MIZIZI’s Paakow Essandoh and Kenneth Obeng on bringing Black Panther and Coming to America into streetwear

MIZIZI Founder Paakow Essadoh and Designer Kenneth Obeng tell us about the origins of the company, how it approaches designing for brands and what fuels their creativity.

Founded by Paakow Essandoh back in 2015, MIZIZI is a streetwear brand for the African diaspora.

The firm’s limited, exclusive collections have always been designed with connection and representation in mind, and in recent years brand collaborations have entered the picture – with ranges based on Black Panther, The Lion King, and most recently, Coming 2 America.

We caught up with Paakow and MIZIZI Designer Kenneth Obeng to learn more about the origins of the company, how it approaches designing for brands and what fuels their creativity.

Paakow Essandoh, Ken Obeng, MIZIZI
Guys, I’m over the moon to speak with you. Thanks for making the time. Paakow, if we start with you – where did MIZIZI come from?

Paakow Essandoh, Founder, MIZIZI: MIZIZI started in 2015 when I was in my junior year at the University of South Florida. If we go back a little bit, in 2013 during my freshman year, I was really lonely and couldn’t make friends.

There was one guy from Kenya who inspired me and showed me that his style was the same thing as what we would wear in the States, but it would have Kenyan fabrics stitched into it. He really opened my mind up.

From there, it turned into a passion project that I worked on so I could make friends. I went through a list of words that was related to Africa and the diaspora and got to ‘roots’. He translated it into Swahili for me, which was ‘mizizi’, and I knew straight away that was the name we should go with.

I asked him for his blessing for me to take the brand and run with it. I tried to find
manufacturers in New York and California, and between my freshman year and my junior year, I was trying to find out how to actualise the brand.

Was that a tough process?
PE: Well the first manufacturer I found told me I was trying to do too much and that they would have to charge me a ridiculous amount to get the products made. So, I decided to downsize and focus on the product that had the best chance of being successful.

At the time, there was a big baseball jersey trend in the States, so I focused on African baseball jerseys – I’d never seen that done before. I researched which African countries had the biggest populations within the United States. From there, I created a line of different jerseys, including one that had all the flags on it so it was inclusive for everyone. The other countries we did were Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya and Eritrea.

In 2015, I couldn’t find any manufacturers and so I tried to license the designs, but nobody told me yes! I went to African streetwear brands in the US, Canada, Australia and Europe, and everyone either ignored me or told me the idea was cool but they couldn’t take additional product.

The last person I pitched MIZIZI to told me that I was trying to get them manufactured in the wrong country and they pointed me in the direction of China. I got a few quotes and realised they were a third of the cost of anything I was being quoted in the US. By that time, I had done lots of research on where these communities were at, what were they following and where their attention was, so at that point, I realised I could do this by myself.

In July 2015, I flew back to Dallas, did a photoshoot with a few of my friends, started getting MIZIZI actualised and on August 3rd 2015, I officially launched the brand.

Amazing stuff! And let’s bring Ken in – what’s your history in the world of design?
Kenneth Obeng, Designer, MIZIZI: I’ve actually been designing since 2011. I used to design only websites, flyers and logos. The first time I designed a sports apparel was with MIZIZI in 2019. The Sankofa jersey was my very first and I was quite nervous about it!

Paakow Essandoh, Ken Obeng, MIZIZIYou never would’ve known! Looks great. And if we delve into your design process Ken, what do your first few creative steps on a project look like?
KO: Well as we know designing takes a lot of creative thinking and when it comes to my first few creative steps, mostly I research about the brand, the country of origin, what makes it special, stand out, different and yet, relatable.

For example, with the Sankofa jersey, I wanted people to recognise a connection to Ghana without necessarily seeing the inscription “Ghana” written on it. So I made my research based on significant symbols and icons that are associated with Ghana. And we used the ‘Adinkra’ symbol, but we used them in a creative and unique way.

I’ve used that approach with all the jerseys I’ve designed for MIZIZI. It’s mainly about gathering ideas revolving a country or a brand to create some original assets and also getting worthwhile pitches – and of course great ideas from Paakow as well.

