Fashions alchemist changing society
Describing Eunice Olumide as a multi-hyphenate is hugely underestimating the breadth of her achievements and influence on our society. Actor, art gallery curator, author, charity ambassador, DJ, filmmaker, presenter and model are just some of the disciplines she has excelled in across an astonishingly broad and varied career that continues to chart an unassailable upward trajectory.
Using her visibility and public profile to be a voice for discriminated and disenfranchised communities has garnered her awards and accolades, but most importantly, she has made a tangible and long-lasting difference to those whose voices most deserve to be heard.
We spoke to Eunice about her journey from council estate to societal change maker, the modelling career that sees her walking all the major Fashion Weeks and the myriad cultural and community initiatives which she is unveiling in 2022.
Interview by Brian James and Leigh Maynard.
Photography by Sandra Garcia. Hair by Vicky Edwards. Assistant, Andre Wast.
Production by Olumide Galleries. Special thanks to Trillionaire Apparel.
Eunice appears courtesy of Yanii Models.
Growing up in a Scottish-Nigerian home on the Wester Hailes council estate in Edinburgh, how realistic would the reality of the career and success you've achieved have been to you back then?
Scotland is one of the best places in the world; I adore it. It was pretty fascinating growing up with such a multifaceted background. I love being Nigerian and Scottish; I remember going to my mum's village literally in the plains in West Africa as a wee tiny kid and becoming obsessed with Giraffes and sugar cane. It was the dichotomy of life that most certainly informed the way I live my life today and why certain things are so important to me. I think in the UK in general, we have a tendency to be very self depreciative. Regardless of ethnicity, many of us struggle with self-esteem or even just having someone else that you identify with and be inspired by. How I was brought up by my mum and the arts saved my life. Like so many in the sprawling concrete jungles of globalisation and city life, it was pretty hard, to say the least. I always felt like I was treading water as a kid, and I was hyper-aware of how hard it was for my mum to raise us alone, dealing with discrimination and ignorance. I do realise, though, that as hard as it is for us now, it was in many ways even harder them. I remember when I was younger, there were not many places to go but my mum would always let me go to the museum or galleries by myself. I would get lost in there. It was a safe space just to dream. That's why I believe that art can transform lives. This is probably what lead to me founding Olumide Galleries. It was all completely accidental. I was nominated by artists to create a gallery for artists that transcended traditional way's of exhibiting art since so much art is never even seen by the people it's intended it to be for; everyone. It's a very elusive industry with value often prescribed through a Western cannon. I got to work with Richard Wilson on 'The Slip stream', which is on display now at Heathrow Terminal 2.
I never thought for one second that I would be a fashion model. I wanted to be a teacher, haha, I suppose I can still do that one day. It's difficult to explain; becoming a model was more than inconceivable; it was something I had never seen or heard of as a real profession. I remember being so bewildered when I was scouted early in my career I actually didn't know even what an agent was. One day I gave in decided to give it a go; in retrospect, for all of its waves, it was one of the best decision's of my life to date. Most of my friends are like me; they are scientists activists and have so much to give outside modelling. I didn't realise, but now I can see it was the first time in my life that my appearance had been associated with something positive. This really helped me to understand many of the difficulties that I had been through were not specific to me as an individual. I always look for the silver lining now, and I think the best thing about any form of suffering is the ability to identify and empathise with others. It really helps me, especially when I work with members of the public or even at work. I work voluntarily with many youth groups and Young Offenders Institutions as well as going into Prisons such as Corton Vale. Don't get me wrong, of course, it can be extremely unnerving and intimidating, but the reality is people trust people who they know grew up in the same places as them, who may have been through or at least seen similar things. What I learned is if you have survived, let alone 'made it', how you got there can save lives. I would never have thought that I would have been a fashion model; with my afro hair, baggy jeans, Air Force, and no makeup, who would have thought? Definitely not me. That's why I love the fashion industry, yes it has its problems, but it is merely a microcosm of the greater issues within our social and political environment. It is an industry where critique is allowed, so as an equal rights and sustainability activist, I have influenced real change, which is probably the most beautiful thing.
