Wonderland’s Toni-Blaze Ibekwe on Capturing Culture Through Visual Storytelling

Wonderland Magazine Winter 2023 Cover by Axle Jozeph | Image courtesy of Wonderland Magazine

In a forever-evolving fashion economy, Toni-Blaze Ibekwe’s adaptability appears almost seamless. Through her leadership at Wonderland Magazine, the publication has captured the zeitgeist with striking iconography and aspirational glamor — origami inspires extravagant Afro-Caribbean coiffures, legacy brands and indie designers transform into cover stars, and starlets become style icons. Characterized by whim and elements of world-building, Wonderland seeks to evoke emotion from readers turning through its pages. Yet at the crux of the publication’s success is Ibekwe’s collaborative leadership style. The image maker cut her teeth at the publication while attending Central Saint Martins, the much-lauded art school whose alumni range from Riccardo Tisci to John Galliano. Under the early mentorship of stylist Matthew Josephs, she quickly became acclimated to the editorial world, interning, assisting on shoots, and attending fashion shows and industry events. Years later, Ibekwe transitioned from a wide-eyed intern to a seasoned Editor-in-Chief, working with musicians and fashion luminaries from Migos, Dave, Jorja Smith, and Nicki Minaj to Samuel Ross and Naomi Campbell. As a 90s baby drawn to Missy Elliott’s visual storytelling and Misa Hylton and June Ambrose’s image architecture, Ibekwe’s aesthetic, enriched by her childhood, is infused with her Nigerian roots and London’s creative landscape. Models.com contributor Nia Shumake spoke with the editor-in-chief and stylist to discuss her career trajectory, develop her eye, and adapt to the ebbs and flows of the fashion media industry.

Interview by Nia Shumake | Editor Irene Ojo-Felix

Naomi Campbell by An Le | Image courtesy of Wonderland Magazine

What first drove you to fashion and how do you feel you developed your eye for styling?
Growing up, my parents were quite flamboyant; both of them are Nigerian, so there was always this culture of dressing. It was instilled in me to be myself through fashion and dress differently. My mum would dress me up in all these outfits and put fun quiffs in my hair—everyone had their ugly phase, so it was a time when it [fun outfits and hair] was common; it wasn’t how the girls are now, there were no references. My dad made me outfits and would go to the tailors and make them for us to match. When he bought me a sketchbook, I thought, “I can do fashion,” and then I realized it’s not just fashion, it’s design, styling, PR, and journalism. There are many facets to it. I knew I wanted to go to Saint Martins, but I couldn’t draw and I thought, “I don’t know how I’m gonna do this.” Styling stuck out to me because I grew up on ’90s music videos and researched who was behind those looks. I started tapping into people like June Ambrose, Misa Hylton, and Patti Wilson. I never knew that it was a job until I was in fashion school, just researching and getting to know who was behind some of the most iconic pop culture. It was an amalgamation of all these things. I wanted to get into fashion, but I couldn’t draw, so I knew I wouldn’t be a designer and that styling could be the thing for me. Styling is one of those things where you’re constantly learning and I think that’s the beauty of it. When you keep your eye open and have no ego, you always learn while you’re shooting, whether it’s editorial, celebrity, red carpet, or commercial. It doesn’t matter how prepared you are or how superior your eye feels. You learn as you go on the job because you have to adapt to situations.

What’s informing your stylistic and curatorial work at the moment?
I’m just living my life. When I’m out during fashion week, I see how people are dressing, looking at the young kids in Paris. Being in London with all the young designers that we have here, I’m seeing how people layer and how it differs from city to city. If the schedule allows, I try to have one day in the week when I’m sitting down, looking at things, and reading old books. I have a few David LeChapelle photography books that stay by my desk. I flick through them [old books] and think, “How does this make me feel?” Sometimes, you just get drawn to how something makes you feel a certain way. I get quite inspired by people because even when I’m shooting talent or a model, I go to the drawing board and look at everything they’ve done before and what they haven’t.

Wonderland stands on the border between fun, eclectic fashion, and pop culture, but what’s the actual process behind selecting talent?
Because we’re such a collective, every person’s voice in the office matters, so the self-obsessed TikTok & Instagram intern might have a suggestion or they might be listening to someone or the guy from Accounts could be playing something. It’s not to say that we’re all creative geniuses, but our strength is when you have a collective of voices, you listen to those voices. When we pick talent, we will go the celebrity superstar route, but then we have that area where we do something unexpected. I’m trying to move into putting more designers on the cover, they’re like our new celebrities at the moment. I think people enjoy opening a page or seeing a cover that might be a new up-and-coming person they haven’t seen before and discovering that with us. There’s so much strength in community regarding anything in life. You learn so much from the people that you think might not have as much experience because you’ve done it for so long, but you’d be surprised by their taste level and that difference is what brings the strength of the magazine.

“Styling is one of those things where you’re constantly learning and I think that’s the beauty of it. When you keep your eye open and have no ego, you always learn while you’re shooting…”

Would you say that, in a way, it aids you all in being so aligned with the cultural zeitgeist?
Since we’re not corporately backed in terms of structure, there’s more flexibility with the photographers we shoot with. We’re the magazine that would shoot with a graduate or photographer who’s just graduated or hasn’t gone to uni. There’s not a hierarchy and that’s not to discredit years of someone in the game, but there’s this level playing field, and it keeps us ahead of the curve. There are so many photographers that we’ve worked with who were young in their careers, and then they’ve gone on to some amazing things. Don’t get me wrong, if someone’s an iconic photographer, you play into that too. It’s just about having balance. I think that’s what keeps us culturally tapped in.

