YUSSUF KASSIM MANZI: Rooted in Tradition, Inspired by Innovation.

I hope you’re doing well and enjoying the start of April. With the arrival of spring also comes the dreaded allergy season, so my heart goes out to all the allergy sufferers out there – make sure to keep that thang on you—Mucinex, Zyrtec— something! I wanted to take a moment to reflect on Women’s Month in March and acknowledge the amazing accomplishments of women everywhere. Personally, I feel proud of everything I’ve achieved, big or small, and I hope you do too. Remember, you can’t kill a bad b*tch!

Paper Koi, Please help me welcome a true visionary in the fashion industry! Today, we have the pleasure of speaking with a creative force behind his sightly self-titled clothing label that has been making waves for over five years. With a keen eye for detail and an innate ability to infuse clean architectural silhouettes and dark colors with an Afro-centric, neat, and unisex perspective, YUSSUF’s designs are a true reflection of his Tanzanian roots. I’m excited to dive into the mind of this talented clothing designer to learn about him and his creative process. Welcome to the conversation, YUSSUF of YUSSUF KASSIM MANZI!

Cover design by @ssaint_9 | Photo by Matthew Arnold of M9 Visuals

YUSSUF: It’s a Pleasure.

G-MENTALITY: Thank you so much for joining me today! Can you share a bit more about your ethnic background and where do you station? 

Y: Ethnic background? Okay, I’m Tanzanian. Both of my parents are Tanzanian. 

G: Let’s Go!

Y: I was born in Tanzania too. I was six months old when I moved here, to America. I grew up in Massachusetts, [in] Springfield. 

G: Period! I did too.

Y: Yeah, yeah. You know the vibes.

G: Yes, I do know the vibes. Let’s get right into it! Do you remember that first moment where you were like, “I wanna do this…? I wanna design clothes…”

Y: It was around the end of high school, like senior year high school. Our family took a trip to Montreal, Canada. It was my first time going outside of the country. There was this boutique culture that Montreal had that’s like really… really interesting. Completely different than what I was growing up experiencing shopping around in our area. It’s mainly chain stores and things like that. The fashion at that time [things] were much baggier— even tho’ baggy is in, again—but at that time skinny jeans weren’t really that “big” yet, and designer clothing wasn’t really that popular; it was mainly like black streetwear brands. Going to Montreal for the first time, really getting to experience really high-level, “cut-and-sew”, silhouette designs. I remember just going to a few stores and I’m like, “these guys are talking in a completely different language”, immediately at that moment. I’ve always been into clothes, I always liked getting dressed, and shopping. I’ve always enjoyed the experience of understanding fashion, as far as different designers and brands could make, as far as culture is considered. That was like a *new door* opening. Into a new design world that I’ve never seen or experienced before.

Yussuf & Model [Photo: Matthew Arnold of M9 Visuals]

G: Can you describe what you saw while shopping in Montreal?

Y: There was this one particular guy, his name is Philippe. Philippe Dubuc. He has like— his clothes are completely muted. It’s all black, with zero colors inside the store.

G: All black?

Y: All black. Which again, was different from us because by that time Pharrell was, you know? His brands, “Billionaire Boys Club” and “Ice Cream”.

G: Very Colorful!

Y: Yeah! 

G: That is a contrast. 

Y: It was like, “What? I’ve never seen this before.” It was that and the tone was just really muted, I was just intrigued by— and then there were the cuts. The cuts! Especially for menswear. Cause it’s [menswear] usually basic, like jeans and t-shirts… The silhouettes that he had, and the cuts were just completely unorthodox. The seed was planted.

G: “Yussuf Kassim Manzi” is the name of your label. Any motivation behind the self-titled? 

Y: Yeah, originally the name of the brand was called, “High Class Society”, and when I started it at that time it was more of screen-printed t-shirts ‘cause that’s what I was able to afford at the time. It wasn’t until I moved to New York for school.

G: Where did you go?

Y: I went to Berkeley College. 

G: How was your experience? That’s interesting! 

Y: It was amazing! It was a great experience! What I really appreciated was my peers, the people that I went to school with, and my professors were really great. They just really challenged me to kind of “tune in” with our creativity and with our business senses as well too… and of course, New York, itself is like an environment. You learn so much! As you know, coming from Springfield. New York and Springfield are just “night and day”. Experiencing that in itself was like “school” on its own.

