A fashion insider, who shall remain nameless, once told me that the idea of a Black female fashion collective was an impossibility. The idea of creative like minds -- in its simplest form, a crew, and in its grandest, a nucleus of Black female talent and cool -- could never be. Not because there weren't any existing potential participants -- to be sure, the numbers grow by the day -- but rather, as they explained, because of the attitudes and drama our race and gender incite ... no, no, no it does not bode well for us. We simply do not work well together.
Thankfully this ominous forecast was relayed to me via email, for I'm unsure how I would have responded if confronted with it in the flesh. Without the ability to type a poised, diplomatic response, I would have most likely swallowed hard and pointed to daring design stars, Darlene and Lizzy Okpo, the sisterly duo behind lauded womenswear label, William Okpo, as proof positive that such self-pathologizing conclusions are unfounded.
The young designers, whose diverse origins traverse the savannahs of Nigeria, to the beautiful chaos of the Bronx, to the quaint suburbs of Staten Island, are physical and emotional complements of one another; two sides of a single design objective, who have worked together cohesively since the line's debut in 2010. The sisters have in turn branded a quiet cool about William Okpo in a short interval, having garnered support from the GenArt brand, which has sponsored both their Spring/Summer 2012 and Fall/Winter 2012 collections, and the patronage of such fashion darlings as Solange Knowles,
Darlene and Lizzy are also the subjects of the second installment of the "Black Girl Crush Series", and have infused their infectious personalities into a thoughtful Q/A that touches on the brand's muses, how they combat the struggles of Black designers, and above all, how they manage those signature knee-length cascade of braids. Read on to learn more....
Black Girl Crush, Part 2 : Darlene and Lizzy Okpo of William Okpo
Name: Darlene and Lizzie Okpo.
Birthplace: Bronx, New York.
Age: Darlene, age 25; Lizzy, age 22.
Profession: Designers of William Okpo.
Personal Style: Rough and tough, but sweet.
Although you named William Okpo after your stylish father and are quite inspired by menswear generally, I'm curious who your female style muses are and how do they influence the brand's aesthetic?
Overall our style muse is a girl that is confident and well rounded: women who simply "get it." Our female style muses are Vogue Fashion Writer, Chioma Nnadi and Cloak & Dagger designer, Brookelynn Starnes. Both of these ladies have their own sense of style. They have such a confident, powerful poise about them that inspires young women to get in tune with their own personal style and self confidence.
From the Mulleavy Sisters of Rodarte to Mary Kate and Ashley of The Row, the fashion design world is seemingly a great place for sisterly collaboration. What do you think it is about the sororal dynamic that makes for good business?
Mixing sisterly love and creativity in a business sense, for us, equates to a magical potion of brilliance and fun. We share a natural chemistry. It is almost like a telepathic relationship between us, because we feel and think the same things at the same time. Sometimes things aren't as in sync as it should be, but when we are, we are pretty lethal.There is an embedded trust and loyalty that is unbreakable between us.
To speak candidly, though, the fashion industry has seen great Black designers come and go, without attempting to nurture their careers or brands. How do you hope to make William Okpo a mainstay?
There are many great Black designers in this industry, but it is just that the press doesn't shed enough light on these designers in the way they do to other designers of a different race. What hits a nerve for us is that you could produce the same work as an Alexander Wang, Rodarte, or Rag and Bone, and still be labeled as an " urban" brand.
We feel that people turn a blind eye in regards to the creative aspect of [William Okpo], and instead look directly at us and use our image as a way to define our brand.
We will make William Okpo a mainstay by continuing to have fun with our brand, and simply having this unstoppable attitude. Being in this industry will drive you crazy, but you have to be strong-minded and pay attention to what's going on around you. If you believe in your brand than everyone else does.
