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One to Watch: Abiola Onabulé The London designer who brings Nigerian heritage into limited-Edition clothings

Abiola Onabule wants to reimagine the fashion world in her own terms – a world that is built on the three pillars of: Nigerian textile crafts, local production, and personal narratives woven into clothes. Having done her apprenticeships at Iris Van Herpen and Gareth Pugh, the Central Saint Martin grad doesn’t “want to go down that same route” of ready-to-wear, and instead chooses the bespoke to cultivate her ideal world of fashion. Inside her world is a rich display of white-striped red blouses, oversized ruffles and cinched waists that signal opulence, while exuding a sense of ultra femininity.

Abiola’s couture like pieces are built on the humble canvas of cotton and linen – an ode to her Nigerian roots. Generous cuts of fabrics are kept whole, and drenched in saturated hues of red, green, orange, and virgin linen white. Exaggerated shoulders and hips, a silhouette inspired by a Nigerian wooden carving of a woman, are accentuated with a snug, corset-like cut at the waist – a technique where the London-born designer wants to go sans corset bonings and improve with her own way of pattern-cutting. The designs are meant for women to “take up space physically”, yet feel comfortable in wearing, and treasuring. The signature feminine, cultural-rich power suit has been chosen as a full stage outfit for Neneh Cherry, in her Glastonbury performance.

Here, we talk with Abiola about her way of doing bespoke pieces, how the Internet has fundamentally reshaped the fashion industry by opening up conversations and accelerating the process of decentralization, and how we both think social media is not the be-all end-all for fashion creatives, especially after the crash of Instagram and Facebook on October 4th.

Abiole’s sketch/workbook with a Nigerian sculpture

“ I wanted to play with silhouettes, I wanted to make shapes that allow women to take up space physically but are still quite feminine ”

— Abiola Onabule

No Kill Mag/Jacqueline: How was your journey as a Designer in Residence at Design Museum?
I finished that 4 months ago now. I was a Designer at Residence for a year. It ended up taking place in the middle of the pandemic, so I did a lot of work from home rather than being around other designers, so it was a lot more about building relationships via video chats and collaborating that way. But it was definitely an interesting and new experience for sure.

I didn’t realize that! When I was on your website I saw a film where you collaborated with other designers and the film was set in Nigeria… So I thought it was such an immersive irl experience.
Haha unintentionally we managed to kind of trick people. On the final day we managed to arrange everyone to get together to film the clip but a lot of the stages prior to that would have been done in person. And it wasn’t filmed in Nigeria, it was filmed in London but we were referencing a lot of Nigerian props, and I was collaborating with other artists and designers who also reference their Nigerian heritage. So it was totally “from Nigeria”, definitely. But [we were] talking about it from the perspective of the people outside the country in a way, the diaspora [in the UK]. Obviously all of my theories about life and emotions went into the work.

But it was interesting to do all of that remotely up until the very final filming day. Because obviously hopefully this pandemic will soon pass, as you don’t want things to be locked in that area, you want them to kind of translate outside of their moment in time. So it’s good that it wasn’t really a struggle to create [the film].

We discovered your designs via Tyler McGillivary. You’re based in London but Tyler McGillivary is a US studio – when did you start selling your designs on McGillivary?
So that was another thing that was a part of the Internet in a way. She found my work and wanted to feature some one-off pieces on her website – she does that alongside her own work which I think it’s really lovely for a designer to kind of also want to feature and show off other designers – that’s quite a rarity. So she reached out to me and we started chatting and going back and forth about what she thought might work for her customer base. And from there I got the pieces done and sent them off to her and it was about making it limited-edition in a way rather than a high volume, multiple-of-the-same-colour. So that’s what we ended up going with and she was very flexible about what I was interested in as well so it was a lovely surprise interaction and outcome. I never thought I would send things that would go over to New York. 

That’s such a nice working space, almost like a companionship. Some of the designers I’ve talked with before told me about how they’re pressured to come out with new designs.
Yeah, this was the complete opposite. It was literally the case of, “What would you like out of this”, like “Let’s make this appealing to all of us” so it was a lovely experience for me and yeah I know that it’s not always that way for sure so every time I had these lovely interactions I’m very appreciative of them because yeah, they’re not common.

