People: Modupe Oloruntoba

We need to start by saying that this is an interview that we have BEEN wanting to do to, ever since we started cnscs_, almost a year ago! Modupe embodies so much of what cnscs_ means to us and each month, in our planning meetings, we’d discuss whether it was the right time to reach out. We kept putting it off, because we felt that we needed to be better prepared, but at the end of 2020, we decided to try our luck. Needless to say, we are so excited to be able to start the new year with this long-awaited conversation.

Before we dive into the interview, let’s start with a brief introduction: Modupe Oloruntoba is a fashion writer and creative content consultant based in Johannesburg. She graduated as a fashion designer, from CPUT, in 2013, but found her heart in fashion media and hasn’t looked back since. Modupe has her curious ear tuned closely to the heartbeat of this industry, and then she weaves those whisperings, observations, analyses, and stories into words that make it all make sense.

If you don’t already follow Modupe on Instagram, you are missing out on some of the most insightful, entertaining, and wise IG stories, on fashion and media, out there. Modupe is someone that we learn so much from. Constantly. In this interview, she mentioned that her love for fashion media began, because it opened up a whole world and global industry to her – that’s exactly what Modupe’s work does for us. Listening to her speak, as we did this interview, reminded us of that feeling. We hope you feel the same way when you finish reading it too. Enjoy!

Masego & Stella: You graduated as a fashion designer in 2013, but after you “took a peek” at fashion media, you realised that that was where you wanted to be. What was your first encounter with fashion media that made you realise that fashion writing was what you wanted to do?

Modupe: It was a slow realisation. I don’t think it was one thing in particular that pointed it out to me. Over time, I just realised that it fit, and it fit me really well. When I first started considering things outside of fashion design was probably during my internship at Cape Town Fashion Week in my first year of studying. Going behind the scenes there showed me a lot of the moving pieces that I knew, in theory, existed, but I had not seen working together in that way, before. It expanded my mind past design.

I had already been reading quite a bit of fashion media. I just loved how people could write things that opened up this world to me. It made me feel like I was part of a world that was, literally, halfway around the world. I read a lot on platforms like (RIP), The New York Times, Business of Fashion, Man Repeller, and The Cut. In my first or second year, I started taking on free writing assignments and asking people if I could write for them. I would write an article and think, “this is okay, but it doesn’t excite me in the way that the stuff I read excites me.” Then, I would go back to the articles that excited me and I figured out that I could point out exactly what I liked about those articles and apply that to what I was writing. Through doing that, I somehow figured it out and realised that I can do this.

Masego & Stella: How did you learn how to develop your style and voice as a writer in this space? Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?

Modupe: READ. Read SO much. I guilt myself about not reading books and not reading long-form writing, but I actually read all the time. I am reading articles and writing, every single day. I think that is key to everything.

DO the thing – read things and write things. Read things well outside of what you think you want to do and how you think you want to sound. Read widely. Then, write with lots more focus than your reading.

Read, write, read, write, and analyse how things are going. I am always observing myself. I think this is probably a characteristic of an overactive mind, but as I am doing something, I am also observing myself doing it and analysing myself while I do it. The judging and analysing can be really good for your growth, but it cannot be 24/7, while you are doing the work that you are trying to analyse.

Occasionally, step back and see how it is changing, recognise characteristics of yourself, recognise your crutches. When you observe your process, you can see things like that and use that to improve your work.

How I write, how I’m figuring out how to write, and how I’m figuring out how to improve how I write is very much a work in progress, because nobody taught me. Although, I am realising that the people that did have someone to teach them or did do the course or get the qualification – the actual process of writing is the same for me as it is for them. The uncertainty of “is this good?” and “is this not good?” doesn’t change with a degree.

Another good thing to do is to gather your favourite writers and things that you read regularly and make them your “pseudo-mentor.” I gather the people who write personal essays that just cut right through my heart and make me feel seen when I read their words. Then, there are the people who analyse fashion so incredibly. Robin Givhan is huge in that for me. She is also a Black woman with a Pulitzer Prize for fashion criticism, which is so incredibly rare.

