Let’s talk Wunmi!
Okay, but now, the only problem with a Wunmi conversation is deciding where to start. Her resume is voluminous.
Born in London, raised in Lagos, Nigeria, and currently keeping residence in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Wunmi Olaiya is a singer, songwriter, dancer, teacher, choreographer, artist, fashion designer– quite simply, she is a creative force of Afro-funky-fly!
If you had already come of age by the early 90s, you might remember Wunmi as the iconic shadowy dancer in the video for Soul II Soul’s smash hit song, “Back to Life.” But since her time touring as a dancer with Soul II Soul, she has gone on to perform and sing for such artists as the legendary Roy Ayers, Osunlade, Ron Trent and many many more. In fact, Wunmi’s work was a major catalyst in bringing afro beat and the work of Fela Kuti into the mainstream in America.
Over the past 30 years, Wunmi has performed across and owned hundreds of stages around New York City as well as overseas. In 2014 alone, she has performed with her band in Zanzibar, Tanzania, Sao Paolo, Brazil; Zaragoza, Spain and Lagos, Nigeria; in Detroit, Michigan and Queens, NY.
Call it a side hustle, if you want, but performing is only a thin slice of her talent– something to do because she enjoys it, because the audiences demand it and to stay fit and let off steam. Bit for the past 15 years, in addition to performing, Wumni has also been building a business in fashion and design.
Her fashion line, “Wow Wow by Wunmi,” is now highly coveted on the urban dance scene for its colorful, unique and Afro-inspired designs, that lend themselves well to storytelling and movement.
In fact, Alvin Ailey Dance Company is performing in two of Wunmi’s signature pieces this season at City Center where she has collaborated with famed choreographer Ronald K. Brown for Grace (a Ron Brown Classic) and Four Corners. She also recently collaborated with Nora Chipuamire in Urban Bush Women’s production of Dark Swan, which won a Bessie Award in 2014.
Annually, Wunmi returns to Nigeria where she works closely with textile artisans to produce limited runs of her custom clothing line of hand-dyed Batik designs. In fact, when the Brooklyn Reader reached out to Wunmi in December 2014 for an interview, she was in Nigeria busily prepping for her 2015 clothing line launch.
However, she graciously accepted the interview from overseas, to provide her fellow Brooklynites a peak inside her current design inspiration and what to expect from Wow Wow in 2015:
Brooklyn Reader: How would you best characterize the designs of Wow Wow by Wunmi?
Wunmi: Wow Wow by Wunmi clothes are made of fabrics dyed in the West African batik tradition. I work predominantly with textile artisans based in Nigeria, Ghana and Togo who specialize in hand-printed batik print– a wax relief dying process where melted wax is used on fabric to create a design before setting the fabric in a dye bath. The wax inhibits the dye, and so, when the wax is removed, a pattern remains. This form of fabric printing is a tradition that has existed in West Africa for centuries. Among the Yoruba, they call this Adire, Kampala. Historically the fabrics most prized were dyed Indigo!My designs stand out because I have a serious love affair with the woman’s back! Call it my “ode to the many backs of women whose shoulders have carried us this far!” The clothes are heirloom pieces meant to be worn regularly, comfortable and easy to care for, but super special. Each piece conveys a classical, whimsy designed to flatter women of many different body types. I always say ‘I don’t do fashion, I do passion,’ because I truly love creating pieces that make people feel good, and I love seeing people in these garments.
BR: What do you think has attributed to this sudden international interest in batik fabric and print?
Wunmi: When you say Batik fabric and print it is important to clarify whether we are speaking of Dutch wax prints widely known as African Print– or the real African Batik prints, which are hand crafted wax relief batik prints, typically made in small one of a kind lots.
For sure, it is African Focus time and it has been so since the economy of the so-called First World went into recession. The newly emerging African middle class has slowly but surely begun to dictate street trends, and fashion– like music– has gone viral, thanks to social media!
The use of Dutch wax fabrics created by dominant fabric houses such as Vilisco reigns high. African designers such as Deola Sagoe, Christine Brown, and many others, have used these popular prints in innovative designs to further the reach of the African print trend.
BR: Where does the name Wow Wow come from?
Wumni: One of the exclamations I regularly hear when people see my clothes for the first time is, ‘Wow… Oh Wow!’ And one of my favorite sayings, which I picked up from years of taking Senegalese dance classes, is “WAW WAW,” said without fail when a dancer throws down on the dance floor! I loved to use the saying when my students danced– and I said it often as it felt a perfect expression to me. And so Wow Wow by Wunmi was adopted as the name of my clothing line! It stands for Want it, Own it, Wear it, Wunmi Olaiya Wear.
BR: I understand there’s a story behind how you went from dancing to designing a full-fledge clothing line? Do you want to share that?
Wunmi: I was inspired to produce my designs as a clothing line by all the people expressing real admiration for the costumes I designed for Ronald K Brown and his world renowned Evidence, A Dance Company. Through our collaboration, now spanning over 15 years, I have designed costumes for Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, and Philadanco to new a few. Years ago, I won a Bessie for the costumes I designed for Evidence & Marlies Yearby’s Movin Spirit Dance Company. So there were a lot of people, many dancers and patrons of the dance world, who were seeing my work and asking for the chance to own my creations. They were attracted to the color, movement and unique character of each piece.
One particular design that caught [a lot of people’s] attention was the Daishiki-inspired halter wrap dresses I created for HighLife, a piece choreographed by Ron Brown for Evidence. People wanted them! So I started making versions of this dress for friends. Slowly, word spread that I was reproducing designs for sale. I started adding other designs, and so the line grew.
BR: What informs your design choices? Why do you choose to buy from where you buy? What colors do you look for and what kind of feel?
Wunmi: My choice of fabric are silks, crepes and cottons with stretch. I buy my cotton fabrics, especially cotton brocades, in Africa and source the others in NYC. I then give the fabrics to my textile artisans to work their magic on them. This is what makes our fabrics extra special! You might say works of art! Our colors are dictated by the theme of the collection. The theme for the prints of our 2015 collection is ocean inspired– our color pallet will be based on this as well.
BR: Who are some of your fashion muses– both people who wear fashion and also those who design?
Wunmi: I love the sense of style of artist/singers Sade and Erika Badu, classic yet funky.
My favorite designers are Issey Miyaki for his simple yet inventive lines; Jean-Paul Gaultier and Steve McQueen for their funky visionary collections; Christine Browne for her quirky Afro-fusion and Raif for his classic timeless designs. Also, many of the people I love in fashion are regular people like my dear friend Nike Jonah based in London; she has style for days. And Joan Van-Hess is a stylist and owner of a vintage boutique based in Bklyn who also comes to mind; her taste is impeccable.
BR: What’s in store for Wow Wow in 2015?
Wunmi: Our Summer Season 2015 is titled “I Am,” an homage to coming-of-age; the acceptance of life’s blessings and forging forward with confidence and clarity!