A 22-year-old fashion mogul is on the rise in Jacksonville, Fla.
Hogoè Kpessou is breaking through the luxury industry by designing and selling handbags and apparel, like swim swear. Customers have been snatching up her merchandise. Since launching the brand in October, she’s had more than 7,000 sales. The majority of those purchases are her bee-themed bookbags, messenger bags, purses and saddle bags which come in a variety of colors.
While her brand is just getting started foundation, Kpessou is already thinking about expanding to chic, stretchy clothing that fits all body types. Kpessou wants to represent people who are not often seen on fashion runways.
“Luxury was always so attached to whiteness,” Kpessou said. “It was part of the reason why I started this. I thought, ‘Well, I’m Black and being Black is a gift. So let me do it.’
By naming her brand after herself, Kpessou reclaimed a childhood identity crisis. She was bullied after her family moved from Togo, West Africa to Florida when she was six. She remembers the classroom erupting in laugher whenever a teacher got tongue tied over her name. (On her website, she breaks down the pronunciation like so: “HO” “GO” “EH” “ K” “ PEH” “ SUE”).
Students also thought she smelled weird due to the food her family ate and they threw stuff at her when she got off the bus. She was often the only Black girl in her class. The harassment and racism she endured every school year eroded her sense of self to the point that she started telling people to call her by her middle name, which is easier to pronounce and sounds more European.
She cried at her high school graduation not out of excitement, but out of relief that the teasing would subside and she wouldn’t have to shrink herself anymore.
“It was really traumatizing, especially when you’re just coming into a new country,” Kpessou said. “You’re like, ‘Well, OK. This is a great welcome party.’”
Kpessou’s parents emphasized good grades and work ethic. Kpessou often helped her mother weave beauty from her fingers at her hair braiding salon. Her parents not only labored so Kpessou and her sister would have a better life, but also to send money back home to Togo.
So, when Kpessou decided she wanted to sell her own line of handbags, she thought: If people like Calvin Klein and Guccio Gucci could make empires out of their names then she could too.
“When you hear ‘Gucci’, you don’t instantly think of the price. You think of the presence that name brings. You think something luxurious or something big,” Kpessou said. “I wanted that same ability for my name because I felt like I was cheated out of enjoying being able to be me for so long.”
Right now, she is a team of one (sometimes two when her boyfriend helps out). Sleep is rare as she juggles going to college for psychology as she designs, orders, models and quality-checks her merchandise. Not to mention managing shipping nightmares that occurred during a pandemic and a national election.
Although sis is tired, she doesn’t plan to hire staff until she can properly take care of them, she said. She wants her people to benefit from the same success she is claiming.
“I want to be able to grow, but I want anybody who joins me to be able to grow with me. I don’t want to grow on top of people,” Kpessou said. “If I’m eating good, I want other people to eat, too.”
Kpessou seeks to empower customers through her work and some new collections are in motion. Her merchandise functions like wearable affirmations inspired by nature.
The mantra for her Bee collection is “I attract the sweetness of life.” For the Firefly collection (coming in August) it’s “I bring light to the darkness.” Her Luna moth collection, which is coming soon, is about representing rebirth and renewal
Her experiences are similar to those of other Black women who are launching the most startups in the country, but are receiving the least amount of capital. But Kpessou received $10,000 from her mother, which she originally planned to put towards a new car. As Hogoè Kpessou becomes more successful, she has attracted more capital.
A more timid Kpessou would have probably been willing to settle before. But as her brand grows, so does her tenacity and assertiveness as she solicits investment.
“I tell them, ‘I can make that much in a month. I don’t need that much. I need this much. Can I get it? Yes or no?” Kpessou said. “Seeing that character development was surprising to me, because I was hearing myself on the phone, but I didn’t believe who the hell was saying it. I grew up as a very ‘Yes, ma’am. Yes, sir’ type person. Now, I’m getting more recognition by people, and that instills a sense of confidence.”
Kpessou still cries when someone tries to pronounce her name. But it’s no longer out of pity for herself – but out of pride. Customers now make sure they say her name correctly as they spread her brand on social media. That reclamation of power has encouraged her to see big things for her brand. She sees celebrities wearing her clothes and accessories in movies and TV shows. She imagines herself holding awards for her designs. She wants to be so successful she wants to be the one to look down on household names like Gucci, she said.
Even though all of these milestones are off in the future, Kpessou has already gained something priceless – a renewed sense of self worth.
“As a Black woman, the only thing I want to take away from being successful is the power to be able to let people know where my standards are,” Kpessou said. “So you either going to meet me here, or stay where you are because I’m not coming down.”