Ivorian? What is it like to be back home in terms of how we dress? In terms of how we go about life?”
Loua also struggled with his professional identity at this time. “One of the main reasons I moved to New York was because I wanted to work on Wall Street,” he says. “Math was something I had been passionate about since my early teens. I graduated from SUNY Albany in Mathematics, and my goal after I graduated was to move to New York City and work at an insurance firm. But given my resident status as an international student, I wasn’t granted a work permit for a time period where a company would take me in and invest in me.”
This barrier pushed Loua to South Carolina, where he landed a position as a bookkeeper. “When I was living there, my mom sent me Wax brand shirts. I was like, Wow, this is exactly what I remember seeing on people out in the streets of Abidjan. For me, it was like wearing a piece of home.”
These shirts became an all-important catalyst for Loua, and propelled him in a direction he didn’t see coming. “Especially after leaving New York, it motivated me to get into this fashion adventure,” he continues, “to create a sense of style where I feel like it’s something I can wear at home, I can wear in New York, I can wear in Atlanta, I can wear in South Carolina, and still feel that sense of where I’m from in what I’m wearing.”
“With fashion, you can wear where you’re from, or what you’re about, or what you aspire to be,” he says. “So I asked myself, what are some pieces that can represent who I am, as a young man from The Continent who has roots there, but is also well traveled and has gone to different places? I want to wear my culture on my sleeves. But there wasn’t really a clothing line that spoke to me, so I thought if there’s no supply for it, why not create the supply? That’s when I decided to create my brand in 2017.”
Loua’s bright and bold aesthetic dominates the Kente Gentlemen line. His clothing presents a true blend of the colors and spirit of India, New York, and of course, his home of Côte d’Ivoire. “One thing about Côte D’Ivoire: we’re not afraid of color,” he says. “What I’ve noticed in the West is people are a bit scared of color. I always appreciated color growing up. We had this game called ‘All Matching,’ where we’d look at people walking down the streets, and try to be the first to say that someone’s look was all matching—maybe a blue hat and some blue socks. That game, as silly as it may sound, actually had a big influence on me, in terms of making sure that whatever you’re wearing always has to be cohesive and coherent. You can wear color, that’s fine—but you don’t want to be all over the place, where it creates a whole mismatch.”
Those same Wax brand shirts that influenced Loua’s pivot to fashion also inspired his mission to work with local artisans. “Those prints are basically not African,” Loua explains. “They’re made in a big textile industry based outside of Africa that makes huge profits. When you look at the value chain, or where the money goes, it goes back to those huge companies that aren’t necessarily based in The Continent. They create an unfair competition with the local artisans who are definitely feeling the brunt of those companies’ success. Competing against brands making garments from Chinese companies, companies like H&M, is a lot for them to compete against.”
Kente Gentlemen honors the cultural inspiration of these vibrant prints by creating clothes locally and ethically in Africa. Loua is passionate about working directly with local artisans and craftsmen, not only to benefit his community, but to breathe authenticity into the designs themselves. “When I came back to Côte D’Ivoire, I discovered that there’s more than just Wax prints— there’s Kente fabric, Bogolan fabric, all the other kinds that we make at home. These are career resources that belong to us, that can enrich and give value to the artisans that are based at home, and create economic value to the work. For us, it’s very important to protect that particular economy and make sure that everybody gets a piece. And at the same time, we also showcase the excellence of their craftsmanship.”
So Loua set out for the countryside to visit these local artisans in person, to see their work and learn about their practices. “I felt inspired and motivated by talking to them and learning about their techniques, some of which are 14 centuries old,” he says. “It was inspiring to me as a designer to add my own design approach. All of the textiles that you see on the Kente Gentlmen site are designed by me.”
You can tell just from looking at his work that Loua has gone to great lengths to collaborate with fellow artists and make his clothes responsibly. His passion has infused Kente Gentlemen with an essence, soul, and sense of culture that just can’t be captured in some factory overseas.
After the twists and turns of his career, Loua is proud of where he’s landed, but can’t say where he’ll go next. “I don’t regret the journey,” he says. “It wasn’t even three years before I received my mom’s shirts that I was like, Yeah, I’m just gonna work on Wall Street and that’s it. But that’s part of life; it’s part of destiny. Embrace things whenever they happen, and just move forward. I never know what I’m going to be doing tomorrow.”