From Nigeria to New York, Busayo Olupona Creates a Fashion Network

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When he was at school, in the small town of Davis, California, Busayo Olupona often teased by other children for the brightly patterned clothes she wears, made from Ife material in Nigeria, where she spent her early years growing up. Today, the same type of clothing that she often mocks is the reason why Olupona has become a sought-after name in fashion, with designs from her eponymous label worn by celebrities from all over the world. Madonna to Lupita Nyong’o.

“From my clothes to my hair, the way I spoke, I was bullied for it all,” he recalled to OKAfrica. “Around the time of the film, The Gods Must Be Crazy just came out, so they tortured me with that movie too.” Born in the US, Olupona’s parents moved back to Nigeria when she was three, and returned to the US when she was 12.

“It’s fascinating that so much of my success, and, really, my life’s work, is now so heavily influenced by, and deeply inculcated in, these things — things that kids make fun of me,” she said. Olupona built her fashion label, which she started in 2011, alongside her career as a lawyer, and she still trains today. “As someone [for whom] the entrepreneurial journey is not the easiest, it feels like you have to have all your ducks in a row before you make the jump,” he said.

Olupona may not feel ready to jump in, but there’s no denying that the label has thrived, with collections available on Saks 5th Avenue and online platforms like Shopbop, and more recently, on Neiman Marcus, Bergdorfs, Intermix and Moda Operandi as with good. And the best part? Her clothes are still made in Nigeria, using the Adire technique to produce the colorful Busayo NYC look. Olupona spoke to OKAfrica about making it from a small town in Nigeria to the big streets of New York City.

The interview has been edited to be long and clear.

Image of a model wearing a NYC Busayo outfit

Busayo Olupona says much of her success today was influenced by the things she was teased about at school for wearing them.

Photo: Busayo Olupona

Would you say clothing has helped you straddle your two lives – in Nigeria and in the US – and that is how you find existence in these two spaces?

Yes. I don’t think there’s actually a better way to put it, and it’s not something you can plan ahead for. I always thought about returning to Nigeria. I just got a call. When we came here I was 12 years old, and in 2002, I was in my early 20s, and I just found out that I wanted to go back to Nigeria. I want to reconnect to Nigeria in a deeper and richer way. But how it is not clear. So for a few years, I would just go back and stay at my aunt’s house, and not do much. Then I started making clothes for myself. At the time, I was working in a law firm and I knew I wanted clothes that were a little brighter, a little more African in their presentation, a little more funky. And we have a very rich textile tradition that allows me to do that, so the beginning and origin of this business was to make clothes for myself.

Now, what comes out of it – and I think what has been the most powerful part of my experience so far – is that when you immigrate, there are big losses that we don’t really think about; relationships, cultures, connections that you don’t have. So for a very long time when I was going back to Nigeria, it felt like I didn’t really belong, and doing work in clothing and trade has given me deep connections with all walks of life, not only in terms of people, but in feelings. comfortable moving around the country, felt like it was mine as much as everyone else’s. Because often, when you immigrate, you don’t belong there, you don’t belong here, so you often wonder where you fit in. So I think the greatest gift that has been given to me is the feeling that I belong in Nigeria, because the work I do has allowed me to really build relationships with people and places who have corrected some of the gaps and corrected some of the isolation that left me behind. come from immigration.

Image of a model wearing a NYC Busayo outfit.

Storytelling is a central part of the eponymous fashion label Busayo Olupona.

Photo: Busayo Olupona

Through your clothing, you share your Yoruba cultural customs and traditions – has that changed over the years since you started the company?

That’s very important to me. Videos and stories [part of Busayo] is an important part of the brand because I really want people to understand that these clothes come from lineages and traditions. This is not to make it less accessible to them. That’s often an argument: if you know where it comes from, it means you shouldn’t wear it because all clothes are inspired by culture and tradition. That is not true. Some outfits are steeped in culture and tradition, and some are just cute and pretty, even for people who live in that culture. For me, it is very important for our customers to distinguish, to know, the source of this work, to know how hard the work is done, to participate.

I recently posted [on Instagram] about my visit with a potter, which was very profound for me. Because this is someone who decided, ‘I want to see this in Nigeria, who tries to find it, doesn’t find it, and then goes and makes it. And so many of the artisan traditions of which we speak, many of them dying and fleeting, can be a source of enormous wealth for economic development, for economic mobility. It’s one of the things we as Africans have to offer the world. So why not offer it? In so many other parts of the world, trade is inherently linked to cultural and artistic production. So why should we be different?

We have so much to offer, and I feel like we don’t offer nearly 1% of what we can offer to the rest of the world, in terms of craftsmanship, artistic production, intellectual production. We have so much to give but think, ‘Well, I don’t know if these people can wear these clothes…’ Come on, no. But I want to teach the people I sell my clothes to, so they know where it comes from. That’s an important part of the job.

Images of Busayo Olupona create the signature tie-dye look of her fashion label.

Busayo NYC’s bright tie-dye look was created using the Adire technique.

Photo: Busayo Olupona

We often hear that the big challenge is infrastructure. What are the challenges for you that you have to overcome?

I am very lucky because I was brought up in literally both cultures. So I speak the language and I feel very comfortable in Nigeria, and I live here, so I have an understanding of this culture. And I’m not afraid to move, and come home and put my feet on the ground. Every day I work, I meet people, I connect with people, create those relationships. To do this job, and do it successfully, you need to be able to connect with people deeply. You need to have people you can trust and have a strong relationship with, and people who show up for you to like your work are their own. If you can achieve it, it becomes a lot easier. Not that there are no problems. We know Nigeria doesn’t have 24-hour electricity; now there’s a water scarcity, there’s a gas scarcity, a lot of things are a problem. But I am also very lucky because I work directly with the craftsmen, there is no one in the middle. These are people I have a personal relationship with. I talk to them almost every day. So these are the things that make it all possible. It’s very important that you get directly involved, and I think when you have a direct relationship with people, they show up for you and they move mountains for you. My team, they do it for me, almost every day. But I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years. Many of these relationships are 8-9 year relationships that have been nurtured over time. So that makes a big difference.

And how has your own understanding of your culture been enhanced by the work you have done through Busayo?

This is a gift I didn’t expect. First of all, I immediately thought because my curiosity in textile creation was sparked by this work, it forced me to be even more curious to start doing research into other artists and traditions, to start exploring other spaces, to start thinking about someone like a potter. immersed in the creation of textiles and art, you also finally meet people who share the same interests, who share the same imagination, who share the same belief in the transformation of the present through artistic creation. So once you start immersing yourself in such spaces, the people you meet are automatically more likely to think the same way.

Yoruba culture, in particular, is deeply rooted in its art; it is deeply rooted in its aesthetic presentation. So, when you have the chance to go to the show at [New Afrika] Temples, for example, you’ll also want to go to the Nike Art Gallery. You’re also going to meet other artists, and then you start to see that we have a culture that’s over 500 years old and culture and tradition, which sadly, Christianity is really dealing with badly, isn’t it? But you can still start to see the remains. I am also very curious about who we are and where we come from, and why we are the way we are. So all of those things come together to spark a deeper connection with culture and tradition.

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