Photo by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images.
Dunsin Wright on Creating Tems' Headline-Grabbing Style Moments
With Tems’ rise in global fame comes a greater need for fashion that keeps up with the star’s dazzling ascent. It’s a job Dunsin Wright was born for.
The Nigerian stylist has more than kept up with Tems’ rise in global fame, matching the singer’s dazzling ascent with one captivating look after another.
She’s responsible for dressing one of the biggest African artists right now, but Dunsin Wright wasn’t always certain she wanted to work in fashion. You’d never know this by the confident approach she’s taken to making sure Tems stands out whenever she steps out. The stylist and creative director has been working with the global superstar for most of Tems’ time in the limelight – which includes an Oscar nomination for co-writing Rihanna’s “Lift Me Up” from the Black Panther 2 soundtrack and a Grammy award for her work with Future and Drake.
Growing in Lagos, Wright had been encouraged to chase a degree that would lead her to a white collar job. But by the time she was at university, she began to realize the passion she had for fashion could help chart her future. After completing a degree in politics and international relations, Wright decided to start working in fashion PR. A few career turns later, she found herself at the designer Lisa Folawiyo, where she met her future star client and close friend, Tems. Today, two years in, the two have a close-knit friendship and working relationship: Wright has been the mastermind behind some of Tems most career-defining fashion moments, from the Oscars to the Met Gala.
OkayAfrica spoke to Wright about the process behind putting together Tems’ red carpet appearances, why Robert Wun is a go-to, and her other creative endeavors.
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
How exactly did you make the transition from fashion PR to working as a stylist?
I moved back to Lagos and started working in-house with the brand Lisa Folawiyo which gave me so much experience because it was a very small team. I had the opportunity to be very hands-on with every stage of production. It gave me a better idea of what I was the best at – doing all the shoots, styling the pieces, the production element, getting everybody together, and also coming up with a creative strategy. I realized, as well, that I wasn't really into designing per se.
How did your working relationship with Tems start?
I was working at Lisa Folawiyo at the time, and I met someone from Tems’ team who said that Tems was trying to have a press shoot and asked if I'd be available to style it. I remember Tems was quite specific about the kinds of looks that she wanted. She sent me a whole document on all the different vibes and ideas that she had. I'd put them together, had my ideas, and got some clothes together. And we've had this shot and we just really fell in love. It was just an instant connection. We continued working from then and it has been amazing.
Can you walk us through your creative process?
It depends on the project. It depends on the person. What I like to do is I like to speak to the client and figure out where their head is, what they're interested in, what their inspiration is, what they like, what they're watching, and what music they're listening to. I like to have a good idea of the person's personality. And I find that that makes all the conceptualization a lot easier, because it allows me to have a good picture of who the person is, and allows us to align ideas.
The main thing about styling is to present people with an elevated version of themselves. And for that, they need to be comfortable. They need to love what they're wearing. It's not just for me, and it's not just for the audience, the person in question is still a person, and they need to feel comfortable while at most elevated versions.
What are some of the favorite looks you have done so far?
One of my favorites is a shoot that hasn't come out yet. A shoot I did with the Nigerian brand Fruché. And probably Tems’ Met Gala after-party look. I liked the dress that I put her in by this designer Taiba Taiba. Those are my top two.
Tell me more about the Met Gala…
We found out she was going pretty late. Whenever I thought about my first Met Gala moment, I always imagined I would have, like, six months to prepare but we only had a couple of weeks. And it came together pretty quickly. One of the first people that came to my mind was Robert Wun. I was impressed with his last runway show. There was a lot of pouring over archives and photos and collections.
One thing that I knew is that I wanted to take some of the designs and make them completely new. Somehow make it so it wasn’t just copying and pasting but make it feel also true to Tems; make it something that she's comfortable in. And a designer that just felt right was Robert Wun. I felt like when I was even looking at his last collection, I did see some Chanel influence. Even with the final design that we went with for Tems, with all the feather detailing, that was a motif that ran through Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel runways, specifically in the ‘90s. And that's something that Robert Wun employed in his last runway show.
Just to see that, being able to marry the two, felt very seamless. I worked with an archivist as well, Kim Russell, who very quickly, gathered all of these references and put them in massive documents, which helped out. So I was able to narrow down my ideas a lot easier.
How would you describe the whole process?
It was just really a great process. The narrowing down was quite easy, and then after that, he gave us about five sketches to run back and forth for a few days. It must have been a week until we decided what we wanted to do.
The first choice was completely different from what she wore on the carpet because we kept tweaking and tweaking many different things. We removed some buttons, we changed the type of feathers, we changed the type of headpiece, and more. Because when we did our first fitting, we just found that we wanted something a bit more delicate, something that just felt more in line with Tems’ personality as well. I probably had the most fun styling for the Met Gala, which actually might have been the hardest one or the most stressful one but I think I had the most fun doing it.
One of Tems’ most iconic style moments was what she wore to the 2022 Oscars. What are your thoughts about the controversy that followed about her headpiece potentially blocking the view of the attendees behind her?
I expected there to be some backlash, I probably didn't realize how much it would be. I do think that those reactions are often disproportionate towards Black people. I think that the reaction online versus in real life was completely different. Online, a lot of people loved it and some were living for the controversy. But in person, no one was bothered by it. Even the people behind her sent us an email after saying how they think that she deserves an award for that outfit. The couple sitting directly behind her communicated to let us know they were fine with it.
It just shows the difference between online perception versus real life. It was funny, at the end of the day. I always say that some of my favorite fashion moments, ever, are the ones that can strike up a conversation and make you think. If we could do it again, I would do it the same way.
Last year you staged an exhibition at the FREEME Space in Lagos, titled 2121, how did that come about?
I was inspired by my love of film, and sci-fi in particular. I went to this exhibition in Brooklyn in 2018 or so. It was surrounding Pierre Cardin and all his works while he was alive, and it basically explained all his inspiration and all his thoughts and walked us through, like, his journal entries. I saw that all his inspiration stemmed from a very Western version of what the future could look like, things from the Jetsons, or very Western-centric ideas of what the global future could look like.
I didn't necessarily always feel represented. It didn't feel so accurate to our experience. So 2121 was just about reclaiming those narratives and presenting them in a way that feels very authentic and personal. I wanted to just create a space for Black creatives, designers, and consumers of fashion to be able to sort of dream out of our impending reality, especially also when things felt quite bleak.
Do you have any more exhibitions lined up for this year? What else is next?
I'm hoping to do another one around this year. Probably around ArtX Lagos, and we're gonna have a few other activations around it. I'm not going to say too much, but I will be releasing some information about that soon.
I'm working with a few new artists that we've signed to the label that I'm working with called Mars. So I'm looking forward to developing these new artists. I'm looking into designing a couple of pieces in collaboration with a couple of brands. I have some exciting styling projects coming up very soon as well. Tems’ album is coming out pretty soon, and I’m excited to work on the creative strategy for that.
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