A decade after starting their label William Okpo, Lizzy and Darlene Okpo are ever-evolving and planning for the years ahead.
Not interested in “falling into the realm of producing just to produce,” Lizzy Okpo said next year’s plan is to create collections with greater consciousness. Not ever wanting to go the fast-fashion route, she described the thoughtfulness that she and her sister put into their apparel and accessories. The latter is becoming an increasingly important category and building sales internationally is another priority. Shoppers in the U.K., South Africa and Dubai have shown interest in the New York-made collection, Okpo said. Rather than rely solely on larger manufacturers in New York City’s Garment District, the company has created a network of handmade, talented sewers.
The pair first decided to start their business due to the dearth of young Black voices and creatives at that time, Okpo said. “There were probably 10 or less Black designers that shared the same voices. Or if anything, I felt that representation was at its lowest. But I knew there was a story to be told.”
During an 11-hour flight to Nigeria in 2008, the two sisters talked at length about the prospect of delving into contemporary sportswear. With a “self-established” knowledge base about design, Okpo said she was raised in a home where becoming a doctor or a lawyer was the expectation. But her creative leanings drew her in another direction professionally. She said, “I felt a design voice as a young African American voice was very necessary.”
As of now, many of the brand’s customers are loyal, motivated by the search for “something cool and fun” for a random day, as opposed to a Black Friday sale or seasonal purchases, Okpo said. Adding more accessories like hats has helped the business, and moving forward that will be more of a priority, along with shoes and handbags, Okpo said. This year’s sales are expected to be up slightly due primarily to “what has happened in the community. It brought a lot of urgency to support Black [creatives and businesses],” she said. “It increased mainly between May and July. Then there was a huge slowdown after things started to settle down.”
Okpo emphasized how she “hates to receive sales” due to someone dying, referring to the change in consumer behavior following the police killing of George Floyd earlier this year. “As a Black designer and a young designer, I just want [the support] to be there for the love of the brand, and not because we’re in a spiritual mood or a holiday mood, or we’re rioting out there or protesting out there,” she said.
In years past, William Okpo typically had a “rush of press” in January in preparation for Black History Month in February, which Okpo said she always found “so offensive and irresponsible of the media.” She said, ”We would have a plethora of e-mails come January. They would be almost checking off a box to talk about Black History Month and Black designers. Then April comes around and it’s crickets. The African American thing shouldn’t be a stamp to talk to Black designers. It should be a conversation all year round like with any other designer.”
“Not at all” expecting the interest in Black designers to be maintained, Okpo said larger platforms, publications and retail corporations need to honestly make supporting people of color “part of their natural businesses and not a sub, subcategory.”
She said, “In the past five years, it was the same [situation] with inclusion. There was a big uproar about including models of color, and diverse models in regards to weight and shape…now you see models in wheelchairs. I think that’s how it should have been.”
”Our society has to have things repeated for people to be so comfortable with it. Once the bigger chains are constantly feeding consumers diverse brands and are supporting smaller businesses almost like that is normal, then we won’t see that there was ever separation. It just has to be common practice. When we categorize things like, ‘Here’s the shop Black page,’ that makes it really hard for a lot of us,” Okpo said.
Looking back at the company’s early days, Okpo said some in the Garment District initially questioned what two teenagers were trying to accomplish. But the duo “showed-and-telled, and created their own lane,” Okpo said. “We received so much help and resources.”
Three years ago, the William Okpo founders decided that the typical fashion calendar does not correlate with how the brand does business. Dismayed by the amount of waste that the fashion industry generates, the Okpos didn’t believe that producing four collections a year was beneficial. Shoppers’ requests for items that were sold the previous year reinforced that ideology and they decided to introduce a yearly collection, and slowly added pieces to that, Okpo said.
Having a store in the Seaport District for about three years until 2018 helped to give them more insights into what consumers were looking for. Around that same time, their wholesale model didn’t seem to tell the company’s store completely, Okpo said. “We were losing what our profile was for our brand. We hone ourselves on being well-connected with who our clients and our customers are. We had more control of that when we had our own retail store and through our online store.”
While Lizzy Okpo favors more daring styles and Darlene likes more basic ones, the pair agree that accessories like a mesh organdy Ringlet hat that has been this year’s bestseller are an opportunity. Adding the category was meant to be a little fun introduction, but it is now being amped up. The average William Okpo shopper spends between $200 and $350, with accessories being increasingly in demand. Some also buy dresses and sweatshirts. All in all, annual sales are expected to increased slightly this year, Lizzy Okpo said.
She said, ”This year, with everything that’s been going on within the community, there’s been such a huge stride for supporting Black businesses. It’s a sad story but it’s also a beautiful story. It was very painful to see that a life was lost, that many lives lost in the Black community turned into sort of an uproar and a protest. But then it kind of engaged ourselves. This is not just me talking but also my peers sharing the same story. It’s a beautiful thing to see the support, but it is also very daunting to know that a life was lost and we gained sales that doubled. That was very painful to say the least.”
William Okpo’s “Sunday’s Best” collection was photographed by Lizzy Okpo’s husband, Ackime Snow, in a Methodist Christian church that the founders’ parents attend on Staten Island. While photographing a sheer chartreuse outfit on a model made Darlene Okpo pause, her sister said it was not done with any disrespect to the church. “There are a lot of beautiful religious sculptures in regards to nudity,” she said. Snow, who offers creative direction, “doesn’t budge when it comes to us being our most creative selves,” his wife said.
As a high schooler, Lizzy Okpo attended Saturday classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology, paying her own way each semester since her parents had loftier career ambitions for her. At 15, she started interning with Libertine and a year or two later she placed herself at Opening Ceremony to work retail. The experience was mind boggling, since she was able to see what she loved about design — intricacies and far-outness. “I was just a little girl, who literally had absolutely no connections in fashion. But I knew where I wanted to be,” said Okpo, adding that at 19 she ventured out with the introduction of William Okpo.
As a teenager working in a high-end contemporary retail store, she said, “I’d never seen money spent the way it was spent. I was the highest seller at one point. I think I brought in $40,000 from one sale one day. Humberto [Leon] and Carol [Lim] were like, ‘Lizzy, what are you doing? This is amazing.’ I didn’t know at the time. I just remember watching and seeing the urgency that people had in their eyes to have something exclusive. It was my first time of seeing what art meant to people.”
Working there made Okpo wonder what it was about the clothes that made people spend so much. She also recognized and worried about how one minute a design would be in, and the next minute it would be done and nobody wanted it. “That made me realize that whatever I do with William Okpo, it has to be something that is everlasting…I just knew it had to stand in someone’s closet not just for one or two seasons,” she said.