Masego: The perfect mentor!

Modupe: Yes! Last year, I nearly got the opportunity to interview her and I almost said “no”, because I couldn’t quite believe it! I did say “yes”, but then the actual thing that was going to happen didn’t happen. It might happen this year, fingers crossed. I think the prospect in my mind was so intimidating. I felt like I needed to read for a week and prepare so much for that interview.

Masego: I mean, that’s how we felt with you. We talked about doing an interview with you right at the beginning of cnscs_, but decided it was too soon. And then we waited a year!

Modupe: That is so funny to me, because I really am just figuring it out as I go along! *laughs* I’ve realised that we are all like that. We are all observing each other and seeing only the results, and not necessarily seeing the process behind the scenes. What the two of you already understand about sustainability and understand quite comprehensively, blows my mind. And, I have learnt a lot from the two of you, and from cnscs_. So, thank you.

Masego & Stella: Awh, thank you so much.

Modupe: That’s the weird thing about this, right? Like, “oh my goodness, I’ve built this person up in my head to be this thing.” Some people really are that thing when you meet them. But, they are only that in terms of what they are actually presenting themselves as and what they are giving to the world.

So, yes, I am figuring it out as I go along, but I am very good at figuring it out as I go along. I feel comfortable in that and I feel confident in my ability to do my job. Don’t ask me about other aspects of life though! Because, if you ask me about relationships or just living, I am probably a five-year-old in that aspect. *chuckles*

You might meet other people who are brilliant at this one thing, and then you are shocked at how little they know about something else. But, that is what it means to be human and that is life.

Masego & Stella: In an interview with Kacheetee, you said that, “fashion is a business, and glamour is its product, not its lifestyle – that’s what I tell everyone.” Can you explain what you mean by this? What is an aspect of your job that a lot of people do not know about?

Modupe: An aspect of my job that people don’t know about is that I don’t know a single person who has been a fashion assistant who does not have a bad back before 30! All of us have horrible posture, lower back pain from lugging boxes around and fixing steamers, and hunching over laptops late at night to confirm a photographer. Basically: it’s work. That is what I am always trying to get across to people.

During my first day at CPUT they told us, “half of you will be gone by the end of the semester.” We thought, “yeah right. You are just trying to make the Devil Wears Prada, school edition. Whatever.” They were right. A lot of people have this perception of fashion that you are just going to throw around some fabric, and your talent or the fact that you know the difference between a nice top and an ugly top is going to carry you through three years of a heavy-duty qualification. It’s heavy-duty, not just in the volume of work and the things that you need to learn and get good at. It’s also heavy-duty in the sense that it is not objective at all. I sometimes wish I had studied something like accounting, where if the maths makes sense, then I have won. If 1 + 1 = 2, then you can’t tell me anything. Fashion is so incredibly subjective.

I locked heads with my lecturers so much. I remember getting a 60-something for a lingerie assignment that I had worked so hard on. I went to the lecturer and I asked them if they could explain to me where the 30-something had gone. He couldn’t explain to me where it had gone. Their opinion of your skill, rather than your actual skill level, affects the score that you see on the paper. Thankfully, when you get into the industry, it is less about that and it really is just about – did you do good work, or not? Although, the numbers still matter, to an extent, especially now when everything is about how many people you can get to click on an article.

Basically, I am always trying to show people that, like any other job, it has risk and hard work, and then it has reward on the other end. It is beautiful, visible, and the way our culture reveres fashion makes it look really glamourous. But, someone has to cultivate that and manufacture that. A lot of it is manufactured. A lot of it is people who can see the beauty in the world and beauty in things around us and translate that into an editorial look. They make sure that the magic survives that gruelling production process. As with anything beautiful and inspiring, you’ve got these concepts and ideas in your head and then you have to do this ugly, messy middle, before you’ve got the beautiful thing on the other end. The ugly, messy middle is what I think a lot of people underestimate. Or, it gets ugly and it gets messy and they think they must be doing it wrong, but they are doing it right.

