Unswayed by fashion’s breakneck pace, Scottish-Nigerian designer Olubiyi Thomas stays grounded in heritage and craft.
By Shyam Patel
As published in GRAY magazine No. 62
Three looks from designer Olubiyi Thomas’ Autumn/Winter 2021 collection, titled “Future Highlander.” Photographed by Olivier Barjolle.
Fashion is a form of self-expression. Though it’s repeated ad nauseam, this trite adage, when considered in the context of an industry fixated on speed, virality, and sales, is rather profound. The idea of self- expression has the power to reorient those who’ve been lost to fashion’s relentless demands.
For nearly a decade, Lagos-born, Glasgow-raised designer Olubiyi Thomas has resisted the churn by taking an introspective approach to design. His 5-year-old namesake label is sartorial self-portraiture: Garments wrought in languid shapes, with carefully sourced textiles and West African–style draping, take on the structure of quintessential British tailoring.
A shot from the Autumn/Winter 2021 “Future Highlander” campaign. Photographed by Olivier Barjolle
“My intention is to find the middle ground where these elements meet respectfully and collaborate instead of trying to dominate one another,” the designer explains from his East London studio. “The brand’s core values rely on all of these aspects being in harmony.” A Central Saint Martins graduate, Thomas likens his approach to making a sauce—the key to success is striking the right balance of ingredients so that one doesn’t overpower the others. It’s an ambitious process he’s perfected since 2015, when he stepped down from his position as head designer at the now-defunct artisanal label De Rien.
What began as a personal endeavor to create new clothes from scrap fabrics has evolved into a sought- after brand carried by international stockists including New York’s experimental Hotoveli boutique, Tokyo’s fashion destination International Gallery Beams, and retail heavyweight Selfridges. When friends and acquaintances inquired about the clothes Thomas made for himself, he began fulfilling their orders. In 2016, he took his first collection—with the help of friends Ejike Onuchukwu, Dino Weber, and Haider Rajah—to Paris. The scrappy operation included a Cockney patternmaker, a chatty Trinidadian tailor, and Nishant Chopra, the enterprising founder of the womenswear label Ōshadi (Thomas collaborated with Chopra to design textiles that were produced through Ōshadi). Textile alchemist Kirsty McDougall created new fabrics for Thomas out of scraps, while stylist KK Obi and photographer Mishael Phillip helped form the brand’s visual codes.
A model walking in Thomas’ Spring/Summer 2022 “Let it Rain” runway show, which was held at his atelier during London Fashion Week. Photographed by Tom J. Johnson.
The nascent label matured more quickly than most, and Spring 2022 is Thomas’ most self-assured outing yet. “This time, I was a lot more inclusive of African textiles,” he explains. “I used them a lot more confidently than I would have in the past.” Titled “Let it Rain” after a gospel song by the same name, Thomas’ 35-look lineup delves into the process of reconnecting with the roots he once veered away from. He turned to traditional Nigerian cotton textiles, including indigo-dyed ashoké and brissi, a crinkled, black wax-print fabric traditionally used for mourning garb. Elsewhere, he incorporated Malian mud cloth that was hand-dyed in Burkina Faso and manually block-printed using wooden stencils. Thomas was drawn to these textiles for their environmental and social sustainability, but also recalls childhood scenes of his mother and aunts swathed in ashoké at church. “It’s daunting,” he admits. “These fabrics represent entire cultures. It’s difficult for me to juxtapose them with new ideas. How it’s received really depends on who’s looking in from the outside.”
A multilayered look from the Autumn/Winter 2021 “Future Highlander” collection. Photographed by Olivier Barjolle.
Despite his considerable talent and newfound confidence, Thomas’ inner monologue still ponders hypothetical critiques of his work. “Someone [non-African] might typecast me and say, ‘He’s an African designer, so obviously we expect this from him,’” he says. Or, “from the Nigerian perspective, someone might think, ‘He was raised in Scotland, so why is he using our fabrics? How many times has he been to Nigeria?’”
Thomas acknowledges that understanding where he fits in as a member of the diaspora isn’t a simple process. “There are sensitive things that come up,” he says. “With each step, you learn more. It’s open-ended.” Raw, unfinished textiles and deconstructed garments capture the delicate nature of navigating his identity through the design process. “There’s nothing to prove, really,” he concludes. “You are who you are.”
Thomas’ Spring/Summer 2022 “Let it Rain” collection is a study in form and texture. The designer turned to traditional Nigerian cotton textiles for the garments. Photographed by Tom. J. Johnson.
This sense of self—coupled with a dedication to craft— has earned Thomas an audience. “I want to emphasize the uniqueness in each individual person,” he says. In his mind, the bygone ritual of collaborating with a seamstress or tailor to perfect a garment is the height of luxury. “I want to reinforce classical tailoring in my collections,” he says. While the high-street and high-end labels churn out products and ideas, Thomas produces his distinctive garments locally in London, keeping a close eye on technique and finishing. Retailers and clients are abuzz with positive feedback and asking for more, but Thomas doesn’t intend to grow his brand at breakneck pace any time soon. “If you’re working with five seamstresses or a couple of hand-embroiderers, each garment has been created by hand, automatically giving it a luxury feel,” he explains. “When a thousand units of the same style are factory-produced, something’s going to get diluted. Small production runs give people the full impact of the original idea.”
Now, five years after the debut of his label, clarity and confidence are guiding the way. From sourcing zero-carbon-emission textiles to customizing prints and collaborating with artists, Thomas is being true to his vision and eschewing fleeting industry whims. “In the past, I didn’t have the perspective for that,” he says. “I finally feel brave enough to pursue certain ideas. That’s from some years of experience.”