Shortly after Gap confirmed it’s partnering with Kanye West on a Yeezy line that’s set to drop in the first half of 2021, 25-year-old designer Mowalola Ogunlesi posted to her Instagram account that she would lead the Yeezy Gap design team.
West is a longtime fan of the British-Nigerian designer—in 2018 it was rumored that she would be working with him in some capacity, and he and his family wore her designs for a Father’s Day photo—but the move and overall deal still feels surprising. West is known for having a keen eye for design talent—Virgil Abloh, who is now at Louis Vuitton, Matthew M. 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. But publicly naming another designer the lead on one of his projects is new territory. And backing a black female designer is also a big deal.
But who is Mowalola Ogunlesi and how did she get to this position? Ogunlesi was born in Nigeria but attended an all girls Catholic boarding school in Surrey, England when she was 12. She grew up around fashion design. Her Scottish grandmother moved to Nigeria in the ‘60s to start a fashion label using locally produced textiles. Her mother worked on that line and her father designs traditional Nigerian menswear. Despite fashion being the family trade, Ogunlesi says in Nigeria fashion wasn’t considered a field that was worth studying in school or pursuing as a career. “It’s a very money driven society,” she told SSENSE. “Having children who do creative things, changes the world in a different way.”
Ogunlesi, who also considered being a plastic surgeon, says her parents supported her moving to England to study fashion. So 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 told 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.” Here we get a first glimpse of the designer’s gender fluid aesthetic and interest in treated leathers. The male models wore low-slung leather pants and cropped leather jackets that came in an array of vivid colors.
She went on to continue her MA studies at Central Saint Martins, but dropped out after a year telling SSENSE the college was “just a bit too dated.” She continued: “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 applied for Fashion East, a nonprofit organization founded by Old Truman Brewery and Lulu Kennedy in 2000 that supports young designers and gives them a platform to show at London Fashion Week. In January 2019, Ogunlesi made her London Fashion Week debut via Fashion East and showed womenswear for the first time. The theme was exposure, whether that’s emotional or physical, and models wore sculpted leather jackets with cut-outs, 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 her country.
“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 shit that I want to make.”
She showed at London’s Fashion East show again in June 2019, 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. Ogunlesi added a bloody gunshot wound to a few of the pieces. The detail was meant to symbolize 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.
Naomi Campbell wore one of Ogunlesi’s halterneck dresses with a crimson gunshot wound to the Fashion For Relief show in London in September 2019. To clear up its interpretation, Ogunlesi posted its meaning on Instagram shortly after Campbell wore it stating: “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.” She continued: “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 her hometown of Lagos, Nigeria, being picked up 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, told 1 Granary that Ogunlesi’s line had a very successful sell-through shortly after it went live on the site.
Ogunlesi ended the year displaying her capabilities as a designer and artist with “Silent Madness,” an exhibit that opened at the NOW Gallery in London last December. She created a stage featuring a rock band of mannequins wearing Mowalola bodysuits that was 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 AnOther Magazine asked what’s next for Ogunlesi last December, she stated: “I might not even be doing fashion in a year… I’m just on a journey and whatever happens, I’m with it.” She continued: “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, so I don’t give a fuck. 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.”
Gap has lost its relevance over the past few years, and this Yeezy deal along with the Ogunlesi hire lends the retailer a cultural cachet it didn’t have. 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 (he left in 2011), and tapped Telfar Clemens, another black designer, on a now-cancelled collaboration, the Ogunlesi and Yeezy Gap deal is unprecedented. She will offer a new perspective to the basics brand that it needs.