It’s work. Work is work. That advice that goes, “love what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life” – that is rubbish.

Masego & Stella: *laughs*

Modupe: I do think that people should embrace the idea of finding value in work. Not necessarily in a capitalist sense, but just doing something with your hands, making something with your hands, making something with your mind, has value in and of itself. If you can embrace that, then you can do the messy middle.

Masego & Stella: How did your journey into slow/low-impact fashion begin?

Modupe: A few years ago, everybody will remember the still somewhat incorrect statistic that was just floating literally everywhere: fashion is the second-largest polluter in the world.

It was already something I was thinking about, because between Superbalist, Woolworths, and one of my first jobs in Joburg where I did a lot of work on a website that has the whole Foschcini Group as a partner, you get into this understanding of how much clothing is people pushed at people. Then, you get a sense of how much people are actually able to wear and use from your own life. Then, you see the shopping in between. You see us shopping way more than we can wear and use. It’s staggering how much people shop. People shop like they drink water. You also start to understand the implications of the problem in different markets – it’s not the same for us as it is for the US and the UK.

With all of those things swirling in my head, I just started to ask questions. I’ve always shopped a little bit more slowly, because of the way my mom shops and the way I have been raised to treat money – not clothing. I am more likely to get 10-15 items, shopping at the end of the year and barely anything in between, than I am to be getting 10-15 things every month. I am much more used to observing, window shopping, and then understanding from all my window shopping what I really like and what faded after two weeks, in my head. Then, spending all my money at once!

In my mind, I was just bringing all those things together – my personal experiences, my work experiences, what I was now being taught about fashion’s impact, and everything about what I was learning about the environment (not just what fashion was doing to the environment). It all came together for me one day when I was sitting in church. I just had this thought of, “yeah, we are horrible stewards, and this is gluttony.” The Bible presents human beings as the caretakers of the Earth, and we are supposed to have dominion over the Earth. I think people see dominion as control, and not just responsibility – and it really is responsibility.

That was what spurred me to look at my own life. Everybody does that and then gets really overwhelmed, because wooow so much plastic! But, then you also understand the bigger issue and understand that we could all, as consumers, make changes tomorrow and it wouldn’t necessarily be enough if the industry doesn’t get onboard. Now, I try to look at it a little bit more comprehensively. Yes, I am going to look at my own habits and see what I can improve, because there is so much out there now that is well within reach for us to improve how we do things and how we consume. But, also, I really started to look at how I could bring what I knew into my work.

Writing copy and articles means that I am at the end of the process. It is just press. All the production has already happened. All the clothes have already been made. But, I have a hand in shaping consumer perception and consumer perception has a hand in helping shape corporate behaviour. So, I try to look at it from that perspective and see what I can do, within my work.

For example, right now I am about to close up a 6-month contract in beauty and personal care brands for a large conglomerate. One of their brands is super green as part of their branding and personality. I’ve just been trying to navigate how to bring that honesty, frankness, and transparency to the work, whenever we are talking about their environmental efforts. This doesn’t mean doing it from the perspective of, “what can we get away with saying?” I really do think that in the age of distrust, cultivating trust with consumers is good for these companies. You should be honest about where you are in your sustainability journey. Even if one zealot in your comments is dragging you for not ditching plastic completely, tomorrow, across a global company where that is logistically impossible, most people will respect the transparency and will feel that it reflects where they are.

Masego & Stella: Can you tell us a bit about your personal style journey?

Modupe: I always felt a little bit different in what I was drawn to than people around me, which disappears as soon as you move to a metro. My dad always says that university is a collection of local heroes, and I think the same thing about cities. You are not a hero when you get to a city. I love cities for that and for what they bring together, what they force you to face, and how they transform people. So much of what I am drawn to, in terms of personal style, is influenced by what cities do, how cities move, breathe, and bring things to life. Have I ever really been able to express that fully? No. *laughs*

I don’t feel like I look on the outside like who I am within. Sometimes it’s a fun experiment, and other times it really is just like, “I have work to do and things to get on with.” I love the idea of helping other people facilitate their personal style journeys and thinking about style in that way. I love dissecting what style is, what it is in our heads, and how we express it.