G: So after, “High Class Society”, why did you name it after yourself?

Y: I felt like it was more of a personal story that I wanted to tell with my personal self. The original name, to me, didn’t seem to have longevity. Designers that I really looked up to and respected like Ralph Lauren, Rick Owens, Tom Ford, and whoever. These people were using their own personal names, I was like “well, you know what? Why don’t I just change it to my own name?” 

G: and I love that too! 

Y: Thank you. There’s some actual DNA behind the name, so. 

Model is wearing "YUSSUF KASSIM MANZI" [Photo Credit: @m9visuals]
Model wearing "YUSSUF KASSIM MANZI" [Photo Credit: @m9visuals]

G: That’s Dope! How would you describe the style of your label? 

Y: That’s a tough question… I would say functionality is one of my biggest brand Ethos. I really do approach design with a sense of functionality. Being able to detach certain pieces from the garment. Even with fabric, even the tech behind the fabric [thinking about how] it’s cold outside, this material may seem thin, but when you actually wear it—

G: It’s not “flimsy”, It’s constructed to last. 

Y: Yep. 100%. Things turning into things, I have a jacket that has a detachable bag.

Technical Bomber Jacket with Detachable Bag & Hood by “YUSSUF KASSIM MANZI”:

G: How do you manage to be “the creative” of the family? It’s not often you would hear “I want to make clothes” coming from an immigrant family…and getting their support. How were you able to deal with that? Any pushback? 

Y: Originally, it was easy. My family inspired me to do what I do. My father particularly [is] very much so into clothing. 

G: Okay, it’s a generational thing? 

Y: Yeah, he’s like— his style is like incredible, my mother as well too. As far as picking and choosing what my path was gonna be, when I told them that it was gonna be design & fashion they were really receptive to it.

G: I love that for you! For some of “us” [laughs] my family doesn’t really get that I do this. That’s so dope for you! 

Y: Yeah, I’m really grateful. 

G: That’s a true blessing. 

Cropped Leather Jacket from “YUSSUF KASSIM MANZI”:


G: How do you feel when I say these names: Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, Hanae Mori

Y: Oh, yeah for sure! Those are like my mentors right there! 

G: Those are your Top Dawgs?

Y: Like Issey and Yohji, those are like my… that’s like my goal to reach. To be able to create on that level that they create on or create at least like Issey, may he Rest in Peace. Those guys are incredibly genius, like architectural level. Culture… That’s what’s inspiring my whole rebranding right now. 

G: Word?

Y: Yeah, I’m tapping more into African aesthetics.

G: Oh! Let’s go! I love that because I think your clothes are beautiful now— I’m really excited that you shared that. I was wondering, how was this going to turn out. I read that “His technique consists of wide cuts, exotic and luxurious materials, and elaborate handicrafts. The designer endeavors to make his clothes from the back and not from the front.” The back is definitely where it’s at, that’s how you really can *make* a good coat. Do you incorporate techniques into your own clothing as well? 

Y: I guess what I’m trying to incorporate more into is the brand is being more “Body Positive”. 

G: I really love that, I’m so excited! 

Y: Yeah, well I’m trying to go into more body positive, because if I’m putting myself out there as an African designer, our people, African people, black people, all of us—

G: The African Diaspora.

Y: Yeah, the whole diaspora. Our bodies are more, you know… thicker thighs, even for men too. 

G: Yeah… we’re all pretty thick. Everybody. 

Y: 100% and being able to create luxury, high-end clothing that suits our body well. It’s something that I’m noticing in the industry, is not really there. Most of the designers are creating more Eurocentric designs for European body types. Even with the Asian designers, obviously, they created for their body types. It’s just something that I’m just pondering. 

G: Can I add to that? I lived in China for two years. 

Y: That’s incredible. 

G: Thank you! It was during the pandemic, I didn’t get to do much but I still experienced some cool things! While I was there I felt like that experience forced me to really explore. Not that I couldn’t dress before, but to really… explore. Which is a perfect segue into the next question. I feel like I’m in this space where I’m redefining my true personal style… or expression. For an individual that wants to discover their own style, where should one start? 