What do you think contributed to your own personal longevity? Why did you decide to continue moving up the ranks with titles there?
I grew up in a different time. When I was an intern, it was my final placement year at Saint Martins. I was young and loved being in the office. Being an intern one day and then assisting on a shoot. You ended up being able to go to fashion week. If editors didn’t want to, you went to certain shows, amazing parties, and were around the scene and the culture. Since I didn’t come there thinking, “Oh my God, in three years, I’m going to do this,” I didn’t have that pressure. I was enjoying being and learning. At the time, I had an early mentor, stylist Matthew Josephs, who was someone I’d seen do so many amazing things with FKA twigs, Nasir Mazhar, and Sibling, which was an iconic knitwear men’s brand in the UK. Now it’s changed so much. Before it was straight-up assisting or if you didn’t have access, people had to grind it out and find a client/someone they could build with. Once you have tunnel vision for your journey of who you are as a creative, you try not to look at what someone else is doing in the beginning. In the beginning, it’s fresh, and you don’t really have anyone to compare you to.

Migos by Laura Marie Cieplik | Image courtesy of Wonderland Magazine

Can you name some of the mentors you had while growing up in media and fashion?
I wouldn’t say I have had loads of industry mentors. My mom is one of my biggest supporters, and I have a really supportive family. My family is quite interesting. 50% are doctors, another percentage are midwives, and then you’ve got the creative lot, which includes me. I think the industry is quite interesting when it comes to mentors, but it’s not an easy kind of thing to tap into.

Looking back on your career, what are some of the most memorable styling projects you’ve worked on?
I’ve worked with so many good people. I’m always really proud of my work with a lot of the musical artists I’ve worked with in London like Dave and Jorja Smith. I always mention Migos because I’m a rap fan. My brother directed the video on that day, which was really special. I think Bad and Boujie just dropped and we were gassed as hell. It was a really good time for the culture and with the recent tragic news of the late Takeoff, it was one of the last shoots they did as a trio. We had them in a full Prada runway look, which I think the show had happened two weeks before. My little flex was that I could get them and get the looks. To this day, I would say they’re fashion icons because of how fearless they are, almost rock star level, right? Being an editor-in-chief and being a part of those moments, I’m always quite proud of.

How would you say they’ve shaped your approach to fashion?
You always keep learning it doesn’t matter how perfect you’ve prepped something or how perfect the idea is. When you work with high fashion, the model’s there to execute your vision -you can put a look together whether the model likes it or not. It shapes your approach because you get to be more free regarding editorial. I worked with Naomi Campbell a few years ago for a personal project and it was unreal to see the way she moves, how quick she is, and you can tell she has OG energy that you feel. When you work with a certain level of talent, you have to be super directional and intentional; you have to be sure of yourself and what you’re trying to say. I [also] worked with Nicki Minaj twice and this level of people are very directional with the way they look and understand their position. They also have a level of creativity and a vision for themselves.

How do you feel like your creative collaborators aid in your creative process?
From an editorial standpoint, photographers are among your most important collaborators as a stylist. When putting teams together, you have to think about who goes with what and as a stylist, you know your aesthetic, so you set this net out and see who would work. Once I have a photographer that I really love, I like to keep shooting with them and see how we develop our eye together. Early on, I used to work with photographers like Jack Bridgland, who did the Wizkid cover for us and at the moment, I’m working with Axle Jozeph, who’s based in Paris. Whenever I’m not thinking of ideas, I think about a person in my mind and what we can shoot next. It brings this fun to it where you challenge yourself each time you shoot. For [those in] young careers, I always say if you can find someone that’s your go-to, grow with that person.

What does a leader in today’s fashion economy have to look out for?
A leader has to be very open, I think of platforms like TikTok, for example. Five years ago, I remember all my fashion friends saying, “Oh my God, TikTok.” Now, when I scroll, I’m pretty sure I see a couple of them doing GRWM’s, me included. The media is changing in general, [along with] the celebrities and the people with the influence so you have to be open and not be elitist. Ultimately, a lot of people have a lot to bring to the table, whether they have four years at Saint Martins or not. The world is changing and people are so accessible to each other now. In terms of media, there has to be that balance of print, but also pushing what you can do socially is so important. I think as an editor, in general, when you are putting people on covers, casting, or putting an issue together, you want to create something that feels like a melting pot of what the world is. It’s thinking about people who aren’t able-bodied to thinking of people who are gender fluid. It all makes you a communicator. That’s your strength when you can understand that so many walks of life are tapping into fashion and the reason why is because of its whimsicalness and aspirations– and you don’t want to lose that.

How do you think your life experiences have informed your thoughts about clothes and visual storytelling?
There’s a certain energy in Southeast London that’s unmatched. You go to an area like Peckham and there’s the Nigerians, you go to Brixton and there’s the Jamaicans, you go to Elephant Castle and there’s a big Cuban community. There’s so much culture here. There’s obviously gentrification, but I remember growing up going to Camden Town in North London and you would see the actual punks, and they were part of that subculture. Being Nigerian, when you have a wedding or a party, you go to the tailor and get things made. Porsha from Real Housewives of Atlanta got married recently [to Nigerian Simon Guobadia ]and had six outfit changes, but that’s such a traditional way of getting married in Nigeria and just in African culture in general. Every single look will be custom-made by a tailor, hand-beaded, you name it, full-blown couture is happening at your wedding because couture is technically the process of getting things made.

In terms of storytelling, being a woman of color, you almost have a duty to your work. It’s not to say that you shoot everybody and everybody has to be a person of color, but [you’re intentionally executing] certain concepts in your mind [and thinking] of how you want to shoot someone or the way you want to see them in fashion. For a long time, there was a certain type of black woman who would get more coverage than other black women. The rapper girls were only ever shot in that one way and now you’re seeing so many amazing editorials, they’re in couture, and they’re high fashion. You almost feel like you must also push the narrative forward.

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