While she grew up, her family’s clothing line advertised itself as “Proudly Nigerian.” Mindful of that heritage, MOWALOLA has been advancing a fluid representation of the Black body, championing the individual. Now, she wants to destroy
everything and start fresh—because when there’s destruction, there’s something new being rebuilt.
INTERVIEW: REBA MAYBURY
PHOTOGRAPHY: JORDAN HEMINGWAY
REBA MAYBURY We met because I taught you at Central Saint Martins in 2017. Then you left and got picked up by Fashion East pretty much immediately, right?
MOWALOLAWell, it was weird, because I couldn't create while I was at CSM. I just felt too constricted. But when I left, and then had my show to work on, I had to do things on my own, and I was actually growing and learning. That’s where I learned that fashion's really an expression of yourself. I was also conscious of the fact that I wanted to make clothes that I could actually wear and do everything I wanted to do, whether it was being in the club or walking down the street. It was about living in this wearable art that looked sexy and made people feel powerful as well—and I felt like I hadn't really seen that. Especially growing up kind of boyish—or what is considered “boyish” in the world—I knew femininity was bigger than what was being projected onto me. Your femininity can be anything you want it to be, and it doesn’t have to be a certain way all the time.
RMTotally. It can be fluid.
MYeah. Speaking to you about your work as an artist, writer and political dominatrix, and talking about people like Prince and André 3000, it got me going back, analyzing why I liked them so much. I realized it’s because they were the most fluid, most evolving entertainers in the industry.
RMExactly. Looking at these types of Black masculinity, which are totally flamboyant but still incredibly sexy in a way that is very potent, has been disregarded in fashion history as well. And I think it's an abomination, because they've given more to people than people would like to acknowledge.
MI saw a magazine cover with Pharrell in a dress, and the headline said, “Reinventing Masculinity.” And I was like, “Didn't people do this twenty years ago?” This “new masculinity” has always been there.
RMI think that’s what's really important about your work. So often, the Black body is sexualized in a way that is actually out of their control; it's a projection put onto them that can be either stereotyped as dangerous because it's too sexy, or dangerous because it's violent. There's very little in-between. So I think it’s really important that you’re creating this vision which is completely made by you—a person of color, and especially a woman of color—for your own community, because it's something we lack in the discourse of fashion history.
MYeah. When I left the MA, I had a lot of time to go out, and the kind of people I met were just so exciting to me. I’d never met people like that before. For once, I actually felt comfortable in a space, and I was able to put that energy into my work. So when I was thinking about my models, about the characters that are making the clothes sexy, I didn't want it just to be about tits and ass, because it's way more than that. It’s about how they put things on their body, the parts of skin that were showing that you don't usually see. It got me thinking about the inner arms. Or the lower stomach, just before the waist—that’s probably my favorite part. I love seeing that V on guys.
RMIt's also really interesting thinking about female bodies in this particular moment, as they’ve never been so modified before. Plastic surgery is more rampant than ever, and this kind of Kardashian body is so over-exaggerated and pornographic, but it smells so aspirational that people think they should have that body, even though very few people have it naturally. Diverting attention from that is super important.
MYeah. I have a body where I don't have hips, I don't have any large assets, so seeing women like Rihanna and Aaliyah, with those real bodies, was really important. Those are the kind of people I want to champion. I think everyone should want to get to a point where they feel good about themselves—but it doesn't have to be where everyone looks the same. The reality in your own body is what matters.
RMThat's what's so interesting about the parties at [the London nightclub] PDA: they really champion the individual.
MYeah. It's a wild party, but it's more than just a party. It's almost spiritual. It does something to you, and you're not the same when you leave. It was started by Mischa Mafia, Ms. Carrie Stacks, Crackstevens and James Messiah, but then they have other DJs come as well. I met Joey LaBeija there, who did the music for my last show. SHYGIRL, LSDXOXO—and Total Freedom. He blew my mind. I want to teach myself producing as well.
RMThe musical element to your work is so explicit; there are obvious musical references in the clothing, and it comes out of club culture. That's something that's so special about the history of fashion in London. If you look at people like BodyMap and what they were doing in the '80s, that all came out of the club scene. Kensington Market and Hyper Hyper as well.
MYeah. Also, growing up in the ‘90s and watching pretty much only MTV, and seeing all kinds of music, I feel like I was hit with every kind of world.
RMThe music videos were so much more creative in the late '90s, early 2000s.
MEspecially with Busta Rhymes.
RMOh my god, yeah. All the Hype William videos.
MThey just really made me want to dream big. I'd never seen stuff like that before.
RMThinking about your last show, the word “erotic” comes to mind. Historically, the word doesn't really even have anything to do with sex—it's about feeling full of life. Your show was like that. It felt like a real celebration.
MIt was a party—although I was probably in the worst place I've ever been, mentally. I felt horrible.
RMThere was that white leather dress with the bullet holes in it…
MYeah. Even the colors that I chose looked like bruising colors. I didn't do that on purpose—it was just what my body was telling me to do. I was going through really hard things in my relationship. I'm not posing as a victim, because I'm not, but people act like being in love is the best thing—but there are also some parts that are scary, and you lose control of how you want to feel, or who you are.
