Growing up in Nigeria, Tony Iyke wasn’t exactly planning on becoming a Portland fashion star. But his mother, Rose, was sure of one thing: he was going to sew.
“She was a clothing designer. When I was just 6 she said, ‘OK, you need help hemming your pants? I’ll do one and then you do the other one,’” he remembers. “And that was where it started.”
Now here he is, six months in at an Oregon City studio complete with a giant cutting table and sewing machine nestled among well-dressed mannequins, beautiful leather pieces he’s also made, and shelves of pettable fabrics. Each year Portland Monthly chooses a rising designer we admire for breaking through the pack. Although he’s been at this full time less than a year, Iyke’s skills deserve this year's nod.
Rose’s influence didn’t end at hemming. She took her son on travels throughout Nigeria to buy up the best African textiles—known for beautiful resist patterns and bright colors—and teaching him the ins and outs of running a small business and the art of tailoring along the way. He stayed home through college, studying engineering. When he moved to Chicago in 2004, he thought he was leaving fashion behind.
Then he visited friends in Oregon in 2005. “The greenery blew me away because it reminded me of home," he says. "Nigeria and West Africa are very tropical. I fell in love with it here.”
He settled in town and jumped into the booming real estate market as an agent, but he was soon making custom suits for friends on the side, the look more Paris than Portland. By late 2013 he began to take real steps toward creating his own bespoke suiting line.
His engineer’s brain served him well: he hired a local company to do demographic and market research to suss out the competition here, and, most important, if there was even a market in Portland for fancy handmade suits. Iyke’s designs show more flair than traditional options, from his statement wood buttons to sharply peaked lapels, lined with China silk and brightly colored African fabrics from his travels. The research was encouraging, and last year Iyke finally left real estate behind and launched his design house, THOR. It’s shorthand for “The House of Rose,” in honor of his mother, who died in 2005.
Local interest piqued immediately, with a showing at the Street of Dreams style night and a runway show at FashioNXT. He won 2017’s Best Menswear Designer at the Portland Fashion & Style Award. Along the way he picked up high-profile clients like Tommy Thayer, guitar player for a little band called KISS, and stylish Timbers forward (and fellow Nigerian) Fanendo Adi.
How did the couture suiting of an unknown designer turn so many heads in its first year?
1) Iyke’s fit is impeccable—impossible to achieve by walking into a shop and pulling a blazer off a rack. Clients who visit his six-month-old studio get his undivided attention, from measurements to final thread cut.
2) He’s fast—which his client roster, full of attorneys and bankers, appreciates. He eschews the laborious traditional design process of sketch ⇒ muslin ⇒ final fabric. Instead, Iyke plots measurements directly onto suiting fabric, making any tweaks directly on the body during customer fittings. That cuts down dramatically on time. But the bespoke methods, with Iyke’s perfectly bound welt pockets, princess seams, and sharp vents, are no small feat. His two-piece suits round out to about 70 hours of work and run in the neighborhood of $1,400. That price covers lifetime alterations. (When a client recently lost weight, Iyke remade all five of his THOR suits to maintain perfect fit.)
3) His greatest weapon? That distinct outlook.
“My worldview is not the same. We Nigerians like colors, a lot, so I’m not afraid to use it. If it feels good, looks good, then why don’t you try it, too? You might like it,” says Iyke. He thinks his un-Portland take on suiting will help him grow to his five-year goal: transforming THOR into a building full of tailors cranking out couture suits for a stylish city. He knows it will take time, but he just thinks of Rose: “Her thing was always, whatever is worth doing, is worth doing well.”