Engaging personally in that practice hasn’t always been enjoyable. I have always taken a bit of solace and comfort in the fact that a lot of designers seem to be like that as well. I used to use Alexander Wang as the example for that, but he has turned out to be trash. In his early shows, he used to run down the runway in black shorts and a t-shirt with holes in it. So many designers are like that – they have a uniform. When you are dissecting style and doing that job and when you are also trying to think about fashion as a business and industry, I feel like there is just not enough space left in your head for your personal style if you haven’t already figured it out. A lot of designers have uniforms because it just clears up head space.

When I think about personal style, one of the first things I think about is decision fatigue. If you spend an hour deciding what to wear in the morning, you have taken a lot of decision-making power away from the rest of your day. At the same time, I’m not ready for a uniform. I don’t have my life that together, yet. I am not Li Edelkoort who wears just one thing and has this iconic look.

I still definitely want to experiment with style. I think it’s one of those things that I have pushed into the corner of my personal life that gets ignored while I work ten-hour days. Maybe that is why I have gotten as far in my career as I have, with the amount of time that I have – this is the beginning of year 8 for me, in the workforce. Personal style is something that I hope to dive back into soon, as an exercise and as a practice. It is not something that I feel super expressive about, right now.

One thing I will say is that I’ve just moved, and my wardrobe is all over the place, right now. As I organise this wardrobe, I am going to be culling a lot. I am going to have a box for selling stuff, because some of my stuff is in good condition, it just either doesn’t fit me anymore, or I bought something that isn’t really me in the name of experimentation. Then, I am also going to be thinking about style in terms of a framework that I have recently found that I think really speaks to me. It’s called the “creative pragmatist” as coined by Amy Smilovic, the founder of tibi.

Since the pandemic started, Amy has been doing these style classes on tibi and breaks down this whole “creative pragmatist” framework. She has found these words to express how she dresses, how her customers dress, and how so many people who are like them dress. She’s created a style pyramid where she’s got your “without fails” at the bottom, she’s got the “in-and-outs” (when you buy into a trend and wear it for a while and then you are done with it), and then she’s got the “have to haves” (a crazy pink and orange jacket which just called your name and you had to own it and you’ll probably own it for 20 years, even though you only wear it a few times). So, I’m literally taking classes in personal style – that is where I am!

Masego: I really loved the Instagram lives that she did at the beginning, on her own account. I love the way she does stories, as well, where she answers questions and even styles things for people in drawing format. She has talked about how we are going into this space where people want more unique stuff and it’s less about street fashion.

Modupe: Yes! Style is getting more unique and that’s really something that people are trying to push more. But, at the same time, I have always understood that Westernised and globalised clothing are just building blocks and style is how you put things together. People are looking for the building blocks that represent them, but also looking for help in putting those things together in a way that says “me.”

This is exciting, because it places a lot less emphasis on new and on purchases and shopping and places a lot more emphasis on style as an equation that you figure out using everything in your closet, with what you have and what you don’t have. It also makes it a little bit easier to shop, because you can look at the equation and say, “okay, I have x and I’m missing y.” So, then you can go out and look specifically for y and not buy everything that crosses your fingers and hope that one of them fits the equation.

Masego: So, is that what you are doing with your personal style, now? You are going on your personal style journey, in a way.

 Modupe: Sometimes. On a Sunday when I am avoiding admin that I should be doing for Monday, I will stand in front of my cupboard and sometimes take part in that. But, most days I can’t do things that are relaxing or not in aid of profit, or a deadline, first thing in the morning, because that is where my head is already at. My head is already in work mode. When it comes to standing in front of my wardrobe and figuring it out, for me that is the same as reading for leisure or any chill activities.

Masego: I love the fact that you can talk about these things, even though you are not necessarily practicing it in your own life. You are always observing and analysing things.