What values and principles do you feel your upbringing gave you to prepare you for the success you've achieved and to also guide you through it?
My mum has always been central to my success. It was watching her example, she always worked, and she taught us the value of appreciation, commitment and perseverance. She also instilled in us spirituality and a firm knowledge of who we were and where we came from. I was allowed to be myself, always, and to be unapologetic. I remember she also got me into lots of classes from ballet, horse riding and theatre and athletics. No small feat. I can now see how hard it was for her to maintain those things in my life. I found it quite profound coming from an estate and being in spaces and environments which were quite foreign to me at the time. I had super low self-esteem then but doing these activities really gave me the strength to conquer a lot of my own insecurities. Typically in Nigerian culture, they place more importance on having careers like being a doctor or a lawyer, not the arts. What was brilliant was she encouraged my interest in both science and the arts. Authenticity has always been key to me, and I am always searching for the balance.
You have a number of cultural and social inclusion initiatives coming to fruition this year, including your involvement with the Khalili project and the UNESCO declaration on cultural diversity. What more can you tell us about that, and how did this collaboration come about?
I founded the ADBSF or ADB, which is dedicated to supporting African Diaspora in business, and my own DEI and D&I company is available on euniceolumide.org. There was so much public discontent and upheaval, which led to worldwide protests. It was important for me to provide a vehicle for this true human compassion and mobilisation. I developed a five-point plan which involved Educational Reformation, including petitions to the UK and Scottish Government. The Once Voice for Freedom Fourth Plinth Campaign with Oswald Boateng and Anthony Joshua, The Black Heritage Museum, and lastly, supporting diverse talent in the creative and technological industries. I also sit on the board of Generation, which is McKinsey's most ambitious social-responsibility commitment to transform people's lives and communities through the power of stable, meaningful work setting up in-country operations and helping design programs that bridge the needs of vulnerable groups and their future employers. In just five short years, the organisation has graduated over 30,000 people from its programs, employs over 300 people, and is operating in 13 countries, ranging from Brazil to India. For me, action is key in really creating long-lasting change.
People always ask how I have time, but the thing is, I just don't feel right doing nothing. It's a strange thing. When I got the call from the Khalili Foundation regarding participating in the UNESCO Book, I was really blown away. I had to double-check and say, 'you do realise I am a model and art curator?' he was like, you are so much more. I think one of the best things about my background is my ability to join the dots, just see things from more of a 360 perspective. When you have dual nationality, heritage, culture and beliefs, you can't pick a side. You also have a more thorough understanding of the other side, I think sometimes, which is really key in reaching resolution and a compassionate, tolerant society. That is something that I feel we lack in modern society. It probably stems from the industrial revolution and globalisation moving away from providing for your family and immediate community to working in standardised factories, producing individual components. This was great for profit but not so much for society. Now unlike say the renaissance period, we are taught to specialise in certain areas and industries. In the past, a university was a place where you studied many topics to a high standard and only after that chose to specialise in a certain area. So, for example, if you were a scientist, you might also study art and music. History and science show that people with a broader understanding are often more adept at specific types of problem-solving and have a genuine passion to keep on learning. I do understand, however, that learning an entire craft or profession can be daunting. Becoming a professional in any field is almost like climbing a mountain and reaching the top, but then having to start from the bottom. It takes fearlessness and not focusing on how others see you. You can't be afraid to make mistakes or be embarrassed, and you have to learn fast. The UNESCO book is a compilation of articles by 35 leading doctors, scholars and organisations including the UN Secretary-General, UN High Commission for Human Rights and The Secretary-General for the Commonwealth. It is being donated worldwide to institutions and libraries. My contribution focuses on the manifestation of (positive and negative) cultural diversity in the fashion industry and how cultural diversity interacts with other forms of diversity such as race and gender.
