Lust, bravery and fearlessness – three things with which stereotype-averse designer MOWALOLA OGUNLESI infuses her inimitable collections.
Here she speaks to EMMA ELWICK-BATES about her inclusivity-focused clothing that crosses not only continents, but notions of gender and race too
Photography by Vicki King Styling by Helena Tejedor
“I am focusing on building a brand that will challenge people’s minds. I feel that everyone’s on the gender spectrum, so the more we can break it down and get back to individual wants and desires, the more we can push society forward.”
As Lagos secures its position on the fashion map, 24-year-old Nigerian designer Mowalola Ogunlesi is pulling the stylish flow of the west African megacity into her genderless, crazed and colourful collections. “Lagos is like the bellwether of Africa-to-come,” says the bright-eyed young designer, who graduated last year from the Central Saint Martins menswear BA course with her “unapologetically black” pan-African, revved- up vision. “My graduate collection was centred on my obsession with Nigerian psychedelic rock music and a celebration of the black male: his sexuality, his desires, and his body.” Cue hypnotic red, orange and yellow print leathers, and jackets nipped erotically above the nipple. “I just really wanted it to be a lot of skin!” Unhindered by stereotypes, the Mowalola seduction continues; the camp of cowboy hats added to the blatant sexuality. “I wanted to show off parts of the man that would have been covered with typical menswear clothing,” she says.
With her star rising, Ogunlesi continued her studies with the acclaimed MA course (alumni include Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and Christopher Kane), but then chose to drop out this June. The draw of showing as part of the illustrious Fashion East incubator in January appealed to the tenacious energy and confidence that powers her (and is sexily stated in her designs). “I wanted to focus on the fall 2019 show. Expect an intimate insight into my desires in their rawest form,” says the Dalston- based designer excitably, with a swing of her waist- long braids. She is confident in her vision, and also takes charge of her business by taking classes, and doing her own press: “I know how I want to present it. I know how I want people to hear about the show, even. I want the clothes to feel super-exposed and to explore different ways of being exposed, whether that’s internally or emotionally. It’s not always to do with skin, it’s about being sexy in diverse ways.”
Ogunlesi joins an illustrious Fashion East roll call that has creatively pushed British menswear forward over the last 15 years (think Kim Jones, JW Anderson and Grace Wales Bonner) – and, poignantly, just as the fashion showcase loses its Fashion East “MAN” moniker. She doesn’t want to be label herself as a menswear designer (“I see women buying my clothes. It’s very gender-fluid”) and will show both men and women on the runway. “I design for fearless people who are really aware of who they are, so they don’t feel embarrassed by anything,” she says. “I like that in-between sensuality and toughness.”
The influence of her musical hero, Prince, is also inescapable. Her work is certainly one sexy MF. Sixpacks are exposed (and well-oiled on her runway debut), and peekaboo lingerie lace peeps out of second-skin leather – all cut with rapier precision. “Like Prince, André 3000 or George Clinton, it’s performance, and a head-to-toe approach. I really appreciate that effort to presenting oneself,” she says. Her next collection will hinge “somewhere between the subconscious and reality”, and encompasses sustainability of practice and attitude. “I am focusing on building a brand that will last and speak to people and that will challenge people’s minds. I feel that everyone’s on the gender spectrum, so the more we can break it down and get back to individual wants and desires, the more we can push society forward. Ensuring that there’s an inclusive combination of cultures and races working in the industry will stop it operating in a bubble.”
Fashion for Ogunlesi is also a family affair. She is a third-generation designer, following in the footsteps of both her designer mother and father and of her Scottish grandmother, who moved to Nigeria and started a contemporary fashion label in the 1970s, using textiles produced by the local community. “She was pretty cool,” says Ogunlesi proudly. From 12, Ogunlesi was schooled in the UK (“a typical countryside girl boarding school”), but identifies herself as “definitely Nigerian.” For her Fashion East show she is hoping, if possible, to have a fully Nigerian cast on her runway. Her creative family is also a global community, consisting of fit model, muse and studio assistant Trey Gaskin (who she met at CSM); collaborator Tawan KB (who she met over Instagram and who worked with her on boots for her graduate collection); and Nigerian- born, Canada-based musician LA Timpa. Yorkshire- based photographer Ruth Ossai (also originally from Nigeria) shot her lookbook. Work and play are happily intertwined with her gang, where a perfect night ends with “jollof rice, André 3000 and tequila.”
Mowalola Ogunlesi is engaging with issues of race, culture and identity in an ebullient new way. “I want to create a community of people who see Africa differently,” she says. “And of course, more sex. More sexy!” And with an athletic turn on her Nikes, the 6ft-tall Ogunlesi is gone.
Models: Darius Newell at The Squad and Dominic Augustin at SUPA. Hair: Teiji Utsumi at Bryant Artists. Make-up: Ammy Drammeh at Bryant Artists. Casting: Clémence Orozco Bello at Lock Studios. Catering: The Ingredientist. Photography assistant: Benjamin Whitely. Fashion assistant: Letizia Maria Allodi. Production: Chantelle-Shakila Tiagi