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“Out came this outrageously hot guy in a head-to-toe full accessories look that felt totally unlike anything we had seen before,” Fashion East founder Lulu Kennedy MBE recalled over email when LN-CC asked her about the moment she first fell under Mowalola Ogunlesi’s spell. For those of us fortunate to witness the CSM BA Class of 2017 show, we all remember that first exit in which the Nigerian-born designer announced herself with a sex-charged celebration of the black African male. “All my atoms started buzzing in that way they do when you are lucky enough to witness the birth of something great,” Lulu added. 20 years after its inception, Fashion East is still fashion’s greatest talent incubator so Lulu’s atoms are to be trusted. She wasn’t alone.
“I discovered Mowalola while studying at CSM and instantly became a fan,” Pierre A. M'Pelé, aka PAM BOY, formerly senior editor of LOVE Magazine and recent addition to The Perfect Magazine team, told us over email. “Mowalola speaks directly to her generation, to young souls partying for sure, but mostly looking to stand out,” he added. Even before graduation, her aesthetic felt fully realised because her creative process held a mirror to her own world – “chaotic, colourful, and really free”. Its community was ready-made because it was her community. When she dropped out of the CSM MA course, she called Lulu and soon joined Fashion East MAN. For spring/summer 20 she built on the autobiographical narrative embedded within her hyper-sexual silhouettes and presented Coming For Blood, an ode to falling in love for the first time. Rather than sugar-coated love, she channelled what she called the “horrific feeling of love” with a silhouette-shifting collection that explored the craziness, the loss of control and the horrors of love. During the show, a tannoy call repeated “Mowalola” over pulsing beats and strobe-like lights confirmed that a new star had taken to the stage.
“She instinctively knows the force of a brutally sexy and beautiful subversive graphic image more than anyone I have worked with at Fashion East,” Lulu explained. “She takes it there with no hesitation and she flips it into product easily.” While her graphics collaborations with photographer Lea Colombo and powerfully provocative T-shirts – Heat, Another Man’s Wife, Take Some, Kiss Me and Monster Baby – are great examples, one of the most discussed was the halterneck white leather dress that Naomi Campbell wore to her Fashion for Relief gala, with a trompe l’œil bullet wound and trickling scarlet blood. The dress was widely lauded as a powerful political statement on gun violence, but to avoid any misinterpretation and silence right-wing trolls, Mowalola took to Instagram to release a statement: “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.”
While dedicated to the preservation and documentation of Black fashion, New York-based stylist, consultant and archivist Antoine Gregory is always scanning for the present and future.
After encountering her Ibrahim Kamara-styled, Ruth Ossai-shot graduate lookbook, he fell down a Mowalola rabbit-hole. …. “We are existing in a time where a Black woman is building a brand for herself and on her own terms,” Antoine adds. “Mowalola is an example of how important it is to give Black designers agency and the community they can build when they have it. In the 15 months since Antoine added Mowalola to his evolving thread of “black fashion designers you should know”, it has become a name many are familiar with. When Kanye appointed her design director YZY Gap, the tannoy dial was turned all the way up.
“Mowalola is a powerful entity because she speaks to blackness, to subculture, to the internet.” US-born, Europe-based writer and consultant Louis Pisano explained over email. “When you see a Mowalola piece there’s a very intimate vision, with the workings of her inner psyche on full display,” he added. “You feel like this is a designer who gets what it's like to be a young person right now, a young person who doesn't fit into the traditional societal boxes. She's out here in the trenches with us, making the clothes we want to wear to show who we are.” That’s power.
While she has not presented a catwalk show since spring/summer 20, her heady hedonism and effervescent energy are no less infectious in any medium she chooses to focus her attention on. This energy cannot be contained as ideas largely conceived on sweaty dancefloors cross-pollinate and become anything from a shoot to a mixtape, an exhibition to a night out. “I was an artist before I was a designer, and I’ve always wanted to make something bigger than just a runway show,” she explained at the opening of Silent Madness, an immersive installation that married her unique Nigerian punk-inspired aesthetic with her passion for musical expression. During interviews around the exhibition she hinted that her output would evolve beyond the boundaries of fashion – “I might not even be doing fashion in a year… I’m just on a journey and whatever happens, I’m with it” – which it has. Mowalola is more than a designer, she’s a multidisciplinary artist and Mowalola is more than a label, it’s a practice. Whatever she creates is rooted in a punk marriage of music, sex, politics and new future visions.
When we’ve spoken to Mowa previously, she’s discussed the importance of creating for the world she wants. Across product drops, shows, exhibitions and films, there’s a purpose to her work, a desire to change the world. “The power to change the world exists in her voice and in advocating for herself within this industry – Black women do not always have that privilege, especially in fashion,” Antoine added. “It is so easy for women of colour to be labeled a certain way for requesting simple and basic things: clothes that fit their bodies, hairstylists on set who can do their hair, credit for trends they create. And for Mowalola, she gets to decide all of that for herself. That is a world we all want; a world where we are seen. That’s a world she deserves.”