Style File: Christian Diboko, A Modern Picasso
By Matthew Hacke | Photographs by Michael Fornataro
In the short time that Christian Diboko has lived in Pittsburgh with his wife and three young children, he has already left his mark on the city. In July 2016, shortly after his move from Baltimore to the ‘Burgh, he started his fashion brand, ProBantuStyle. Soon after, he was asked to design a signature piece for Pittsburgh Fashion Week. Whether it be his infectiously kind personality, his towering 6-foot-5 stature, or his love of creating colorful and meaningful designs on the repurposed clothing he accumulates for his brand, people easily gravitate toward Diboko. And he is a people person, too — a fact that can be found in the name of his line. “My father always told me that we are ‘bantu.’ ‘Bantu’ means ‘people.’ So, I am pro-people,” he explains. “That’s where the name ‘ProBantuStyle’ came from. I had to stand for something, and my purpose and brand is not just about me.”
Can you talk a little about your background?
I was born in Belgium, and I lived there for about six years. Then, my family decided to move back to the Democratic Republic of Congo. From there, I moved to the United States in 2009 to Baltimore. Me and my cousin lived there. At that time, I couldn’t even speak English — [French is my native language]. It was tough for me just to get around at first, but I just followed my instincts. I moved to Pittsburgh last year, in July 2016, which is when I started ProBantuStyle. I moved here at first because of The Art Institute [of Pittsburgh]. I was thinking about going back to school.
How would you describe your personal style?
I would say Afro-centric mixed with European style — very bright colors and graphic designs.
Who or what inspires your fashion sense and the pieces you create?
Through nature and the things going on around the world. Mostly though, I would say my African roots. African masks, symbols, colors — all of the things that come from my roots. The news is my inspiration as well — my fire, as you could say. It was part of my inspiration for starting ProBantuStyle. I thought to myself, ‘I have to do something for people who are neglected — people who work hard, but aren’t being recognized because they are not given the same opportunities.’ That was kind of my inspiration for starting the brand. I knew, though, that I had to incorporate things that were eye-catching, so that’s why I looked toward my African roots. My mother is my biggest inspiration. She has always been one of my biggest supporters! She’s back home [in the Democratic Republic of Congo]. I talk to her often. The only advice she gave me when I started ProBantuStyle was, ‘You know when you plant the seed in the ground, don’t expect it to grow overnight. You got to keep watering it.’
How long has fashion been a major part of your life? Where did that style drive come from?
I would say it came from my appreciation of art at a young age. I like to see and create things. Even when my mom used to buy me shoes, I would add my own creative touch to them. It wouldn’t be to correct someone else’s work, of course, but I would think outside of the box and add my own personal touch to them. When my mom would ask me to clean up the house growing up, she would leave and come back and I would have the whole house cleaned and re-arranged. ‘Why would you change everything around?’ she’d ask. ‘I think it looks better that way,’ I’d reply. I’ve always had that personality and need to create things that make other people take a second look. I call it changing the game — having people look at something, a Nike shoe for instance, in a different way. Not thinking in the same pattern as everyone else and doing things just a little bit differently. People see it as your signature, how to differentiate yourself. This is the philosophy I go by with my business — just trying to make things the way I think they should be.
Where are you most likely to shop and get a lot of your clothes?
I would say thrift stores or discount stores like Burlington, Marshalls, and Gabriel Brothers — the places where you have to search in order to find some of the coolest things. Most people want to go to the mall and get the name brands. I don’t go for brands. The brand doesn’t make the person look good. The person makes the brand look good. So, you’ve got to know how to shop. I may have $50 and someone else may have $300, but I guarantee that I could put just as nice of an outfit together. I used to be that person when I was naive. I understand now that it was the commercials and advertisements and popularity of the brands and products drawing me in. So, I don’t follow trends anymore. I do what I think is best, especially when it comes to the price of things. I can’t justify spending as much now. I have to make sure that I am investing my money into pieces that I feel like I need, not want. That’s the problem with our culture. We may not need something, but we buy it anyway because everybody else has it. I even tell my kids, ‘You don’t have to wear something just because someone else has it.’
Where can people buy your designs?
Right now, customers can reach out to me via email [email@example.com]. I have clients from all over — right now, I’m working on pieces for clients in Japan and Brazil. Social media is really the best thing that has ever happened for businesses. You don’t have to leave your house. You don’t have to have a store. You can work online.