Modupe: You learn a lot from what is outside of you. I think that people who work in fashion and only look at fashion are usually a little bit behind the curve with what’s happening in the world. If you only focus on fashion, you will never see this fashion and gaming thing that’s happening, right now. I look at culture and internet culture a lot.

Observing culture really helped me stand out at the beginning of my career, because I was a) paying more attention, but b) I could also see things that other people, who thought they were paying attention, were not seeing. That almost defined my value in a lot of the rooms I was in, very early on. I think it’s one of those things that, like everything, all things in moderation. Too much of it and you are wasting time that you should be using working on the actual work, and getting depressed about the state of the world, because you are just seeing human beings be human beings. Too little of it and you don’t see anything coming, and you can’t make the connections to what people are doing and experiencing that make certain pieces of work special. It is those connections and those things that bring campaigns, messages, copy, or features to life. It’s when people can see themselves reflected, but not necessarily say that they are seeing themselves reflected. Those connections are easier to cultivate and present in your work when you are paying attention to the world outside of your little world.

Fashion for fashion’s sake is actually very empty. Fashion as anthropology, fashion as science and textile technology, fashion as art – those things have substance to me, and are always inspiring and there is always something new to learn and to connect to and be awed by.

Fashion has told us a lot about civilisations before ourselves. Museums have whole departments dedicated to it for a reason. It tells us a lot about how people lived, and not just about how people dressed. So, I think it is worthwhile for that purpose. It is worthwhile work, because we live our lives in this stuff. It deserves the same level of thought as technology, because we live our lives using technology. It deserves the same level of thought as architecture, because we live our lives in these buildings. We are not nearly critical enough of a lot of the things that define our day-to-day and we wake up 10 years later – as we did with social media – and we realise that this is way embedded in our lives now.

Masego & Stella: Your writing has been published in many acclaimed publications across the world, but you still have a very strong focus on celebrating and highlighting local culture. How has your personal heritage informed this part of your writer’s voice?

Modupe: I don’t think there is any metro you can go to in the world and not find Nigerians! I’ll keep this specific to Yoruba people. We are academically ambitious as a culture and we honour and value education. I think curiosity and the satisfaction of discovery as a pursuit informs my work and that has been informed by my personal heritage. It’s definitely a part of my personality, so it is an individual thing, but I think that how I go about it has probably been informed by my personal heritage.

As a kid, I was one of those annoying children who was always asking questions. My father would tell me to look up the answers and I fell in love with looking things up myself and finding and discovering and the process of going after an answer yourself, and not just having somebody tell you. Now, I understand that having someone just tell you the answer is kinda dangerous, because they are just going to give you their world view. Whereas, when I discover something, I can find five answers to it and piece together the common truth, which will be more objective than one person’s opinion on it.

Stella: And then in terms of your focus on celebrating and highlighting local culture and brands, how has your heritage informed that?

Modupe: As Nigerians, we have a relationship with fashion where it’s specifically tied to expression of culture through special events like weddings or funerals. For example, for a wedding, the whole of the bride’s side or the whole of the groom’s side will pick one fabric, we will all get our wedding outfits made from that fabric, we’ll pick a matching jacquard weave type fabric for our head ties and for men’s caps and we will just be a fully matching squad. That is always how we have done things. We also give fabrics to each other as gifts. I have so much fabric that I haven’t turned into anything, but I cannot give it away, because my aunt gave it to me.

So, I want to preserve that, because I understand that globalisation would toss it aside in a second. Another thing is looking at Africa, youth employment, and our incredible youth population and gaining an understanding that fashion manufacturing (even on a more ethical scale than what we are doing now) can still be a cash cow for this continent. Also, looking at fashion’s mess in terms of pollution and sustainability and understanding that Africa’s lack of infrastructure, in terms of fashion, is actually an opportunity and blank slate for the world to get it right. We’ve got the labour, we are not deeply invested in infrastructure that is causing problems, and we can start from scratch with everything that we know now about how to do this right.