RM Is that what the gunshots were about?
MIt was about a multitude of things. Just me being a Black woman and dealing with stuff. It's also with me in the fashion world. I feel like people look at me like, “What she's doing is not what we want. She's a threat to this safe world that we're in, so let's do what we can to not celebrate or support her." So with that piece, I think I was just expressing this feeling that people or things were against me. I can't express myself in a way where it's pinned back to be digestible for other people. Every time I create something, I don't want it to be, "Oh, it's politically based on this." No, it's not always about that. I go through things, I have feelings. I want to be able to show all that and be seen as a creative, and as a person—not just as a Black creative.
RMYou’ll transcend that. It's just because historically there's been so little like this...
MI don't even think it's been that little. I think they've been there—they just haven't been celebrated. My grandma and my mom were both fashion designers. My grandma was Scottish; she married a Nigerian, and they moved to Nigeria in the '60s. She eventually found out that he had another wife, but she stayed and lived there until she died. She started a Nigerian womenswear brand, and my mom worked with her. My sister and I would always be there when we were babies. We didn't know what was going on—we'd just be running around in these amazing clothes—but as I got older, I understood what my grandma and my mom did. I always wanted to be around them, and just learn from them. So I grew up seeing strong women actively pursuing their dreams in a place that wasn't so accepting of what they had to say.
RMYour mother ended up creating her own brand, right?
MYeah. In Nigeria, everyone would buy Western brands for their children to wear. Having something that was Nigerian-made was looked down upon; you’d be seen better if you were in GAP or Ralph Lauren. But my mom started making clothes for us, and people were asking her, “Where did your kids get these clothes?” So she decided to start selling them—and it grew into a huge children's brand. She always used to put on her billboards, “Proudly Nigerian.” That really stuck with me: always know who you are, where you're from.
RMYour family still lives in Nigeria. Do you go back often?
MYeah, I went back after I did my show last year, when I was depressed. I needed to go somewhere where I could just be sad—and being there for a week did so much for me, mentally. It almost saved my life. I need to always come back.
RMWould you ever show in Nigeria?
MI actually showed there last year, at Arise fashion week. The show had some strange moments, but I really loved seeing my clothes on all the Nigerian models, because there were so many. We have so many beautiful, interesting people. My friends were filming; they showed me the videos afterwards, and in the front row, there were all these old Nigerian women—society ladies—and they were so disgusted by how much skin I had out on the clothes. They were covering their eyes and stuff. It made me feel happy, because this is not really for them.
RMWhat can we expect for the next collection?
M Well, it's like total destruction. I really just want to destroy everything. I've been thinking it's the end of the world, and the start of a new one. I call myself a speed demon, because demons just destroy everything—but when there's destruction, there's something new being rebuilt. So that's the basis of it. It's like tearing down all these walls and giving space for something else to grow.
RMThat's so exciting. People never think that way in fashion—it's always about adding to something, rather than taking something away to restart.
MRight. My clothes are very emotional to me. I don't just see them as just clothes; I'm really creating art any way I can. If I wasn't doing fashion, I'd be doing something else. At CSM, you asked me: "How do you want to change the world?" I feel like that has never left. That question just carries on evolving as I grow as a person. Fashion is such a large platform, and people are using it to say nothing—but there's so much you can say.
RMPeople are often drawn to fashion for the wrong reasons, because they see it as a kind of conspicuous consumption. They want to show off something that they don't actually exist in. Really good, radical, culture-changing fashion is about wanting to change behavior, and that's what's exciting.
MI feel like people start with this big energy, but then these huge houses make them conform. I never understood it, because I'm like, “You guys have all the money to go crazy, and you can actually dictate what people like, but you get scared!” I've seen it. When I speak to buyers in my showroom, they're scared to buy the pink leather pants because they're afraid to take the risk. But in my Instagram, that's all people are telling me about. I'm like, "Do you actually know what the people want to buy?"
RMI think that's what your clothes are about: they're about taking risks.
MIt’s hard being a fashion designer in 2020, especially when you're independent. I don't really sell my brand to anyone, because I don't want to make it about consumption. But it's difficult to express all the things you want to express when you don't get paid on time, but you still have to pay for everything else. There’s just so much shit that we go through. I cry every other week because I'm stressed. Things are coming at me from all angles, but I still want to move forward. And then people will say, “Oh, are you not going to show? When's this coming out?” It's like, “Yo, I'm broke.”
RMThat's why I think it's so important that you took a break from fashion week: it shows other young designers that they don't have to play by these rules. There can be different alternatives.
MI also think just for your mental health, having to put so much of yourself into your work every six months is a lot. You need time to stop and think, “Okay, what do I want to do next?” Otherwise, everything becomes work—even creating becomes work—and then it shows in the clothes. That's what I'm most scared of, so I'm doing everything I can to avoid it—always finding new ways to stay inspired.
Following Mowalola’s electric debut solo exhibition at South London’s NOWGallery in December 2019, “Silent Madness” is a short film directed by Jordan Hemingway and starring Yves Tumor. Shot in London club Electrowerkz, the film follows Tumor over the course of an extremely unfortunate night out
as they suffer the effects of a nightmarish trip.