March 20, 2018

Fashion Meets Tech: Designer, Jordan Obi

This is part two of our new series Fashion Meets Tech [see part one here], in tandem with onchek

Jordan, a software designer at Etsy and formerly Twitter, is one to talk about music, art, and design. As a creative, who currently shares his creativity through software, he can easily go in depth on fashion and poetry as well. In his world, creativity is fluid. It can can take any form. “I’m glad to be here,” he said as he walked in. “I’ve never really done this before, but let’s go!” We agree, Jordan. We agree. Pacing back and forth, one can tell he was ready. Ready to share his story with us. His love for Africa was evident. It was on his fingers, with his Africa shaped rings. It was on his neck, with an Africa shaped pendant.”Yeah, I wear a lot of jewelry. I pick them up at random places.” Right after the interview, he had planned on a brunch with a friend, so we had to make this quick. It was about 10AM that we started the interview.

Tell us a bit about yourself

Sure. My name is Jordan and I’m an Afro-Latino, Nigerian-American digital product designer based in Brooklyn, NY. I’m originally from Miami, Florida and went to Florida State, where I studied creative writing and computer science. During the day I work at Etsy, designing and building tools and systems for Etsy sellers to grow and manage their creative businesses. In my free time, I like to exercise, write (a little) and read (a lot) of poetry, dance and run around Brooklyn with my friends. For better or for worse, I also spend a ton a time on Twitter.

How do you describe your style?

I love wearing cool- or earth-toned basics in some intentional way — cuffing, tucking or untucking shirts and trousers, draping, tying or half-wearing coats and jackets. I’ll usually throw on some gold or silver jewelry then put on a solid pair of boots or oxfords. I have a lot of handmade rings and necklaces I’ve collected over the years at festivals like Afropunk or at shops in Harlem and Bed-Stuy, and I wear some combination of them every day. I almost never wear hats. They rarely fit over my dreads.

What is your daytime style? How does your style evolve into the evening?

I have some clothes more distinctly African in terms of color or style, and tend to wear those more at night or if I’m going out with friends. That being said, my clothes don’t change much throughout the day as I spend most of my time sitting or standing in front of a computer! If anything changes or evolves it’s probably my hair; I wear it up in the morning, then pretty unconsciously pull and twist it into different shapes throughout the day before wearing it down at night.

What is on your playlist?

Recently I’ve been listening to the Black Panther Soundtrack, (#WakandaForever) SZA, Porches, Soft Glas, Anderson .Paak and BadBadNotGood. When I work, I listen to a lot of Ghostly International artists like Gold Panda and Shigeto. I’ve also been digging stuff made some of my friends’ bands: R.Lum.R. and Lewis Del Mar.

Can you tell us about any side projects you do?

Outside of work I don’t and have never spent a ton of time building software or doing techie stuff. It’s not really my thing. My biggest side projects right now are around improving my physical and mental health. This year I’ve started to really enjoy lifting weights and I’ve invested a lot of time in learning about how to take better care of my skin and hair. I’ve been practicing mindfulness and meditation, going to therapy, trying to be more politically informed and active.

Jordan with friend and software engineer, Iheanyi

What does “My Heritage My Inheritance” mean to you?

Like a lot of young African-Americans who grew up in the states during the ’90s and early aughts, I wasn’t always proud of being black or of my family’s culture. Like many young children of immigrants, I was caught up with assimilating and maintaining an image palatable to my white peers. An image that was in-line with their ideas of what was cool or beautiful. One that would ensure I was safe from teasing and ridicule. Now that I’m older, examples of White-America stealing, exoticising and obsessing over Black-American or African-American culture are all over the place and more obvious to me. My Heritage My Inheritance feels like a reclaiming and a self-affirmation, but also a shouted rebuke of those that want what we have. It says “this is ours, and y’all can’t have it.”

Tell us about your design process?

First off, as a product designer my work is all about solving problems for people. I always start with trying to understand the problem at hand as deeply as possible using data and research. The goal at this stage is to uncover underlying issues or core problems that may not have initially been obvious and to rearticulate and redefine the problem in terms that focus on the needs and the goals of those people.

Qualitative or quantitative data makes this crucial first step easier. It also helps me draft a hypothesis for knowing how and when my team might solve the problem Using everything from paper and pencil to code and color, I explore as many solutions as possible while appreciating constraints and existing patterns, soliciting feedback from stakeholders or other designers while drinking a lot of coffee. After zoning in on a few directions that reflect assumptions and questions I might have about the people I’m designing for, I work with researchers to test prototypes with real people, whether in person or in sweeping tests that target larger audiences. Our findings help me continue to refine and iterate on a design until I land on a solution that feels simple, high-quality, and like the best possible balance of trade-offs. That’s what I always shoot for, anyway.

What/Who are your influences?

I am who I am professionally, socially and creatively thanks to many incredible, generous and patient women of color, including my mom. My attention to detail, sense of discipline and lawyerly approach to problem-solving comes from my dad. I’m inspired by a lot of black artists, musicians, writers and tech folks. To name a few in no particular order: Andre Wagner, Issa Rae, Deray McKesson, Mahershala Ali, Bozoma Saint John, Tristan Walker, Terri Burns, Doreen St. Félix and Clint Smith.

What inspired you to get into tech?

A few experiences I had in college but mostly my best friend Reggie and this Tumblr post by Tristan Walker I read in my sophomore year.

What’s the last investment piece of clothing you purchased?

I got this insane handmade kimono from a vintage shop in Greenpoint called Feng Sway. It’s made out of recycled materials and blends some wild ‘90s patterns with West African detailing, which is to say it’s right up my alley. It was way outside my price range but felt like my personality and aesthetic rendered in literal cloth, so I threw my credit card down and never looked back.

What are African fashion brands on your radar?

I’ve been obsessed with Orange Culture, MaXhosaAbasi Rosborough and William Okpo. They’re all incredible but recently I’ve been thinking a lot about Orange Culture, a Nigerian unisex clothing brand. Created by Adebayo Oke-Lawal, the brand challenges preconceived ideas about masculinity, gender and how a Nigerian man should be. It was met with a ton of controversy when it launched in Lagos, where my family is from. I relate to Oke-Lawal’s story a lot and appreciate his courage in challenging the cultural institutions that shaped us.

Chekwas Okafor

Founder and CEO onchek. Online retailer for luxury fashion made in Africa.

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