When I meet Mowalola Ogunlesi she is having a crisis: she has lost her AirPods. At least, she gave them to a friend and after the kind of whirlwind week the Nigeria-born, London-based designer is increasingly becoming used to – a few days before, she attended the British Fashion Awards, the day after, she will open a new solo exhibition – she hasn’t had a chance to get them back. “My friend took them from me, so I’ve been going through craziness these last few days,” she laughs. “I actually cried on the train because I was so upset.”
It goes some way towards explaining the exhibition’s title, Silent Madness, an immersive trip into Ogunlesi’s world which opens today at Greenwich’s NOW Gallery. She has music on “every day, all the time”, so much so, she recently blew her speakers at a party in her studio-cum-flat in London’s Dalston, the rowdy home of her namesake label, Mowalola (“[my neighbours] complained so much; I almost got kicked out,” she says). For Ogunlesi – whose life is invariably noisy – it seems as if total silence could, indeed, trigger a kind of madness. Or, at least, a creative glut: “Music inspires a lot,” she tells me. “I don’t know what it is about the energy, it’s just very spiritual.”
And, if Ogunlesi’s life is lived with a constant soundtrack, her exhibition comes with one too: on arrival, attendees will be handed an MP3 player loaded with six tracks specially created for the designer by various musician friends and collaborators, including Joey LaBeija, the New York-based DJ and producer who soundtracks her shows, and rising south London-born singer Shygirl of talked-about club collective NUXXE. Ogunlesi doesn’t care how people respond to it, whether they skip a track or listen to it over and over. “I want people to move in here with music and be able to DJ their own experience,” she says. (At the opening party, held the evening after we talk, there was another kind of soundtrack: a surprise live performance by former Another Man cover star Skepta, with whom the designer has previously collaborated on music video Pure Water.)
Silent Madness comes two-and-a-half years after Ogunlesi’s label Mowalola was born, in which time it has burrowed into fashion’s consciousness and stuck. It began with an uncompromising Central Saint Martins BA collection, Psychedelic, a riotous celebration of the erotically charged dress codes of Nigeria’s petrolheads and the country’s 1970s psychedelic rock scene (Ogunlesi grew up in Lagos, before moving to the UK aged 12 to attend an all-girls Catholic boarding school), described by the designer as an expression of African manhood rarely seen: sexy, fluid, free. “I just want them to feel powerful,” she says of how she hopes people feel in her clothing. “Like they can do exactly what they want to do and be exactly how they want.”
“I might not even be doing fashion in a year… I’m just on a journey and whatever happens, I’m with it” – Mowalola Ogunlesi
In the time since, she has shown two collections with Fashion East, having dropped out of the Central Saint Martins MA (“I couldn’t create at all,” she says of her experience on the course. “We didn’t have any black tutors, we only had white tutors, so how are they going to understand my own experiences as a person?”). The first, titled Exposure, refined the liberated spirit of her BA collection with minimally proportioned clothing – tiny mini skirts, barely-there body suits and skimpy bra tops – which expressed the erotic freedom of revealing your body on the dancefloor; the second, Coming for Blood, was altogether darker, a reflection of, as Ogunlesi said at the time, “the horrific feeling of love – when your emotions are turned to a hundred”.
There were dripping red trompe l’oeil gunshot wounds on suits and dresses (one such dress was worn by model Naomi Campbell to ensuing media furore; Ogunlesi defiantly responded that the motif “screams my lived experience as a black person… we are time after time seen as a walking target”), stiff leathers and hand-dyed cowhides; slashed-away halter-dresses and shirts sliced down the front (the typically eclectic notes referenced hip-hop duo Insane Clown Posse and slasher flick The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). It was intense: “That collection kind of broke me,” Ogunlesi admits. “It was basically like therapy for me to realise how fucked up my situation was and trying to get out of it.”
It’s part of the reason why she has decided not to hold a show in January next year, choosing to focus instead on Silent Madness and a new collection which she will present in June – as well as various collaborations, including one with Nike (she has created a series of Flyknit bodysuits alongside the brand for the exhibition). “This year I did two collections and it was a lot on me,” she explains. “I didn’t get any time for myself and it really affected me and I just felt super depressed. I don’t ever want to look at my work like it’s a job… I just want to restructure the way I work and the way I do fashion.” She smiles: “I also wanted a break at Christmas to go home.”
Silent Madness, then, is a kind of reset for the designer. Taking place in NOW Gallery’s atrium-like main space, the floor-to-ceiling glass windows are draped in vast swathes of boldly printed fabric by the designer – who specialised in textiles at Saint Martins – including a blown-up photograph of a couple embracing by Lea Colombo, which was printed on her Autumn/Winter 2019 collection. At the centre is a frozen ‘rock band’ of mannequins modelling printed ‘bondage’ bodysuits and dripping with black tar: “People are always talking about how music is like the devil music or something,” she laughs. “That’s my shit.”
Meanwhile, a psychedelic video – the result of a collaboration with Yves Tumour, Jordan Hemingway and Dazed’s art director Jamie Reid – plays on loop. “It was a crazy-ass trip, to be honest,” she says, having been obsessed with Tumour’s work for months, “I found his Finsta, and I was like, ‘wow this boy is crazy’.” “A lot of musicians are making music and I’m feeding off of it and creating this work and they’re feeding off of it as well,” she continues. “But it’s the same with make-up artists and directors, if I’m really inspired by you, I want to work with you. I want you to do what you want to do with my world.”
The Mowalola ‘world’ – “chaotic, colourful, and really free” – is crucial to the way that Ogunlesi sees and creates her work. “My tutor at school, Reba Maybury, would ask us: ‘what is it about the world that you want to change and how do you want to do that with what you are doing?’ That really stuck with me because I want to be making something for a purpose, not just making things that are beautiful,” she says. “With everything I do, I’m thinking: how is this going to affect someone in a positive way for them to figure out things that will help them in their life? I just want people to experience my world. Not just copy what I do and do it yourself, but be inspired to do other things – whatever you want to do.”
As for what’s next, Ogunlesi doesn’t like to make plans. “I might not even be doing fashion in a year… I’m just on a journey and whatever happens, I’m with it,” she says. But whatever she does end up doing, be sure that it will be on her own terms. “I think people are trying to make me go in a certain way and I still want to be very in control of what I do with my life, so I don’t give a fuck,” she says. “I’m going to do what is good for me because at the end of the day I have myself and I need to take care of her.”
Silent Madness by Mowalola is on at NOW Gallery, London until January 19, 2020.