Those charged with toppling the Edward Colston statue were recently cleared. With the conversation having highlighted symbols that reference the transatlantic slave trade across the UK, including Jamaica Street in our own city of Edinburgh, what do you think the best way is to address these reminders of the UKs colonial past?
I think the first priority is educate non-African groups on not only the social relevance but actual real life physical and psychological ramifications of the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism. The reality is that the benefits of empire still exist today for those nations who participated in it. Civil and equal rights were only fairly recently introduced within our collective history. More importantly, physical and mental persecution such as Jim Crow, Nixon's War on drugs as well as dealing with the reality that the people who physically built the world we live in today were never compensated, despite that being promised. There is a huge guilt complex around accepting the consequence and an active denial or what I have coined as 'Collective Amnesia' in the West. When we compound this with the fact that many of the nations that are in abject poverty are those who were colonised and in most cases are still, albeit from a distance, still under the control of the nation's they were colonised by. For example, France carried out its first 'successful' atomic bomb test deep in the Algerian Sahara in 1960, making it the world's fourth nuclear power after the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain. Today, Algeria still struggles with dealing with not only the impact of slavery uranium mining they also have to contend with the identification and decontamination of radioactive sites. The damage done to this one nation in recent history has led to generational disease and radioactive poisoning. We could talk about any area which affects a person or nations life chances and opportunities and see that ex-colonies are severely disadvantaged and damaged. For example, when it comes to sustainability, the countries that consume the least are affected the most. In The West and developed countries, we see striking disparities. Right now, in 2022, an Afro-Caribbean woman is five times more likely to die in childbirth than a Caucasian or white working-class woman. This is because of the ingrained unconscious bias even within the health sector, whereby this can lead to death. This guilt and shame leads to real-life re-writing of history, such as the removal of critical race theory within the education system. Subsequently, I do not believe that street signs or statues should be removed at all. If we do this then we are also removing the evidence that proves what has been done. If we do that then how can we ever learn from the past? Marcus Garvey said 'a people without the knowledge of their past history and culture is like a tree without roots'. I think that we should be adding additional plaques which tell the truth as we know it today. I mean, we run updates on our phones, computers and tablets every day. We should most definitely correct or at least add to falsifications of the past; if and when discovered. For example, we now know that 'Christopher Columbus didn't discover America, you know? We know now that African's had been travelling there many moons before. The great King Mansa Musa of the Mali Empire was so astounded by the poverty he saw in Europe he gave away so much gold it threw off the entire world's economy!
Racism is not just name-calling and discrimination; it is the systematic and institutional oppression and control of one group's assets, equity, cultural artefacts and life chances by another globally. We feel like we are advancing technologically, but children are still going down mines to get our cobalt for our electric cars? Insanity. But for me, it's not about focusing on the negative it's about knowing the truth because that knowledge gives courage, and that courage is what motivated me and others to create solutions and opportunities for change-makers. What I would say, though, is that it is utterly exhausting talking about racism and the consequences of TAST in any form publicly. As an Afro-Caribbean woman, I am often put in situations where I am expected to explain the complex horrific history, which really isn't my job. I have to keep explaining to people I am not a scholar! There are so many educated people who can answer all of their questions. I work in art, film and fashion. It seems completely bizarre to me. I had to take a break completely from TV as I realised that people never even considered how unfair and triggering it is; after all, it's grounded in terror and trauma.
Many will know you first and foremost as an internationally renowned model. What stands out as the highlight shows of your career, and is there any designer who you haven't yet walked for that you would love to work with?