Moving onto licensing – you’ve created ranges for brands like Black Panther, The Lion King, and most recently, Coming 2 America. Paakow, was launching licensed collections always on the cards?
PE: Not at all! I had no idea that we would ever partner with likes of Marvel. It was actually an idea that came from our customers. The Black Panther trailer had dropped, and people went on social media to say “We should wear MIZIZI jerseys to the movie!” Other customers took it a step further and said “MIZIZI should make a Black Panther jersey so we can wear it to the movie!”

Once I heard the idea, I brainstormed a little bit, but I thought…That’s Marvel! They’re a big-ass company, it’s a big-ass movie and I didn’t know if they would be willing to work with a small black-owned business at the time.

I did some research and started figuring out how MIZIZI could be a solution for Marvel. What problems are they having marketing this movie? How are they connecting with these communities? What sales channels are they using?

From there, I was able to find Marvel’s licensing department online and I created a whole pitch deck and in December 2018, I sent it to them. I still have my journal entry from then where I wrote out a prayer hoping they would say yes!

And they did!
PE: No! They said no! They said they already had people that made baseball jerseys for them.

I tend to be very persistent! I can be annoying but polite! There was a bit of back and forth and eventually they said that if I released anything with Marvel IP on it, they would take legal action.

But you do have a great MIZIZI Black Panther jersey, so what changed?!
PE: I took a step back. If I couldn’t get through the front door, maybe I could get through the back… That’s when we started the social media campaign. We released a mock-up of the Black Panther jersey and told people that we’d love to sell it, but we weren’t allowed to. We said if you want it, tell Marvel that you want it.

Throughout this time, I’d also tried connected with Marvel’s licensing team on LinkedIn. I didn’t have much luck, but I did find someone at the company who was empathic to my efforts.

Around the end of February 2018, after the movie launched, the team and I decided we couldn’t continue putting effort into a product that we weren’t able to release. But a week later, my contact on LinkedIn got me the email from the right person at Marvel.

I emailed, they replied saying they loved my tenacity and two days later I was in LA with the team working out how we could make the Black Panther MIZIZI jersey a real thing.

Paakow Essandoh, Ken Obeng, MIZIZI
Amazing! A huge congrats on getting that over the line. Black Panther in the film industry proved to a lot of execs that there is a hugely underserved audience that wants to see themselves represented on screen. When it comes to licensing and consumer products, has the same thing happened there? Are there brands out that have now realised the audience MIZIZI serves is one they should be engaging with?

PE: Well, it’s becoming more and more popular for big businesses to collaborate with small businesses. I’ve seen that across all industries, as they figure out how to innovate, be creative and reach underserved communities. It’s a growing trend that has helped us out.

Diversity is also a big part of that. It is popular to be black at the moment. It encourages companies to put more effort into working with black-owned businesses. With all the racial tension in the States over the past few years, companies are being more open to recognising black organisations that are having positive impacts within these communities.

Paakow Essandoh, Ken Obeng, MIZIZI
Absolutely. Now Ken, back to the design side of things. We’ve spoken about your
 research-based approach to designing non-licensed jerseys. Does your approach change when you’re working on a collection based on a brand like The Lion King or Coming 2 America?
KO: It’s all about the creativity aspect and I always want to be creative. Sometimes I look at licensed ranges and it comes off as very basic. Like if it’s a Superman range, they might just put the logo on a T-shirt and that’s it. Well… We all know it’s Superman and it’s going to be boring if you’d just slap a logo on a jersey! I don’t think that jersey would have much value.

I mean what happened to details, culture, the wow factor, a sense of sentiment? I always want our jerseys to tell a story. I really want people to see or wear our jerseys and feel connected to the brand or movie franchise.

So, when designing our licensed ranges, I’ll watch the movie over and over to see if there are any special moments or scenes that I want to bring to life with the jerseys. That helps guide my entire process.

