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Ogunlesi… homegirl hits gold with Yeezy X Gap

By Tobi Awodipe
04 July 2020   |   3:45 am
Nigerian-British designer Mowalola Ogunlesi will be the design director of American Rapper, Kanye West’s new Yeezy and Gap collaborative venture.

Nigerian-British designer Mowalola Ogunlesi will be the design director of American Rapper, Kanye West’s new Yeezy and Gap collaborative venture.

West initially announced the new partnership with Gap last weekend with Ogunlesi later taking to Instagram herself to share the news. The fashion designer, who previously attended Central Saint Martins, had her London Fashion Week debut in 2019, where leather, cutout tops, and vibrant patterns typified her collection. No newcomer to the industry, she has worked with notable brands such as Kelela, Steve Lacy, Solange, and collaborated with Skepta on his Pure Water music video.

The Yeezy Gap line’s anticipated early 2021 launch will include men, women, and kids pieces. The deal is for 10 years, with a choice to renew after five.

Meanwhile, West has been a longtime fan of the 25-year-old designer and in late 2018, it was rumored that she would be working with him in some capacity, till it was confirmed by the duo recently. The rapper is known for having a keen eye for design talent; from Virgil Abloh, who is now at Louis Vuitton, Matthew Williams, who is now at Givenchy, and Jerry Lorenzo, who helms his popular Fear of God line, all worked with West on design at DONDA. This is, however, the first time the rapper would publicly name another designer as lead on one of his projects.

Born in Nigeria but schooling in England, Ogunlesi grew up around fashion designing. Her Scottish grandmother moved to Nigeria in the ‘60s to start a fashion label using locally produced textiles. Her mother, Adenike Ogunlesi worked on that line and her father designs traditional Nigerian menswear. Her mother is the brain behind Ruff ‘n’ Tumble. Despite fashion being the family trade, Ogunlesi hinted that before, fashion wasn’t considered a field that was worth studying in school or pursuing as a career.

Ogunlesi, who also considered being a plastic surgeon, said her parents supported her moving to England to study fashion. She went to Central Saint Martins for her BA and studied Fashion Textiles. While there, she spent three years working for Grace Wales Bonner.

“She got me to see that creating a collection is more than just the clothes; it’s the whole story. I got a lot from her, but I’ve executed it in my own way,” Ogunlesi said in her interview with SSENSE.

Ogunlesi’s BA menswear collection, which she presented in 2017, was titled Psychedelic, and was influenced by Lagos petrolheads and the country’s psychedelic rock scene in the 70s. She described the line as “unapologetically black and pan-African.”

She went on to continue her MA studies at Central Saint Martins, but dropped out after a year, saying the college was “just a bit too dated. There’s not really a lot of variety, tutor-wise. Everyone’s white, British or like white-European; there’s not really any people of color teaching us.”

She instead went on to apply for Fashion East, a nonprofit organisation founded by Old Truman Brewery and Lulu Kennedy in 2000 that supports young designers and gives them platform to showcase at London Fashion Week.

In January last year, she made her London Fashion Week debut via Fashion East and showed womenswear for the first time. Themed Exposure, models wore sculpted leather jackets with cutouts, coated leather jackets and skinny leather pants, and ultra mini miniskirts. By this time, celebrities including Solange and Skepta, who sat front row at this show, had worn her pieces, which she describes as unisex and influenced by Nigeria.

“I’m Nigerian, so, whatever I create is automatically going to be Nigerian work; I don’t feel like I have to brand myself as ‘the African designer,” she told Vogue UK. 

“The conversations that I want people to be having in Nigeria are the same conversations that people are having here in London. At the end of the day, I’m just a designer making things that I want to make.”

She showed at London’s Fashion East show again in June last year, expanding on her aesthetic and presenting glossy leather jackets treated with custom spray painted art, leather suits, halter dresses, along with moto jackets and pieces made from a neon green and brown cowhide. This time, she added a bloody gunshot wound to a few of the pieces., which was meant to symbolise the dangerous side of falling in love.

Following this show, Drake wore a custom leather jacket by Ogunlesi that was spray painted with an illustration of Halle Berry as her character Jinx from the 2002 James Bond movie Die Another Day, while Model, Naomi Campbell wore one of Ogunlesi’s halterneck dresses with a crimson gunshot wound to the Fashion For Relief Show in London last September.

Shortly after Campbell wore the outfit, Ogunlesi took to her Instagram page and said, “I make clothes to challenge people’s minds. This gown is from my collection Coming For Blood, a delving into the horrific feeling of falling in love. This dress is extremely emotional to me; it screams my lived experience as a black person. It shows no matter how well dressed you are or well behaved, we are time after time, seen as a walking target. I’m in a privileged position to be able to speak on issues that others would be silenced on. Inequality is still rife and newspapers clawing at my work is testament to that.”

Her accomplishments from last year also include dressing Barbie to celebrate her 60th anniversary; she was one of six designers chosen for that project, showing at Arise Fashion Week in Lagos last year. Being picked by retailers, including SSENSE and Dover Street Market, and styling the models in Skepta’s Pure Water video, she’s built on her assortment with leather handbags, knee-high boots, and leather belts.

Brigitte Chartrand, the senior director of womenswear buying at SSENSE, revealed that Ogunlesi’s line had a very successful sell-through shortly after it went live on the site. 

Ogunlesi ended last year displaying her capabilities as a designer and artist with Silent Madness, an exhibit that opened in London last December. She created a stage featuring a rock band of mannequins wearing her bodysuits and surrounded by her printed fabrics draped throughout the space, a photograph by Lea Colombo, and a trippy video she produced with Yves Tumour, Jordan Hemingway, and Dazed’s art director, Jamie Reid. 

When asked what’s next for her after the showing last December, she said, “I might not even be doing fashion in a year; I’m just on a journey and whatever happens, I’m with it. I think people are trying to make me go in a certain way and I still want to be very in control of what I do with my life. I’m going to do what is good for me because at the end of the day, I have myself and I need to take care of her.”

While Gap hired a black designer, Patrick Robinson, who previously worked at other large fashion corporations, including Giorgio Armani, Anne Klein, and Perry Ellis, as its design chief in 2007 and tapped Telfar Clemens, another black designer, on a now cancelled collaboration, the Ogunlesi and Yeezy Gap deal is unprecedented.