What project are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I’m doing some custom work and I’m also in the process of designing a new collection… It’s very much me wanting to be intuitive with my process of design, going with where my interests and my ideas are… I don’t know yet whether it’ll be a more traditional, regimented season formation or if I actually want to go for something slightly different, sort of really strategic in terms of how I put my work out there and who I’m collaborating with and what it’s for… So yeah, at the moment it’s just [me] wanting to collaborate with lots of interesting people, other artists, other makers and design in that way. So that’s what’s been happening in the last few months really.

Sounds like you’re in a good place.

No really because you cannot rely on one traditional formula and think it will work. Sometimes, if not most of the time, it’s more about crafting your own journey and appreciating every moment on the way.
Yeah and I realized there’s been a very traditional model for fashion. I’ve had enough experience and I’ve been around enough people who go down that route and it’s probably not the exact way I want to go about my work. I’m taking opportunities to feel out what is the right way for me and make sure it allows the most creativity and productivity as possible.

You seem really dedicated to fashion design – I mean you did both a BA and a MA in that same major. When did you realize you want to become a fashion designer?
I think I was quite young when I realized I wanted to do fashion. Maybe a lot younger than some of my fellow classmates at university –I was probably around ten, eleven when I started realizing this is actually where I want to go and I started trying to teach myself how to design, how to pattern cut.
It was really early on as I come from a creative household, there’s a lot of dressmakers on both sides of my family and people that I was directly seeing everyday so I know their story. I found inspiration in lots of stories from the women in my family, how they set up their business and provided for their families through making and designing clothes… More in the making side of things but I was really interested in helping out, bringing that part up.

What do you think about the fashion industry and how it’s based on having good connections? Not necessarily a negative thing but sometimes it can be frustrating because it takes a long time to build that network.
It does, it does. I mean I did a foundation, I did a BA, I did an MA, Designer at Residence… You know, slowly building on the foundation. Although fashion can seem pretty fast sometimes, it still takes a long time to get where you need to go but you know, in a way, like it’s building up this muscle, the ability to work in the industry.

Your designs are beautiful and I think I have never seen anything quite like them. A lot of exploded sleeves, and extravagance, lots of bustier tops, linen, frocks and frills giving me Victorian era vibes.
Yeah, well, I wanted to take the fabric and some of the look of draping that happens in some Nigerian clothes and then mesh it with the great background of my mom’s side. I’ve grown up in the UK and there were all sorts of things in pop culture that inspired me and I bring all those things together. Yeah, it’s almost like using all those materials and that idea of draping and then mesh them with … what’s his name… Cecil Beaton, the guy who did the costume design for My Fair Lady. I had a book [written by him] as a child, and he did a lot of fancy, beautiful, luxurious looking gowns and he also did photography as well. And so I wanted to mesh those things together, with Nigeria, and with pop references and make it into this sort of amalgamation.

And I wanted to play with silhouettes, I wanted to make shapes that allow women to take up space physically but are still quite feminine so that’s where the ideas of, as you said, exploded shoulders, things jutting out the hips and so on came from. And also it’s fun to play around with silhouettes like that, it’s fun to the people who have been creating very traditional silhouettes in a way, I say, let’s be the one experimenting with that.

When you design, what is the first thing that enters your mind? Is it functionality or looks or the cultural aspect of the garment?
I want people to move easily and to feel comfortable in those clothes and so in that way I’d say I think about the practicality. Like these are probably not gonna keep you super warm in a very cold winter. The clothes that I’m designing aren’t that type of clothes but I definitely want to make sure that you can move in them, you can be as expressive with your physicality as possible, and so I’ve kind of set myself some rules that I design – not making the clothes restrictive, not putting boning and things where actually you can just pattern cut it to give it a sort of shape but in a way that would be a lot comfier to wear over a long period of time. And even with the fabrics, at the moment I’m using a lot of quite humble fabrics in a way, you know, it’s cotton, and it’s woven and it’s tapestry fabrics and those are the types of fabrics you could find anywhere, but that’s part of the fun and the challenge to try to turn it into something quite out there, and you know, ultra feminine. So yeah, that’s kind of where I go with thinking about practicality at the moment but who knows, maybe one day I’ll create workwear looks, we don’t know.

And about the idea of designing with people’s narratives into things, I think that’s a really important aspect to me in designing, where possible, with the individual in mind. And so that’s why I love doing one-off and bespoke pieces for people because you can feed in who that person is, and what they require from the garment, and so that helps as well with practicality if you’re designing it specifically with that person in mind. You can work around their preferences and what makes them feel comfortable.

