The title of Creative Director has become a throw-away term, passed around more than a Lost Mary on a night out, but the young Nigerian multihyphenate, Ashley Okoli, champions all aspects of it. From styling to directing, her outside-of-the-box creativity is partly due to her own unbound mindset and partly due to fate.
Okoli proudly embraces her Nigerian identity, associating with the Alté movement, which, in her own words, is “just us saying, ‘Yeah, we get that this is how you guys have done it for the longest time, but we would like to do it this way.’” It’s that very mentality that rejects pre-conceived norms to propose an innovative way of doing things that has gotten Okoli to where she is today.
“Everything I do, I actually enjoy it,” she tells us over the phone, in Lagos. Her strong sense of identity is what led her to start her own brand, Sillet, which has now been put on pause “due to a lack of resources,” she explains to us while hinting at a possible reboot in the new year. “I didn’t think there were designers or stores that sold exactly what I wanted to wear, so I started making clothes.”
Okoli is now able to find designers whose work she resonates with. She names “Tia Adeola, Mowalola, and Kadiju,” as some of her favourite brands and designers of the moment, “which is very interesting because they’re all Nigerian but they’re based in three different continents.” Spanning from London to New York, and all the way back to Nigeria, this past decade has seen the rise of Nigerian talent on a global scale, including Okoli, adding a new layer of identity through shared experiences of the wider African diaspora.
Before leaving the continent for international opportunities to style the likes of Little Simz for her “Point And Kill” music video, Okoli spent her early days in Lagos making a name for herself. Through various jobs and generally interacting with the local scene, Ashley Okoli has become an IYKYK name – though Okoli humbly notes “not to toot my own horns.”
Her name and reputation precede her in East Africa, specifically Kenya. “Seeing and meeting other creatives that actually knew me, which is crazy, because I’ve never been to Kenya,” has been a highlight of this year, where she spent time shooting two short films to be revealed very soon.
While Okoli’s life may seem like a succession of tightly-planned events, the reality of it is far from this notion. Behind every great stylist, there’s an even more stylish mother, and in Okoli’s case it was a thrifty mother who first got her into fashion. “My mom got married pretty early, at like eighteen, and she had us at nineteen,” which meant “she didn’t actually have enough time to really experiment with herself.”
Okoli remembers going to bend-down-select, the second-hand clothing market found on the roadside. “My mom’s superpower is literally knowing [her style],” she proudly reminisces. “She doesn’t even have to see all the clothes at once, she just always has an idea for how she wants to put clothes together.”
It isn’t just fashion that Okoli’s mother has instilled in her, but also a sense of resilience. “I supplied a lot growing up, because we were [lower] middle class. We didn’t really have money,” she says. “All the plans that I really had were based on money or resources,” with an initial goal of having enough money to “to travel and see the world.”
It wasn’t so much of a directionaless approach that Okoli embodied, but rather left it up to the universe to do its thing. “I was just like, ‘Well, my life is going to take me where I am supposed to be,’ and to be fair, that’s how I’ve gotten this far,” she explains.
Okoli’s professional fashion career took form serendipitously and organically. When her brand grew, she thought, “okay, maybe I could try styling people in these clothes.” In Okoli’s case, styling really was a hobby-turned-career. “I just have way too much fun styling myself and styling other people because I always have stories behind them.”
Just as it was fated for Ashley Okoli to break through the industry, meeting Mowalola Ongolusi, the designer behind the cool kids-approved brand, Mowalola, was inevitable. Both being from Nigeria, the two creatives ran in similar circles before finally officially meeting. “It was a friend of a friend that introduced us, but apparently she had already heard of me before,” Okoli tells us. “I had obviously heard of her before because she’s Nigerian and she’s doing what every Nigerian girl in the fashion industry sees themselves doing. It was just a fate thing.”
Part collaborator, part muse, and part friend, Ogunlesi and Okoli’s relationship is layered in levels of creative energy. Riffing off of one another is their speciality, resulting in a merge of two worlds that aren’t so separate from one another, but separate to anything we’ve seen before. Being two Nigerian creative women, Ogunlesi and Okoli naturally disrupt the highly Westernised world of fashion, though doing so very authentically, by channelling a certain bad b*tch energy that’s inherent to both of them. “We don’t really do it to break the status quo, but we know that that’s what we’re doing because it’s bound to happen anyway,” Okoli states.
There’s a clear and strong sense of admiration and respect when talking to Okoli about Ogunlesi. “She’s very inspirational, and not just to me,” Okoli says, before adding “I feel like she just does it in her own way, to try to push us here in Nigeria.”
Nigeria, and specifically Lagos, has always been a cultural hotspot, buzzing with creativity. Though for a lack of resources, an unstable political environment, and an outdated Western perspective rooted in systemic racism, the African city hasn’t received the spotlight it deserves. But that certainly doesn’t mean the talent isn’t there. “Regardless of the bad governance and all the hardships we face, we actually tend to push ourselves past what our government is really giving us,” Okoli explains.
From Slawn’s Motherlan crew and the general skate culture, to the annual Homecoming festival which works with every subculturally-inspired fashion label, and now Ashley Okoli and her game-changing power duo dynamic with Ogunlesi, Lagos has been making moves on a global scale, demanding the attention it deserves. As Okoli puts it, “The Western world is just catching up, and I really am glad about that. But Lagos has always been Lagos.”
Featured image credit: @un.earthical ©
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