Bella Adeleke Speaks About Her Life As A Creative
For Bella Adeleke, being a stylist is more than just dressing the people that she works with. Drawing inspiration from her surroundings, Bella is able to create something out of it and this she does through fashion.
With her mother as a fabric merchant and her father as a shoe industrialist, it was by fate that Bella Adeleke ended up being a “creative”, as she likes to call herself, and having a successful career out of it. From an idea that sparked during Pathology classes, Bella has since then been an unstoppable force in the fashion field.
During this interview, Bella shares with me what it’s like being a creative director for a growing brand and expresses her reasoning for creating a brand where its aesthetics is solely based on African history and modern African culture. Read on to get a clearer insight on Bella’s journey, and into her world as a creative in this exclusive interview.
FASHION BACKGROUND, GROWING UP
How would you describe what you do to somebody that is meeting you for the first time?
I would say I create. My creativity is expressed through fashion and a little bit of art. For example, I’m a stylist, but for me to style, I get inspired by maybe what I’ve seen on TV, or possibly an image I’ve seen in a magazine, or maybe a story that I’ve read. Like, it’s all about inspiration and then me trying to create something out of it, literally. And I can do that through fashion, I can do that through music videos, I can do that through my brand. I’m a creative.
How did you get started? Because I know you studied ‘Biomedical Science’ at university, so was being a creative something that you’ve always wanted to do?
When I was in secondary school I was very much into painting, singing and acting; I actually won awards in Nigeria. I think I was a young artist in Nigeria when I was like 12/13. I won the musical society of Nigeria “Young Artist of the Year in Nigeria”. I was in Lions club; one of my paintings got nominated for the “Peace Poster Contest for the World”.
My mother was a fabric merchant; my dad was a shoe industrialist. Coming from a background, where we sing, and are encouraged to be creative, my mother did not stop me from doing anything creative. Social curricular activities were very big for me; I think that really helped me develop an extension aside academics and it started from there really. The fact that clothes, fashion came into play afterwards I would say that would be from my mother. It’s been part of me since I was a little kid, that’s the best way to put it.
What was your first job in fashion, and did you like it?
(Laughs) I moved back to London when I was about 16 going on 17, and I really wanted to be independent, based on the fact that I’m from a comfortable home, but I know how much my mum strives. I was raised by a single mother, and that single mother takes care of a whole lot of other people. So, I came to London and I told my mum “not to worry about me”, “I’ll get a job, i wanted to understand the value of money and how to work for it.” And this is coming from someone who never really went into the kitchen in Nigeria, I didn’t really know how to look after myself, I was somewhat sheltered (laughs).
So my first job on Marble Arch, opposite Marks and Spencer. There was an Indian souvenir shop; however they had different sections where they sold clothes, shoes and sold souvenirs in the front. And I actually didn’t realise it was illegal to accept cash in hand, and get paid £4 an hour, when I was meant to be getting £5/£6 an hour. But I went in there; I took my CV, because everywhere you go in London, you have to type up a CV. So, I went in there and handed my CV to them. The guy said “you speak English?” I said “yeah, very well”. He said “you got the job!” I said “really?”
And that was my first job; I worked from nine in the morning to nine in the evening with just a 30 minutes break, I got paid cash in hand, £25 a day, I was just excited that I got the job on my own merit.
Although it was really like severe conditions, which I didn’t realise, I liked it because I got to interact with people. Like I said, it was a souvenirs shop, so I met people from different parts of the world that came to London. So yeah, that was pretty exciting for me… that was when I knew that London could be my home.
Growing up was fashion and trends something that you made sure you kept up with?
No, I was a tomboy growing up. I just kept up with fashion that was towards the boys aesthetics. I liked the baggy jeans, Tommy Hilfiger, wear the bandana like Aaliyah, and tried to keep up with the whole six-pack like Janet Jackson and learn all the dance moves. And basically be crazy, whenever I got the chance to be (laughs). .I never really was that girl that was very into the whole fashion thing, but I was aware of it.
MR GARBE, AFRICAN HISTORY
So, you’re the founder and creative director of the UK based t-shirt label, ‘Mr Garbe’. Firstly, what’s the meaning behind the name ‘Mr Garbe’ and what sparked your inspiration behind the brand?
Initially, I started a blog called ‘Pretty Garbe’, and it was kind of like a thing that my friend and I came up with. Because when I was in university, I hated pathology class, I got really bored and started sketching shoes and doing random things. He was just like “let’s start a blog. It’ll be amazing blah, blah, blah”. Then we started playing with words and obviously ‘garb’ means ‘clothes’ or ‘clothing’. So ‘Pretty Garbe’.” “So ‘Pretty Garb’ with an ‘e’ will make it our own, that would be really awesome.” He was like “yeah, cool we could work with that.” I knew I always wanted to have my own clothing my own brand; I knew that it was a goal of mine and I had to achieve it. I just didn’t want to be that person that created because it’s in trend. I wanted it to have a meaning, I wanted it to be relevant, and I wanted it to be socially conscious.