So, yeah, bespoke fashion is fun, but won’t be the only thing I design, but I’d love to keep it as a sort of vein through my work.

You mentioned the cultural importance of cloth in your Design Residency. Do you think that for the wearer to truly appreciate the cultural value put into a design, we would have to put the item in a very local space? It’s hard to really grasp the cultural aspect of a garment in a highly commercialized context, which happens to be the current system of the fashion industry.
Yeah I mean it’s every designer’s dream – you want to create your world that people have to kind of step into, rather than being stuck to a setting that is actually not designed for it, like a commercial setting. So yeah, finding a way to invite people into how I’m thinking about the clothes and to get to ask more questions and ask about “Oh why you’re using these colours, or these dyes, or these silhouettes”, you know, and getting people curious about the clothes that you wear. It’s a fun extra challenge when you’re designing your brand, in a way.

Did your internship at Iris Van Herpen influence the way you design?
Oh yeah, Iris at Amsterdam. I also interned at Gareth Pugh. For both of them, their design styles were quite different from mine. But I think it was better than if I was with someone who was quite similar to me, because then I would learn from them as a designer and how they build their brands, and I wouldn’t have naturally learned on my own.

So it was about how to collaborate – they both collaborated a lot with these interesting artists and other designers who came and collaborated on making films etc. That was an important part –seeing how they interacted with the art world and the music world and also kind of brought that into their design process, their designs and their shows. That really gave me an idea of the broadness of what you can do as a fashion designer, which was great to know that it doesn’t have to be one part, and it doesn’t have to be super commercial either.

Neneh Cherry in Abiola Onabule at the Glastonbury Festival

Only now that I talked to you do I understand that you want to cultivate a bespoke way of making clothes. Have you ever thought of being part of London Fashion Week?
London has a lot of amazing designers so it’s always exciting to see what’s going on, but I don’t know if every designer needs to show at London Fashion Week. I think sometimes it’s not the right venue and sometimes it requires so much input at the beginning of the process on your side as a designer. It’s actually not gonna give you what you need, it’s gonna take so much out of you to put on the show.

And I think there are other ways to put your work out there and so, maybe eventually, one day it would be lovely to show there but I wouldn’t rush to – I don’t think it’s the only way now. And I think it would be great to do when it is the right time, when things have come together rather than… Yeah, I don’t think you have to show there, basically, to get the word out and to get people interested in your designs.

I think a lot of people now, especially a lot of people in the creative industry, they’ll find you somehow, which I always find amazing. They will find you if they like your designs and they will try and support you so yeah, it organically happens and London Fashion Week is like, one of the highlights but it’s not the only one. The same goes to any of the fashion weeks.

It’s amazing how one connection leads to another in the fashion world. You really have to trust your journey.
It’s amazing how one thing will link to the next thing and the next person and I like how people find you sometimes and what that means in terms of your career. I went into studying wanting to be a good student, trying to achieve everything and do well at it. And I realized after I started to do a lot more work in the real world –outside of the educational system –”Oh you can’t control everything.” Some of it is gonna naturally find its way to you, or you’re gonna find your way to it and all you can do is be open to the opportunity when it comes. 

At first it seems really hard. The things that I did 5 years ago, hopefully I won’t have to do that again ’cause I spent all that time stressing and doing these free work experiences and you know, running around London assisting stylists and doing all of that. You know, yeah, it does pay off, because now, hopefully, I won’t have to do that sort of thing again. But it was good to have these experiences and it helps to get to whatever the next stage was.

I mean making connections is not necessarily a bad thing – after all there’s a lot of collaborating and synergizing in work so I think it’s still good to make good connections – not the types that you take advantage of other people
Definitely, and there are definitely people like that. They’re not interested in actually getting to know who you are, they’re just interested in using you as a way to jump to the next opportunity but that doesn’t really pay off in the end. Being genuine is the way to go.

Yeah how can that EVER be sustainable?
Exactly –and it’s not mentally healthy as well! Pretending that you’re interested in something. I can’t do it but I think it’s quite interesting as traditionally, fashion is an industry that’s quite surface-based, but now it’s so much more focus on what’s going behind underneath the surface, you know, sustainability and how workers are treated and the system within the industry and it’s gonna be interesting to see how the fashion industry evolves in a way.

