Meet Lawyer-Turned-Fashion Designer Busayo Olupona

by Ronke Idowu Reeves
The great thing about life is that it is filled with second acts. That's something that corporate lawyer-turned-fashion designer Busayo Olupona knows very well. The multitalented creative designer of Busayo NYC took her love for fashion and her homeland of Nigeria and married the two worlds in a gorgeous feast for the eyes. Her designs feature traditional bright Adire, Ankara and wax prints cut in the most fashion forward haute couture styles. When Z Living spoke to Olupona she shared her evolution as designer, schooled us on the history of the prints that serve as the backbone of her fashions and explained why women of all cultures would look beautiful in her designs.

You’re an attorney, but there was a fashion designer inside of you. When did you realize that was your true calling?
I began the line very slowly; I was a corporate lawyer at a very large law firm in New York's financial district. I first wanted to start a clothing brand using African textiles when I took a trip to Nigeria in 2008. However, I knew nothing about the clothing industry and was terrified to begin. I remember sitting in my office in 2010 at the law firm and complaining to a friend about the hours and the general drain on my psyche. I also shared my dream of starting a fashion company and the fact that I knew nothing about fashion. But I had also simultaneously started doing a lot of work on myself, and my belief system.

How did you get the fashion training you needed to design clothes?

I began taking classes at Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and bought every book I could find on fashion. One book, The Fashion Designer Survival Guide by Mary Gellar, was tremendously helpful.   And a part of my personality is that I just jump, I do, and figure it all out as I am doing it. So that is what I did; I began earnestly in 2012 and left the corporate firm. Then, I began selling the line to boutiques, calling up boutiques, finding out who their buyer was  and selling a line sheet. Then I would follow up repeatedly with phone calls, going to trade shows, planning pop-up stores, and selling direct to women through personal appointments and the web. 
People wear clothing to make a statement about themselves. When customers wear Busayo NYC what does it say about them?
My customers are like peacocks, they love color, and they love to express themselves through clothing and are not shy about expressing themselves through vibrant color. They are artistic or artistically inclined, and want to express themselves through their clothing. I always joke to my customers that I guarantee you at least three compliments every time you wear the pieces; I make clothes that are different from what everyone else is making. I wholeheartedly embrace color and my customers tend to do as well. 

Tell us about some of the celebrities who have worn your designs.
I have dressed everyone from Selma director Ava Duvernay, 12 Years a Slave’s Adepero Oduye and Orange Is The New Black’s Uzo Aduba. In one case, I reached out to the stylist, in other cases; they have reached out to me.  It has been challenging but really also an absolute joy to create something from nothing, and create income to the various people in our ecosystem. 
There is a quiet misconception that only black people should wear this type of clothing.  But you feature white models in your fashion shows. Beyond loving the styles explain  why women of other nationalities and hues should feel comfortable and at home in your designs.  
This is a complex and rich question that takes us back to the roots of Ankara and wax print. Ankara or popular African print was invented by the Dutch. But we, as Africans and West Africans have embraced it and it has come to be singularly identified and embraced as part of an African aesthetic. However, we didn't invent it. Yet we argue, and I think these are folks that don't know the origins, that no one except Africans should wear it, even black Americans, some have argued shouldn't wear it. This is ignorance and frankly incredibly limiting from an economic standpoint.  I believe that our artistry and offerings, from an economic point of view, should be accessible to all. For too long, we, as Black Africans do not reap the economic benefits of our cultural offerings, and I frankly don't understand why we would restrict who should buy our work. It doesn't make sense to me. It's an economic issue. I have pieces that don't work on everyone but I have pieces that do and I try to find the right piece for every customer. 

You’re New York City-based, have a following in Nigeria and recently had very successful NYC and Los Angeles pop-up stores. Any plans to go abroad or expand your pop ups to other U.S. cities?
I did a pop-up in Japan in Hankyu Umeda, a major department store in Osaka, Japan last year. That opportunity came through one of my customers.  After that, next destinations for my pop up stores will include Miami, Florida and Chicago, Illinois of course again, Los Angeles, CA and Brooklyn, New York.

Enjoyed that amazing preview of Busayo's designs? Accessorize your look by checking out fashion tips and style ideas from these  Z Living articles:

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