Things are moving fast for Mowalola Ogunlesi.
Since graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2017, the Nigerian-British designer has landed collaborations with Nike — with whom she designed the World Cup kits for the Nigerian football team — and New Balance. She’s been tapped by Ye (the musician and fashion kingmaker formerly known as Kanye West) to design his Yeezy Gap collaboration and garnered orders from trendsetting stockists for her namesake brand, Mowalola.
Now, the 27-year-old designer aims to enter the next phase of her brand’s growth, reintroducing the subversive label with her first runway show in three years in Paris on Saturday.
“I was ready to grow my brand, and wanted to take the risk in coming to Paris to show here,” Ogunlesi said, sitting at a café across from the Centre Pompidou art museum.
Ogunlesi has built her brand around a progressive, exuberant and androgynous aesthetic. Her brightly coloured, body-hugging pieces — which she sometimes refers to as “burglarwear” — are layered with references to her love of music, film and art, and often celebrate sexuality and challenge traditional expectations of West African identity.
The show comes on the heels of a busy year for Ogunlesi, as the designer juggled her role at Yeezy Gap with trying to maintain progress on her own burgeoning brand, as well as seeking to make progress on her other creative pursuits. In addition to her work in fashion, the designer has curated exhibitions, recorded an EP, and says she is currently working on creating a TV show she has already written — projects she says are as central to her creative universe as her fashion shows.
Mowalola has also outfitted the likes of Drake, Solange Knowles, Kim Kardashian, Megan Thee Stallion and Naomi Campbell — who wore a trompe l’oeil bullet-hole dress that courted online controversy, as well as pushing awareness of her daring aesthetic to new heights.
London’s Rising Star
The designer’s star was already on the rise when she quit the Master’s program at Central Saint Martins. Her Bachelor’s degree show had won industry attention, and in 2019 she had her London Fashion Week debut as part of Lulu Kennedy’s Fashion East talent incubator. The same year, she also staged an immersive gallery experience in London which evoked a unique Nigerian punk aesthetic, merging music, art and film.
For Ogunlesi and others close to the brand, there was soon a feeling that she had outgrown London’s fashion scene. “Even when I first came across her work at Central Saint Martins, she seemed more like a seasoned designer rather than a student,” Kennedy said.
A big break came soon: In 2020, she was tapped by Ye as the design director of Yeezy Gap, a year-and-a-half-long experience that gave her valuable insights into the workings of a global fashion business.
“I learned a lot from [the Yeezy Gap experience] but wanted to move on after a year, to focus on working towards my own brand,” the designer said.
Ogunlesi takes the stage in Paris having won over clients and industry insiders alike with her expressive designs, which often flaunt conventional ideas of good taste and manners. Her neon cowhide miniskirts, skintight multi-colour tank-tops, and hot pink leather pants have been picked up by the likes of Dover Street Market and Ssense.
“Since her first shows, she’s always wanted to challenge traditional perceptions through her clothing,” said KK Obi, a stylist and creative director who founded Boy Brother Friend, a fashion and art publication that explores identity in the African diaspora. “When you go to Nigeria, you can see the impact her work has in empowering the younger generations, whether that’s how they dress or how they engage in political struggles.”
“How fierce and strong-minded she is as a woman definitely shines through in her clothing … As a woman, or anybody wearing Mowalola, you feel hot and liberated,” Kennedy said.
Now, Ogunlesi — who goes by ‘Mowa’ to her friends — believes that she and her label are mature enough to reach new heights. Where she had previously produced collections herself or with the help of one or two part-time staff, she now has 14 full-time employees working on the current collection, which she’s been able to fund partly using money earned from her year at Yeezy Gap, as well as thanks to a collaboration with New Balance that is set to debut at her Paris show.
A More Structured Approach
Ogunlesi is quick to admit that she had little commercial knowledge during the first few years of running her label, especially in areas such as wholesale agreements and company finances, and was “bad at asking for help” from organisations.
“I’m not the most business-savvy person, so it really took a toll on me mentally getting to grips with how much of your own money you have to invest in starting a brand,” said the designer, who added that she had an application for financial assistance from the British Fashion Council rejected in the early months of the pandemic.
She says she remains wary of what she sees as an overly prescriptive approach to supporting young brands in the industry—often pressuring them to show each season in order to stay in the spotlight, as well as to keep their slot on the fashion week schedule.
But since leaving her role at Yeezy Gap in December, she has worked alongside Alex Sossah, co-founder of creative agency Metallic Inc, to identify a more structured approach to developing her business. Sossah helped broker a deal with Italian fashion group and brand accelerator 247, which will manage the label’s wholesale relationships, distribution and logistics from this season onwards.
Mowalola’s previous collections attracted orders from high-end retailers including Dover Street Market, Selfridges and SSENSE. This season, with increased production capacity and wholesale support from 247, the label plans to broaden its presence to a wider range of retailers and boutiques worldwide.
The brand has reorganised its collection in a bid to lower average prices and make the brand more accessible to its fast-growing audience (on Instagram, where her bio is simply “DriP Gawd,” the designer now has 211,000 followers). Mowalola’s signature cowhide bags were revamped using a more affordable, supple leather while a wider range of streetwear staples like T-shirts, hoodies, and crop tops was also added to the offer. The brand will keep making elevated signature pieces but wants to make sure it has more items it can produce at scale to meet demand from wholesalers.
Seizing the Spotlight in Paris
The upcoming collection centres on a theme that Ogunlesi and her design team have called “burglarwear,” and plays on the idea that “everyone in society can be a thief in some way or another,” said Feyitimi Majekodunmi, a senior designer for the label, who previously worked for Maison Margiela.
Building on existing codes like playful ring-shaped logos (which reference the designer’s obsession with superhero films like Batman), the collection includes jewellery shaped like the weapons from Japanese manga series Naruto. Standout looks are set to include thigh-high PVC boots wrapped in barbed wire, a hooded zip-up jacket with a built-in balaclava, pinstripe mini-skirts, corsets and cut-out dresses.
Big-brand collaborations being debuted alongside the collection underscore the feeling that Mowalola’s Paris debut could be a turning point for the label: the designer worked with New Balance on two limited-edition colourways for the brand’s 9060 sneaker line. A trucker cap collaboration with early 2000s cult brand Von Dutch will also be seen on the runway.
Helping to put the show together is renowned Russian stylist Lotta Volkova, a fellow CSM graduate and longtime collaborator of Balenciaga’s star creative director Demna.
Ogunlesi believes the show in Paris will be the perfect springboard to reintroduce the brand and burnish its credentials. “Now we have a full team behind the brand. I’m really excited to see how far we can take this creatively,” she said.
The multihyphenate is also currently working on releasing an EP which is “almost ready to go,” as well as a TV show she has already written — projects she says are as central to her creative universe as her fashion shows.
“Mowa knows her own mind — she will listen to advice but will ultimately make a decision based on what she feels is right,” Kennedy said. “Since graduating, she’s never followed the ‘normal route’ in fashion and she’s had such an exciting journey because of it.”