RISING STAR: Gbemi Okunlola
HER PASSION began at age 11 when she began taking apart clothes and reassembling them, an exercise that helped tremendously to hone her skills in her formative years.
It was a passion that put Gbemi Okunlola in good stead. Now, at the age of just 20, she is being hailed as a fashion designer to watch after launching her own fashion label called Alo’Nuko.
However even though Okunlola loved designing from an early age her entrepreneurial journey began by accident when she was 14.
“My best friend told her cousin - without asking me first – that I could make her a dress,” she recalls.
A surprise visit turned into a consultation. “When she came round to my house I was like ‘wow, I really don’t know what I’m doing’ but I worked through it and she loved the finished product. From there I was like ‘yep, I’m a fashion designer,’” the up-and-coming designer reveals with glee.
The summer before heading to college, Okunlola was urged by family and friends to apply for BBC’s Young Apprentice show.
The then 16-year-old took the leap and appeared alongside 11 young entrepreneurs to compete for an investment from Lord Alan Sugar.
Although she didn’t get the money, she says the experience was a big stepping stone in her entrepreneurial journey.
“I learnt about myself and about teamwork. Funny enough I thought I should have been fired earlier. I got fired on the fifth round but Lord Sugar is very much what you see on TV.”
A year later, her hobby turned into something more serious when she started a fashion design business from her bedroom.
Friends and people at school wanted to buy the clothes she was wearing, early indicators she used to conclude that her venture could become a success.
During college, however, tragedy struck. The same friend who had introduced her to her first paying client passed away. Okunlola was devastated. But the budding fashion designer used her grief as motivation to pursue her dream.
She says: “This was about a week and a half into the school year and I started thinking, ‘what if I died tomorrow?’ I don’t want to be living not doing what I love so I quit the course I was advised to do so I could join the Art and Design BTEC which conveniently only had one space left.”
Okunlola also declined a place at the highly prestigious London College of Fashion to pursue her passion. “They increased the university fees, and I started to question if I really wanted to pay £27,000.”
NEW COLLECTION: Okunlola has just launched a widely anticipated bridal collection
When it came to explaining the decision to her Nigerian parents, she recalls: “They thought I was joking. But when all my friends started leaving for university they realised I was serious. They asked me ‘what are you doing?’ I said I’m doing an apprenticeship. They were like, ‘what is that? Do you graduate from that?’ I just laughed.”
Despite their initial reservations, the Okunlola brood stood by their rising star as she launched Alo’Nuko.
However, she reveals that they used some unconventional tactics to show their support.
“My dad had warned me that if he found any thread on the floor he would forbid me from sewing in the house. The day it happened I didn’t think he would actually do it but I think it was because he wanted to ensure that I was ready to work for it – no shortcuts.”
The ban meant that within the space of a week, she was forced to find herself a proper studio from which she could work and meet her clients.
Help for the determined designer to get her fledging business off the ground came soon after when she got financial support from the London Youth Support Trust, which supports young entrepreneurs in the capital.
Within a short space of time, she had built up a strong client list.
Now Okunlola is creating a new collection, thanks to her big sister who asked for help in designing a dress in the run-up to her wedding.
While she says her sister was no bridezilla, the designer admits the majority of pressure came from other members of the family. “I had aunts who would call me to ask ‘have you started the dress?’ The pressure meant that while doing simple tasks like cutting fabric, my hands would be shaking,” she laughs.
The experience of designing her sibling’s wedding dress inspired Okunlola to create a special bridal collection, which she describes as “bespoke handmade gowns for the bespoke bride”.
She has funded the ambitious project through a kick-start fundraiser, securing £15,000 from members of the public and fans of her work who are keen to see what the young visionary can create with the appropriate financial backing.
But she reveals the decision to go ahead with the new collection was not an easy one. “I was scared that I wouldn’t make the money. My other fear was the question ‘Am I actually ready?’”
However, for Okunlola, the personal challenge of a collection that will form a big part of a very special moment for her female clients overrides any anxiety or fear she might feel.
“With bridal, it’s a really special experience; sometimes I get brides who cry just telling me about how they met their husbands. To be a part of it all is very exciting.”