Former Black Panther Dr. Angela Davis, Madonna, “The View” show co-host Sunny Hostin, and actress Lupita Nyong’o. What do these seemingly different women have in common? They have all worn the African-inspired designs of Busayo Michelle Olupona.
Olupona owns and operates Busayo NYC, a Black-owned fashion brand she launched in 2011 in Brooklyn, New York, that sells beautifully made African fashion featuring contemporary prints sourced from Lagos, Nigeria.
Not only is the line popular with celebs, but also the fashion world. Earlier this year, the clothing line went on sale at posh department store Saks Fifth Avenue. The designs have appeared on the pages of Vogue, among other fashion magazines.
“One of the buyers at Saks came across our work and introduced our work to the women’s-wear buyer and the rest is history. It has been great launching in Saks; the customer response has been phenomenal,” Olupona told Finurah. Her clothing ranges from $115 for a Batik print women’s top to $465 for a dress. Busayo also sells men’s wear and accessories.
It wasn’t initially Olupona’s plan to start a clothing brand. She had been itching to do something beyond her career as a corporate lawyer, and the opportunity came at a party at her apartment. She and her sister were both wearing her designs, and guests gushed over the outfits. Olupona sold three dresses she had in her closet, making more than $500. Busayo was born.
Olupona came to the United States with her family, who immigrated from Nigeria to California in 1991. She recalled to Fast Company that it was difficult being a young African in America. She said she was made fun of by her white classmates on her first day of middle school when she was dressed in a colorful, patterned Nigerian dress.
As a child, she was encouraged by her family to become a professional, so she went on to study business and law.
But after six years of working endless hours at an elite law firm, she decided to start her own clothing brand. And, she used the textiles of Nigeria.
“I wanted to create the clothes that I wanted to wear. I started Busayo while I was working for a corporate law firm and really wanted to create pieces that captured both of my cultures. I loved color, prints, and wanted to create pieces that captured my personality and what I wanted to see in the world,” Olupona told Finurah. “I was inspired by the traditional art form of creative textiles in Nigerian culture and wanted to share that with the world.”
Olupona travels frequently to Nigeria to purchase fabrics. “I am in Nigeria every year, sometimes twice a year depending on the demands of the business. We produce the textiles and the garments in Nigeria,” she said. Her business is also a way she can help fellow Nigerians.
“Nigeria has the highest rate of extreme poverty in the world, so the opportunity to collaborate with brilliant Nigerian minds to create this work has been such an important part of building the company,” she shared.
Olupona is the main mastermind behind the brand’s look. “I design all the garments and about half of our fabrics. I really think about the brand primarily from a fabric perspective. I think of myself primarily as a textile designer before I focus on the shape. Clothing has the ability to change our mood, transform how we feel,” she said.
And, her clothing has appealed to a wide range of fashionistas.
“My clients are women between 30 and 55, women who love color, art, are expressive, and want to show up in the world in a vibrant and dynamic way. Clothes are really a powerful way that we express ourselves,” said Olupona, who schedules appointments at Busayo’s showroom in Brooklyn.
While many businesses struggled during the pandemic, Busayo actually flourished.
“The pandemic was unexpectedly good for the business. People wanted to buy clothes that were bright, colorful, and over the top. So the more dynamic the dress, the more popular it was. People were wearing the pieces to the grocery store,” said Olupona.
Despite Busayo’s success and expansion into Saks Fifth Avenue, Olupona has continued to practice law, but on her own terms.
“I currently work in governmental law. I love solving problems and being a lawyer allows me to do that. Also, it allows me to work a different facet of my brain,” she said. Keeping her law practice also guarantees a steady income. “Building and scaling a fashion brand is not easy, so having a day job has been critical.”
Busayo is her first love. “I love so many things: designing clothes, selling pieces, when customers send pictures of themselves, making fabrics, the incredible community of women who wear our clothes, working with my team in Nigeria. So many things,” she enthused.
Having two professions is natural for Olupona. “When I was growing up, my mother had two jobs,” she said. “I am in a marathon not a sprint. I have been able to pace the growth of the business and manage the two responsibilities.”
She is focused on taking Busayo to the next level. “We are expanding to other retailers, large and small,” said Olupona. “I am excited to bring Busayo to larger groups of people.”