Taken from the spring/summer 2019 issue of Dazed. You can pre-order a copy of our latest issue here.
At Alexander McQueen’s blasphemous and beautiful AW96 Dante show, Debra Shaw stuck out her tongue to the audience from under a gothic mask emblazoned with a crucifix. It’s a fitting image for the Philadelphia-born, New Jersey-raised model, who has not only been immortalised in fashion history, but has done it entirely on her own terms. La Poupée, McQueen’s SS97 show, was even darker: there, she appeared in a Shaun Leane-designed contraption, a manacle-like metal rectangle that shackled her elbows and knees at each corner so she walked like a crab along the water-covered runway. “The only thing that kept me going was (knowing that) if I didn’t fall, it would put my name on the map,” Shaw recalls, and it did. She stole the show with her performance, entrancing guests with her menacing gait and mesmerising hand movements twirling fluidly in front of her face. “Lee asked if I could do it in heels, but I had to stop it there,” she laughs.
“I remember watching your runway walk for that McQueen show (online),” exclaims Mowalola Ogunlesi. “It looked insane, I didn’t understand how you did what you were doing!” The British-Nigerian designer, on a break from displaying her electrifying collection at the fashion week showrooms, has just met Shaw for the first time in a Paris hotel. Ever since her Central Saint Martins graduate show – featuring oiled-up Lagos petrolheads in low-riding, graffiti- sprayed leather jackets and skinny trousers that revealed lacy thongs underneath – Ogunlesi has infiltrated London’s cultural consciousness, with her slick leather and minimal proportions presenting a new formula for dressing sexily in an age of anxiety.
Today, the young designer hits it off immediately with Shaw, and they quickly get on to a topic close to them both: underrepresentation for black women in fashion. ‘Work twice as hard, for half the recognition’ – a mantra people of colour are brought up on – is one that both Shaw and Ogunlesi feel ref lect their respective journeys in fashion. “The rules weren’t the same for me,” the legendary model remembers of her early days in the industry, when she admits she gatecrashed the majority of her castings for the likes of Chanel, Versace and Thierry Mugler. “I couldn’t come to castings with messy hair, (or) in my pyjamas. I got that message early on and understood that.”
Despite her collections being an overt celebration of her Nigerian heritage, Ogunlesi wasn’t always as confident in herself, or her designs. “When I started designing, I bought pencils that were the colour of white people,” she explains. “That was where my mind was at, because all I ever saw in fashion was white people.”
While progress remains frustratingly slow, Shaw can see change for women of colour in all areas of fashion, and not just for models – her own success is testament to this. “All we can do is keep having conversations around diversity and making it happen ourselves,” the model muses, speaking of her admiration for the new generation coming through. “Not depending on someone else to make it happen.”
Debra Shaw: When I was wearing your clothes on the shoot yesterday, it really put me in a space where I wanted to wear them, but I was thinking, ‘Where would I wear this?’ I liked being in all of it, though, it gave me a superhero power confidence.
Mowalola Ogunlesi: For me, (I wear them) whenever I want to feel free – that’s usually when I’m out with my friends. These clothes are to be worn whenever you’re enjoying yourself. So, wherever that is for you, that’s the most important part.
Debra Shaw: I’m wearing it to church.
Mowalola Ogunlesi: (laughs) Whatever works for you!
Debra Shaw: I’m going to jump right in. So, how long have you been designing?
Mowalola Ogunlesi: I went to Central Saint Martins from foundation to MA, but I left before finishing my MA because I didn’t want to be in school any more. Going to CSM helped me understand who I am and the voice I want to have with my clothes.
Debra Shaw: So, what is your voice? I’m curious.
Mowalola Ogunlesi: I love freedom and being myself; a lot of people don’t get the opportunity to get to know who they are and explore that.
Debra Shaw: Would you wear your clothes out?
Mowalola Ogunlesi: Always! The things that actually fit me... I have very liberal parents, but I grew up in Nigeria being told, ‘Make sure your skirt is this length,’ and I became so tired of being told how to dress to make other people feel better. I wanted to challenge them so they thought, ‘Why do I think this is wrong?’ That’s why I am doing what I’m doing. I want to create things that make you feel uncomfortable but (also) make you question why you feel that way.
Debra Shaw: Was this your first show?
Mowalola Ogunlesi: This was my first show at London Fashion Week.
Debra Shaw: And you’re how old?
Mowalola Ogunlesi: I’m 24.
Debra Shaw: Twenty-four! That’s so groundbreaking. To be so young, a black woman in fashion – and you’ve shown at London Fashion Week.
