From her early days as a Central Saint Martins graduate, one of London's premier art schools, to her role as the creative force behind Yeezy's Gap collaboration, Mowalola Ogunlesi has consistently loomed large in the world of fashion.
The famous bullet hole dress, which later inspired her Coming For Blood collection, spotted being worn on Naomi Campbell at Fashion for Relief in 2019 is a prime example of the way in which one could describe the confrontational designs of Nigerian-born British fashion designer Ogunlesi.
“I make clothes to challenge people’s minds…it screams my lived experience as a black person,” stated Ogunlesi in an Instagram post following the 2019 event.
Three collections later and a collaboration with Timberland to be released later this year, she continues to be one of the biggest designers of 2023. With her most recent fall collection featured at New York Fashion Week in February, Ogunlesi is a force to be reckoned with in the fashion industry.
By threatening, “long-term social and economic development, harm[ing] poverty reduction and destroy[ing] people’s sense of fulfillment and self-worth,” Reduced Inequalities are a major target of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. In the same way, Ogunlesi’s idealistically provocative designs align with this goal speaking to gun violence and racial inequality through her designs.
The designs showcased in her Spring/Summer 2020 "Coming For Blood" collection stand out prominently compared to her previous works due to the thought-provoking themes they convey. In an interview with SSENSE, she articulated her design philosophy, stating, "You're designing for the world you want. How do you envision changing the world through your clothing?"
The designs are symbolic of the black experience where, “no matter how well dressed you are or well behaved, we are time after time seen as a walking target.” Taking the literal iteration of “a walking target,” the crisp white pantsuit contrasted with two bright red blood spattered gunshot wounds highlight the concept of racialized gun violence. In the United States, as of 2020, Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police. The same study also suggests that attitudes towards gun policy and gun safety vary by race, where Black gun owners less frequently agreed that gun ownership and the prospect of more people legally carrying guns made them feel safer. Even more startling is that, while Black Americans make up only 12.5 per cent of the U.S. population, they were the victims in 61 per cent of all gun homicides in the U.S. in 2020.
The numbers are not only revealing of the sad reality that is the Black experience in America, but also just how stubborn and complicit American institutions are in upholding policies that perpetually catastrophize the lives of a historically marginalized population.
Ogunlesi’s blunt confrontation to racialize gun violence embellished on beautifully crafted garments should be taken as a statement, as advocated by the UN, to “Ensure equal opportunity and reduce inequalities of outcome, including by eliminating discriminatory laws, policies and practices” that threaten Black Americans in the face of “constitutional rights.”
Aside from gun violence, the concept of a “walking target” that Ogunlesi’s designs emulate can be translated more figuratively to encompass systemic racism as a whole. In this way, Mowalola becomes a space to empower Black bodies against the backdrop of systemic racism.
Her latest collection also pays tribute to iconic trends originating from Black communities. Large and in-your-face logos from the likes of Dapper Dan down to the Timberlands on the feet like we’re in a 90’s Diddy music video, Dark Web is a celebration of Black culture.
As a black female designer, Ogunlesi defies all boundaries set against her and stands out in an industry ironically built to keep people like her out. Fashion and racism go hand-in-hand since its beginnings, but designers like Ogunlesi and her brand Mowalola give hope that oppressive histories will not be reproduced and meaningful efforts towards Reduced Inequalities can be made possible.