I really just think that it can be a massive driver of employment for the continent and change for the industry. While I’m not a logistics person or a manufacturing and industry expert, I do understand that we need to invest in designers who are determined to stay on the continent – like, Thebe Magugu. Part of why he won the LVMH Prize is because he was determined to keep his manufacturing local. I want to invest in helping those designers compete on a global scale. When I say that, I mean compete in this ridiculous attention economy that we are all a part of, whether we like it or not. I don’t necessarily mean we must join in on everyone’s over production of clothing. If I can help designers compete so that communications or perceptions of Africa are not a block that is standing in their way, then I can help bring that future a little bit closer. This is a future where textiles and clothing manufacturing can provide jobs that do a lot less harm to the planet, because we have set the infrastructure up to do that and not necessarily just copy-paste what the rest of the world is doing, which so many people try to do when they come here.

I am trying to learn a little bit more about the things that scare me, which is the manufacturing and industry side of things. I really want to understand more than what I am told in a report and understand its relationship to a designer’s business. Thebe’s studio is in Ellis House, he is shipping to Europe and Asia from Johannesburg – how does that work? What does that mean, in terms of tariffs and import-export duties? What does that mean for his business that it doesn’t necessarily mean for other businesses, and how do we close the gap in terms of competition? So, I’m diving into understanding all of that stuff, even though it really terrifies me. I am excited to understand those things and do reporting and media work that lays all of that out in a way that changes the perception of African fashion and changes the perception of these designers as an investment opportunity.

It frustrates me that here and in other parts of the continent, we talk about the fashion industry like it is an NGO or charity and it is absolutely a business. Yet, we don’t have business reporting to go with it and a platform for that. That is really something that I am hoping to solve, in the near future, if I can figure out monetisation. In the meantime, I’m going to start reporting on that, this year, by pitching existing business publications who cover business and never cover fashion.

Last year, there was a case study conducted that involved 320 South African designers, including people like Laduma from MaXhosa, and it quantified their businesses in terms of what they contribute to the GDP. It showed that they contributed at least R1 billion to the GDP in 2019. This proved to me that breaking down how that value is created, every day, would be really useful for the industry. If I can get my hands onto that kind of work and get into that, I will be very happy!

Masego & Stella: What is your favourite item in your wardrobe, and why?

Modupe: That’s tough. I’m less ‘favourite item’ and more ‘favourite combo’; does a co-ord set qualify? I got this top & skirt from House of Nini in Lagos the last time we went home. Here, I’m wearing the skirt with a fast fashion sweater that is a near perfect shade match. I LOVE vivid orange, and how I look/feel in it. Another favourite has to be my head ties/geles, I have one from almost every family event.

Masego & Stella: What is your favourite cost-free place to go in your city?

Modupe: James & Ethel Gray Park. I don’t go nearly enough but I like the space & the early morning dog-walking/exercise crowd.

Masego & Stella: Where do you go when you want to treat yourself?

Modupe: I don’t! Lol. When I want to treat myself I buy subscriptions, I get great food (usually to eat in), I occasionally get flowers (Cape Kingdom bouquets, always) and sometimes I cancel something or postpone errands to sleep! Or to read articles I’ve been putting off. I’d like to be someone who treats themselves more, would love a solo weekend away soon, so we’ll see. I don’t put me-time or treats into my time or money planning enough; I’m doing that in 2021.

Masego & Stella: What social media account is inspiring you right now?

Modupe: A few: I’m learning some very different perspectives on beauty by following both @charlotteparler & @jessicadefino_, I learn something new about black designers left out of US fashion history almost every day from @bronze_bombshel, and I’ve recently gotten into some amazing, local DIY/decor accounts: @justamomwithadrill, @lkhomediy and @unit6projects are all great.

Masego & Stella: What is on your local brand wish list?

Modupe: Again, so many things, but top of the list right now: Luke Radloff’s UNI FORM & Public Forum shirts. So, so beautiful.

If you enjoyed this chat and want to keep up with Modupe as she reimagines the fashion industry, the best place to find her is on Instagram.

With love,

Masego and Stella


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