British-born, Gbemi Okunlola, has been making noise in the fashion industry lately. She started her fashion house, Alonuko, which offers a luxury bespoke service at the age of 21 after teaching herself to sew and realizing her love for creating beauty with her hands. The designer opted to name the brand after her last name because it is something that will forever be her identity no matter what.
Recently, her luxurious design was donned by Danielle Brooks and the photo made its rounds across the world wide web like wildfire. ““It was very important to me to find a Black wedding dress designer,” she said on Instagram. “When I tell you I hit jackpot finding @alonuko_bespoke, I hit jackpot,” she told Vogue.
We had a chance to talk with the style maven to talk about her upbringing, what it felt like to go viral and why she can’t help but take up space in the Black luxury realm.
HelloBeautiful: How has growing up in London and your Nigerian heritage contributed to your love for creating?
Gbemi Okunlola: I would say, I think, in general, just like the area that we’re located in London is very multicultural so there are all types of cultures. It’s quite a vibrant area in London. London has very vibrant schools that I went to and it really helped me hone in on creativity from my primary school to secondary school. I was very encouraged but also just within my household we come from a creative background. I have a creative family. My mom used to make dresses when I was younger. My sister has a creative background in interior architecture. It was quite naturally always happening in the background.
HelloBeautiful: That’s amazing to grow up in a family like that. That’s so inspiring. What inspired you to learn how to sew?
Gbemi Okunlola: My inspiration came in year seven, the first year of secondary school when we do design technology. And in that course, you learn how to use the sewing machine and put clothes together. I just really enjoyed it like someone might enjoy art. Anything that was hands-on, I enjoyed it. As I mentioned, my mom used to sew. I didn’t necessarily have an interest in sewing, but I would definitely say that kind of picked up the natural talent from home paired with me just enjoying the course of school. And it was this cool thing that eventually developed into an actual business.
HelloBeautiful: So tell us about the moment you knew you had to create gowns.
Gbemi Okunlola: I started off doing evening wear. I loved the whole red carpet dresses and things like that. I started off by making what we call, Ankara, which is the traditional print fabric, but the wax material. That was very common around the time that I started. I didn’t really think of making bridal, to be honest with you, that actually came to me from a client who approached me when we were doing her bridesmaids’ dresses. And then she approached me to make her wedding dress since she was so happy with the bridesmaid dresses. She was like I guess it’s the same thing as the bridesmaid dresses, just a white version of the dress. I like a challenge so I was like, “Okay, cool. Let’s do this.” Shortly after that, I made my sister’s wedding dress and then I think at that point because I had made her dress and dresses for the whole family and friends and they were really pleased with it, I kind of was like, “We should go into bridal.” And I just enjoyed the process alot more because it’s a longer process. People are willing to spend a lot more money with it being a wedding dress so you can spend some more time on it, rather than you know, trying to quickly turn around lots of lots of customers in a short span of time. I felt that you’re working towards one of the most important days in somebody’s life, they just find that you are given more to a greater cause.
HelloBeautiful: That’s beautiful. You’ve said that a woman should work with their qualities within to edify them. Let’s talk about how you think self-love affects how we view ourselves.
Gbemi Okunlola: Oh yeah, a hundred percent. I think a lot of times when people are shopping for clothes or not just clothes, but anything that kind of adorns you, whether that be makeup, hair, and stuff, we try to hide flaws or hide imperfections, rather than owning it and working with it. So, the example I would use has nothing to do with fashion. This is more from when I was growing up. I always thought i had a really big forehead so I would always try styles that would cover it completely so nobody would know. But then I realized sometimes you have to accept things for what they are and that is just how it is. Be more proud about it, rather than trying to cover it up. When I made that comment, I was speaking about the fact that there are certain things about you, rather than shaming yourself and putting yourself down, why don’t you accept those things and figure out how you can even amplify it to make it you’re selling point. When we make clothes, we’re not trying to do things to like hide certain parts of the body or to try and make me look super skinny or try and you know make you look like a different person. It’s more about taking what already exists on you and then bringing out the areas that you absolutely love, working with the areas that you don’t, and working in all of those things to make a dress that suits you. That’s where the whole concept of bespoke came from. Obviously, we don’t really do bespoke anymore alone. We do bespoke along with collection pieces but that’s where that whole concept of making bespoke dresses came from — just being able to service a bride and their specific needs for that special day.
HelloBeautiful: Yeah that’s amazing, especially in this social media culture where people are editing their bodies and their faces. It’s good that you are meeting people where they are and just you know elevating so I love that. So, Danielle Brooks. That dress broke the Internet. You broke the internet. When you saw it for the first time, how did you feel?
