Get to Know the Designer Behind Toronto-Based Label Israella Kobla
Emefa Kuadey brings an architectural eye to Israella Kobla’s minimalist garments.
You might describe Israella Kobla’s clothing the way you would an architectural monument: functional, beautiful and built to last. Conceived by engineer turned designer Emefa Kuadey, the Toronto-based label’s structural garments are made to weather passing trends and closet upheavals. An antidote to fast fashion, Israella Kobla’s minimalist wares are made on demand, reducing waste from over-production. Its most popular styles — like the Dalmar, an oversized asymmetrical shift dress released in 2021 — are produced in small batches, and the rest are assembled after an order is placed.
The British-born Ghanaian designer says she owes her sustainable mindset to her mom, who favoured a good bargain over fashion fads. “I was never on trend,” Kuadey jokes. When her peers were changing out their antiquated articles for whatever was in vogue, a young Kuadey was extending the life of her wardrobe with DIY projects. “It taught me to create my own niche of dressing,” she says.
But she never dreamed of one day constructing her own clothes. As a teenager in England, Kuadey desired to study architecture stateside. However, after she had applied unsuccessfully to a number of schools, her American aspirations fell through and she made the move to Canada to pursue a degree in civil engineering.
The designer’s reintroduction to fashion came in 2012, when Kuadey and her parents travelled to Ghana after her brother’s sudden passing. There, she spent most of her days with her “auntie,” who taught her the basics of pattern drafting and sewing. What was once a peripheral interest in the craft soon became a passion project. “It ignited this spark in me,” she says.
Years later, that spark would inspire the designer to quit her civil engineering job in Calgary to study fashion at George Brown College in Toronto. After graduating, Kuadey launched Israella Kobla — “Israella” being her middle name and “Kobla” being her late brother’s — in July 2019. The brand’s first collection, Freed From Captivity, debuted that fall at Vancouver Fashion Week. And in March 2021, Kuadey began a fruitful online partnership with Hudson’s Bay that has since expanded to include in-store boutiques.
“I never wanted to have that ‘What if,’” she says. “And now I’m in so deep, there’s no turning back. I’m solidly in the fashion industry now.”
Here, the designer shares what inspires her work and the legacy she hopes to leave behind.
“Architecture and engineering both influence me — not on a day-to-day basis but in my approach to the brand’s aesthetic. I love a lot of angles, straight triangles and things like that.”
“There are so many fashionable people in the U.K., but everyone finds a way to personalize their style and make a look their own. That has been a guiding light for me, as I always try to make sure our pieces don’t just look the same as what everyone else is making.”
“My approach to designing and the personalization we bring to our customer service is influenced by the artisanal culture that is prevalent in Ghana. It’s so common for people to go to their local tailor or seamstress when they have a special occasion to get a custom outfit made to measure.”
“I want Israella Kobla pieces to be your go-to statement items, whether it’s two years from now or five years. I never want something to lose its relevance.”
“Honouring my brother is something that I always keep in the forefront of my mind — it’s an overarching inspiration for everything I do. Having that is like my North Star.”
This article first appeared in FASHION’s November 2023 issue. Find out more here.