Is this a knitwear revolution? One to watch: Gregory Ojakpe

This article was originally featured in ASBO MAGAZINE; Issue 11

gregory ojakpe

“When my mum was growing up, she was known as the fashionista in her town in Nigeria. People would look at what she was wearing and then go and get it copied,” says South London based designer Gregory Ojakpe. “She always made sure I was dressed really amazingly. I had so many different clothes, I would go out to play and have an outfit change and then go back out again. She had a lot of traditional African clothes and they’re very textile and print based. I loved looking at them and playing with them and touching them.”

Ojakpe’s designs are similarly textural and sensory, and have made a splash in his own community. His Central Saint Martins 2021 graduate collection won him a Sarabande scholarship and ensured his labelling as one of the “Emerging Designers Defining Today’s Avant-Garde”, by High Snobiety (2022). Yet, unlike for his mother, the potential copying of his garments is not something to celebrate. He must take precautions against fast fashion brands, keen to rip off designers’ ideas.

“Biometric Surrealism” is the finale of Ojakpe’s knitwear degree, a mass of wearable sculptures that cocoon around and sprout away from the body. Woven cords are inserted into elastomeric to create shapes inside the fabric that bubble and bloom outward, the structure bends and stretches to accommodate movement from bodies of all sizes. It is the work of Ojakpe’s original technique, in development since the second year of his degree. He won’t be sharing it.

“Luckily what I do is complex in a way that couldn’t be understood just from looking at it. It’s a lot of maths. Because fashion is so fast now, [people feel like] they don’t have enough time to develop ideas. It feels much easier to look on the internet and just copy. I do feel like I have to keep what I do under wraps.”

The designer grew up in South London after moving from Nigeria aged 3. Aged 6, he had a lightbulb moment when he encountered Matisse’s The Snail at school. “The teacher showed us and was like, ‘What do you see?’ We were like, ‘I see a car!’, ‘I see this…!’”. The Snail’s title was revealed and his mind boggled. “I loved the graphics, the bold colour blocking, how it wasn’t figurative. And I became completely obsessed with the idea of something being abstract and open to interpretation.`

He began to produce reams of abstract scribbles, predecessors of the surrealist collages and illustrations integral to his current work. Through Textiles GCSE he was introduced to Alexander McQueen, which in turn led him to Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí . “At A Level we did a programme with CSM and had access to the CSM library. The moment I got in I went straight to the Dalí surrealist section and scanned every single book, every single page. I became obsessed. That’s where the whole journey started.”

Ojakpe cites these artists, along with Wangechi Mutu, Yves Tanguy, Picasso, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth as his “eternal references”. Odes to traditional African print and sculptural art show up in his work, as well as an abundance of nature. “I’ve always been into the organic, anything that looks like it is alive. There’s always some kind of plant or bird or animal in there. If I need colour or texture ideas I’ll go to the library and search for coral or fish or sea slug.”

Right now Ojakpe is mulling over new designs from his bedroom in Elephant and Castle. “I often don’t really know what I’m making. I’m experimenting and letting the fabric lead me in a new direction.” He’s not set on defining the future. “I haven’t really thought about (the brand) as something that is scalable, because it is so handcrafted and labour intensive. It might just be commissions, and me just doing them from right here.”

He is excited to see his garments on the streets. “I’m seeing a new generation of people that are excited to play with clothes and wear stuff that is completely out of the ordinary,” he says. “I definitely see my designs as go-to pieces. Like, ’let’s put on this quick and easy sculptural dress before I leave the house!’. I definitely see that as reality.”

Thanks to Gregory Ojakpe

Words by Sienna Mayers

Images by Ayesha Kazim and Max Auberon

Direction by Ella Kenneally
Further styling by Caleb Garfield

Hair/makeup by Sophie Finlay

Modelled @nonyemambrose via @geesmall_faces