Get to Know Mowalola Ogunlesi, The Brains Behind the Gap's New Yeezy Collection

Three weeks ago, Gap announced a collaboration with Kanye West. But Kanye didn't design it.

July 17, 2020 9:45 am
Get to Know Mowalola Ogunlesi, The Brains Behind the Gap's New Yeezy Collection
Getty / Stuart Wilson

Three weeks ago, it was announced that Kanye West would be partnering with Gap for a Yeezy GAP line, a collection set to drop in 2021. As with anything concerning Kanye, the fanfare was swift and ample — some celebrated it, others criticized. But amid the fuss that West’s name generated, one element of the collaboration was lost and largely ignored was the actual designer West hired to helm the Yeezy GAP design team, Mowalola Ogunlesi.

In certain fashion circles, the British-Nigerian designer has established herself as a rising talent, a fact further emphasized by West’s appointment of her as Design Director for the new line. Yet for the general public, she remains unfamiliar or unknown altogether.

Her own announcement about the position, posted to Instagram, was celebrated by those familiar with her designs but gained little traction outside her 100,000 followers. To everyone else, it would appear that Kanye bears sole creative responsibility for designing the line. While he’ll certainly have a hand in the process, it will fall to Ogunlesi to oversee and guide much of the work, a feat for anyone, let alone a 25-year-old up-and-comer.

So let’ sake some time to give recognition where recognition is due.

Born in Nigeria, Ogunlesi grew up in a family entrenched in fashion and design, her grandmother the owner of a womenswear label which her mother worked on, her father a designer of traditional Nigerian menswear. Following the familial path, Ogunlesi attended Central Saint Martins, a school in London widely regarded as the top in fashion design, having produced such notable designers as Alexander McQueen, Phoebe Philo and Hussein Chalayan. Ogunlesi didn’t set out to study fashion, but rather textiles, later moving on to fashion textiles.

Her 2017 graduate collection (her first collection ever) gleaned inspiration from Nigerian psychedelic rock of the ’70s and ’80s. Male models wore dangerously low-slung leather pants and leather outerwear sans shirts, both spray-painted in vibrant yellows, reds and greens. Often the models toted oversized handbags with roses jutting out, providing a stark contrast to the taut dark leather.

Looks from Mowalola Ogunlesi’s first collection.

Rather than continue pursuing her MA at CSM, she left after one year, telling SSENSE that the institution proved to be “too dated” and lacking when it came to instructors who were people of color. Instead Ogunlesi sought to work with Fashion East, a non-profit initiative designed to help nurture and cultivate the talents of young designers. While under the mentorship of Fashion East, Ogunlesi produced two more collections and attracted the attention and admiration of Naomi Campbell, Drake and Solange Knowles.

Dressing Campbell for her Fashion for Relief show, Ogunlesi and the supermodel occasioned controversy with a sleek white halter dress featuring a red spot on the abdomen meant to resemble a gunshot wound. The design was from Ogunlesi’s “Coming For Blood” collection, “a delving into the horrific feeling of falling in love” and also a representation of Ogunlesi’s lived experience as a Black person, with the constant feeling of being perceived as a target.

Drake in a custom Mowalola Ogunlesi jacket.
Theo Skudra

Much of Ogunlesi’s work speaks to her Nigerian roots and the local culture of Lagos. “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 British Vogue in an interview. This inherent personalization is further evident in Ogunlesi’s wear of her own designs, frequently sporting them on Instagram and even starring in the campaign featured on her website. Despite amassing the support of the Kardashians and Beyoncé, she proves to be her own best spokesperson, wearing her clothes with a joy and ease that is alluring enough, regardless of celebrity endorsement.

Ogunlesi’s designs exude sex: the fabrics are often tight leather and shiny vinyl, the hemlines are short, the waistlines low and the tops revealing. They differ greatly from the sobered basics that GAP is best known for, which is exactly why the struggling brand needs her. Like other troubled fashion monoliths like J.Crew and Brooks Brothers, their designs have grown stagnant, as have their sales, and it’s clear this partnership with Yeezy is meant to rescue them from the depths of irrelevancy. But while the Yeezy name itself will pique interest and attract buyers, if anyone is going to be responsible for bringing the Gap back from near extinction, it will be not be Kanye, but rather the woman he’s tasked with saving them: Mowalola Ogunlesi.

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