Interestingly, this idea of "Black fashion" has recently crept into the social imagination due to the dominance and visibility of fashion blogs, street style stars, and emerging brands, in turn democratizing the fashion world a bit more and broadening the idea of who or what is fashionable. Do you even believe there is such a thing as "Black fashion" or a "Black aesthetic"? Is William Okpo a part of that idea or movement?
We never really understood why certain things have to have a label on it. We do believe that the presence of Black people in fashion, as a whole, has been more visible and it's a beautiful thing. It's tricky to say "Black fashion" only because it puts us on the edge of saying that "Black fashion" is the same as "Asian fashion" and "White fashion". We feel like separation is unnecessary.
With that being said, I just saw the Miuccia Prada/Schiaperelli exhibit and Ms. Prada is such a thinker that her politics on gender and culture naturally pour into her designs. Do history or politics ever find themselves wandering into your design process?
History and Politics do at times wander into our design process. At times we want to incorporate how we feel about what has happened in the past or what is going on now into our pieces. It is a great way to express ourselves and present it in an art form.
Darlene, I know you're a big Black History buff, so I'm curious who in history would you girls love to design for?
Darlene: I definitely am a big Black History buff. When you observe the women of our history, their style was amazing. From Civil Rights activist, Ella Baker to legendary singer, Josephine Baker, their style was effortless and they had a certain type of beauty that no one could replicate.
I would of loved to design for performer, Lena Horne. Her style was sophisticated and elegant.
As sisters are wont to do, I'm assuming that growing up you two shared (and never returned) each other's clothes. Whose closet would you raid now?
Darlene: We have an older sister and when I was younger, I would always dig through her closet. She always had the latest of everything.
Nowadays, I raid my close friend, Stacey Jordan's, closet. She is a stylist and she has the coolest clothes ever. I have about five pieces from her, that I have yet to return. I can't separate myself from the pieces; I am attached.
Your family hails from Nigeria originally, moved to the Bronx, and now is settled in State Island: I'm curious how this diverse mix of cultures and places influences your ideas on female beauty and personal style?
Having this mixture of culture has given us the ability to be more open-minded.
We are native New Yorkers and our parents moved here from Nigeria to build a family and they instilled in us great values, such as doing for yourself and constantly working hard; that is something we live by.
Not to be typical, but we feel that the Bronx definitely gave us that hard edge style. We recently had a conversation about Reebok 5411's, and though we were very young at the time, we remember those sneakers being our 'must have' look. We also reflect on all of those hip-hop videos our older siblings had us watching while living in the Bronx, and we remember Nas and Wu-Tang with all the camo and boat hats.
So every so often you may see a little tomboy Wu-Tang flow. For us, living in Staten Island made us desperate for creativity, because it is such a suburban lifestyle.
What does success look like to you?
Success is happiness. Success to us is being able to create jobs. It's important to us to be where growth and creativity is needed. The day we have a large entity, where people are able to work with us and from that, support themselves and their families, will be the same day we will bow our heads/laugh/cry and say, " We did it! "
Last question (and it's completely selfish): who does your braids and would they be willing to do mine?
Darlene: I braid my own hair, as well as Lizzy's hair. But lately Lizzy has been braiding her own hair because I refuse to do it for her and it takes forever!!
For you Marjon, of course I will braid your hair for you. Let's make a hair date, because it is hard to get me to sit down and braid some hair.
Visit http://williamokpo.com/ to learn more about the brand and area stockists.
New York-based sister design duo, Darlene & Lizzy Okpo of label, William Okpo. Photo by Jason Eric Hardwick.
A look from the William Okpo Fall 2012 collection. The girls were inspired by the schoolgirl silhouette and that buzz of the first day of school with this Fall offering.
A look from the William Okpo Fall 2012 collection.
A look from the William Okpo Fall 2012 collection
A look from the William Okpo Fall 2012 collection.
The ladies of William Okpo design for confident, well-rounded women who simply "get it" - www.williamokpo.com. Photo by Mike Schreiber.
Follow Marjon Rebecca Carlos on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LADYpantsBKlyn