It hard not to get sidetracked when chatting with Darlene and Lizzy Okpo about their label, William Okpo. The two sisters, who are 25 and 22 respectively, are not only talented designers and entrepreneurs, but they are hip, young New Yorkers with plenty to talk about. They're always saying things like, 'That reminds me of this one time', or 'True story...', but regardless of the topic things usually come back to their life's passion: their label.
William Okpo takes its name from the girls' Nigerian father, who immigrated to New York in 1976 with $80 in his pocket (their mom joined him soon after). One of the things the girls find most inspiring about their father is that even as he was working hard to realize his own American dream, his unique personal style never wavered. The sisters embraced both his work ethic and his sartorial flair launching their label despite youth and limited resources working against them.
Since starting the label, they've cut patterns on Starbucks tables, juggled finishing their degrees with finishing their collections (last year Lizzy nearly missed their first fashion week show because she didn't want to skip class) and learned everything from the bottom up. We chatted to the talented sisters, who stand out for their charming personalities just as much as their awesome hair, about how they're doing it.
How did you get involved in fashion and was it something you always enjoyed? Lizzy Okpo: Yes, absolutely. Six years ago we knew we wanted to start a label. Darlene Okpo: All four of us siblings are really into style in different ways. My brother’s room is full of shoes. It’s kind of gross. But we blame it on our Dad. Every Saturday we would go food shopping and then we’d go to the mall. He would never buy anything for us, but always for himself. We would sit in the store for three hours and he would leave with one tie. He would analyze everything. L: He dressed Mom. He knows our bra sizes and shoe sizes. D: If it was up to him we’d be in dresses all the time.
Darlene, how would you describe Lizzy’s style? D: Lizzy is very Lisa Bonet-ish. True story, we are on the train two weeks ago and Lizzy is like, ‘Do you like my hat?’ And I look and her braids are coming through the top of the hat. She had cut her baseball cap on the top for her bun to come through. L: People were stopping me and asking how my hair was on top of there.
Lizzy, how would you describe Darlene’s style? L: She is very Aaliya some days--very 90s, and then all of a sudden she’s doing this whole Tracy Ellis Ross thing all dressed up with her eyes done and platform shoes.
So tell me about starting William Okpo? D: We started designing in 2005. I was 19 and Lizzy was 14 or 15. We started with a t-shirt line called Mayhem. We would reconstruct clothes. Lizzy was more into sewing, and I was more into merchandising. L: Mayhem was the real deal! We would silkscreen. Once we cut my denim jacket and put buttons all over the yoke and flannel on the back. I thought it was so cool, and so did everyone in highschool. D: Then in 2008 we went to Nigeria and we came back and had a meeting and knew we had to start this. The scariest thing was telling our father we wanted to start a label. We had a family meeting and told our father, and he supported it thankfully. L: We were supposed to go into nursing and medicine, so it was a big deal.
How did you build experience to know what you were doing? Did you have a business plan? D: We had to do a lot of research. A lot of it came from Lizzy working at Opening Ceremony and me working as a visual merchandiser for H&M. I did a lot of magazine internships, even though I knew I wanted to do more design. Lizzy wants to design crazy things, and I focus more on the business side.
How long after going to your dad did the label come together? L: It was a process. Darlene was like, ‘Let’s find factories.’ We found this place in Queens. Mentors were really important to us and helped us a lot. We used all our resources. D: We started this business, but we didn’t know anything about how the factories or any of it worked! You think it’s easy, but people would ask, ‘Where’s your line sheet?’ or ‘Where’s your silk pattern?’ We didn’t have anything.
That sounds difficult. How did you make it work? L: Just literally going places and putting it out there. People thought we were interns because we were so young. People sized us up, and nobody took us seriously. D: Some people don’t want to work with new designers cause you have to teach them so much. We had to humble ourselves and say, ‘Teach us.’ Some of these factories and companies really opened up to us because they saw our potential and our hunger. L: People were also were reluctant to take us seriously because we didn’t go to FIT or Parsons. D: You can go to school for whatever, but it’s all about the experience. We are learning every day.
So what’s been the moment you felt it was all working out? L: I would say after our first lookbook. We used every resource we had to make it. Once it was printed everything felt real. We walked around Soho with samples in hand and our lookbooks knocking on doors of boutiques. D: It was real for me when Opening Ceremony placed their first order.
How did you start building the brand from there? D: What worked for us was our personal style. L: We were against that at first; we didn’t want to be the face of the brand. D: Then someone sat us down and told us that we were our best marketing tool. L: We were so passionate that we wanted people to just like the brand for the brand. But it worked out for the best. D: The press was slow at the start, but then it just picked up. Our stuff started selling out of O.C. and that made people curious.
What’s the philosophy of the label? L: Using every resource that you have, and not necessarily money. Giving it everything. D: And Building relationships. We almost didn’t make it last season, but people have taken chances on us because of believing in us. You have to really humble yourself, while still having confidence.
What’s it been like working as sisters? L: I’ve been working with Darlene since 1990! Sometimes she knocks on my door at 5 a.m. reminding me of what I need to do that day. I guess a normal business partner isn’t there all the time. It’s 24 hours a day.
Where do you work from? L: We work from home. We’ve worked from Starbucks, Barnes and Nobles. We used to read entrepreneurship books in there. D: We’ve had meetings at the Business Library on Fifth Avenue. L: We’ve been commuting our whole lives so it’s not a problem.
How do you describe your style philosophy? D: We love taking simple garments and play with fabrication and details. Maybe it’s a sleeve or the placement of a pocket. Something unexpected.
Who are your muses? L: Young people! We love young, confident girl. Someone with an idea of the future D: New York City too. She’s our muse. I consider her a girl. L:Chioma Nnadi from Vogue. D: She doesn’t even think when she gets dressed; it just works. She wore a Chicago Bulls jersey to our show and it just looked elegant. And then I wanted a Knicks jersey. She beats to her own drum.
What designers do you guys admire? D: Phillip Lim. He is my ultimate favorite. Anyone can where his stuff, old or young. L: Darlene follows all the magazines, but I don’t. But I like Phillip Lim too and Proenza and Chloe. There are so many. D: I’ll never get over Alexander McQueen. What else inspires you? L: We were inspired by the fact that our dad came to the US and was able to influence his style. There is a cliché about how people dress from a third world country, but he didn’t fit into that. He always maintained his own style. We are so inspired by different cultures. D: Immigrants that come here or people from different countries stand out because they have a different outlook. We love that.