As you know, I have been on a 'saving the world type of mission', shhh don't tell anyone, since I started! Haha. So for me, I really take the most vibes out of working with brands who really care about people and our environment. Companies like TOMS, The Body Shop, Harris Tweed and Vivienne Westwood's Climate Revolution. Leading a protest of 70,000 people, speaking at parliament, which led to the first real address of the effects of the textile industry on the environment, was a total rush for me. I am the first Scottish model to produce an on-schedule LFW show in collaboration with the British Fashion Council. I originally was supposed to show my own brand, but I instead dedicated the opportunity to put pressure on the government to take action in the aftermath of the Windrush Scandal. It was part of my campaign Next Generation Regeneration (NGRGFW) whereby I curated a series of exhibitions across the UK, including the Victoria Albert Museum, The National Museum of Scotland and The British Museum. This particular event was at Lambeth town hall as there had never been an on-schedule fashion show in Brixton. Rather than having models, I was honoured to have local Windrush Survivors. It was an opportunity for the public to speak to councillors and MP's, as well as attend panel shows with talent's including Nish Kumar and Jamelia, with exhibitions by Harris Elliott, NKWO and Traid. I think that's why a lot of the my favourite designers are so wild, like Alexander McQueen. I am obsessed with colour, though, too, so I would love to walk for Versace; it's Jeremy Scott and Oliver Rousting. I also love Alighieri, ASAI, Bethany Williams, Chopova Lowena, E.L.V. Denim, Halpern, Kwaidan Editions, Olubiyi Thomas, Richard Malone and Supriya Lele.
In terms of your current personal fashion choices, who are the emerging designers you think we should be looking out for and the established ones that you always come back to?
I tend to make a lot of my own clothes and always style myself. I personally actually love streetwear like Iceberg. Sustainability is really important to me as well as supporting Afro-Caribbean designers such as Walker Wear, Come Back as A Flower, Nia Thomas, Sindisco Khumalo, Stella Jean, Wuman, We are Kin, Trillionaire Apparel.
It's incredible to think it's four years since you wrote your book "How to get into fashion", which was an invaluable guide to people entering and navigating the fashion industry. How do you feel the industries treatment of models, and creatives, has changed since you wrote it and what more needs to change?
It was amazing writing 'How To Get Into Fashion'. I had no idea it would be so successful; it is incredible to think something that I made is actually helping people's lives and promoting self-love; that is really the key for me. The focus is on the everyday real-life industry, as well as clearly articulating not only the various occupations that are available, such as creative director to fashion law but also providing clear guidance on the do's and don't and what to expect. I wanted to prevent exploitation since there has never been any clear guide out there. It's very risky giving away industry secrets, but I see now that the timing was perfect, and those in the industry who might have not understood it now champion me. I also produced a chapter for The Loud Black Girls Anthology called 'Transferred Representations and the Interchangeable States', which critiques the various stereotypes and troupes of Afro-Caribbean women which steam from TAST. These include hyper-sexuality in the form of The Jezzobel, The Mammy, The Strong Black Woman and The Angry Black Woman. I wrote this chapter as we certainly occupy a severely marginalised group within society in terms of our ability to represent ourselves. This seems strange since we are responsible for so many global movements both in the past and even now, such as ME2, to academic and technological advances, never mind culture and fashion. We have almost been written out of history. It's a shame we have to watch a movie such as 'Hidden Figures' (2016) to learn about the women of colour who put the first man on the moon. That's why it was important for me to archive and document what I can see. I am currently working on two new books, so stay tuned!
You are a passionate campaigner for climate change and sustainability. Many saw the pandemic pause as a chance for the fashion industry to reset, but many now feel it's a return to 2019 style business as usual? How optimistic are you that the industry can make the considerable changes required to take it from its position of being the worlds fourth-largest polluter?
I think now I am more optimistic than ever. We are so so lucky in the fashion industry; we really do care about change. We have great leaders, including Caroline Rush at the British Fashion Council. I was part of the BFC Diversity & Inclusion Steering Committee, a key part of their long-term plan to fight prejudice and discrimination and galvanise the industry into action. The Committee is made up of industry and BFC representatives, and its role is to address key challenges facing minority communities in gaining fair representation within the fashion industry. Priorities include stamping out racism and addressing the specific challenges each minority community faces within the fashion industry. The Committee works as part of the Institute of Positive Fashion to set the bar for accountability and best practice for all fashion businesses and alongside the wider BFC team to address existing programmes. Further more industry leaders such as Edward Enninful and Vanessa Kingori at British Vogue to Liva Firth, who founded the Green Carpet Awards and ECO Age, have paved the way for our ultimate success.