Yes, there have been so many changes that happened in only the last decade. I follow fashion journalist Odunayo Ojo who is from Nigeria. Right now there’s Peter Do who is a first-generation Vietnamese immigrant who has made it in the American market. I think fashion is heading towards more inclusivity.
Yeah, I do know him. It’s really exciting – there’s a real swirl of talents from Nigeria, or coming from the Nigerian diaspora, same with what you’re saying about Peter Do… Honestly I don’t know these people personally but I still get very excited whenever I see one and I’d be like “Oh there’s a Nigerian designer who’s doing extremely well or winning awards”… There’s a little bit of pride there whenever that happens.

And that’s definitely thanks to the Internet, I think. ‘Cause there are fewer gatekeepers, you can put your work out there.

Yes, and attending fashion schools is itself a gatekeeper – not everyone can afford to go to these institutions, or even live in parts of the world where fashion is taught.
Yeah, it really is not easy to gain access to the fashion industry. And even in fashion schools, there are some very very rich people who are studying in it, and it’s always going to be a little bit easier for them. And you’ll have to work a lot harder.

But I think we need all these viewpoints from people from parts of life where traditionally they couldn’t afford to study fashion, because those are going to be really interesting viewpoints on the fashion industry. And I think in the ‘60s or ‘70s, people were able to come from a much wider variety of backgrounds and make it in fashion. People like, from what I know, Viviene Westwood wasn’t super wealthy, McQueen wasn’t super wealthy, John Galliano… There were a lot of people who were from working class backgrounds and it was their ability to be creative that got them where they were.

And they’re iconic.
Yeah! Their work is so rich, so layered and interesting. A little bit of a return to that would be lovely.

Talking about the Internet, do you think of putting your work on E-commerce platforms, for example, Depop?
I would rather a slow building process towards having a brand that people can go directly to. Recently there was this shutdown that happened to social media, what was that last week or the week before?

Ah yeah! Instagram and Facebook got frozen.
Yes! It made us really have to think about not relying too much on these things. Obviously you use the Internet, but don’t use anyone’s platforms to be your source of income or the only way people can find you. I think it’s better to have diverse places that people can find you and also directly where possible. And so that’s probably more the direction I go. And also to keep it grounded in real life where possible, to have somewhere, or some place that people can go where they can actually see the pieces if possible. So you have that combination of digital, but irl. Because clothes are both – they translate really well online, but someone’s gotta wear them and try them on.

Yeah, I really get that. It’s always feel more special if you go to the actual place.
Yeah, and I don’t know about you, but after the last year I love the Internet and I believe it has so much power to change things in a positive way. But also it’s not good to be online all the time for your mental health. Like you said

“It’s really nice to interact with something in the physical space and talk to someone at the shop and it opens up a lot of opportunities for positive interactions, a lot more beneficial for you mentally than being online all day!”

Especially right now, as your Instagram is somehow your business card, if you work in fashion. But Instagram now is trying to compete with Tiktok and the algorithm favors reels, and now my explore page is full of these short videos/moving pictures which is so distracting and time-consuming if you’re not careful. I hate it so much to the point that now I only use it to post, not to consume content.
I’m very much like you. I mainly go on if I need to post something, or I check in occasionally to see what everyone else is up to and to see, you know, obviously I follow a lot of brilliant people so I do like to check in and see what they posted.
But yeah, if you’re a creative person, you don’t want your whole day to gone by and all you done is consume other people’s creativity, like you want to be making and designing and doing and there’s nothing more depressing than looking up and it’s like 7 in the evening and you’re like “I was online all day. What have I been doing?” And so I keep a lot of distance between myself and my social media and I see it as, you know, one source of interaction with people, but I don’t think it’s everything.

Yeah, I think social media is better as a tool to drive traffic to the place you want them to.
Exactly, exactly. Yeah, it’s a pool for opportunities, it’s not like the resting place, or the place you end up there, hopefully.

Do you look back and reflect on how your work has evolved over time?
I don’t, on a regular basis. But I’ve had to do a couple of talks for universities recently and they want you to talk a little bit about your earlier work and how you evolved. And so because of that I’ve had to think about it a bit more and what’s interesting was looking back and realizing “Oh, there’s a lot of hints and signs of the work I do now but I had not fully, figured out how to harness it earlier.”

