The clothing line Busayo NYC is all about style with an African twist. The face behind the brand is Nigerian-American designer, Busayo Michelle Olupona, who is as warm and gracious as her clothing is beautiful. Her blog posts and Facebook page are usually filled with tutorials, behind-the-scenes photos and fun giveaways.
Here, she talks to me about her unique business model, her cultural influences, how she handles criticism and of course, how she is redefining the concept of African fashion.
Hello Busayo, how is work coming up on your 2012 collection? What can we expect?
A lot more accessories, integration of different types of African prints beyond our Nigerian offerings. A lot more classic shapes but more fun prints.
You have come a long way from being teased, as a teenager, for wearing adire shirts to being renowned for your work with African prints. How did that happen?
Immigrating to the US was a challenge; we left Nigeria and moved to a small town in California. I was about 12, kids can be tremendously cruel at that age and in retrospect, it is a very typical immigrant story but anyway I remember the excitement I had over this one particular outfit, which didn’t fly at all at my school. I think the change comes with age, you learn more about who you are and begin to appreciate the very thing that makes you different from other people. Also, I have to credit my parents – I grew up in a very Yoruba home and never lost my appreciation and love for our culture and that includes our fabric.
Somewhere along the line, you worked as a corporate lawyer. How easy or difficult was it for you to quit your job and work in fashion full-time?
It has been challenging. Practicing law in a firm, I knew quite early it wasn’t really for me but for a variety of reasons, mostly financial and because I had worked hard to earn the degree and become a lawyer, I felt compelled to stay in the position even though it didn’t make me happy. Some define insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Well, I was practicing law and was really unhappy and was expecting that one day I would wake up and feel happy about my life and of course, it doesn’t work like this. I have since learned that I am the co-creator of my life and if I am unhappy with something, it is my responsibility to change it. It is hard and I am not sure what the end road is but I am enjoying creating my own business, doing something that I love and sharing the rich offerings of our cultures with the world and there is no better feeling than having someone wear a piece of mine and say that she loves it. It makes me happy.
The name Busayo, in Yoruba means “addition to joy”. Most of your clothes have distinctively Yoruba names as well (e.g. Dayo, Lade). How do you decide what name best matches a particular outfit?
Well, most of the pieces are named after someone in my extended family and after people I love. I think there is only one piece that has a western name and that, is named after someone very dear to me. There are some, that are not of relatives – Segun and Nneka, but I have always loved these names. My three favourite pieces from my first collection were named after my siblings – Tolu, Bola and Jide.
Curiously, some of your most feminine apparels have masculine names (e.g. Jacob, Kunle). Why?
The first collection was primarily named after the women in my family. I decided to honour the men in my family with the second collection and this recent collection was named after the men in my family. My Dad is Jacob and one of my uncles is Kunle. Not sure what I am going to do for the next one but I want the line to always have a Yoruba/Nigerian feel and be grounded in that culture.
Your scarves are popular with both sexes. Do you have plans to venture into menswear?
I love dressing women, it is what I know and what I enjoy though I would never say never. I am open to the possibility of collaboration on men’s wear and that is something I am looking into. [For now] I am enjoying just working on accessories and creating my own designs.
You are based in New York and have a sizeable American clientele. How do you cater to resident Nigerians who would love to own your clothes?
I would love to have a boutique in Lagos and luckily, through social media, I do have a following in Nigeria. I am primarily based in the States but my goal is to create a life in both the States and Nigeria. I love Nigeria very much and as a nation, we have a tremendous amount to offer. In addition, I would very much like to be part of the fashion space within Nigeria, and continue to be a contributor to the growth and development of the Nigerian fashion scene.
You once came under fire for using a Caucasian model in your Fall 2010 campaign. What do you make of such criticism?
It is an interesting dialogue to have. It wasn’t a deliberate choice not to cast a black model in the campaign, the model we casted frankly, was the best girl we saw. I think it is incredibly limiting to say, “I will only have black women in my pieces”. I design for all women. It has always been important for me that my clothes and pieces remain versatile. I think any woman should be able to wear a Busayo piece, black, white or yellow. If there is a piece that only works on a black woman, then I believe that I have failed as a designer. Also, my customers are all across the spectrum racially and I love that. I think African fashion needs to move beyond making clothing only for black people. Issey Miyake doesn’t say “We only dress the Japanese”. Other brands do not limit themselves in this way so why should we. Part of what is exciting about what is happening in fashion right now is the cross-national and cross-continental dialogues that are happening, in particular, between the West and Africa and I think it is exciting, it opens up more options for young Africans in particular who can now buy pieces that represent their culture and yet are modern and contemporary. I am comfortable in my skin and my identity as an African woman and don’t need to prove anything to anyone.
I have always thought that clothes sell better in stores because that way, the customer gets to feel the texture and try them on. You on the other hand, retail primarily through your website. Why do you adopt this approach?
As I was starting out, it made sense to sell online as I am able to grow the business organically. Distributing to stores is a goal that I am currently working on and it will happen soon. I host trunk shows throughout the Northeast [US] and am currently working on creating a Pop-Up Store so I am always creating more traditional retail environments.
Your designs seem more suited to athletic and hourglass silhouettes. How about women who have androgynous or plus-size frames? What looks can they rock?
Great question. I think the singular most common feedback I have received about the business is the demand for plus-sizes. Women are incredibly vocal about their demands and needs, which is great. I am certainly working on expanding the line into plus-sizes and ensuring the fit on plus-sizes is stellar. I don’t believe in rushing into something unless I know that it will be done well.
These days, African prints are as ubiquitous as jeans. How do you distinguish yourself from the crowd? Might you consider using other fabrics?
I think I have a great eye for fabric and prints. There is an abundance of African prints on the market, I will agree but I do think there is a lot of room to continue to make interesting and more dynamic print choices and also, combining different African prints. I have always been interested in the potential of other fabrics like lace and Aso-Oke. I do integrate other types of fabrics on a few pieces, but I personally love African prints and will not shy away from using it. I don’t do this because this is the trend, I do it because sourcing and working with our fabrics is one of my great pleasures in my life and I always want to keep doing that. I think the potential for these fabrics is immense and we haven’t even begun to actualize what is possible with this fabric. It is not as ubiquitous as jeans, just yet.
Some designers send their clothes to celebrities in order to get free publicity. What do you think of this practice?
I think it is great. Like it or not, people see a celebrity wearing something and they want to wear it as well. It is something that I am working on. There are a number of celebrities, who I would love to get into my pieces. Kerry Washington, Adepero Oduye – an upcoming, seriously talented, Nigerian-American actress, Asa … there are so many.
What advice would you give to a young person trying to break into the fashion industry?
I think I would give this advice to anyone pursuing any dream. Don’t stop or kill that little voice that is trying to lead you to find and discover your true and authentic self. It is hard or it appears hard as the road might not be quite paved yet and you have to dig that road yourself. I think we all came to give our gifts to the world and it is our responsibility to discover our gift and use it to better the world. My advice is, figure out what is that you are meant to be doing and however, you can be doing it in the world, no matter how small, it is your responsibility to do so. So take classes, learn how to sew, spend time training your eye, talk to people who are already doing what it is that you want to do. Make pieces for yourself and wear it. There are so many ways and sometimes, what you want to do doesn’t quite exist in the form that you would like so you might have to create it. I think this advice applies for whatever it is you want to be doing, not just fashion.