Mowalola Ogunlesi: There’s Grace Wales Bonner, too, who is amazing – I interned for her when I was at CSM. Working with Grace really helped me to understand what I was doing and what I wanted. If I didn’t have another black woman there to show me that, I would not be doing what I’m doing today.
Debra Shaw: It probably would have come out differently.
Mowalola Ogunlesi: Relationships are so important when you’re just starting out.
Debra Shaw: So important. You weren’t afraid to speak out as a black woman because you had an example who not only encouraged it, but magnified it even more. When I started out, I was modelling in a community centre with a paediatrician called Dr Ernesto Philpotts who came during his time off to teach community kids walking lessons. He inspired me, and, for the record, he was a black man. After that, I entered a competition and won a trip to Paris. I thought, ‘I need to come back, I need to live here.’ (Shaw has been living in Paris for 15 years.)
Mowalola Ogunlesi: I heard you wanted to be a designer as well?
Debra Shaw: I did! But my cuffs and collars were not good. I was like, ‘Forget it!’ I studied design in high school for three years. I was really passionate about it, but in the end I just wasn’t passionate enough to say, ‘This is it.’ My goal was always to come to Paris; it was never to be a model. I’m happy that I had the opportunity to do it, but my goal was to come here and sing in a jazz club like Billie Holiday.
Mowalola Ogunlesi: I wanted to be a plastic surgeon when I was younger – I didn’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing now. I always liked making things with my hands; that’s what I was psyched about. I didn’t go to CSM wanting to become a fashion designer, I just knew I had to do something where I was creating. Following the path of doing exactly what you want, without knowing exactly where you’re going to end up, is the best thing.
“There are not enough black people behind the scenes; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black person in production. When I do shows in Milan, I can be the first to turn up, but the last person they touch because they’re so afraid ” – Debra Shaw
Debra Shaw: Trusting the process – that’s the hardest part. Accepting you don’t know where you’re going, but knowing it’s going to be fine. A lot of people can be afraid to let go and live in that in-between space.
Mowalola Ogulesi: If it doesn’t work out, that’s OK as well, it just means it wasn’t meant for you. I’m so grateful my parents taught me that growing up. Did you have people in New Jersey who you felt were your people?
Debra Shaw: I had a huge support system of people I didn’t know, who believed in me more than I believed in myself. There was one guy I met who said, ‘I really believe in you, you should go to Paris.’ I said I couldn’t afford it and he gave me $300 for the ticket, but I paid my phone bill instead, I didn’t go. I ran into him years later on the streets of Paris and I thanked him so much, but these things kept happening, little signs – it felt right. I had a really good support system, but not from my imminent family, not from my mother. My mother was not happy for me to do this at all. She cried when she came to see me walk at Chanel, but before then she was not supportive of me as a model.
Mowalola Ogunlesi: Being where you are and with all the things you’ve accomplished, hopefully more parents will see you, because lots of black parents aren’t into the arts. It’s hard for them to understand what you’re doing and why it’s so important to you because they’re focused on surviving.
Debra Shaw: They want the best for you, in the way they feel is the most financially secure. Lawyer, doctor, teacher – these are secure jobs.
Mowalola Ogunlesi: (But) we also need people who think differently – that’s what we should be championing.
Debra Shaw: We really need people of colour in the business. (We’re) so few and far between and it does not make sense to me that it is still an issue today. There are not enough black people behind the scenes; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black person in production. Until we start building up in all different areas, it doesn’t work, because there’s always this clique. There are still problems and issues with hair, for example. When I do shows in Milan, which I’m not a big fan of, I can be the first to turn up, but the last person they touch because they’re so afraid. The first time I worked with a black hairstylist was two seasons ago and that was in Paris with Jawara. I couldn’t even say anything – I just remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe you’re black!’ I was in a dream state. It was like Obama becoming president – I felt the same way then.
Mowalola Ogunlesi: I feel like there must be a lot of black models who have been through situations like that.
“Sometimes the client would ask me, ‘Do you mind if we take on another black girl?’ and I would say, ‘You’d better!’” – Debra Shaw
Debra Shaw: When I was starting out, I didn’t have anybody to fall back on, so I often had an attitude. I look back on my work 20 years ago and I think, ‘My God, I look angry in every picture’ – I was angry about not getting shows. Now, I approach fashion strictly as a business because I have done so much and I’ve worked with so many people. It’s not just about being in a magazine, it’s more about only doing it if it’s a cool and interesting story. This shoot and concept was so cool. The fact that it was a black photographer (Campbell Addy) – it was the first time I’ve worked with a black photographer in fashion in a very long time. I’d say the last time was about 20 years ago.
