Co-founders choice winner Abiola Onabule stood out from the crowd with her inclusive, eclectic design that represents her multicultural background and individuality. With the values of diversity informing every step of Onabule’s creative process, blurring the boundaries between cultures, genders and size. From her unique blend of multi-culturalism and diversity, Onabule challenges the Westernised fashion perspective by offering stunningly simple solutions. Individuality plays a strong role in Onabule’s design process, encouraging individual style and personal experiences for the wearer, combating homogeneity from every angle. Onabule’s understanding of the current state of the diversity within the fashion industry and it’s importance is a promising insight to the future of the fashion industry.

Your project wasn’t originally designed for different body shapes, what process made you realise shape and size doesn’t matter? 

As a fashion student, you are trained into a certain way of thinking, excepting the norms of the industry as law. The problem is that this often makes the new work regressive.  The next generation picks up the bad habits from the previous and so certain ideals, and ways of thinking are perpetuated.  This was partly why I initially assumed that what I design must surely end up on a 6 foot tall, size 6 model for the clothes to look their best.  It’s what I’m used to seeing.  However, after completing these garments, representations of what I stand for as a young, mixed-race designer growing up in England, I began considering how to best photograph the pieces.  And I found that the standard model size was not important to me.  What I wanted was someone who could bring nuance and narrative to the clothes.  So I asked my sister’s friend if she would be willing to model the clothes.  She wasn’t the height that I had designed the clothes for but she had personality, which comes through in the images.  She is a young artist with something to say for herself and a style of her own which she brought to the table when wearing the pieces.  I don’t want to cast people strategically but simply because something about them connects with that piece of clothing.  The fact that she interpreted the wearing of the trousers in such a different manner to how I had initially conceived of them was one of the great results of collaborating with others.  As a designer, you will not always be there to direct someone on the ‘correct’ way to wear your clothes and the results are often more beautiful when you allow for other people’s experiences and influences to colour their wearing of the pieces.  Many of my favourite designers, such as the Jean Paul Gaultiers of the world, give their clothes life by allowing individuals to wear them rather than an army of clones.

With references and representations to your heritage, how important is it to you to show an alternative to westernised fashion?

I think it is key to the survival of the fashion industry.  The world is all at once becoming smaller and bigger with globalisation and the continued evolution of the Internet.  This has to be represented within fashion if it is going to connect with the next generation of consumers.  I come from a very multicultural background so growing up, I had influences coming from Nigeria, Greece, England and Egypt. That’s before you even count the impact of friends’ and strangers’ cultures.  On any given day I might hear opinions from at least four different perspectives. I now realise that this allowed me a chance to see more of the world than my physical location gave me opportunity to.

Currently, fashion in the Western world and globally, is told from a predominantly Western perspective.  There needs to be another option beside the European perspective, to allow for a richer industry.  Other voices must be heard, so that the stories told are authentic and honest.  This means no more contrived ideas of ‘tribal’ or ‘oriental’ fashion for a season, used as cheap story fodder and then cast aside once exhausted.  The clichéd translations of various cultures grow tired quickly and cheapen the communities they are pulled from. In the end, information educates the audience and creates a society that is more knowledgeable and empathetic about otherness.  Fashion can play a huge role in this if it chooses to.

The bold illustration and design reflect your attitude towards diversity, could you explain this for us?

They are a representation of a strength found in women and a concept of individuality. Diversity is all about difference and for me, that means finding ways to express someone’s racial, cultural and sexual individualism in a non-stereotypical way.  I hope to design honest clothes for real people that reflect who I am as a designer and an artist while also morphing into something personal for the wearer.  I believe clothes should be for living in and creating experiences in.  They are such a key part of humanity and its progression from animal to something higher.

The illustration and the design were a personal reaction to my initial thoughts on the future of fabrications and textiles.  My immediate thought was to explore elements of my heritage in the form of Dutch wax cottons from West Africa and combine this with the use of denim, a hard working fabric for practical people and Western garment construction.  For the illustration I chose to highlight the vibrant, graphic quality of the prints used in the garments, a reflection of the colourful society of modern day Britain.  In terms of design, I aimed for a ‘powerful’ look that negated gender but still referenced elements of both male and female in the form of strong lines combined with a more typically feminine puffed sleeve.

Where will your constant exploration take you next in terms of design? 

I know where I hope it will take me.  I would love to continue to explore the combining of various cultures and experiment with unconventional interpretations.  I will continue to investigate the idea of strength within the clothing I design.  It might not necessarily mean ‘power suiting’ or shoulder pads.  It could be with colour or textiles that convey status.  I think wherever I go next in my design, I want the idea of ‘slow fashion’ to be a part of that investigation.  My garments tend to have a lot of hours put into each piece through various processes, from embroidery to dying techniques.  In a world that is all about speed and immediate gratification with little thought to the effects on cultures, environments and people, I think it would be wonderful to educate people on the amount of effort that goes into creating something.

What is holding the industry back from embracing a fashion evolution?

I believe part of the issue is the development of such monumentally big business within the fashion industry.  Business and money has taken the lead and now dictates design.  Fashion is a commercial art with a customer at the end of the chain, but I think that the art and the design has to come first, to allow for the creation of something that people didn’t necessarily think they wanted but suddenly find a need for.  The fashion industry can be this creative in its greatest moments but I think it is currently too caught up in the idea of money rather than concept.  I think steps towards this ‘evolution’ can begin with actions as simple as allowing a wider range of voices from various backgrounds to convey their own experiences, represented in the form of designers, models, photographers, stylists, journalists and so on.  And I’m not just talking about being racially or sexually diverse but in addition, creating a system that is open to people of different classes and financial means.


Interview: Elli Weir

Imagery: Abiola Onabule