My earlier work  is a lot more scattered – the approach. I tried everything –everything and anything– and I think as you get older you learn more about who you are as a designer, you’re able to refine it and really narrow down what’s your point of view, what you’re trying to say and what is the best way to work so you can kind of tap into that creativity faster.

Yes, working as a creative makes you easy to go paranoid about putting the best, the most significant work out there, every time. Which can burn you out because sometimes people don’t even spend more than 5 seconds at your work. Consistency and constant reflection and editing are so much more important.
It’s so true. It’s like we’re obsessed with that “useful panic” “I’m just gonna put everything out right now ’cause what if I’m gonna die tomorrow” That’s like the vibe. But in reality, it’s not about putting everything you have in one collection, it’s about showing up with new collections. Some people give up after their first collection.

What is your view on the New Gen designers?
I think the New Generation Designers are so varied, which is lovely. They’re varied in terms of point of view, and also the type of outcomes, and I think there is a lot more variety in terms of what type of brands they are. I think people no longer all want to be a Marc Jacobs, or all try to be a McQueen.

I think there are different brands that people admire which is great because it gives you a better example of what is possible, because not every type of design suits, you know, setting yourself up as a McQueen, or a Marc Jacobs or something. Some designers need to be a much smaller operation, or need a slower process of working so that’s really lovely to see and kind of inspiring.

I also think there are a lot of thoughtful designs going on, a lot of beautiful research and exploration, and almost academic designs, in a way, you know. People who are really going in depth into their research and the thought process before they even get into the stage of designing the clothes.

What can the fashion industry do better?
I think pulling back on volume. The volume of clothes being pumped out has been a problem for decades at this point now. So I don’t know how, or when it can be resolved, but i think that’s a huge problem that you’re going to have to deal with the consequences of and I think that’s not even anything to do with designs, really, I think it has to do with business and people trying to make profit. ‘Cause to be honest I don’t think most designers go into their designs thinking about how many pieces are gonna be manufactured, like “I’m gonna have 1000 of this trouser design”, most designers simply go in thinking about what world they want to create and what beautiful clothes they want to make, so it’s a fashion business issue in a way.

You talked about how the Nigerian crafts and skills can be adopted in today’s fashion production. I think it arrives very timely with the zeitgeist of the fashion industry, as we are talking a lot about new improved materials that are biodegradable to substitute polyester. Can you share with us what materials or traditional Nigerian crafts do you think can be used to create new innovative materials in fashion?
I think right now there are a lot of designers coming up with really interesting proposals and the fabric technology side of things, I’m not a super scientific person so I can’t aid anyone in that way.

“But I think if you look at a lot of traditional textile cultures around the world it’s a lot more local, a lot more based in the community. People are a lot more in touch with their local tailor, their local fabric dyers, weavers… and so people understand a bit more about what it takes to make a piece of clothing, and people have a lot of clothes that are custom made for them. ”

That creates a sense of value around the clothes, ’cause in a way one of the most sustainable things you can do with a piece of clothing is wear it,  keep it and maybe hand it down to someone. Yeah, it’s trying to convince people to love their clothes and try to buy things in a responsible way, and once they bought those things, [they] actually hold on to them and not just throw them away and make them someone else’s problem, by being sent secondhand in a shipping container to another country.

That’s where I think designers can play a role –trying to make people appreciate the clothes, really, and hold them as valuable in their own sense. Because clothes can be things that hold memories, and hold kind of important moments in your life. And I think we’ve lost that connection in the West with our clothes. They’re just objects that we put on a few times and then we throw them away and there’s no other meaning to them. Clothes used to have greater meaning in cultures. So, kind of bringing back some of those values would be lovely.

What would you like to achieve before the end of the year?
I want to find the next interesting opportunity to evolve my brand and start to establish it and to have some consistency with the work I’m doing, so people can come to me a little more easily to buy pieces or to for bespoke work. It’s been a tumultuous year and a half and it’s been hard to find that footing. But now hopefully as we start to come out of this pandemic and settle back in some sort of routine it’ll be a great chance to start setting up the brand in a much more official way. Yeah, and continue designing and create interesting work and work with interesting people. I don’t know if all that will be achieved by Christmas… those are general goals, I think, for life.

In the US Abiola’s designs can be found on Tyler McGillivary, alongside creations of other indie designers such as Erika Maish.

Find Abiola on: Instagram / Web / Tyler McGillivary

–Jacqueline Pham


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