“Color gives me life,” says Odile Jacobs, the 51-year-old designer behind her namesake label – a label that certainly knows how to add a hit of happiness to getting dressed, even on the darkest of days. Jacobs is speaking from her home in Damme, a small village located just outside the historic city of Bruges, and her all-white interiors are punctuated by splashes of vivid color from artworks and ceramics she’s collected during her travels. “Before I started my brand, I would wear lots of gray, black and navy, as I didn’t want to stand out on the street. But then I realized, when I put something colorful on, it gives me this positive energy. It makes me feel happy.”
Jacobs established the brand in 2017, after deciding she wanted to make a dress for herself – an easy style she could wear for many occasions. With no formal design training – Jacobs was a midwife for 24 years – she sketched out a rough design of something she felt was missing from her own closet: a midi-length dress with sleeves, buttons up the front and a belt; a versatile style she could wear cinched at the waist in the city, or loose for days at the beach, when she wanted to feel more comfortable.
Jacobs had one clear mission, however – the dress was to be made using traditional African prints crafted from waxy cotton fabric. The fabric was symbolic: Jacobs’ late mother, who was born in the Congo, had worked with those fabrics throughout Jacobs’ childhood. These fabrics were part of Jacobs’ upbringing and family history – and are now part of her brand’s DNA. “I would always ask my mother to make me things,” she says. “She was so independent; she did everything alone and she really inspired me.” Jacobs flew to Ghana to source fabrics and simultaneously found a skilled artisan working from a small atelier on the Ivory Coast. She flew home with 60 dresses – and the brand was born.
For Jacobs, who was born in Brussels, it was important that the brand straddled her dual European-African heritage. The silhouettes are deliberately modern, with voluminous midi-length skirts that are ideal paired with crisp white T-shirts and summer sandals; and button-up dresses that can be teamed with ankle boots. Come spring, Jacobs styles hers with slip-on clogs. “You can wear them to weddings, for the beach, for cocktails, for every life moment in the city or elsewhere,” she says. “It mattered to me that they were timeless and versatile for the modern working woman.”
Designing clothes is quite a change of direction for someone who dedicated more than two decades to helping mothers bring their children into the world. But Jacobs thinks that her years spent as a midwife have made her a better designer, resulting in an innate bond between herself and other women – a third eye that helps her navigate their needs.
There are lots of women who are afraid of color, or they love color but think it will only look good on my Black skin. That’s not true. Color is wonderful, no matter your skin tone. I like to think that I push and dare women to step outside their comfort zone”
“When I was a midwife, I had a different experience with each mother and there was a step-by-step process to find out what she wanted – to feel and work with her,” she says. “I actually think it’s not too different from designing. There are lots of women who are afraid of color, or they love color but think it will only look good on my Black skin. That’s not true. Color is wonderful, no matter your skin tone. So, with my brand, I like to think that I push and dare women to step outside their comfort zone. To be a little braver. It is a lot like the process of going through labor.” She jokingly likens herself to a “Sister Theresa” – telling women to take their time, breathe in and breathe out, before “putting on the dress!”
Jacobs’ previous career also gave her a sense of practicality that imbues her clothing, too. Despite the artisanal nature of the fabrics, Jacobs insists they can be thrown in the washing machine. “It’s very easy – you can wash them with other things, even jeans,” she laughs. “They keep their shape very well and the fabric does not fade. The whole point is that they are easy. When you have children and a family and a job and a life, you don’t have time to think too much about clothes,” she says. “You just want to put things on each morning and feel good.”
The models featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER