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After just a few minutes of talking with Darlene and Lizzy Okpo — co-founders of the New York-based womenswear line William Okpo — it becomes abundantly clear that failure isn’t, and has never been, an option. That’s why seven years after starting their label, the sisters are still turning out fresh ideas that feel prescient and thriving creatively in an industry that’s not known to be friendly to upstarts — nor overtly welcoming to women of color.
Founded in 2010 when Darlene and Lizzy were just 23 and 19 years old, respectively, the brand takes its name from the girls’ father, William Okpo, who immigrated from Nigeria to New York in 1976. The sisters embraced his strong, unwavering work ethic and unique style — ideas that ultimately inspired them to launch a label despite limited resources, limited experience, and youth all working against them.
The two had interned and worked all over retail — most notably at Opening Ceremony, where the line was picked up early on — but neither, funny enough, knew how to actually sew a garment when they decided to start a clothing label. “I just researched how to start a line, and I Googled pattern and garment makers,” says Darlene of their very DIY start.
The aesthetic of the brand has matured consistently since its launch, but the sharp tailoring, rich colors, and mixed fabrications and hardware — combining materials like neoprene and silk chiffon in one garment — have stayed at the core of William Okpo’s look. It’s with this approach that the brand pushes the boundaries and expectations of designers of the African diaspora — if you’re looking for traditional African prints pumped out for mass consumption, you won’t find them here.
“Just because we're coming from a Nigerian background, that's not what we're about. We were born here also, so we wanted to break that stigma of black designers and African print,” says Darlene. “This is why the brand is named after my dad, William Okpo. When he came here, he didn't fit into that stereotype. He came here, in our opinion, influencing people with style. There are pictures of him in three-piece suits, bell bottoms, and ‘fro, with a Members Only jacket, all white. My dad is the most stylish man you'll ever meet.”
Throughout the collection, you’ll find pieces with subtle details that are just enough to make would-be mundane silhouettes somehow feel like show-stopping pieces. They’re structural, made up of clean lines and folds, and yet don’t feel stuffy or overdone — the balance exists, and they’ve nailed it. Good examples of these thoughtful details live in pieces like the Crissle Shift Dress — a solid black mini dress made fresh with two eyelet cut-outs that lay flat on the skin on the waistline — or the Spant, a pair of pants that exposes one leg entirely with a skirt-like slit.
These are pieces you just don’t see anywhere else, and today, that’s a (very) big deal. “The moment our friends and supporters starting saying ‘That's very much a William Okpo look,’ it was like, ‘oh my god, they get us,’” says Lizzy. “We are telling a story and people are receiving our message.”
If feeling understood — by not just friends and family, but by clientele — was a turning point for the sisters, opening a brick-and-mortar shop was when things really gelled. The Okpos set up shop in New York City’s South Street Seaport in 2015, just down the block from friend and fellow designer Aurora James of Brother Vellies. James initially inspired the sisters to put to down roots in the redeveloped district, but the history of the area, specifically the black history, was just as compelling: The seaport is the former hub of the transatlantic slave trade (it’s the last stop on the city’s Slavery Walking Tour, a guided walk through Lower Manhattan).
“For me, even though the history is very dark, being two black women to own — to operate, not even own — a store at the Seaport for the past two years is such an accomplishment,” says Darlene.
But more than just this historic example of progress, the physical space offered a sense of validation for the brand and all the work, time, and pure hustle that had gone into the making of the line. Plus, it allowed the pair to put the stress of getting their pieces into other people’s stores on the back burner, letting them engage with customers face-to-face and organically spread the word about their brand and aesthetic.
“We really got to hone in on the structure of our business and where we wanted to go as far as selling direct-to-consumer, and also concentrating on our e-commerce site,” says Darlene. “People knew about us before, but having a shop, people really got to understand what our brand was about.”
Today, the attitude is still very much “nowhere to go but up.” The two run the line very intimately together, overseeing all parts of the business — from design to accounting to creative directing — equally. “We are essentially forced to work everything out with a positive outcome,” Lizzy adds over email. “Simply because we could never abandon ship, truthfully there would be nowhere to hide. There's no such thing as quitting when you're working with your sibling, and that's what keeps us motivated.”
And the brand continues to evolve, aesthetically and on the business side. In recent years, they’ve moved away from the traditional fashion calendar — which, let’s face it, doesn’t really work anymore for anyone — in exchange for a schedule that fits the needs of the business as well as the wants of the customer. New products are dropped as soon as they’re ready, so you’ll see new items added to William Okpo’s e-commerce shop pretty consistently.
Lizzy even teases that shoes and handbags are on the way: “I want to live in William Okpo shoes for the rest of my life.” If the brand’s past and current offerings are any indication, there’s no doubt that we’ll want to, too.