Ini Archibong, designer extraordinaire
The 35-year-old American has just completed the Ecole cantonale d'art de Lausanne (ECAL) and has already been hired by French luxury goods maker Hermès to design a new watch collection. An achievement that is the result of a carefully planned strategy going back several years.
You might say it was only natural. We were warned that punctuality wasn't Ini's forte, but in fact he arrived for our interview just 10 minutes late. Voted one of the best-dressed men in Switzerland by a Swiss German magazine last year, this young Californian designer is hard to miss in a crowd, with a style that combines sobriety and originality. He enters in a heavy grey coat, comfortable new trainers and a discreet orange tie... And, as we begin with a bit of small talk about how designers and journalists are supposed to dress, we quickly understand that Ini Archibong, in addition to being well turned out, is also accessible, relaxed and... virtually hoarse. He has been doing back-to-back interviews since the beginning of the week, so finding an available slot in his schedule isn't easy.
"My life is a mess", he concedes, as we try to fix an appointment. During our text message exchange he was in New York, Slovenia, Zurich and Neuchâtel, always either coming from somewhere or on the way to somewhere else. We finally managed to meet at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) in Geneva last January. We have an hour to talk, and a large cup of coffee in front of us.
For Ini Archibong, 2019 has got off to quite a start, with Hermès selecting him to design a new collection of ladies' watches called Galop. "Working with this company is a major accomplishment for any designer," says Alexis Georgacopoulos, director of ECAL. "But even more so for Ini, who finished his studies just a short time ago and has never had any contact with the watchmaking world." Georgacopoulos also notes that watchmakers sometimes have trouble communicating about the people behind their designs. "Hermès isn't like that at all. It's refreshing that they celebrate their designers."
That a young designer with no watchmaking experience was hired by the French giant for the crucial launch of a new collection surprised many in the industry. But Ini wasn't surprised. "I moved to Switzerland to work with Hermès," he states. And it was a carefully planned move.
Let's wind back the reel. Born in 1983 to Nigerian parents in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Ini was a tagger in his youth who quickly turned to design during his art studies at a Pasadena school. Still a student, he opened his own firm Design by Ini and, in the process, took off for Singapore. "Tim Kobe [inventor of the Apple Store concept – Ed.] took me under his wing. I worked with him for two years."
But then Ini started to question things. "I read a few books on luxury design to find out more about the world of brands. When I discovered Hermès, I found exactly what I was looking for – a family business operating in a vast creative universe that cultivates craftmanship." Ini realised that one of the ways to reach his goal was to join ECAL in Lausanne, which has ties to the French luxury goods manufacturer. His meticulously laid strategy took him to Basel and then to Neuchâtel, in an apartment housed "in an old steel factory", and there, Ini Archibong went back to school.
After marvelling at the architectural beauty of the café and discussing certain emblematic edifices in the historic watchmaking town of La Chaux-de-fonds, we wander over to the exhibition. This is the fourth time Ini has come to the event and, unlike the average visitor, he always pays special attention to the layout of the displays.
That's because since 2010 he's been exploring the world of furniture in particular, with projects in such prestigious galleries as SaloneSatellite in Milan – "a very big thing for new designers", he says – and at Friedman Benda in New York. Next up: Hermès.
"I did put myself in a box, it's true, because there's the brand and everything it represents. But honestly, Hermès has given me more freedom than any of the others", Ini states. And in fact, it wasn't the company that put any pressure on him. He did that himself. "I'm a guy from Southern California. So when I had to go out to eat in Paris, in great restaurants, with people from Hermès, I always had to make sure I was using the forks in the right order..."
Future in Switzerland
At ECAL, Ini Archibong will always be remembered as a model student. "He was always extremely thorough, and meticulous in all his choices," recalls Georgacopoulos. "And he has this American side that makes him extremely good at explaining, selling, finding the right words, and convincing people that his projects are the right ones. But that's not all of course – he's also an excellent designer and very talented..."
If you look at how well planned his collaboration with Hermès was, you can imagine that Ini already has a very good idea of what he wants to do in the coming years. And although that's the case, he won't a breathe a word about it. The only clue is that he's planning to stay in Switzerland.
Our hour is up. At the end of our walk through the aisles of the SIHH (especially François-Paul Journe's stand, whose Blue Chronometer Ini adores), he glances at his watch – a Hermès, of course – and seems relieved. For his next appointment, with the New York Times, he will only be fifteen minutes late.
1983 Born in Pasadena (L.A.), Southern California
2012 Graduates from ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena
2014 Starts studies at ECAL in Lausanne
2016 Exhibition at SaloneSatellite, Milan
2018 Exhibition at Friedman Benda, New York gallery
2019 Designs Hermès' new women's watch collection
Article first published by Le Temps in February 2019
Author: Valère Gogniat
Photos copyrights Guillaume Perret, Lundi13