Road trips, fashion, music and doll design. Mowalola opens up about things falling into place on her unconventional journey.
In late 2022, Mowalola Ogunlesi posted a picture of her tattoo on Instagram, which reads, “God Knows Why” in red script. It is nothing if not an apt response to those in the fashion industry trying to make sense of her career trajectory and critics who may at times miss the point.
Ogunlesi’s BA graduation show at Central Saint Martins in 2018 introduced a new Black masculinity. The genius of her vision was to move away from the Colonial gaze to instead embrace a sexy, gender non-binary silhouette. For the show, she took inspiration from 1970s Nigerian rock music and motorbike subculture in Lagos, where she grew up. The collection was such a hit that London’s fashion fairy godmother, Lulu Kennedy, invited Ogunlesi to show as part of her talent incubator and non-profit organization, Fashion East. Most students would have played it safe and stayed in the MA course where Ogunlesi had enrolled. She did not and hit the ground running to set up her business, designing three collections under the Fashion East banner.
Spring/Summer 2020 marked her first brush with controversy when Naomi Campbell wore her white leather dress with a bullet hole trickling blood. Ogunlesi’s response to the controversy was to speak her truth on social media: “I make clothes to challenge people’s minds,” read the statement. “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. Inequality is still rife and newspapers clawing at my work is testament to that.” At the afterparty for her final Fashion East show, I asked about her next move and whether she would be joining the London fashion calendar. In true Mowalola fashion she said that she was going to take time off and reflect on her next work.
Throughout her time at Fashion East, her tailoring and silhouettes were ahead of the curve. Ogunlesi gave us micro-minis long before the comeback of that 1960s trend which Miu Miu and Diesel by Glenn Martens capitalized on the past few seasons. The industry was hungry for more, but Ogunlesi’s greatest strength has always been to listen to herself and to do things on her own terms. Stepping away from the traditional fashion landscape, her next move was to create an installation titled Silent Madness at London’s NOW Gallery and a film of the same name directed by Jordan Hemingway and featuring musician Yves Tumor.
Mowa, something I admire about you is that you’re always evolving. You’re always finding new things to get inspired by. Is there anything that you find yourself coming back to?
I feel like there’s an inner and there’s an outer. There’s stuff that’s happening in the world that affects me and makes me think a certain way, or makes me interested in a certain thing. As I’m figuring it out, I’m expressing my understanding about it. I feel myself moving towards something internal, and I’m trying to express that, but without words, just more visually.
Is there anything external you are trying to figure out or explore?
I feel like the future we’re moving into is very cold and scary, in terms of the imbalance of control. How people can censor you, or how people can make you fearful of speaking up about certain things that are important to talk about; [as a person of color,] being used to seeing people die really easily. It feels less human and more like we’re expiring computer software.
It’s scary. That’s why I like making stuff with you, [because] I get such a sense of you in everything you do, a sense of humanity. Maybe that’s also because the people that you love have such a presence in a lot of your work.
Definitely. I feel like I’m inspired a lot by the people around me. What they create makes me excited to be here.
Are there any iconic road trips that you were looking at for our shoot? How did you want to capture yourself and the girls in the car?
Paris Hilton’s The Simple Life. That’s our 2000’s icon queen. I’ve always wanted to do that. This was the moment.
Did you know the models, Tumi and Biba, before?
Biba was in my first show ever at Fashion East. Tumi I’ve known my whole life, but she only just started modeling in the past couple years. We kind of lost contact over the years, so it was good to see her again recently, now that we’re kind of in the same world.
Do you have any favorite memories from your childhood in Nigeria? Is there anything that you feel has made an impact on who you are now?
So many things. One, I feel like not being able to watch TV during the week, only on weekends, made me figure out other ways to enjoy life. I was also really obsessed with rap videos, but less fashion-wise, more about creating a story, acting it out and being my own little director. A lot of the activities I did as a kid let me really express myself. I was like, “Wow, this is what I want to do. I don’t want to work in an office.”
You said that the way you design is almost like a movie director. I get that a lot from your stuff as well. You’re always making movies, even if it’s the song or it’s the outfit, I feel like you’re Tarantino-ing all the time. Do you have any favorite movies?
I have a lot of favorite movies, but the one that I’m so heavily inspired by, that I really fucking love, is Run Lola Run. Big time. Anytime I’m doing something, I always go back to that and be like, “Oh, I want to reference this.”
What’s so cool about that movie is that it’s so much about how you feel when you’re watching it, rather than it just trying to tell you a story. It feels so intense.
It feels like dreams that I have, [like] trying to choose a moment. This morning, I had this crazy dream, and I woke up still stressed about it, thinking I was in the dream world. I was like, “Wait, none of that exists in this world.” And I just relaxed. When you’re stressing about shit and you just realize, wait, that’s actually fake. It’s like you are choosing to be stressed out by it when you could actually just be like, “Okay, I’m going to see it in a different way.”
I totally feel you. So much of what we stress about or fear about doesn’t really exist. The stress just goes away if you don’t let yourself be stressed by it.
It will fix itself.
I used to get so caught up and be like, “Oh, fuck, how is this going to happen? My life is going to be ruined if I don’t finish this thing.” Then I’m like, “Wait, what’s going to happen?” Nothing.