Mowalola Ogunlesi: Jesus, that’s crazy. I don’t want to sound angry when I speak on things like this, but I am passionate about it because it’s part of who I am. I feel like I’ve been through so much in my life, not all (of it) related to fashion. I went to an all-girls boarding school and, being the only black girl there, I felt like I had to fight for everything. I hated that. When I look back at that time, it really changed me in a way I didn’t realise. It made me become so much smaller.
Debra Shaw: Of course, because you didn’t have anyone you could identify with.
Mowalola Ogunlesi: Leaving there, going to CSM and being free in London where people aren’t shook you’re from Africa, it was refreshing. They know that Africa isn’t 100 years behind, that we’re all here together. Going to CSM saved my mental health, because that whole time was crazy.
Debra Shaw: Absolutely. It was the same for me because a lot of the time I was the only black girl.
Mowalola Ogunlesi: Especially in the 90s.
Debra Shaw: Sometimes the client would ask me, ‘Do you mind if we take on another black girl?’ and I would say, ‘You’d better!’ I started not knowing if I could take it, but I became stronger. Now, I’m speaking my mind more because I feel like I need to.
Mowalola Ogunlesi: It’s that catty thing of pitting us against each other.
Debra Shaw: There are a lot of people who do want to see us being represented. There are very few, I believe in my heart, that think otherwise. A lot of people want to learn and understand your story, but in order to let them know, you have to speak about it. I’m so happy casting companies exist now because they’re putting people of colour on the runway. When the stylists were doing it, it wasn’t happening – specifically the British stylists, they just weren’t hiring girls that looked like me. That’s when my work was the slowest. If they don’t see enough of us, why would they consider us? But then, how do you get through the doors? Where does it happen? Out of sight, out of mind.
“With every new collection, I feel more comfortable to shout what I’m thinking; I don’t want to whisper. I used to be scared of so many things when I was younger, but now you’re going to hear me” – Mowalola Ogunlesi
Mowalola Ogunlesi: It’s nice to see how things have changed, talking about things you went through in the past and what’s going on now. It’s moving in such a positive way.
Debra Shaw: I love what I’m seeing. I want to have a celebration, but we can’t celebrate too much or they’ll get comfortable.
Mowalola Ogunlesi: We need to be happy! There’s still a lot we need to do, but we need to love these situations too.
Debra Shaw: Seeing different people of colour in the business is the biggest change that I’ve seen. For me, I’m happy that I can open a magazine and see a black person in it – it took a long time for that to happen. At a point, my friends and family would only buy magazines when a person of colour was in it. (But) now we’re everywhere! This is our world.
Mowalola Ogunlesi: At the end of the day, I’ll be where I need to be eventually. I want to talk more about that because I want black people to know that they need to at least try. Even if it doesn’t go how you want, you’ll learn from it and figure out how it can go a different way.
Debra Shaw: And no regrets, at least you try.
Mowalola Ogunlesi: There’s no point having regrets unless you’re killing people. Don’t end up in jail!
Debra Shaw: (You could be) doing plastic surgery as you’re doing your fittings at the same time... I couldn’t resist!
Mowalola Ogunlesi: (laughs) No, no, no.
Debra Shaw: I like that you wanted to do that. The way you make your clothes, there’s something about the way you cut – it’s very precise.
Mowalola Ogunlesi: Really? I didn’t think I was very good at pattern cutting.
Debra Shaw: Especially with the lines – it looks like when you’re having plastic surgery and they draw those lines. Maybe psychologically you don’t realise it, but it is.
Mowalola Ogunlesi: With every new collection, I feel more comfortable to shout what I’m thinking; I don’t want to whisper. I used to be scared of so many things when I was younger, but now you’re going to hear me. Working on my first collection, I didn’t feel anything. I was doing the things that I wanted to do, but it wasn’t until I heard the (show) music I was working on with my friends that I started crying on the bus home. I was crying so much; I was so happy. It felt like everything had come around how it was supposed to be. Finally, I could feel something.
Debra Shaw: That’s a beautiful space to be in; being vulnerable is beautiful. Now that you’ve set your presentation as ‘This is who I am,’ there is no need to ever go back and think it was too much. You can just move forward. Now, you can challenge yourself to go even further with the next collection.
Hair Tomohiro Ohashi at Management + Artists using Mr Smith, make-up Ammy Drammeh at Bryant Artists using NARS, nails Jin Young, model Debra Shaw at Makers by Metropolitan, set design Victoria Salomoni at The Magnet Agency, photography assistants Lucas Bullens, Margaux Jouanneau, styling assistant Alisa Vornehm, hair assistant Sayaka Otama, set design assistants Soraja Cehic, production CLM Hair & Make-up, post-production Studio RM, casting Noah Shelley at Management + Artists