Illustrated portrait of Chi Adanna Chi Adanna Ilori
Creatively bold, shining bright, playfully powerful artist, unapologetic immigrant

Cover illustration for "The Future is Unconventional".

As a kid in Nigeria, I used to love playing in the swamp area of my mom’s catfish farm. Nobody wanted to go over there because they were scared to fall in the water or see snakes. But I didn’t care. My favorite was when it rained because all the snails would be crawling up the walls. I’d go there once I came back from school, collect the snails, and put them in this little snail house thing my mom set up for me.

Illustration of snails climbing upward.

When I came to the States, my mom went to this church where a woman taught the younger children how to sew. So I was like, oh, might as well try this out. I started making stockings and pillow cases, little things like that, and I really liked it. Then when I was about 12, I got my own sewing machine as a gift. It was a very cheap one, something to get me started, but clearly someone saw how far I could go, they believed in me. That was when I was like, okay, I’m gonna believe myself.

My sister used to be obsessed with America’s Next Top Model. I liked watching it with her because it made me think, I could see myself doing something in this type of field. My own model walk came easily to me. My sister would be like, how did you learn that so fast? Can you teach me? Now I walk in a lot of my own shows. I have this tomboy thing going on most of the time, so when I go to my shows with long hair and makeup or a mysterious hat covering my eyes, everybody’s like, oh, look at her. I like being able to be someone else, some other part of me that I don’t get to express on a daily basis.

Chi Adanna's Quote: “I like being able to be someone else, some other part of me that I don't get to express on a daily basis.”

Unlike a lot of designers, I can’t draw for my life. I got a C in art class. The teacher would do this thing where she put all the best pieces on the wall, and my piece never made it. Even the ones I did in a group project. She just didn’t see my style of art. She was like, it has to be like this. I was like, why does it have to be like that? That’s when I realized art is biased and I decided, I’m just gonna do what I can with my own form of art and let everybody else do theirs.

Illustration of a sewing machine on top of a table.

I love taking something that is usually used one way, and making it completely new. Like, I have this top I created from a pair of trousers. My inspiration can come from anywhere, from paintings or from the clothing I see on Instagram. But that has its limits ‘cause I want to make something new. I don’t just want to just copy designs that are already out there.

I reuse a lot of scraps to try to reduce landfill waste. Most of my fabrics have been used in many different outfits. I love mixing those bits of fabric with thrifted clothing, making something new with them. If you ask me, the future of fashion is thrift, upcycled, and reworked. More and more young people want to wear clothes that have stories, that old school type of look but with a twist. They want to bring the past to the future. I’m happy that my generation is defining what’s gonna be the next big thing. The fast fashion industry will have to adapt.

Sometimes when I’m in my fashion zone, I’ll put this one Versace show on the TV. I really like it because I don’t know who did the camera work but it’s just so good. It zooms in on the model’s expressions, their hands, their accessories. It makes me glued to the screen. I put it on while I’m working on my clothing ’cause it helps me think, okay, this is where I’m trying to be. This is how I want my pieces to be seen.

Chi Adanna's Quote: “A lot more young people want to wear clothes that have stories, that old school type of look but with a twist. They want to bring the past to the future.”

One of my dreams is to take my collection to Fashion Week. Everyone’s obsessed with the ones in New York and Italy. But to me that feels so normal. So I was like, let me do something different. I wanna take my collection to Hawai’i. That’s where I am right now actually. I just had this vision, I bought the ticket, and here I am. I love Hawai’i because they have a really strong sense of community. I posted online looking for more models and people have been really responsive.

Illustration of a sewing mannequin.

Fashion is my thing now but no matter what I do, I’ll always be the snail girl at heart. There’s a part of me that wants to be outside playing at all times. You know, climbing trees, jumping from rock to rock, doing pushups in the air, being like Avatar. I miss being somewhere where I’m in touch with nature in that way. My parents really wanted me to be a doctor. At one point I thought that’s what I wanted too. But now I realize healing others can look a lot of different ways. Maybe my kind of healing is through connection to the earth.

When I think about where I want to live in the future, I think about being in nature. I think, what if I learn to build cabins that can get people more connected to nature? Back when I was moving in with my best friend, her dad made us help fix up the house. We took out tiles, pulled up carpet, stripped wallpaper. I hated it at the time but looking back, it made me appreciate all the things that go into making a house of home. Nowadays with the cell phone and all this stuff, people are really into the metaverse and it’s like, okay, sure, but we’re all living in the real world too. We’ve gotta put down our phones sometimes and go outside.

If I don’t end up having kids I think I’ll just be a nomad. I want to go to the Caribbean. I want to go to South America. I’ve always wanted to go to Korea because I watched a lot of K dramas and I was very obsessed. I really want to see all the different cultures I can around the world and just experience their way of living. Whatever I like from there I can learn from. Whatever I don’t like, I can just leave it and continue on.

Chi Adanna's Quote: “I decided, I'm just gonna do what I can with my own form of art and let everybody else do theirs.”

I think little me would be so proud of where I am now because I used to define myself by how other people wanted to define me. Whether it was my parents, my teachers, or the other kids at school. I let them influence me a lot and I felt pressured to be a certain way. Recently, after 16 years of being undocumented, I became a legal permanent resident. I realized, whoa, I’ve come such a long way because I’m finally focused on living my life how I want to. I’m remembering that life doesn’t always have to be so serious, you know? I’m remembering how it feels to be free.

About the Storyteller: Born in Nigeria and now living in Sacramento, California, Chi Adanna is a SEED entrepreneur and was a featured speaker at our 15 Year Anniversary Celebration.

Read more stories from The Future is Undocumented series.

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