Y: I feel like authenticity is always the best way to start. Who we are as people, we’re all individuals. I feel like there are certain things that we each have that we can express through clothing. Whether it’s a hairstyle, a certain pair of shades, glasses that you like, jewelry, accessories… cuts as well. If you feel like you’re more comfortable wearing baggier clothes, wear baggier clothes. Things like that. I always say comfort and authenticity are the two main things. Be unapologetic too! Don’t be shy! Have fun with it. For me, I feel like I get into character mode when I get dressed. 

Yussuf in YUSSUF KASSIM MANZI [Photo by Matthew Arnold of M9 Visuals]
Yussuf in YUSSUF KASSIM MANZI [Photo by Matthew Arnold of M9 Visuals]

G: Do you care to catch up with fashion trends? What’s something you give a “BOMBASTIC SIDE-EYE” to? In your personal opinion. 

Y: When it’s like fashion week. I do watch a few shows, but I don’t watch every single show. To be frank, I really try not to because I don’t want to approach my project with any references… and I try to stay off social media as much as I can. I get bombarded with so much—

G: Information, right?

Y: Yeah. Very saturated. People that I follow and admire that design, independent designers, and just people that have their own personal style as well. I’m trying to cultivate my own right now… but, side-eye trends? 

G: Yeah, what are you like, “Yeah, absolutely not!”. Don’t be afraid to talk! 

Y: I will just say the very “meme-fashion” culture. 

G: Are we alluding to the “red boots”? 

Y: The funny thing is about those boots when I first saw them… “alright, these are different”. I respect it, for now, I appreciate “different”. This is definitely going to be something that you put on and everyone’s gonna turn their heads. For me, the boots are completely okay, as long as you actually like them. I feel like if you’re getting them to kinda “go viral” for attention…

G: …so, it’s more intentional.

Y: Yeah, it’s the intent. That’s the thing, if it’s gimmicks… as far as your style, as far as your creative process… then that I can definitely give the “side-eye” to. If it’s genuine and sincere, cause I’m also a bit “weird” about things I may like. I could respect anybody who has that same “taste”, but if you’re just doing it to get “shock value” out of it… yeah… pass.

G: What’s an accessory that makes a “fit”? 

Y: Hats. I love hats. 

G: You know what’s crazy? I am a “bucket hat” lover!

Y: Love buckets too!

G: How do you stay true to your vision in a world that inhabits masses of people that are afraid to stand out?

Y: I really just enjoy just kind of being in my own world. I’ve always been this way, even before I designed clothes. I’ve always kinda been in my own world. I am split between an introvert and an extrovert…

G: I think that’s ambivert. 

Y: Oh, is it? I never even heard [of] that. Ambivert? Interesting. I learned a new word! Especially when I was younger, I leaned toward “introvert”. That part of me is still there like that inner child is really enjoying spending time alone. 

G: Being in your own world. 

Y: Being in my own world. Listening to the music that I like listening to. I think that’s what it is for me, what I consume. That’s what keeps me in my own world, I really enjoy being in my own zone. Music inspires me heavily. 

G: Oh my god, yes! We’re gonna touch on that really soon! Your jeans. I like them because of the presented distressed concept you did, and the texture is fuzzy and cool. A very disruptive concept, in the best way of course, for making those— what kind of denim do you use? 

Y: This particular denim came from Korea. One of my sources that I like using from my overseas connection. I distressed them even more and each stitch is sewn individually. 

Frayed Denim Jeans From “YUSSUF KASSIM MANZI”:

G: –and it has five pockets, like wow! Listen, like women’s clothing… they don’t put pockets on our pants! 

Y: Which is weird to me… I don’t know why, but…

G: It’s horrible…

Y: I try to make the clothes unisex. I feel like my clothes are gender-neutral for the most part. Most of the time when I’m working with models, the womenswear models, I would put the menswear on them and be like, “I kinda like this on you! It’s better on you”.

G: Going outside of your interesting creative work, designing clothing, and selling out. Who are you outside of this? 

Y: You know it’s so weird? When I think about this… ‘cause I’m so obsessed with work that I don’t— I really feel like I haven’t— 

G: You don’t smell the roses sometimes? 

Y: It’s really an obsession with me, I’m not gonna lie. I really put all my time and energy into being an artist and working. Outside of this? I could say that maybe that’s the journey that I may end up walking. 

G: Yes! Come out from that shell! Who are you listening to right now? 

