Darlene and Lizzie Okpo discuss the journey of their brand and what it takes to be successful young black female entrepreneur
Darlene Okpo has on a snazzy striped jersey t-shirt and is tugging on it furiously. Better known as William Okpo’s Tommie Tee, she’s road testing one of the latest designs she and her sister Lizzie have come up with for their highly respected contemporary brand. We’re in their studio on the edge of New York’s Garment District surrounded by rails of delicious pieces. A rummage reveals a gingham cotton flared top with quirky drawstring sleeves, a denim peplum tank featuring oversized eyelet detailing and wide legged jeans with pleats and poppers. These add up to the kind of wardrobe that sizzles with strength, femininity and confidence. Just like the women themselves. Time to talk.
What are you working on at the moment?
Lizzie: We don’t do seasonal collections. We’re always designing, trying things out and creating a cohesive look throughout the year. And we’re having fun with everything we do. When we started out our aesthetic was more tomboy and oversized but now we’re revealing the body in obscure ways.
Darlene: At the moment we’re into athleticism and how pretty clothes can look aggressive when worn in a sporty, sophisticated way. Lizzie has been on a Serena Williams tip lately.
Who else inspires you?
Darlene: Mainly it’s our friends who amaze us. It’s not about ‘It’ girls or fashionistas. It’s women we know and admire who have great style. Or it’s people we see on the street in New York everyday. That’s why we named the brand after our dad. He’s a very creative, stylish person.
Lizzie: He moved from Nigeria to New York in 1976 and our mother joined him four years later. They had all these dreams and came for an education. He wanted to be a doctor and she wanted to be a teacher. They both ended up working for the city. Our parents have so many stories.
So tell us about William’s style.
Lizzie: He’s wearing a lot of plaid at the moment. He takes our brother’s old cable knit sweaaters and wears them with denim and classic Prada trainers. He never used to wear denim. We grew up seeing him wear suits.
Darlene: He pulls out new outfits all the time from these classic 1980s suitcases. It’s not that he travels, it’s that he has so many clothes that he stores them in suitcases. That is his wardrobe.
Do you get to borrow anything?
Darlene: No! No touching. I couldn’t even imagine. We watched our brother get in trouble when he decided to wear one of his suits and a fur coat to high school one day. He looked awesome but dad went crazy.
Lizzie: He’s very particular. He irons his clothes for hours and takes time deciding what to wear every single day.
So fashion is in your blood?
Lizzie: Fashion came to us. We got a sewing machine and started sewing at home and then decided to begin a line. That was our level of fashion education to begin with.
Darlene: My degree was in African American studies and Lizzie’s was in Entrepreneurship. We didn’t study fashion but we started sketching and I did some research on sample makers and pattern cutters. Then in 2009 we just walked cold turkey into some factories in the Garment District and asked them to help us. Luckily no one turned us away and it just started going like that. New York is not made for young designers. There’s very little support and everything costs, so you have to be creative.
Lizzie: We took our first samples to Opening Ceremony, who we had a great relationship with from working at the store as students. (Founders) Carol (Lim) and Humberto (Leon) gave us lots of advice and agreed to stock it. That opened up doors for us and we are forever grateful.
What have been some other milestones?
Darlene: Having our pop-up store for two years (in the Seaport District) was one of them. It was great to see who our customers were. Women would come in, sit down and it became like a therapy session. We’d talk about everything. And that led to sales because they admired that we were two African American girls, coming from Nigerian backgrounds, with a brand that stands. You don’t see people like us in the industry. I read an article in the NY Times that said less than 4 per cent of designers at NYFW are black.
Lizzie: We also had women come in and say, 'Where’s a size 12?' or 'What are you doing for short women?' We learnt from that. Now we’re shooting for the everyday woman and tall, short, skinny and fuller figured women are all part of our brand.
Darlene: Our customers come from all backgrounds but we’ve found those who have money to spend are older. The younger ones have always loved the brand and actively support it on social media. They are our loyal customers who save up to buy something. That’s why we have differently priced items. We don’t want to forget them because we are them.
Lizzie: Recently we got an email from a woman with the subject ‘I am 62 and I love your brand’. That was awesome. She took the time to tell us that it’s cool and hip but still appeals to her too.
You’ve shown William Okpo in Nigeria before. Any plans to go back?
Lizzie: I would love to have a small shop there, or be stocked there. And make a video there for the brand. We have a lot of Nigerian customers in New York and they’re our biggest importers too.
Do you take inspiration from Nigerian textiles?
Lizzie: No. We use denim, silks and cottons from Italy and Japan. Ankara is beautiful but we don’t use it because it would be too expected. And for us it’s not an everyday fabric. So we chose to represent our culture in certain graphics. We did a print inspired by West African barbershop signs, and that led to the Man face shirt, which was one of our favourites.
What’s the big picture for William Okpo?
Lizzie: We want to find ways to give back to young black women in America by preparing them for work. We do a lot behind the scenes spending time teaching them the skills and the language they need in the real world.
Darlene: When we started, people thought we were the interns and we had to fight for our rights. Now we want to help other young women of colour to get into the industry and encourage them not to give up.