Olubiyi Thomas is saving organic clothing from getting too much of a bad rep. The designer, who graduated from CSM in 2013, has recently carved out a niche business, after working for De Rien for two years. With an artist-like approach to design — “Looking inwards in order to give back out to the world” — Olubiyi is set on creating a world around his clothing that communicates the meticulous craft and ideas encapsulated inside them. We swung by his studio in Hackney Wick right before he headed off to Copenhagen’s International Fashion Fair last week — sitting down in a room with fabrics piled high in every corner and the recognisable image of the head of ONI displayed on his desktop; soaking up the story of the brand he launched during Paris Fashion Week.
“You see people post “Yeah I’ve made it!” on Facebook, but I was thinking: does ‘making it’ even exist? I feel like you’re constantly going to be putting in shit tonnes of effort — maybe not constant sleepless nights, but there’s always going to be friction. Without that friction, something’s wrong.”
Why did you want to create your own brand?
It just happened organically, which sounds really cheesy, considering the fact that a lot of the fabrics I use are organic as well! I finished working at De Rien, and then spent seven months in retail trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. I was making money working the usual Monday to Friday 9-5, and I just started making some clothing on the side. I would think: “I need coat,” and make myself one. That was literally how it started. I started doing the pattern, which I took from a really old 40s coat; then I got the fabric from this guy at Portobello Road Market — Andrew, who also sells antique fabrics. They tend to be dead stock or just really old, but such good quality. Plus, they’re cheaper than what you can get in places like Berwick Street, which can rip you off at around £50 a metre.
So the collection organically came from that?
Yeah. I was having dinner one night at my friend’s flat in Bethnal Green; I was wearing the coat and my friend said: “That’s a really nice coat, can I try it on?” There were about eight of us and I got a bit shy knowing I had made it, but I obviously didn’t say anything and agreed. Then even I couldn’t believe it, I was like: “Shit that coat looks so good on you!” Everyone was in agreement saying: “Wow you look so different!” and “You look a million dollars in that coat!” He then asked where he could get one, and I naturally said I made it myself. In the end I made one for him and it just rolled on from there. The brand was built by demand, where I was getting a bit of extra cash from making these clothes on the side. I then bumped into a friend, who’s now my investor, and it’s grown from there.
What character do you have in mind when you’re designing?
Myself. If I like it, then it just gives you as a designer more assurance. There’s some stuff I make that just sits on the rack, where I wonder what it’s still doing there. But then, who knows, somebody else might want to wear it — it’s a guessing game at times.
But I feel like the whole megalomaniac fashion designer thing is so not me. You get two types of people: those who appreciate the craft and love what they’re doing; and then people who love the idea of it and want the end goal straight away. I just like cloth and clothes — I’m a bit obsessed with it.
“I want to connect with those who get excited because they know the fabrics, where they’re from, how to make it, or even because they relate to the references and inspiration.”
Last time you spoke to us, you said you were ‘training for the big fight’, in terms of having your own brand. Do you still feel like you’re fighting?
I was having this conversation with somebody recently, and the idea of ‘the beautiful struggle’ came to mind. You see people post “Yeah I’ve made it!” on Facebook, but I was thinking: does ‘making it’ even exist? I feel like you’re constantly going to be putting in shit tonnes of effort — maybe not constant sleepless nights, but there’s always going to be friction. Without that friction, something’s wrong. You can almost see it in some designers, when they start to take their foot off the pedal, and you wonder what’s wrong with those collections. Something seems to be missing. Perhaps it’s because the man or woman at the head of the company doesn’t really care anymore. Sometimes the creative director doesn’t change and instead it’s an inhouse change that helps to revive a brand. You still have the frontman, but they’re not really that connected or involved anymore, so they start to slip away. When you get to, say, 40 or 50, you might want to do that, but I feel like I’m always going to be a bit obsessed with the business.
Do you have any specific plans or goals for growing the brand itself?
I would love to have a creative space in a city that’s not corporate, not capitalist and where there’s no hierarchy. I just want to create a space where you can go and buy into an idea, rather than having the clothes in boutiques. The reality is that my clothes are going to be in high end boutiques where only rich people can afford anything, and I’m thinking about all those art and design kids; people who are really into this sort of stuff. There are those people, who are into it on a different level. I want to connect with those who get excited because they know the fabrics, where they’re from, how to make it, or even because they relate to the references and inspiration. There’s such an obvious example, but something like the Vivienne Westwood shop on King’s Road, which was a place where it was more about a scene. People came and understood what was going on. I don’t just want you to purchase things, but you’d want to hang out and buy things too. Having a place to sit down, have a coffee, maybe a band will play at 9 o’clock…
How do you feel you’ll contribute to the ever changing fashion industry?
First of all, I want to put Africa on the bloody map. Not in an overly intellectualised way, because I think that’s just silly — but instead in a more direct way. For instance, mud cloth: I’ve never really seen it being used in an accurate and non hippy-ish manner. I’d like to see it in a more sophisticated, high end fashion way, rather than just a wrap on your head or massive harem pants at festivals. Obviously going to source from villages has been done for years and is cheaper. You’re helping that economy too, so I think that’s fair. There’s a Dutch company where all the Batik (a traditional African method) is made; it’s not made in Africa at all. It’s been going on for years — since the late 18th or early 19th century roughly, when they took the technique away with them, developed it and now they sell the actual fabric back to West Africa. There are some weavers still in Nigeria, but I’m sure they’re not making enough money out of it, or the same as the factory.
“I’d say fashion is lacking in good unisex clothing. Chucking a man’s coat on a woman? Sure, that’s cool, but that was done in the 80s.”
How would you describe your brand in three words?
Natural, dynamic and elegant.
Your designs seem unisex, is that a conscious decision?
I think it’s a conscious giving in. They are slightly effeminate men’s clothing, so in that sense they are unisex. We shot the lookbook on a girl and a boy, so I’m definitely going to try and continue the theme.
Do you think fashion is lacking in unisex clothing?
I’d say fashion is lacking in good unisex clothing. Chucking a man’s coat on a woman? Sure, that’s cool, but that was done in the 80s. I think if we’re going to actually define the word ‘unisex’ — where you can’t tell the difference — it’s more like creating garments that people can universally wear. Rather than being solely for a girl or a guy, it’s just a jacket with a nice cut. That’s where the problem lies, because usually a-gender or androgynous styles done by high street brands are so bad, because they aren’t paying enough attention to the cuts and things actually looking nice on a body.
What’s the best thing about being a young designer in 2016?
Social media. Honestly, I despise it, even though I’m on it. Everyone is so ‘on it’ with social media and I’m like: this thing is disgusting, it’s killing us all. I realised that’s a very narrow-minded view, and everything has a good and a bad side. In this day and age, it’s really obvious, isn’t it? You can literally sit in your room and make it through social media. I think the ability to sell something to anyone around the world, in the space of three days to a week, is something we’ve never had before. Now you have that global audience you can reach with just one image, which is really useful and amazing. So, social media — it’s a love hate relationship.
Words by Rhea Dillon
Photography by Andreas Klassen
Models: Mishael Philips and Donnika Anderson
Styling by Olubiyi Thomas