With the rise of social media use in branding and marketing, influencers across various sectors continue to garner popularity. As more Nigerians become digitized, influencers continue to take over social media, gathering a soft-core fan base. Stylebender Tope Okunuga is one of such influencers. A multi-faceted creative, Tope has made a name working as a fashion consultant, stylist, model, and creative director amongst other things. In this interview, we discuss his journey as a creative, his motivations, and what it feels like to challenge and change the narrative.
When was the first time you ever acknowledged that you were fashion inclined?
For as long as I remember, I’ve always liked fashion. My mom sells clothes, so I’ve always had an inclination toward the type of clothes I’d like to wear. Anytime I see people dress up, I like to observe their clothes and just make mental notes of how I would have done it better, what I would incorporate to make it more me. When I used to work a 9 – 5, people used to tell me I had to document my looks because I showed up to work dressed all the time. Initially, I was like who has time for that? But then I began doing it and I realized that it was something people actually wanted to see, it was fun, it was different from the norm and it just reassured my sense of fashion.
Who would you say you draw your inspiration from?
I love Denola Grey’s style because everything he wears is always a hit. Then I started to get into Bayo Oke Lawal’s style because of how unpredictable and eccentric it is. I resonate with a lot of male fashion influencers that don’t put binary on clothes because when I see an outfit, I don’t think that it’s for a man or woman, I just think about how I could pull it off. I look at so many style ideas just to get dressed for an event or even just show up to my friends.
How do you define your style?
When I wear clothes, I want people to understand fashion from my perspective. People love to box me in and say “oh yeah he’s androgynous,” but this just means I can do anything and pull off any style. I approach fashion with the intention of finding out what it can offer me so I’m really experimental. I love a bit of streetwear, I love to tap into my feminine side as well. My style is basically any style with Tope’s touch.
What’s your creative process like? Do you source for your outfits or do you ever make anything yourself?
Both. I work with a lot of Nigerian ready-to-wear brands here in Abuja either through styling or content creation so I love to wear clothes from them and add my touch to them. However, because of the kind of style I like and enjoy, I’ve made peace with the fact that a lot of designers may not have what I want in stock so I make some of my clothes. I have someone I go to with all my ideas and he’s always so excited to put it together for me because I always pull off these outfits and afterward, people are blowing up his phone saying how they want exactly what he’s made for me. I love making my own clothes because I love to see the vision come to life especially here in Nigeria where you can’t just find a store with all the varieties of clothes that you are interested in so you have to know how to quickly improvise or throw in a bit of DIY when it’s necessary.
The concept of influencing is still relatively new and untapped. As a fashion influencer, what would you say the scope of your work is?
As a fashion influencer, my most important responsibility is helping people realize that they can dress however they want to and look as fabulous as they want to. I want people to understand that you can be as expressive as you want with your style, it doesn’t have to be basic, you can always spice your outfit up. A lot of times, I get dressed and people walk up to me to say how they love my outfit and they want to wear it and every time I tell them they absolutely should. My work involves helping brands with publicity and consulting because there are so many amazing Nigerian fashion brands and I want people to know that if you see me wearing an outfit you absolutely love, then you can definitely get it right here in Nigeria. I also create content and style for fashion brands. Whatever I choose to do, I always make sure I’m immersed in fashion in any way possible.
Have you ever had people try to police your self-expression?
Every day there are more people who say I shouldn’t wear a particular outfit because men are not supposed to be seen wearing that. They make it seem like it’s a shameful thing to be seen dressed in a particular way and it always amuses me because I’m not naked, I’m just expressing myself. Sometimes I understand where they are coming from because this is Nigeria and plenty of times it’s a question of whether I am safe. There are so many whispers when you go out, but the thing is when you are the main character in your story, you have to see it through. I’ve always wanted to be as expressive as I can be and fashion is the one place that lets me express myself completely.
How do you define Tope the brand? And what is your vision for yourself as a brand?
I’ve begun putting a few things together. I want a beauty, fashion, and lifestyle tenet under my brand. In the future, I want to own a fashion line, get into the entertainment scene and grow a community of like-minded creatives who share the same interests as myself. I’ve been doing a few events where I’m involved in planning and general coordination. I also want to delve into beauty because there’s a lot of toxic masculinity going on in that space for men. With makeup and even skincare which should be basic, I need men to be self-aware enough to know that looking good isn’t based on your gender.
What are your other interests?
