A Designing Woman
By Cindy Lefler
Farai Simoyi Brings Her Style to Jefferson’s Fashion Program
Take a free-spirited early childhood in Zimbabwe. Add formative years in the bucolic foothills of West Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains. Infuse it with a 20-something New York City-that-never-sleeps attitude. Throw in a dash of grown-up concern about the Earth and sustainability. “And you get Bohemian Appalachian cutting-edge designs by Farai Simoyi.”
Simoyi laughs when she describes her avant-garde approach to fashion design, but when it comes to her craft, she is serious—and successful. She has created couture for Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z, and Nicki Minaj, to name a few. She has established The Narativ House, a concept store in New York that carries ethically sourced artisan brands from across the globe and mentors young designers. And now she has taken on a new role—Program Director and Professor of Fashion Design at Thomas Jefferson University.
“Being a fashion designer will always be the core of what I do, but I feel that in this role at Jefferson I am making the most impact I can make in my life,” Simoyi says. “It’s really about supporting and encouraging and guiding the future designers of fashion.”
Simoyi says she was excited to take on this new challenge in her ever-evolving career—she just didn’t know how much of a challenge it would be. She joined Jefferson in September 2020—right in the middle of a pandemic.
“It’s probably one of the most challenging things I’ve ever had to do in my professional career,” she says. “How do we teach fashion design over Zoom? When you’re a fashion designer you want to use your hands—that’s how we create, that’s how we get inspiration. But the beauty of it is that it really shows how devoted our faculty is and also how committed our students are to learning. So we all bonded together, overcame the obstacles, and figured out how to do it.”
At first, there were pre-recorded lessons and live-streamed lessons. As the pandemic waned, the program moved into a hybrid format—part virtual, part in-person. Eventually, the classes transitioned back into full-time on-site. However, the option of taking classes virtually was still offered because the administration wanted everyone to operate at their own level of comfort.
“It’s all about flexibility right now and making sure that everyone is still learning, but still comfortable,” she says. Yet, she is eager to have everyone back together in person in the studios. After all, she came to Jefferson to collaborate, to guide, to shape the future of fashion and mold those who will be creating it.
Simoyi's journey to Philadelphia took a long and unusual geographic path, beginning a continent away in Zimbabwe and making an extended stop in West Virginia.
“Everybody says, ‘how did this African girl end up in the middle of West Virginia?’” she says. As it turns out, she is following in her parents’ footsteps in academia—both were professors who moved to the U.S. South to teach at West Virginia University. Her father taught chemistry, and her mother taught health sciences.
Simoyi started at West Virginia University as a psychology major, but in her sophomore year switched to fashion design. While the two majors seem academic worlds away from each other, she explains that psychology and fashion go hand-in-hand.
“When you woke up in the morning and you decided to put on that shirt, what made you decide to put that on? Why do you love wearing that specific color? What drew you to that particular shirt? There’s always a psychology to design and the way that we dress,” she says.
After graduating in 2005, she took a leap of faith, packing up her belongings, scraping together enough money for one month’s rent, and moving to New York City to find her big break.
“I just started interning, working for free a lot just to get my foot in the door,” she says. Almost immediately she landed a job with one of the first mainstream sustainable brands, Threads 4 Thought. From there, she got the big break she was seeking—she was hired to design for Beyoncé’s fashion line, the House of Deréon.
That job launched her solo career, one which brought her to the inner circle of global celebrities, recording artists, and fashion industry leaders such as Anne Klein and Rachel Roy. She found that creating style was about merging fashion, music, and culture, and putting inhibitions aside to think and design “outside the box.”
One of her fondest memories is working on Nicki Minaj’s wardrobe to coordinate with her “Anaconda” album. “There were snakeskin leggings, snakeskin tops, snakeskin hats, snakeskin shoes… we were literally swimming in snakeskin prints!”
And while Simoyi creates forward-thinking designs with an eye toward the unconventional, she has always drawn inspiration from her past.
“In Zimbabwe, my grandmother, my grandfather, and my mom and dad grew up in huts in the rural areas. They cooked over an open fire, they herded cattle before and after school. So I take those lifestyle inspirations into my work. When we lived in West Virginia, we were surrounded by the Appalachian Mountains. So being outdoors was inspiration to me. And then right before moving to Philadelphia, I lived in New York City—bright lights, things going a mile a minute—and I took that as inspiration, too.
“I’m really lucky that I get to use such stark contrasting backgrounds; I think that's what makes the work that I do really unique,” she says.
Part of her interest in sustainability stems from her African roots.
“In my culture, we have zero waste—everything is used when making jewelry and clothing. We use the cow hide, we use the cow horns, we use the boning. I wanted to bring that and show the craftsmanship that’s been around for generations, especially in Africa,” she says. “When I first started working in the industry at Threads 4 Thought, I was just so confused that sustainability was considered something new.”
In November 2017, she established The Narativ House in Brooklyn to serve as a place to support sustainability and encourage diversity. Many of the items at The Narativ House are sourced from artisans based in Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania, Senegal, Morocco, and several other countries. She plans on expanding the geography to include artisans and products from the Philippines, Mexico, and areas in South America.
Another important goal of the Narativ is to mentor the next generation of designers.
“As a designer myself, I noticed the struggles that young, independent designers face when they’re trying to enter the industry. The Narativ House is a platform for them. The industry can be harsh; sometimes you only get one shot to make it right, and the Narativ makes sure that they get it right by helping them with pricing strategy, marketing strategy, designing, sourcing, and branding.”
She is taking the lessons she has learned through years in the industry and running the Narativ, and bringing them to Jefferson.
“One goal is to offer guidance to students from a unique perspective of how globalization impacts fashion, how to sustain and build brands ethically,” she says. Another goal is to instill in her students a sense of self-confidence.
“My number one objective with my students is to encourage them to wholeheartedly believe in themselves,” she says. “I think I am where I am today because I truly believed in myself; I said, ‘this is what I want to do’ and I went out and did it.”
And Simoyi has done a lot, including appearing in Forbes, Vogue, Fast Company, Newsweek, and Essence magazines; participating in the first season of Netflix’s competition series “Next in Fashion;” and touring the world to speak on topics such as global fashion development, sustainability, and diversity and inclusion—just to name a few.
One of the mottos she lives by is “the time is now.”
“I think sometimes people want to make a switch, start a new project, or go into a new career,” she says. “Why wait? Life is too short—the time is now!”
That upbeat and confident attitude is what brought her to Philadelphia, where she resides with her husband, Ayo Agbede, and their 3-year-old son, Sunday, and to Jefferson. It was a natural progression from designer to fashion influencer to business owner to mentor, and now to professor. But it took the right fit for her to once again take that leap of faith.
“I learned very quickly that Jefferson is all about community and it’s all about collaboration,” she says. “After meeting with Michael Leonard, Dean of the School of Design and Engineering, members of the faculty, and some of the students, I said, ‘This is where I need to be.’ And I am so happy to be here.”