If we dive into your latest licensed range, Coming 2 America, it’s an interesting one because that franchise, in brand-terms, doesn’t have a whole lot of merchandise. How did that partnership come about?
PE: It was pretty symbiotic. Since working on Black Panther, we then looked at working with other films that spoke to the nuances of the diaspora. We looked at films like The Lion King and Coming to America that have fictional African countries and speak to the experience of being black.

Coming to America had been on our radar for a little bit and we’d brainstormed on what we could do for that. When they announced the sequel, we already had our foot in the door but then we found out that ViacomCBS was looking for minority-owned brands to create product to help push the movie.

So it was pretty easy! We wanted to work with them, they said yes and we created something dope for them!

Paakow Essandoh, Ken Obeng, MIZIZI
Was it more of a creative challenge than your Black Panther and The Lion King jerseys?

PE: I will hand it to Ken, it was a challenge!

KO: I thought it was a similar challenge to The Lion King.

PE: Yes, they’re both old movies, right? They both have childish elements to them, and our audience isn’t necessarily kids. It’s adults that have grown up with those movies. So Ken deserves credit because the Coming to America brand could be seen as cheesy, but Ken created something really cool.

KO: Some of the original ideas were actually tied to Zamunda – the fictional African nation that Eddie Murphy’s Prince Akeem rules over. It was all about the Zamunda colours – green and yellow – but we wanted to go outside the box.

PE: I’m not a huge fan of the colour green!

KO: That’s why we added the reds, whites and blacks!

Paakow Essandoh, Ken Obeng, MIZIZI
Well, it works guys so congrats on that. Looking ahead, what sort of brands is MIZIZI looking to collaborate with in the future?

PE: Anyone that is aligned with what we’re doing. When it comes to collaborations, I look at it like dating – you want to date up! The next partner should make you happier than the last!

We’re open to partnering with brands across different industries, as long as they represent and connect with the diaspora.

One that I’d love to work with is AfroRoots DNA. They’re in genealogy; kind of like AncestryDNA but they speak to the backgrounds and connections between African Americans and Africa, using new technology to work out peoples’ lineage. So I’d love for us to tap into the genealogy space, and I’d love to tap into the travel sector.

Essentially I want to engage with the ‘finding your roots’ experience. If people are taking a genealogy test to find out where they come from, I want MIZIZI to be a part of that. If they want to travel to that country, I want us to be a part of that. If there’s media that speaks to this new-found world that they’re tapping into, I want us to be a part of that.

I also think that Daily Paper are like our European counterparts; what they’re doing in the African streetwear space is really dope.

Finally, before I let you go, how do you guys fuel your creativity?
KO: Some people dive straight into drawing sketches when they start a project, but I don’t do that. I’m not able to get creative that way. I live in a hilly area, so I’ll often walk up the hill, listen to music and relax. It’s important to sometimes get away from the computer, be in a quiet zone and let my imagination take over. So that’s what I often do.

PE: Similar to Ken, I like to take time to daydream and have thinking space. I also try not to get too attached to any one idea. Ideas are agnostic; we don’t own they. We’re just vessels delivering them to the world. If one doesn’t work out, it’s okay – that idea will eventually be delivered in a way that’s better suited.

I also obsess over projects. If we’re learning about a country for a launch, I will learn everything I can about the country’s history, political landscape, culture – all to see if we can connect the dots in a contemporary way through our designs, photoshoots and messaging.

We also speak to the community a lot, asking them about what they want to wear and what they want to see. We’ve had our misses, where we didn’t necessarily speak to the community and so the product felt tone-deaf and didn’t accurately represent them. I make it a point now that we do our due diligence. Our products need to have that emotional pull.

Great stuff. Last question: what’s next for MIZIZI?
PE: The next goal for us is to get on the international stage. With World Cups coming up and the Olympics, I want to start playing on the international stage with the big boys and showing them that the design space isn’t safe! We’re coming!

I’m sure it’ll happen! Guys, a huge congrats on everything you’re doing; it’s impressive stuff. I’m already looking forward to our next catch up. Thanks!

Wakanda shots by Temi Coker. Lion King and Coming 2 America shots by Kwesi Yanful, from campaigns directed by Temi Thomas.

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