nº62 / OLUBIYI THOMAS / LONDON
During London Fashion Week, Olubiyi Thomas presented his Autumn/Winter collection 2022, “Princess of the Universe” at his Covent Garden store. We met a few days later to talk about his work, contemporary art and the wild aspect of life.
Review by Zoltan Alexander
Atelier Olubiyi Thomas / Trailer © video created by Zoltan Alexander ZOLTAN+MEDIA
THE ESSENCE OF OLUBIYI THOMAS
Following Olubiyi Thomas’s A/W 2022 presentation, I met with the designer in his store. After the show, his HQ became, once again, a multi-functional space from store, showroom, runway to exhibition space. Alongside the clothes, grouped by themes and colours, we walked through his artistically chaotic workspace. The interior is randomly arranged with recycled furniture and the walls are covered with his large-scale patchworks. The setting is never staged but changes spontaneously. The heart of the space is so intimate that we almost felt like sitting at the cutting table, filled with sample fabrics, drawings, and photographs from his last show, to take over the work.
I have never planned to have a fashion talk. I am not even a fashion journalist. My background is deeply rooted in contemporary art, and that is how I recognised his strong bond with art.
In the midst of this tragic hour of evilness in Europe, the first word that popped up was ACTIVIST. We did not talk about the war, just calmy about life and his philosophy.
Olubiyi declares himself as a Kinetic Activist. His actions, his well-founded views come directly from his heart, often in silence, supporting the cause without creating a scene. He is not the person who would march into a crowd with demonstration panels as the root of the solution is always elsewhere. We just have to find it and act on it.
“Sometimes the act of resistance doesn’t have to be loud, it just has to be.” Olubiyi Thomas
Whether it is jazz or rap, Olubiyi’s work is absorbed with music and rhythm. On the night of the show, he presented a series of live performances starting with the mesmerising voice of young musician, Saint Palmz, followed by a contemporary dance performance by next-generation dancer, choreographer Max Cookward and Magnus Westwell of Sadler’s Wells. Both created a hype, filled with energy and by the time the models arrived on the runway the anticipation was at its height.
The multifaceted performers were dressed by the latest collection. They were also the models of the show, a part of a fine palette of Olubiyi’s casting with unique characters, mixed-raced models, singers, and dancers who could have stepped out of a sci-fi movie rather than a typical model agency. Using performance artists was not only very much part of the show but was a snapshot of Olubiyi’s identity. Whatever he does, turns out to be ART.
Not surprising that movies and sci-fi heroes play a significant part in his inspiration and visionary adventures. Time, when Aliens from faraway galaxies threaten our civilisation, everyone gets united by one collective to save the earth despite the differences. It is an ideal world that ends when the movie finishes, or should it?
Getting to know Olubiyi Thomas is unveiling layers and layers of history from post-colonialist, African cultural heritage and Scottish upbringing to multi-cultural London with a glimpse of Japanese style. The traditional Japanese Wabi-Sabi aesthetics are paramount in Olubiyi’s life. It is based on a world centred on acceptance, imperfection and beauty that is once described as imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete in nature. Wabi-Sabi characteristics value asymmetry, rawness, simplicity, intimacy and the appreciation of nature and natural objects.
But, where does all that creativity and determination come from?
The path starts in Nigeria when Lagos-born Olubiyi Thomas, at age three, left the country with his family for Scotland. During his youth, he got involved with the Nigerian minority group and their artistic influence became significant.
In 2009, he attended Central Saint Martins in London, first signing up for Fine Arts then consequently for Fashion. During that learning period, he spent six months at Alexander McQueen, and in 2013, after his BA Hons. he joined the London label De Rien. We happily remember names from that time like Maureen Doherty of EGG.
In 2015, he left De Rien to establish his namesake label preparing for his first Spring/Summer collection 2016.
His 2022 show was a natural progression of his previous “Future Highlander “ collection inspired by his textile exploration with Prof. Jonathan Faiers as well as Denzel Washington’s performance in the movie “The Tragedy of Macbeth”, both creating a background for responsibility and naughtiness.
During our conversation, we carefully avoided the word gender fluid and other labels forced on by the fashion industry. He simply creates multi-cultural clothes that men and women could wear equally. His signature-style, multi-layered, elongated and tailored silhouettes are timeless. The clothes are raw and interchangeable with an artisanal approach, using raw edges and deconstructed aesthetics. Olubiyi, on the other hand, is very constructed. Being determent, he knows and always knew his path.
His philosophy is deeply woven into his garments. In his collection, he introduced a re-weave technic that he developed to take off-cut fabrics and weave them into panels to create new, sustainable, zero-waste textiles. The archaic fabrics, reinterpreting historical references, were exquisite. They are often found in deadstock to create unique textiles through refined details, patchwork, appliqué, and reworking on fabrics handwoven by local weavers. Using exclusive bleach and dye, the principal colours were deep blue and chocolate, echoing the hidden identity of the Hommes Bleus and the desert. As another layer, the Japanese influence is undoubtedly there but without any direct references, the work walks hand in hand with the highest quality and master-cutting of Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons.
During the presentation of his 2022 collection, I couldn’t stop noticing the crowd that attended the show. No, it wasn’t that fashion crowd we are accustomed to that run from show to show, being over-excited and loving everything they could record for their Insta stories. It was a very different group of people; I would call them Gen-C … the Creative Generation. They were young and fresh and highly motivated. After the show, people stayed, talked, danced and most importantly got engaged with conversations about real subjects where real answers were anticipated. I realised how much creativity and visual arts are inseparable from Olubiyi’s life.
At the end of our interview, I threw a name into our conversation: FELA KUTI.
He smiled. Kuti was a renowned Nigerian musician, composer, multi-instrumentalist and, of course, a political activist. He is regarded as the master of African Music and Afrobeat that combines Yoruba percussion style with fusion and American jazz. He was also described as a socio-political voice of international significance.
Then, I surprised him with another name: YINKA SHONIBARE. He smiled again. There is no doubt, Olubiyi is highly influenced and motivated by contemporary art, especially by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare CBE, RA, a London-based Royal Academician. I can easily draw a comparison between Thomas’s and Shonibare’s approach to life, quality of work, determination and cultural identities, which are deeply rooted in post-colonialism with a strong contemporary context.
In reference to Shonibare’s sculpture, I would say to Olubiyi Thomas:
Hey, “Butterfly Kid”, fly high!
Photo-montage by Zoltan Alexander
Background Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+MEDIA
Portrait Photo © Courtesy of Aladino Di Prinzlo with the participation of Olubiyi Thomas Atelier London
Created by Zoltan Alexander
Production: ZOLTAN+MEDIA London
Music: “No Cry” by Fasion
℗ 2019 Epidemic Sound
"Butterfly Kid” by Yinka Shonibare / 2015
Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+MEDIA
A fibreglass sculpture created of an anonymous figure inspired by global warming and its effects on nature’s Flora and Fauna, placing a globe for his head, balancing on one leg with his arms outstretched as if about to take flight.
OLUBIYI THOMAS ATELIER LONDON