I love a good event, I love an experience so when I get the opportunity, I love to create a vast array of things for people to enjoy when they show up to an event, away from the regular standard. From the pictures to the drinks, I make sure everything feels fun and I enjoy putting it together. In February I had the Let’s Have A Kiki party with Jameson and we made sure that when you step into the party, you get an entirely different vibe and feel that prepares you for an amazing time. I also love creating content, I love visuals so much and once I have to create content, I go the whole nine yards. Soon, I want to begin collaborating with brands to help bring some of my design ideas to life because I know there are outfits I wear that people who follow me on social media would love to purchase and there’s just so much I have to offer, so I feel very optimistic about getting to work on all that.
Generally, what is your take on the Nigerian fashion scene?
I’m starting to enjoy a lot of things that I’m seeing, especially with new brands that are coming up and being more intentional about the work they put out. Sometimes you see certain outfits and you’re so surprised to find out they are made in Nigeria, but then there’s so much talent and people may realize it subconsciously, but they don’t acknowledge it. We still have to deal with our morality and the need to police how people should put on clothes because these things impede what a brand would naturally want to put out. I believe one day at a time we’ll get there. A lot goes on when you decide that you want to start a fashion brand, you can’t start today and begin raking in millions tomorrow so you can be sure that most people who go into the fashion industry do so from a place of passion because they want people to experience clothes from their own point of view. We are seeing more inclusive sizing, and a lot of variety so generally, I’ll say it’s looking good. What I would like to see is more fashion shows in different cities in the country, not just Lagos so that people across the country can have a taste of what fashion truly is. There’s still work to be done for Nigerian designers to level up to international brands because it’s more than just creating beautiful pieces – What’s your packaging like? What’s your campaign like? There’s so much work that actually goes on behind the scenes and I think Nigerian brands need to hack their storytelling because a lot of people are genuinely interested in the process.
As a creative putting out work here in Nigeria, what would you say the biggest challenges you’ve had to face were?
Nigeria is a very funny place for creatives because a lot of people do not appreciate the work we do and the time and effort we put into getting work done. A lot of times people come up to you with these grand ideas and when they are done laying it out, you ask them their budget and it’s just crickets. Creatives don’t work in isolation, every time you see something turn out great believe it or not, it took an entire village. I can come up with all the ideas, but I am not a photographer, I am not a set designer and these people need to get paid and clients never factor this in. Another thing that we have to deal with is people having reservations about the work that creatives put out. I’ve come to realize that not everyone is as open-minded as I am and sometimes it’s a struggle to find people to work with. Sometimes you do not get the recognition you anticipate and it’s almost like there’s no reward for creatives. There are people who come up every day with unique perspectives, but it’s almost like we are seeing the same names every day in magazines and there’s little to no representation for the people who are doing so much work behind the scenes but are just not as popular. But then, being creative in Nigeria means you are used to dealing with obstacles, and every day you need to come up with ways to deal with them and be as solution-oriented as you can manage.
How much of your style is influenced by your personality?
I think all of it. I’m a very bubbly person, I like to have a good time and I’m outspoken when I want to be. Sometimes when I go to a place where I don’t feel like talking much, I like to let my outfits do the talking for me. When I’m meeting people for the first time, I want to leave an impression – I may not know you, but you’ll definitely know me! I have serious main character energy so I don’t let anybody’s opinion stifle my style or my creativity. Anytime I step out wearing a basic outfit, people who know me are concerned and everybody is asking me if I’m okay because that’s not who I am. I like my outfits to compliment my personality so that you don’t confuse me for someone else. I love being a conversation starter because I feel like I express myself with fashion to motivate people who want to do the same thing. Many times people come up to me and say I’m so bold for dressing a type of way, and I’m always like you can be bold too, it’s just clothes.
So recently you hosted the Jameson let’s have a kiki party, what is the story behind having a tropical-themed party here in Abuja?
A lot of times when people talk about hosting parties or events here in Abuja, the first question on the lips of everyone is “will people come?” But then Abuja has so many creatives and people in general who are just ready to party and have an amazing time so I don’t understand the skepticism. When I thought of the idea for Let’s Have A Kiki, I reached out to Jameson because I believed that they wouldn’t try to dictate how the event would go and I just wanted people to show up and have a good time. We put out the dress code and frankly, I didn’t expect people to commit to looking the part as much as they did, so when I saw everyone show up in proper tropical outfits, I was completely blown away. I honestly wish brands would pay more attention to Abuja and fully explore the scene here because more often than not, people are absolutely ready to turn up.