Ini Ikpe is a great dresser, and he wants you to know it. A stylist to some of the NFL’s biggest players like Philadelphia Eagles Malcolm Jenkins and Jordan Matthews, Ikpe does not shy away from a challenge or the public gaze. I’ll admit before getting on the phone with Ini, I was skeptical as to how we could find common ground. His world of expertise was clearly in fashion, and I didn’t know how he’d respond to questions about the state of adult Sickle Cell Disease care. But our conversation took a turn, not away from SCD, but down another intersecting lane that explores the idea of healing and healthcare in retail therapy. In our conversation, Ini and I talk about fashion as healing, as therapeutic, and as an outlet that can lead to social change.
Kiersten Adams: How did you learn about sickle cell disease?
Ini Sebastian Ikpe: One of my best friends, Olu. He has sickle cell and I’ve been in the hospital with him on numerous occasions when he had a crisis. That’s how it affected me.
KA: Why should our communities know about this disease?
II: Correct me if I’m wrong, but sickle cell affects the African American community more than any other community. I also understand that growing up in West Philadelphia, a predominantly black neighborhood, from elementary school to middle school, to high school, Sickle cell has always been a “thing”. Maybe one out of 10 people, maybe 15 or 20, I don’t know what the statistics are. I believe that there isn’t enough spotlight on it because it affects the African American community so prevalently. If it affected another majority group then I’m sure that there would be cures or treatments that would help the situation. I think it’s not looked at as a priority when it absolutely should be a priority.
KA: I want to get into your line of work, and ask if you think self-care is important?
II: I enjoy the look on my client’s face when I help them get dressed. I know a lot of people who are dealing with diseases, whether it be Sickle cell or anything else. A lot of the time when they’re going through this battle, they don’t want to get dressed because it’s almost like ‘why’? I understand that you’re going through something, but instead of wearing sweatpants put on these nice jeans. It’s like the hall of fame player, Deion Sanders said, “when you look good, you feel good.” Then, he took it further with, “when you play good, they pay good.” When you get dressed and look a certain way, it can help a mood. That’s why I enjoy getting dressed and helping people get dressed.
KA: I don’t know what it takes to be a stylist. Is it just an impeccable wardrobe, saying I know what looks good on other people? How did you fall into being a stylist?
II: Before I joined my fraternity, I always got dressed and just tried to stand out. My goal was to get the attention of people. I got into fashion in 2015. I just left the bank I was working in for five years after college. I happened to meet one of my fraternity brothers who played for the Philadelphia Eagles, Jordan Matthews and he liked my style. Randomly, two weeks later, he hits me up and says, ‘Hey, could you help me get dressed?’ And I’m like, sure. Then the player Marcus Smith. He asked me, ‘are you a stylist?’ And at that time I didn’t consider myself a stylist, but I said, “yeah, I am.” That’s just how I was able to create a nice portfolio for myself and then after a while I’d dressed probably four different players. I started reaching out to players from other teams, I showed them the work that I had already done. It just, it just clicked. That’s how I got into styling.
KA: What work does a stylist actually do? Can you describe to me a day in the life?
II: Once I meet a player and the player is interested in working with me, I create a mood board. And based on the digital mood board, I take images of different players or celebrities that I think look good and I’ll compile them all together. I’ll tell them to ‘pick out your favorite looks and let me know what you like’. And then I ask who are some of your favorite designers? Styling is about educating your client. So my job is to introduce them to new brands. Keeping your thumb on the pulse of the new fashion trends. Once that’s completed, they send the budget, then I shop. I travel to them and we try on a bunch of looks. What they like they keep, or they return it.
KA: Who’s your dream client?
II: Number one, the first person I would love to dress for any occasion would be Barack Obama. President Barack Obama. My second person would be Giannis Antetokounmpo––he’s Nigerian. He plays for the Milwaukee Bucks, MVP last season, and he might be MVP this upcoming season. And then my last person would be Will Smith. I’m from West Philadelphia, I went to Overbrook high school. He’s always been my favorite actor.
KA: How have you continued to find work through the pandemic?
II: I created a series called Styles Sold Separately, where I interviewed professional athletes to get to know about who they are as men. So far I’ve interviewed three players and two episodes are up on YouTube at the moment. We’ve learned about who they are, their passion projects, and what they’re doing outside of football. We can peel the onion back and get to know who these players are as men. These players are husbands, fathers, entrepreneurs, business owners, investors, and a lot of the time we as a community don’t look at them like that. We look at them as gladiators and it’s like, no, these guys are multi-dimensional. So it’s important to highlight that.
KA: Where does the innovation and desire to style come from?
II: I’m a creative at heart so I just enjoy creating. Through creating, there’s an ability to help. So whether it’s just being an advocate for somebody, or creating content that’s able to go deeper, I’m always creating. One of the things that I enjoy doing is writing. When I wake up, before I go to bed, or early in the morning, so I keep a notepad and pen by my bed. I’m inspired by everything around me.
KA: Why should creatives such as yourself consider partnering with a health organization? What benefits do you see with artists, stylists, and other creatives partnering with companies like Crescent?
II: I think everybody should partner because if you have a talent, you should want to be able to help. It goes back to not taking my life for granted. We could very well be the people in the hospital terminally ill, and if you can do your part and help somebody make their day feel good, then do that. As a creative, I feel like that’s my responsibility. Help inspire somebody. I forget what the phrase is, but because something doesn’t impact you individually doesn’t it mean it’s ok. We talk about systemic racism and we’re like, ‘Oh, well that doesn’t affect me, so I don’t have to worry about it.’ But in retrospect, actually, you should worry. And our part doesn’t have to be this big grandiose thing. It could be spending it in a hospital, donating money. We all have to do our part.
KA: How can we usher in change for our healthcare system, and maybe even our society?
II: The hope is that somebody else will pick up the mantle from us and move it forward. Because people have died to be part of, to be in a position that we’re in. So if you’re not doing anything great, or you’re not moving the culture forward or doing your part, then what exactly are you doing? I had a conversation with a young lady who was like, ‘oh I don’t even think I’m going to vote’. And I’m saying, ‘I’m going to be really brief with you, but what you take for granted, people died for it’. If you want to see a change, you got to be the change.
If by the end of this story you’re questioning which items of clothing in your closet bring you happiness and meaning, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Ini has made it abundantly clear that while our well-being is not entirely dependent on how we look; looking good, which has proven to lead to feeling good just may be what the holistic doctor ordered for alternative care. To follow Ini’s journey, check out his Instagram here and make sure to check out his series Style Sold Separately currently airing on youtube.