Before, when I used to fail, it was fun for me because I would figure out other ways to do something. But then I feel like the older you get, the more things you have at stake. Failure feels like the worst thing that could happen to you, but actually, it’s not. It’s hard to say that to yourself, to remember that.
When you’re learning and you’re young, the stakes don’t feel so high. You’re not scared of messing up. Whereas, when you feel like you’ve got more to lose, you’re so much more frightened of failing, which makes your work safer. That’s something that you’ve been really good at not doing. You don’t play it safe, ever.
I’m just highly addicted to risk. That’s my life problem. I need it. If I don’t do something, I won’t sleep, I’ll just be thinking about it. For example, this Bratz collab I was working on, we had the designs all done and then something in me was like, “You need to change it. You need to do something else.” I was like, “You know what? My team is going to hate me, but I was like, ‘Guys, we’re changing everything.’”
That’s how you make something that at the end you’re really proud of. And you go, “Yo, it’s so good. I did what I wanted.”
Exactly. That part of it means a lot to me, just based on my childhood. I want to do things that I can look back on to be like, “That was really exciting.” Rather than, “Ugh, I wish I did this, I wish I didn’t do that.”
When you feel like you’re achieving your childhood dream, or something that would have a big impact on “baby you,” you want to do it right. Even if that means starting over again.
Exactly. A lot of people don’t work like that, especially because they have deadlines, and they have slots, and everything in their life is so perfectly curated in the production part of things. Production needs to wield its power to the creators. You can make something great, but if you make something that the person doesn’t love, what’s the point?
You do so many different things. You’re a doll designer, as well as a musician, as well as a director, as well as a designer. Do you feel like when you’re doing these things they exist separately, or do they all live in the same world?
I feel like it does and it doesn’t. Sometimes, I’ll try and plan something around something and then things just won’t work out for it to go that way. I realize I’ll be stressing about [how] it’s not happening in a certain way. Then it’s like, why does that matter? I feel like I’m trying to focus less on the perfection of how things flow out and just let it be. I feel like everything has its own perfect timing.
When you make it, then it’s ready. I feel like music has always been part of your work. Let’s talk about how important it’s been in everything else that you’ve done.
It’s my first love because of everything surrounding it: the videos, the covers, the sounds. It’s got everything I really love. Even with my collections, when I start creating, I make a playlist of the sound of the collection whilst I’m trying to move forward. I’ll start asking myself questions like, “Okay, what is this show? What is this collection? What is the story?” And I build the story from there. I used to start a lot with music, before I started making music. Now, I make music too, so it doesn’t start from that anymore because that’s ongoing.
Now she’s a pop star too.
I wouldn’t say that. I feel like I’m still a baby.
Hey, I would say you’re a pop star. You’re a pop star to me.
I definitely want to experiment more, but I take my time with it. I don’t worry about, “Oh I’m going to drop the EP on this date.” I don’t care. I just want to try shit.
I want to come back to your journey in fashion. Both your parents are designers, is that right? Do you talk with them much about your work?
That’s the thing, I feel I haven’t actually been able to, because I think the fashion world that I’m in is very different from the fashion world that they’re in. That’s been really hard for me, not actually having anyone to advise me. I feel I’ve made so many mistakes where things could have been easily communicated. I don’t know why people just don’t really share things in the fashion industry.
Community has been such a big part of everything you do, and it does feel like there’s a group of people that make everything together. You share things, and whether that’s through music or video or whatever, you made a really cool movement of people. It’s not just you alone.
It feels like the [idea of] community now is [about] which influencer can be bought by a brand. That’s what it’s come to. It’s less organic.
For sure. What do you think is the next thing? I know that we’ve spoken before about the idea of making a movie at some point.
I’m figuring out how to take things slower and not rush. Because now, the older I’m getting, the more the things I want to do require attention and planning and growth, than where I was three years ago. I’m trying to be aware of that and create around that. That film I want to make, I still want to do it, but I’m not rushing. When it’s the time, it will be the time. All I can do right now is work on it by myself, writing the script. Life is long. It’s short, but it’s also long. I don’t want to do everything in the first five years of being in business. I want to stretch out.
Would you have done anything differently from when you started?
Something I would have done differently is spend more time paying more attention to the business side of stuff, and not just trusting people based on face value. Testing things out and not overlooking the little red flags. Those things have cost me a lot, but I’m still here.
She’s not going anywhere.
You can’t kill me. The one thing I’m the most grateful for is the team I have around me.
They’re so cute. You’ve created the most beautiful team ever.
It’s crazy because I used to cry about it all the time. I used to feel so alone in my business. And then, it just came together.
How did you pull people together like that?
First, understanding that it’s not going to be so conventional. It won’t just be fashion students only; it’s more open. Everybody has such different backgrounds, but they can all do whatever. It’s more based on the vision and the taste. I’m just so grateful.
Do you have any advice you can give, whether it be to yourself five years ago, or to someone who is starting their journey now?
Of course: You don’t know everything.
I love it when we do things together. The priority is having fun and figuring things out that way. I feel like that’s generally how you like to work, leading with love.
Definitely. Usually I don’t have much to say on it, I just steal from the photos.
It was a fun day driving the car around FOLD where we shot this story. The smoke machine almost blew up but thankfully, it didn’t.
That could have been crazy, because I’ve been seeing so many freak accidents happening lately and I’m just like, “How many times have you cheated death?”