‘Mr Garbe’ happened through an argument, literally. My friends and I sat down and we were talking about Nigeria, about history and stuff like that. And I was fortunate enough to go to secondary school in Nigeria, so I know a little bit about the history. This was during the Abacha era to Ken Saro-Wiwa to Diya etc, I was pretty young but I craved knowledge. I tend to source these things out, pick up the newspapers when my mum dropped it and later on spark debates and arguments in school with students who did Government, Commerce and random stuff, because I was a Science student, so I never really did Politics and random subjects like that. However, we sat down and were having drinks and we were talking about Nigeria, we started with Herbert Macaulay, Awolowo and a lot of the people that sat on my table, didn’t actually know what Awolowo looked like, talk less of Herbert Macaulay and that bothered me. Because yes, I may be slightly older than some of the people I was talking to, but I wasn’t a decade older than them and I was really shocked that they didn’t know who I was talking about, and that bothered me, it made me feel like we were losing touch of our identity and we’re not in touch with our history because a generation that has no history, has no future. So, I thought to myself “do you know what? I’m going to do something. I’m going to do something cool. What if I get these peoples images and I tweak it, and imagine what they’ll be like right now, in our generation?”
I wanted to start with Herbert Macaulay, Ajayi Crowther, but I was just like those are too far back, their relevance is still here, yes, it’s still very strong, but let’s talk about those ones that are still even actively striving for a change in the society that we live in. I said let’s start with the somewhat debatable or reachable iconic people, that was how the first collection of ‘Mr Garbe’ came about. The dream is to sell African history through fashion, to bring and celebrate a bit of African history into the mainstream, starting with Nigerian history, because that is what I know. The more I go into finding out stuff about Africa, about my culture, about how each culture from each country transcends into one another, it makes it so much more interesting, it makes me so proud to be Nigerian, and then African. It’s cool to be African. If I can go to the club and listen to rap music and be happy, then I want other people to listen to my music or talk about my culture and they being the ones that want to associate with it; that’s one of the major things that I want to do with ‘Mr Garbe’.
I want somebody from Hong Kong to be like “oh my God, this brand is so cool! We love it and the culture. Because of this brand we listen to Afro beats” or “we want to visit Africa, and know a bit more about the history.” To me, that is my pride and joy and that is what really sparked the inspiration behind the brand, because if the Western designers and the Western culture can influence us so much, why can’t we influence them?
The second collection was about ‘Celebration’, which was kind of a spoof. Because there’s a New York designer called ‘Les Artists’ and they do something very interesting with names, like they have ‘Kanye West’ with numbers and stuff. And I remember having a phone call with (I’ll call her my little sister), Toyin Jolapamo, and I said “I want to do a t-shirt with Bodija on the back and a number” and she was like “Bella, that’s razz!” And I was like “It’s not going to be razz, it’s going to be cool” she goes “ No! I’m not going to wear a t-shirt with Bodija on the back of it; it’s just razz, who does that? ” And I said ” But you can wear a t-shirt with Kanye West written on it, or a t-shirt with Balenciaga and a number written on it. Why can’t you wear a t-shirt with Lagos written on it?” and then it turned into a little bit of an argument, going back and forth with me saying “ It’s cool”, and with her saying “ It’s not cool.” Then lo and behold we did the collection and it was well embraced.
The reason for the ‘Celebration’ collection, the embedded message behind the whole collection was in fact that the numbers are actually area codes, old NITEL area codes. NITEL (Nigerian Telecommunications Limited) is meant to be the public telecommunications company that everybody is meant to have. In the UK we have BT; everybody has a BT line in their house, poor or rich. In Nigeria I don’t even think NITEL exists anymore; it’s all about mobile phones, it’s all about private telecommunications company, so it makes you wonder, “ We move forward and backwards at the same time” and that to me is the embedded message. You look back and think “ We have come this far, but at the end of the day; we’re still that far back.”
What are the differences you’ve noticed in the generation you grew up in, and the African generation now, in regards to style and their knowledge of African history?
In regards to style, every generation has an icon, or they have sets of icons that emulates what is cool or what transcends into style or trends per say, because trends is seasonal and style is what defines you till you die, literally.
For example, in my era when I was growing up as a teenager, we had Janet Jackson, Toni Braxton, Brandy, Monica, Foxy Brown, Aaliyah…it was later on that we had Destiny’s Child, TLC, Spice Girls, J-Lo. Then, it was the hip-styles: the crop-tops, skousers, pedal pushers teamed with spaghetti straps and bandanas, the big wedged boots that is what we knew. We did the braids thing, the black lip-liner, so if you notice it transcends. If you look at the style now, we have the Rihanna’s, the Beyonce’s, I’d say they’re very much braver; they’re more expressive with their clothes and styles. There’s more flesh and the youths embrace it. It was not normal for you to see someone with a crop-top back in the day, because your mother would kill you. So, it’s different. While we were trying to get two/three ear piercings, the new generation are getting septum piercings and tongue piercings and stuff like that. I feel like they’re two different things, but they’re very similar. I personally feel that for every generation there is a sort of rebellion that we all gravitate towards, and that’s what it is.
In terms of history, I feel like patriotism is dwindling, a lot. The new generation 5we don’t really care about the past, we mostly just really care about what’s new and what’s topical. People tend to have amnesia pretty easily nowadays, that’s why back in the days, (not that I’m saying this is a good thing) but, there were riots, there were fights, even in the UK. There were a lot of things that would happen that would cause uproar. The youths nowadays are very dormant, they’re very passive – everyone just wants to get by, everyone just wants to make money over patriotism. There are a lot of things that people could be more vocal about, there are a lot of things that people could be more pro-active about, but, they’ll just tell you “such is life”, and keep it moving. And I feel like we’re that generation now that we just go “such is life”, and keep it moving, everybody just wants to earn money and live comfortably and nobody wants to get out of their comfort zone, or not a lot of people actually want to get out of their comfort zone. It’s interesting to me, I feel like there is a huge divide, but, I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s a good thing, neither would I say it’s a bad thing, because at the end of the day survival is very important.
We’re still waiting for them to bring back Chibok girls as well, it seems like a distant past, and so I feel like we are living on past glory. That’s the best way to put it. The significance of a lot of things that happened in the past is becoming far distant. I remember when June 12th happened. I remember when Abacha died, it was a celebration, everybody was happy. I remember how journalists would risk their lives just to leak out a story of about “this is happening”, because they wanted change. But it’s hard to find that in this generation, and that’s what I mean. It’s not easy, because at the end of the day it’s still someone’s life, but I tend to wander, “ Aside living, are you patriotic in what you do? Is there some sort of pride for where you come from?” I’m not saying go out and carry the flag everywhere you go, but “ Are you literally proud? Would you want it to be better or would you want it to remain the same?” And I feel like if you ask this generation or the youths of today they might just give you answer that goes “ I just want to live” or “ I want to make money” and that’s it.
Since the evolution of ‘Mr Garbe’, how has your work evolved within your brand and your job?
My job… Well, you have to be more specific? I think I have quite a lot of job roles. (Laughs)
As a stylist, as a creative?
‘Mr Garbe’ has opened up quite a few doors for me at the end of the day. And me being a stylist has opened a lot more doors, as a creative consultant. After I started ‘Mr Garbe’, I worked with Giddimint in Nigeria as their creative director, to help brands and to help the whole independent, indigenous; I wouldn’t call it urban wear, but leisure wear industry in Nigeria. I wanted to see if I could help it grow and help it expand because one thing our continent is blessed with are entrepreneurs, people that think outside the boxes. Nigeria is a land that doesn’t really nuture creative enterpreneurs, it seems like you’re planting a seed in the desert if you’re a creative in Nigeria; it’s hard for you to grow. Nobody wants to help anybody; everybody just feels that everybody is their competition, so it’s always nice when you can give a helping hand to create something great. That is why I was excited to work as a creative director for Giddimint in Nigeria. Being a stylist, I’ve been opportune to meet a lot of people; the good, the bad, the ugly and I’ve also been opportune to meet the most awesome and humble people you could ever think of. People that inspire you to do great or people that inspire you to be great. It’s been a blessing. It’s not been an easy journey, I’m still on it, but it has its challenges, massive challenges. Especially when people don’t take you seriously, because they think it’s just a hobby, nobody think it’s a profession. Most people conveniently forget that fashion is a billion dollar industry.
How is ‘Mr Garbe’ received internationally?
Surprisingly, well-received. The people that have seen it absolutely love it. They love it, not because it’s African, but they love it because it actually looks cool. The cool factor kicks in first before the African factor kicks in. A lot of people buy stuff because “Oh my God, it’s African” or “ It has this African print… It’s so tribal, it’s so that.” There’s this misconception that if something has to be African, it has to be in print, or if something has to be African, it must be something indigenous; there must be some seed or some coin or something ridiculous. This can be annoying, because we’ve grown past that. So when you make a t-shirt and people go “Oh, that’s a cool picture. That’s a cool image” or “ That’s a cool design” to me I’ve achieved my goal of making something that people want, not necessarily because it’s something else. You buy it, because you like it. And then the whole African history or the story behind it makes it more solid and so far, the reception has been great.
The next task is to get to a platform where Mr Garbe is exposed to a bigger audience and see how they feel about the collections, and the brand.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned since creating ‘Mr Garbe?’
(Deep sigh) Ah, biggest (long pause). There are no sentiments in business and also, always trust your gut feeling.
To be continued here