Gbemi Okunlola: I was at the wedding, so seeing her in it, was really exciting. We were able to see her response when she first tried it on with us just seeing how much she loved it. I always say that the dress going viral and things like that from a PR perspective and from a brand perspective is always really good just because it’s helping to get the brand name out there more. But I think what’s always a challenge for me is the bride wearing the dress and how they actually feel wearing it. To me, that was my pre-excitement before the world actually saw it. When it started going viral, what was really nice was just the fact that a lot of people were able to relate to a person who is a celebrity. A lot more people were able to relate to some degree and see themselves. A lot of time we’re used to seeing skinny, tall white women in dresses which there is nothing wrong with that, but sometimes I think especially Black women, and darker skin women who are larger than a standard UK size eight, it may be a little bit difficult to try and imagine yourself in the world as beautiful. With Danielle being a celebrity, and obviously a person of influence and being a darker skin woman and being a woman who is larger than the average model size, to be seen as a beautiful woman, just helped to speak to a bigger audience or an audience that includes a lot of the people who are not usually thought of. That’s what I really liked about this because Danielle is not the first celebrity I dressed. I really liked working with Danielle and just the fact that she was just a lovely person to work with. The whole process from start to finish, from working with her to being at the wedding, to the response of the dress going viral, that’s what made it that much more special.
HelloBeautiful: Speaking of working with her, can you share a little bit about the design process?
Gbemi Okunlola: Danielle actually wanted to wear a princess gown. That’s the one thing that’s she said she wanted. I really enjoyed how she allowed me to be creative. She trusted us. She trusted my process. She had seen our work from my social media and our website and on brides that we’ve done dresses for and she was very confident that we were capable to create a dress for her. She was very laid back in that aspect of it. She literally showed me one dress she had seen and she showed me a couple of dresses from our page so that we knew what she wanted. I felt like I knew what would work very well with her, and what would suit her. So literally from the first sketch, she was like, “That’s it. That’s the dress.” She was very open throughout the process. She was very, very calm. She saw the dress for the first time on her wedding day. That was also her first time trying it on. She was so confident that we were going to do a good job and she literally just let us do what we needed to do to deliver the dress and she absolutely loved it. It was a very smooth process and a fun one to work on.
HelloBeautiful: I love that for you! If you could design a gown for anyone, ancestor or alive, who would it be?
Gbemi Okunlola: I always get asked this question and I say Michelle Obama. I feel like my answer is going to change soon. Also, I would love to dress Rihanna because I love her style and she is so fashionable. She has her own style and I feel like she would not be too rigid when it comes to the things we are used to seeing. I think she would even bring out a new level of creativity just because of the way she is and the way she’s out there.
HelloBeautiful: Those are two fire choices. I’m manifesting that for you because that’s going to happen. Michelle could easily do a vow renewal. So, my next question is, Black women in luxury is so controversial, why are you all about taking up this space?
Gbemi Okunlola: The thing is with the luxury sector, and not just women, but just in general, the Black pound or in your case the Black dollar and the black spending power is actually quite significant that we make up a significant part of it. And the problem is that there’s just we’re just always spending it in the white purse, right? We just don’t realize that we actually contribute to how much is being spent. I think in the fashion industry, again, I think, obviously, Black Lives Matter and that whole period highlighted just how much light there isn’t being shown on Black designers and Black creatives in general. The more light that is shown the more you realize that or the other usual designers that we buy in this country are doing equally as good if not better. For me, I’m willing to work extra or harder to get that sort of recognition. If the people who are already buying from us are continuing to do so, why would I be seeking a particular audience just to get my name out there faster? These people are buying that if people started buying from the beginning, for us to even get to this point. We aren’t necessarily saying, “We are only for these people” but where there is an underrepresentation for us in shops, we are intentional about doing things such as including illusion material for skin color that you’re not going to find in the shops. Or making shapes that accent the natural shape of a Black woman who might have big hips or be very curvy and stuff like that, where again, in shops, it’s not generally made for them. I think just being a black woman, and because it is my brand, I’m answering a lot of the problems that I find in shops. So it’s almost like this is the new default. The same way, it would be for a white designer, they’ll make themselves the default. Since I am the designer and the owner, I’m obviously going to think about myself and the people around me just by default.
HelloBeautiful: Absolutely. Your brand highlights beauty and confidence with style, why are those tenants important to you and the brand?
Gbemi Okunlola: Because I feel like those things play a significant part in just your everyday life and everything that you do. When you feel beautiful, when you feel confident, when you feel happy, it plays a major part. If you’re not feeling great about yourself, it’s difficult for you to perform in a fantastic way. If you walk into a room and you feel like you’re everything that you want to be, that’s 50% of the work already done. And as much as we try to avoid the conversation about image being important, it is very important. Before you open your mouth and speak, people are going to see what you look like and how are you presenting yourself and fashion plays into that in a huge way. As much as we like to say we shouldn’t care too much about vanity, the reality is we do. We are human beings and before anyone gets the opportunity to even say their name, we will see what they look like. Being able to contribute towards that, your first interaction or first impression is where we want people to feel confident in how they feel and look. We hope that for anyone who buys from us.
Joce Blake is a womanist who loves fashion, Beyonce and Hot Cheetos. The sophistiratchet enthusiast is based in Denver, CO but has southern belle roots as she was born and raised in Memphis, TN. Keep up with her on Instagram @joce_blake and on Twitter @joce__blake.
Alonuko Designer & Founder Gbemi Okunlola Proves All Black Brides Deserve Luxury was originally published on hellobeautiful.com