Busayo pops up Naija on American runway
As she walks gracefully into the upscale restaurant on Tiamiyu Savage, Victoria Island, Lagos, Michelle Oluwabusayo Olupona looks cheerful.
“I need a bottle of table water,” Michelle tells the lady behind the counter, looking over her Jackie-O sunglasses, she turns attention to her guest, she asks, “what do you care for?”
“Nothing,” her guest mutters.
“No, please you must get something,” she says with a smile.
“Can we sit there,” she asks, pointing to two empty seats by the corner.
Seated opposite the attractive, intelligent, and by every measure, healthily rounded legal practitioner and fashion designer, her guest couldn’t, but allow the tape to roll, as conversation drifted from law to the economy and finally, fashion.
“I’ve always had a creative side,” Michelle recalls.
Though, she read law and has practiced for over 11 years, Michelle’s love has been fashion making. She always wanted to express herself creatively.
“It is important for me to be seen as a creative person,” she quips, with a cheerful candour. The attorney adds, “it has, however, been challenging combining both professions. Practicing law in a firm, I knew quite early, wasn’t really for me, but for a variety of reasons, mostly financial, and because I had worked hard to earn the degree and become a lawyer, I felt compelled to stay in the position, though, it didn’t make me happy.”
You wonder why law and not a degree in fashion?
“My dad is an academic. My mum, on the other hand, is a totally creative person. She is a nurse and I think quite a lot of parents were like, ‘you have to get a certificate. That’s why we have come to this country.”
A podcast host, boxer, traveler and writer, Michelle is currently a counsel with New York City Economic Development Corporation. She advises and counsels small businesses on corporate formation, product development, intellectual property and general commercial matters. She negotiates and drafts structural and foundational documentation for growing companies. She equally advises and counsels on corporate governance matters, as well as conducts trademark searches.
Between September 2005 and September 2011, she was with Greater New York City as a senior associate, advising on a myriad of corporate matters. She was equally involved in legal representation for New York-based non-profits on a wide range of matters including, intellectual property, licensing, real estate, corporate governance and tax compliance.
She earned her bachelor’s degree from the Haas School of Business at U.C Berkeley and her Juris Doctor (JD) degree from New York University School of Law.
She was a corporate associate at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP, where she was specialised in corporate governance, finance and intellectual property matters. While at Cleary Gottlieb, she seconded to Lawyers Alliance for New York, advising non-profits on a variety of matters.
She said: “The lawyer’s duty is to sit down and read a lot of papers. I have a lot of energy and love running around… They are not really engaging and connecting with people. Law is more like somebody buying your time and paying for the content of your brain,” she says. “The creative industry is not like that.”
The creative industry opened her life to other possibilities and allowed Michelle to meet different people. She says, “though, I like law and found the discipline interesting, the actual practice is not.”
Michelle’s other life, fashion, has completely warped her. Though, it was her selfish way to really reconnect with her African roots, which she left in her twain years, moving to the US at a tender age, which brought out the best in her. At that age, it was really agonising. “In 2000, something in me said, ‘you have to start going to Nigeria. We left in 1991, and ever since, we’ve kept coming back,” she says, patiently.
She would always have her clothes made in Nigeria, using African fabric and textiles. The legal practitioner recollects the excitement she had over an outfit, which she wore as a small child, but didn’t fly, at all, in her school.
“I grew up in a very Yoruba home and never lost my appreciation and love for our culture and that includes our fabric, I would wear them and then wanted to just indulge that desire and wanted to celebrate that in a larger way,” she says, looking comfortable.
The smile on her face is understandably huge. She’s found hope and joy in her creativity. “In 2009, I made a few outfits and wore them in New York. People really liked it and started asking me who made it. This was when African fabrics were not the vogue in the US,” she says.
She would wear it to work and people started commenting on it. In 2011, she made a few dresses, which she kept under her bed. “There was one that had one pocket. I gave it to my sister, Bola, who wore it and people were just asking where she got it. I didn’t know how to sell Bola. Bola brought them out and started selling during my birthday party. At the end of the day, she sold three and she gave me a certain sum of money. I was so happy, because all I wanted to do was express myself creatively and not selling the stuffs. That was the first time I made something and gave it to someone who sold it.”
ON Saturday, October 1, Michelle celebrated Nigeria in the US with a fashion show tagged New York Pop Up | Fall Collection. For those at the event, it was an opportunity to share the traditional indigo dyeing technique that began among Yoruba women in Southwest Nigeria. “The Pop-Up was really exciting for me, as it was an opportunity to share more about the different textiles that inspire my work. I work primarily with Adire, which translates to ‘tie and dye’. I have to admit that I have been using the term incorrectly. I typically use Adire to describe all types of dyed fabrics that I work with, but that is actually wrong,” Michelle says.
“So, it is not indigo/blue/navy blue, it is not really Adire,” the lady admits. “There are three primary types of adire traditionally - Eleko, Alabere and Oniko. Historically, this rich blue was created with natural dyes from the indigo plant. What’s really cool about these prints is they often tell a story with the symbols that are drawn onto the fabric. Eleko is created using cassava paste (Eko, which is only my least favorite Nigerian breakfast meal) to hand draw the design (sometimes a stencil is used) before dyeing the fabric. (I have some video of that process which will post later). Alabere is created using needle and thread to create the design before dyeing and tying raffia around the fabric before dyeing creates Oniko.”
SINCE she found joy in fashion, Michelle is not reluctant to talk about how supportive her family has been to her career. She says, “when I started, the first thing was like, are you sure about this thing? I started doing it and I told them that’s what I wanted to do. There’s one thing I’m so sure in my mind, if I had not done it, I would have regretted. This business I have, I wouldn’t have had it, if not for my parents. The family has been very supportive.”
In addition, Michelle is the co-founder and chief legal officer for Busayo, an e-commerce company that curates textiles and apparel designed and manufactured in Lagos.
The designer reveals, “my principal inspiration is the grandiosity of African fashion in our traditional form... The fact that we Africans love to dress up and look fierce and that our clothing is a reflection of who we are. I wanted to design clothes that celebrate our African aesthetic and move African fashion beyond ‘tribalism’. I wanted to design clothes that I would want to wear. That was really it. I am a lawyer by training and was really nervous about straying off this prescribed path.”
She uses a lot of ankara and adire. She equally integrates other types of textiles such as, jersey and lace.
“I think our fabrics are so bold, creative and dynamic. And I am interested in clothing that is simple yet dramatic. Clothes that make statement. African fabrics do that in an amazing, powerful way,” she confesses.
For Michelle, there is so much a name can do. When she launched her vintage-inspired collection of wax prints for the contemporary American woman, the choice of a name to reflect the mood it’ll bring to all who wear her custom garments was Busayo: A word that means ‘addition to joy’ in the Yoruba language.
Over the years, Michelle has chosen other names to reflect her designs, but basically, they have a relationship with her. Most of her pieces are named after someone in her extended family and after other people she loves. However, Busayo’s three favourite pieces from that first collection were named after her siblings – Tolu, Bola and Jide.
The first collection was primarily named after women in her family. In the second collection and other collections, she honoured the men in her family. One of the pieces is Jacob, her dad’s name, while another, Kunle, is that of one of her uncles.
In her2012 collection, she was a lot more of accessories, integration of different types of African prints beyond Nigerian offerings. A lot more classic shapes, but more fun prints.