Your film production company, Orun Productions, made the hugely thought-provoking documentary "African Apocalypse" How rewarding was it to bring that to the screen and do you have any other film projects in the pipeline?
I founded Orun Fuils with my business partner in crime Femi Nylander; he is such an inspiration to work with. He led the African Apocalypse, which has created a huge impact worldwide, including during the French presidential campaign of 2017 by President Macron, who commissioned the historian Benjamin Stora to compel a report on the memory of the colonisation of Algeria and the Algerian War. For us, that's what it's about, making real change to people lives that is actioned, right now. We produced and worked on a variety of short films now, including 'Climate Action Needs Culture' with Picture Zero for COP 26, in collaboration with Creative Scotland, Creative Carbon, Historic Environment Scotland, National Libraries Scotland, Scottish Library. In 2021 my short film 'Is Graffiti Art' won the WFTV award for Best Documentary sponsored by Netflix. We are currently working on two new top-secret productions, which is super exciting!
In addition to everything else, you're also a very in-demand DJ, and we think you played in your home town of Edinburgh recently. What's your current opening tune, go-to floor filler and last track of your set?
For me, it's all about the audience, the people, the place, the vibe. It's all about playing what's true to you but also taking into account who is actually in the room, how you want them to feel, you know? I love my sets to feel like an epic celebration of everything that is amazing and good in life. I tend to stick to four main genres, which include Disco, Soulful Funky House, Afro Beats and Old School Hip Hop. It's always a vibe. Over the years, I have worked on BBC Radio One Scotland BBC Radio Five Live and have toured with artists such as Lauren Hill and Grace Jones at festivals such as Glastonbury and LoveBox. I am a regular DJ at my favourite Soho spot, The Groucho Club. I really like playing events like awards and openings. You can be more creative and take more risks than in a club where I feel quite restrained to only play chart music. No shade.
2022 looks like it's going to be another exceptionally diverse, productive and rewarding year for you. What are your professional and personal goals for the year ahead?
I have just finished filming for the CBBC series Princess Mirror Ball, available now on BBC Iplayer as well as The Outsider's alongside Mo Gilligan, Amanda Seals, Munya Chawawa, Leanne Pinnock, Jidenna, and George The poet to name a few. I am currently working on a few new books and will, for the first time, develop my own suitable clothing brand after previous collaborations with Top Shop, Puma and Evisu. It's super exciting, but I can't tell you too much about that for now. I am also looking forward to curating some of my first art exhibitions since lockdown through Olumide Gallery, which I founded in 2016. Developing and supporting talents such as Lauren Baker, Nick Walker, The Connor Brothers, Bradley Theodore, Richard Wilson and CBE Sokari Douglas Camp. Lastly, I am finally starting my very own podcast after the success of the award-winning, and ARIAS nominated 'The Sista Collective', the UK's first all-female black podcast show on BBC Radio Five Live. My first interviewee is Liva Firth, so check out my socials for info below! Big luv e xxx
Big love right back to Eunice Olumide for giving 5ELEVEN so much of her time in the run-up to London Fashion Week and giving us such an honest, insightful and, thought-provoking interview. Also, for going into the studio to provide us with the stunning accompanying editorial images.
Eunice is the epitome of the 21st-century polymath, an alchemist who is as much at home answering questions for the audience on the BBC Question Time floor as she is mixing beats for the dance floor.
Her unbridled energy and commitment to further the causes and issues that she is passionate about is imbued with an authenticity borne out of humble origins that she has never forgotten and which inform how she lives her life and changes the lives of others.
You can connect with Eunice on the platforms below: