Busayo Olupona is harnessing tradition with designs on the future

September 21, 2022 | By Arsalan Danish

Busayo Olupona launched her business without even knowing it. Born in Boston but raised in her parents’ native Nigeria, she learned the traditional Yoruba textile technique known as adire, which means “to tie and dye,” on a trip there in 2011.

A lawyer by trade but a fashionista by nature, she started turning the colorfully patterned fabrics into dress samples back home in Brooklyn. She gave one to her sister, who wore it to a birthday party at Olupona’s house. The next thing Olupona knew, one of her friends was coming out of a back room wearing another of her dresses, and her sister handled her $400. She had sold three of the samples.

“That was the beginning of ‘Oh, this is a business. This is something that could work,’” Olupona recalls. “I was really kind of terrified to move in the direction of the business. I didn’t know what I was getting into. I didn’t know the how of it. That would take another 10 years to figure out.”

Busayo is now a thriving brand with women’s clothing, accessories and home decor, and a men’s line on the way, all featuring her signature bold prints, and she credits in part Saks’ accelerator program, The New Wave, presented by Mastercard. She was part of its inaugural cohort in 2021.

This week, Saks is launching the second cohort of the program, which develops and supports up-and-coming independent brands, particularly those founded by people of color. Of this year’s cohort — Claude Kameni, KEEYAHRI, Ludovic de Saint Sernin, Nalebe, SUNNI SUNNI, Undra Celeste, Who Decides War and Zeynep Arcay — six are Black-owned.

“This incredible program provides a unique opportunity for up-and-coming designers to accelerate their growth at Saks and across the fashion industry,” says Tracy Margolies, Saks’ chief merchandising officer. “At the same time, it furthers our commitment to increasing representation in our assortment and delivering fresh, compelling fashion to our customers.”

The program includes an onboarding boot camp at Saks’ corporate headquarters in New York City, advisory sessions with leaders from Saks’ merchandising, marketing, public relations and business operations teams, mentoring sessions with industry experts and designers, meetings with Vogue editors, and more. Mastercard will be sharing with designers its Digital Doors toolkit, which helps small businesses accelerate their digital transformation, along with one-on-one mentorships with the company’s small business experts.

“The opportunity to digitally connect with consumers all around the world is really what kept our business going during the pandemic,” Olupona says, “and allowed people to discover us and tell the story of our brand.”

Culture is like smoke. Once you've created it, it is out and you can't contain it.

Olupona’s success is felt far beyond her Brooklyn atelier. She continues to create her prints with a team of artisans based in Nigeria, bringing jobs to a country where nearly 70 million people — one in three — live in extreme poverty.

“To be able to take something that is an art form and be able to create jobs and an ecosystem where people are making a living from that work is really special,” she says. Her father, she says, believes culture is like smoke: “Once you’ve created it, it is out and you can’t contain it.”

Arsalan Danish, senior specialist, global communications