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A Cut Beyond: Slip Inside Creator-Designer Mowalola's Mad Universe

PhenomenalMAG Staff  |  Collections, Drops & Runways

Mowalola Ogunlesi's BA graduating collection lit 1 Granary Square five years ago.

The Nigerian-born designer presented an original depiction of Black manhood that was bold, colorful, and irreverent to gendered conventions to a panel of judges including fashion writers Suzy Menkes and Sarah Mower. It rejected the colonial lens that often penetrates images of Black men in favor of a comprehensive study of Lagos via London that caught the fashion world's attention.

Kanye West, who named her as creative head of his Yeezy Gap line in 2020, and Deto Black are now among Mowalola's fans. She makes music and is a creative in the fullest sense. She added, "I'm a designer, but I don't just see myself as one. I am a creative."

Mowalola, who counts music as her main inspiration, grew up in a milieu of designers, artists, and imagemakers around the PDA party, which featured DJs Mischa Notcutt, Ms. Carrie Stacks, and Akinola Davies, as well as homosexual and Black events. She's moved at her own pace, only creating when it's convenient for her, refusing to cave in to market-driven trends.

She will make a comeback during Paris Fashion Week with an off-scheduled presentation. We highlight her brightest moments as she displays her latest collection.

Psychedelic Collection

Mowalola's SS18 collection, "Psychedelic," was ambitious for a BA student yet fully achieved. Her magnum opus, shown in a catwalk show, movie, and lookbook styled by Ib Kamara, was inspired by Lagos' biker subculture and 1970s Nigerian rock music. Artist and casting agent Rhea Dillon assembled an all-black cast for the event, which featured heavy leathers flecked with paint. The models strutted with headlights and v-lines sparkling.

All gave positive feedback.

“The Mowa CSM show blew me away,” Lulu Kennedy, director of Fashion East, remembers. "The collection was outrageous, as was the casting and styling - the universe and atmosphere she generated around the garments was unlike any other student I'd seen. When I saw her backstage models, I knew I wanted to work with her.”

Thankfully, her collection swayed minds at home. In an interview with Reba Maybury, a former CSM lecturer, Mowalola said her Nigerian aunties once mocked men wearing lace. It changed when they viewed the collection.

Fashion East Collections

Kennedy, a talent scout, worked with Mowalola as promised. Mowalola resigned her CSM MA degree to work for Lulu, the fashion industry's favorite non-profit that launched Kim Jones, Martine Rose, and Wales Bonner's careers. She debuted with "Exposed" for AW19 alongside Stefan Cooke and Robyn Lynch..

While her two co-showers kept to menswear, Mowalola had a mixed-gender cast. Popular fashions included cropped jackets, pants with reverse bumster v-lines, and thong-shaped vests. Unlike her graduating collection, this would be bought by businesspeople. A compliment to her honesty is that she kept true to herself and ignored social conventions and financial pressures to produce two types of apparel.

Naomi Campbell & Coming For Blood

Her sophomore collection was last seen at Fashion East. The SS20 concert "Coming for Blood" centered on being Black in a racist world and falling in love. Belt buckles with Christian and middle-American emblems satirized complex histories, while a white column dress and jacket with an overt statement had bleeding bullet holes.

Naomi Campbell's leather halterneck at the 2019 Fashion for Relief event sparked anger from tabloids. The designer of the clothing posted an Instagram response. The comment was, "I make clothes to test people's thinking."

“This clothing proclaims my lived experience as a Black person, thus it's emotive. No matter how well-dressed or polite you are, you are a target.”

Mowalola summed up the problem clearly. "Newspapers slamming my work proves inequality is pervasive," she said. She utilizes clothes to express tough subjects but rejects the activist label. In an interview, she explains, "I feel like a lot of people don't understand that black people can express feelings like white people. Really, I'm only expressing my emotions.”

Silent Insanity

Despite enjoying hedonism, sex, and sensuality, Mowalola is mindful of excess. Her 2019 installation at the NOW Gallery on the Greenwich Peninsula revealed the dark side of pleasure. It was a cloying fever dream of poisoned mannequins with music by James Massiah. The show was inspired by Mowalola's desire to reproduce Renaissance artwork and address the disconnect she felt in museums.

Jordan Hemingway transformed the idea into a sweaty movie when it closed. Mowalola-clad producer and experimental artist Yves Tumor experiences drug-induced euphoria and hallucinations at a foggy club. At the end of the film, Yves has left the club and is in a housing complex where he passes out. Never too much of a good thing, they say.

Mowalola gave little hints regarding the film's objective. Who will you be when the world ends? Soon after, she complained about the UK lockdown's lack of apocalyptic atmosphere. "Honestly, I expected more drama. I expected chaos, but it's lonely and boring.”

Music By Mowala

Lockdown's tedium has ruled London for years, but for Mowalola, whose imagination is unquenchable, it must have been difficult. Indeed it was, she confirmed. She told us that lockdown favored a fractured creative style. While she says she idled and “cooled off” some, it's clear from her recent two years' work that she’s been extremely busy.

Mowalola has released Y2K music under her brand name. Her productions mix silly jingles with a trap edge, making them bangers. "tRuck.mp3.0001" and "Bundles" evoke our Limewire-encrusted memories of R&B hits and the home PC disaster they wrought. In Mowalola's photography, graphics, and current fashion creations, retro-futurism is also evident. Soulja Boy kitsch with Pokemon elements; she designed the Sony Walkman logo tear. Her lyrics are sensual and smooth, like Lil Uzi Vert, Hannah Diamond, or Yung Lean. The tunes slap, but pearl-clutchers may not like them.

In the end, chaos inspires Mowalola the artist, performer, and designer. Samuel Ibram, a regular collaborator, adds, "We don't plan before we shoot; we just dump the garments and make it work in the moment."

"There was no plan. Not having a storyboard is key. In Mowalola's music, fashion, and art, chaos reigns.”

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