Creative Women at Work: Kemi Telford

— by Alyson Walsh


Yvonne Telford wearing the ‘Let Them Say’ skirt from her own collection

Yvonne Modupe Telford is an online phenomenon. While shops have been shuttered and big retail brands have gone out of business, her fashion label  Kemi Telford (Kemi is short for Oluwakemi, Yvonne’s middle name) has experienced a meteoric rise. And, as of today the clothing line powered by a popular Instagram feed is now available from John Lewis & Partners. ‘I am honoured that they came to me, to sit alongside so many amazing brands. John Lewis is where I bought my first pram, my first computer…and I remember the brilliant service I got.’

Valuing associates and customers is an important part of Yvonne’s own business, her positive ethos, integrity and charm shine from her Instagram feed –  and down the line when we chat on the phone. ‘I always believe that we should put people first, treat them right. I do this by acknowledging the customers who buy from me, no matter how much they spend,’ she says, ‘And my suppliers, I see them, I acknowledge them. My business would be nothing without them, they are the most important thing.’

A childhood tragedy changed the trajectory of Yvonne’s whole life and led in a roundabout way to the launch of her clothing label,  ‘I started out blogging – my thing was actually writing as a therapy and it grew out of that,’ she explains, ‘When I became a mother I started to shed some issues I’d been carrying around. I’d lost my own mother at the age of 10, she was only 33,  and so I went through a phase when my first daughter was born of asking “Who am I?” and ” What do I want from life?” Everything shifted in my 40s, I asked myself how many Christmases have I got left?’


Kemi Telford dress for John Lewis


Four years ago, without any formal training, the Nigerian-born entrepreneur started her own business selling tote bags and jewellery, ‘I’d been working as a credit risk analyst and I knew I couldn’t carry my designer handbag and push a pram down the street, I had to do something,’ she recalls. The fashion side of the business arrived 12 months later, largely as a response to customers asking Yvonne where she got her skirts from. ‘I had my own sense of style which was completely different and so people wanted to know where my clothes were from. Either my sister sent them from Nigeria or they were vintage pieces – I love vintage because it has a story to tell.’ Then one morning Yvonne had a revelation, ‘ I was in the shower when I decided to design my own skirt based on the ones I’d seen women wearing when I was growing up.’

The lack of fashion design training didn’t hold her back, she’d inherited her creativity, ‘At around the age of four or five, I went into my mother’s clothes shop and thought I’d like to do that – but my parents wanted me to be financially secure. My father wanted to become a lawyer himself but didn’t have enough money to train, so he nominated me to become a lawyer. It’s hard to break away from that…’

Kemi Telford is very much a family business, her daughters (aged 11 and 13) take the photos of Yvonne wearing the beautiful, bold wax print dresses, skirts and slogan t-shirts. Possibly not for much longer, now the business is growing exponentially, Yvonne may have to find another house model to take over. And her husband helps out on an unofficial basis, when he can. ‘As we went into lockdown last year, the company had just taken on the lease for a much larger warehouse, my husband came in, saw all the stock on the shelves and said, “How are you going to sell all this?!” But I couldn’t let my suppliers down. I couldn’t cancel orders – I know these people, I know their families – and when I told my customers, I think it touched them.’ No need to worry, the warehouse shelves soon emptied as the brand’s joyful, easy-to-wear pieces became more popular than ever, during lockdown,  ‘The dresses just went crazy, I think people were looking for something to cheer themselves up, or something to wear on Zoom.’


Yvonne wearing a limited edition dress from her own collection

I enjoy following Yvonne on Instagram because she’s always compassionate and thoughtful, ‘I’m in my late 40s I’ve experienced life and loss, and while I don’t put those things out there I can comfort others who don’t have the experience that comes with age,’ Yvonne continues, explaining that in addition to the death of her mother, she lost an older sister, too.  ‘Age has worked out well for me, I can empathise with people and feel their pain because from an early age pain has been a part of me. I know what suffering is like.’ Despite all the tragedy in her life, her positivity seems boundless, ‘Getting older has given me a lot of confidence, it’s made me realise that I have to live my life with the people I love. To make sure I enjoy it; and if something stresses me out – I don’t want it. Getting older is a blessing, I don’t take it for granted.’

And even though she didn’t become a lawyer, Yvonne’s father is very proud of her success, ‘ I don’t think anybody expected me to be doing what I’m doing,’ she admits, ‘ I abandoned my university education at 23- 24; my dad didn’t want me to come to England but I always talk about the universe and how following the flow leads me to where I’m meant to be. That’s the way life is. I listened to my inner voice and broke away. I always want to move forward, to push myself, to grow and do better things. Now I am designing clothes for women like me, women who want to dress in a fabulous way. Clothes that make women feel great about themselves and encourage them to take up their space.’


Kemi Telford dress for John Lewis

The John Lewis collection launched today on the John Lewis & Partners website. If you’d like to hear more about the collection you can join a free Zoom event with Yvonne and John Lewis this Friday 23rd at 12pm. Yvonne will talk in further detail about her brand, collection and inspiration, followed by a live Q&A session. Register HERE.

Shop the John Lewis collection here:

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  Yvonne Modupe Telford is an online phenomenon. While shops have been shuttered and big retail brands have gone out of business, her fashion label  Kemi Telford (Kemi is short for Oluwakemi, Yv…