Y: There’s like a whole spectrum of music that I listen to; when it comes to a lot of creative art. When I’m tapped into this really “weird” space I listen to this duo called, “4Hero”. They have this beautiful album, it’s like one of my favorite albums, it’s called “Two Pages”. It’s like trip-hop, like fusion. That’s who I listen to a lot. As far as rappers go, right now, my new current favorite rapper is Larry June. I love underground hip-hop. His album he just put out, “Spaceship On the Blaze”. I would also say, musically, who like inspires me is Yasiin [Bey], Mos Def. He to me, especially his last performances, the way he taps into that zone, it crazy… and an album I’ve really been spinnin’ Erykah Badu’s “Baduizm”.

G: Would it be alright if I asked you a question regarding your faith? 

Y: Yes.

G: How’s Ramadan going for you? 

Y: Ramadan is going great! I always feel like it comes at the perfect time. 

G: Really? Can you expand on this “perfect” time?

Y: It usually comes at a time when I have to level up. Either mentally, spiritually, and even on a health level as well; it’s a great detox. Being able to just go through the day fasting but at the same time just pray at night and everything. I enjoy it. I don’t know why… it’s like God really works in mysterious ways. This usually happens right when I need it.

G: That’s very beautiful. I hope you continue to have a really good Ramadan and that you get the clarity that you really need! This is my last serious question, okay? What advice would you give to others who are looking to pursue a creative career while also maintaining a fulfilling and well-rounded personal life?

Y: Balance, for sure. Coming from someone who is definitely “obsessed”, the balance is helpful. I think for me, the balance now comes into sleeping properly, eating well, meditating… things like that. Being able to put yourself first, before the work. You could still be obsessive about it but at least—

G: Healthily!

Y: Yeah, that’s important. Once you have that, your creativity is a force. It’s really natural. You can approach things with relaxation. You’re not anxious about it. The balance to get fulfillment and being yourself. I feel like you just have to spend some time alone and get a moment to know who you are. Understand the things you would want to express as an artist and not be money-driven about it, just do it. There’s gonna be people that are gonna relate to it. Oh, and enjoy being a student. Don’t ever think you know everything. 

G: Yussuf, thank you for sharing. I’m really enjoying the conversation! You’ve been so generous and insightful. Let’s loosen up a bit more and go into the fun questions! Starting off with my favorite question, what’s your zodiac sign? 

Y: I’m a Cancer. 

G: What’s the most Cancer “thing” about you? 

Y: I’m very intuitive. It helps out creatively. I’ll always create things and it’s like “Oh, somebody just put that out, somebody just did this”. I feel like there’s some type of psychic power that cancers tend to have. 

G: …They do, I know some Cancers. 

Y: I guess the other thing, is the sensitivity. I think that’s what makes me a great artist. 

G: I love that you see sensitivity as a strength. 

Y: When I was younger, I used to hate reading, “Cancers can be sensitive”, cause it’s like “crybabies”… Water signs.

G: Yeah, water gang. You know? We can “Tap In”.

Y: Yup! I feel like that’s what makes us great though. That emotional IQ, think it’s really important to have. 

G: What’s your favorite meal?

Y: I love noodles, I’ve been eating Pad Thai way too much lately. 

G: You’re stranded on a desert island, name three things you could only save, GO!

Y: Phone, a bag full of clothes… with some jeans and t-shirts. 

G: If you could listen to any song for the rest of your life, what would it be? 

[long pause]

Y: That’s another Cancer thing, we’re very multi-layered—

G: …You’re trying to figure out for which mood, huh? 

Y: Exactly! Like what mood would I want to stay in for a while? Damn, I might have to get back to you on that one….

G: Okay. We’re gonna pass, for now! What’s your favorite internet meme right now? 

Y: This reel I have, it’s like this dude at the basketball court—he’s playing “air basketball”. There’s no ball or anything, he’s just moving around. There’s nobody [there] and then it says, “Me waking through the crib alone”. 

G: You felt that in your spirit? That means you really be in your own world. I respect it! Last question, If you could be any fictional character, who would it be? 

Y: Iron Man. It’s like him or Bruce Wayne, I like the idea of them not being mutants. They were able to level up and create themselves into becoming superheroes. 

G: This concludes our interview. I genuinely appreciate it and enjoyed our conversation. 

Y: Likewise. 

You can Follow Yussuf on Instagram & shop at yussufkassimmanzi.com

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