“Whenever I’m there, I always make sure I’m looking outside and watching the history,” the designer Mowalola Ogunlesi says of her native Lagos, whose stylish ebb and flow was very much the driving force behind Psychedelic, her breakout undergraduate collection at Central Saint Martins, in London, last May. Just 24, Ogunlesi offered up men’s wear as you rarely see it: sexy and unhindered by stereotypes, or, as she describes it, “unapologetically black and pan-African.” The fervent response from such fans as Kanye West “has been totally unexpected,” she acknowledges, with a swing of her waist-length braids, “but awesome.”
At six-foot-one, in her black Adidas track pants and Nike Air Max 97s, Ogunlesi cuts an athletic figure as she breezes into a design studio at Central Saint Martins, where she’s now pursuing a master’s degree. Fashion is something of a birthright for Ogunlesi: Both of her parents are fashion designers, as was her Scottish grandmother, who, after marrying Ogunlesi’s grandfather, moved to Nigeria in the 1960s and launched a fashion label that used textiles produced locally. From the age of 12, Ogunlesi was educated at a girls’ boarding school in the English countryside, but she identifies as “definitely Nigerian.”
On her visits to Lagos, her first stop is at one of its madcap open markets, where she pays close attention to the locals milling about in made-to-measure traditional dress, the surfers cruising the local beach, and, not least, the sexy Lagos “petrol heads”—the car-loving, enthusiast boy racers who cruise the city in their pumped-up and pimped-out rides. The latter featured prominently in her collection, where models wore car-logo chain necklaces and earrings, and carried giant headlights. “The roads in Nigeria are lawless, and so are the Okada and Danfo drivers,” she explains, referring to the country’s motorcycle and bus drivers. Ogunlesi is fascinated by how they decorate their vehicles with graffiti, stickers, and heartfelt messages. “They range from the poetic to the comedic,” she says, recalling one she spotted recently that read my heart is clean.
Ogunlesi lives and works in an airy loft littered with piles of inspiration scrapbooks full of photographs by the American artist Deana Lawson, Ohio Players album covers, and video stills of the 1970s American band Funkadelic. Last January, Ogunlesi, who is also a keen drummer, went to Lagos to shoot a music video with the art photographer Ruth Ossai, featuring a local Igbo rock band. She dressed the musicians in hypnotic red, orange, and yellow printed leathers, with jackets nipped erotically above the nipple. “I just really wanted it to be a lot of skin, and everything to be really tight. It’s performance.” She was delighted that although the guys in the band were at first giggling at the clothing, they couldn’t stop taking pictures of themselves once dressed in the full looks.
Though her clothes steer the eye to “parts of the man that would typically be covered,” Ogunlesi doesn’t want to pigeonhole herself. “I do see women buying my clothes,” she says, mentioning that she included the South London female singer Klein in her lookbook. She wears her own designs, too, like when she and her friends head for tequila and dancing at PDA, an East London club night. “Both women and men should be able to have sexual freedom with their clothing,” she says. “My designs appeal to an unapologetic person.”
The sensual seduction is set to continue with her next collection, already titled the Pleasure of Pleasure. Being a third-generation designer, Ogunlesi concedes that she’s had a leg up compared to her contemporaries: “It’s been hard for many black people to get into creative industries, because they don’t have support from their parents.” She’s also aware that diversity in fashion is still very much a challenge—though as far as she’s concerned, the future is bright. Next up, she’s challenging the über-hetero world of soccer, styling and creating the outfits for Nike’s FIFA World Cup campaign for the Nigerian team. There are also rumors of a possible gig with West. “Working with a variety of cultures will allow fashion to not operate in a bubble,” she says. “We should be aware of what is going on in the world and constantly think of what we can do to make it more progressive.”