Industry Interview: Lydia Okello

Lydia Okello

For this Industry Interview, we sat down with Vancouver model and influencer Lydia Okello. She discusses her journey, diversity and inclusiveness, shares inclusive brands, talks about dealing with online negativity, and more!

Can you tell us about your background and how you got into fashion?

Yes, for sure! I’ve been interested in clothes and personal style ever since I was little, I started working in fashion retail at the mall when I was in high school. In 2008, I started blogging, which consisted of sharing photos on a website. It was exciting to see “normal people” be into the same things as me. When I first started blogging, I was also really into vintage. Since then, I still blog, but now I also write and model.

That’s awesome! Speaking of what you do now, can you get into that a bit more?

For sure! I am currently a model and freelance writer. I mostly post on Instagram because that’s where a lot of people are, and turned that platform into my personal style outfit blog.

In terms of modelling, that journey came about quite organically. I got scouted on Instagram through DMs and started booking some jobs. Eventually, I got an agent. Now, I’m with an agency in Vancouver that represents a more diverse roster of models.

How would you describe your personal style and how did you develop it?

I would describe my style as tomboy-ish — more specifically, if a little boy and weird aunt combined their closet, that’s what my wardrobe be. I also love paying attention to fashion, so I would describe myself as being fashion conscious.

When I first started blogging, I dressed like a 50’s housewife and this was back in 2008. Think circle skirts and dresses galore — I think I wore exclusively dresses for 3-4 years and no pants. That’s definitely not my style anymore as I’ve gradually shifted to where I am now.

I think I was just so used to wearing dresses, but eventually it didn’t feel “quite right” anymore, so that’s when I started leaning into what does feel right to me. I realized that I needed to wear outfits that were more practical and I also started thinking about gender expression and how I saw myself.

And that’s the beauty with your personal style — you can change whenever you want! You don’t have to be defined or confined to labels.

Lydia Okello

What do you stand for?

Equality and representation. Those two words encompass everything I’m passionate about and stand for. I think it’s important for a multitude of voices to be included — particularly in fashion because everyone needs and wears clothes.

I also believe inclusion equals spending more money on marginalized folks. It’s been shown over and over again. For businesses, that means making your models look like the diverse set of consumers who purchase your products. It also allows people to see themselves and their values in a brand.

I think people also look down at fashion and think it’s frivolous and “not necessary”. I like to challenge that view though as I believe fashion and apparel can be different. It can be an intersection between clothing and media representation. It can enforce ideals and norms — what’s good, what’s bad, etc. The more voices at the table, the better the world is.

Lastly, I prefer the word inclusiveness rather than diversity. Inclusivity means you’re including everyone whereas diversity sounds more like a “checkbox” or something you have to do.

How do you think brands can do better for diversity and inclusiveness?

It’s important to think about who brands HIRE. If we take an example of a fashion brand, let’s assume Brand X has 50 people who work there and only 3 of them are “diverse” and not of Caucasian background. This means that the designs and garments will also be predominantly for a white consumer. Because if you think about it, who’s designing the clothes, making the clothes, taking photos of the clothes… And then if you just include one non-white model at the end when you’re taking pictures of the garments, it’s too late. In the chain of production and brand ethos, the brand would have missed the mark.

Different people have different opinions and insights that you may not have. That’s the beauty of “diversity”. Ultimately, I think brands should make sure they start at the beginning and build an inclusive team that is representative of their potential customers.

How can consumers do their part to promote inclusiveness?

It is important to financially support the brands that you like and make you feel good about the world. Personally, I try to promote brands which are doing just that. If you see a brand doing something that is interesting or improving the world, talk about it! Post about it on Facebook or Instagram — use your social following, no matter how big or small, to promote and share that brand. That will help ensure the brands that deserve to grow are able to gain momentum.

What are your favourite inclusive clothing brands?

  • Universal Standard - I think they do a great intersection of clothes that has mass appeal but isn’t boring. Their sizing generally also fits a broad range of people. They also have a capsule collection with 7 - 10 pieces that range from size 00 to size 40.

  • Premme - I have modelled for this brand and their price point and styles are really appealing to me. It’s a plus-sized brand and if you’re into fashion, you will like what they make.

  • Elizabeth Susann - I have also worked with this brand and can attest to the quality. Everything feels luxe but wearable. It’s a small but growing brand from Nashville, US and they use all natural fibres — e.g. Cotton, wool, etc.

  • Fenty Beauty - I know this isn’t a clothing brand, but I wanted to include it. First of all, Rihanna is awesome. But secondly, I admire how she went about it — Rihanna was very intentional about including everyone. She honestly could’ve just slapped her name on a regular line and it would’ve sold out but she really went above and beyond to be inclusive and use her clout for good. For example, Fenty Beauty’s foundation has FIFTY shades meaning there’s something for super light and super dark girls. Before Fenty Beauty, this was never done before but now, it’s the norm. I also appreciate that they didn’t tout their own horn — it was very “this is who we are” from the very beginning and they didn’t just add on inclusiveness at the end.

Lydia Okello

How do you think brands can do better for sustainability?

More crowdsourcing for information! Create less products but ask  your customer base to find out what they want before you start producing product. I think this is a viable option for small to mid-sized brands. Also, because social media makes things so accessible, you can have a conversation relatively easily with their customers. E.g. “Vote in our stories about which colour you like!” That could be a first step in becoming more sustainable — don’t make products that nobody wants and create unnecessary waste!

I also think natural fibres are always great and it’s generally better for the Earth than synthetics.

How can consumers do their part for sustainability?

The biggest thing is to BUY LESS. See if you can repurpose items you already have and don’t wear.

When you’re shopping, don’t fall into the trap of buying a cheap $10 shirt because if you only wear it twice, it’s not worth it. If you see something you like, put it on hold for even an hour and see if you still like it. Half the time, you’ll forget about it because you didn’t need it or didn’t want it that much. In the moment when we’re shopping, I think there’s something about the retail space that makes you want to buy.

For any aspiring models or influencers that don’t fit the traditional mould, do you have any advice to share?

Whatever you think is your disadvantage or think you should change — more likely than not, that’s what’s going to make you stand out. I’ve learned this over and over again and it’s really surprised me. Lean into your own vibe and own who you are.

You can find someone that is doing something cool, but if it seems like that person is being a robot and not a real, genuine person, it’ll come across that way. People connect with genuine people. People who are interested in working with someone like you, will find you.

Also from a numbers perspective, engage and have genuine conversations with your audience! Your engagement is far more important than the number of followers you have.

Lydia Okello

How to deal with negativity, backlash, online hate?

The first thing I try to do is calm down. Then, I take a step back and try to think about the intent of the message.

If the person is lashing out and trying to be a bully, I try to push those comments aside because true haters do not matter. For those comments, the block, spam and report buttons are your best friends. It’s also important to have people offline (e.g. family and friends) who you can talk to and care about you. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what those people say about you — the Internet shouldn’t be your life. Create a line that separates your offline and online relationships.

On the other hand, if someone says something that’s hurtful but you think there’s an opinion or intent, try to learn from it. In those cases, I will take time to think about it and respond to that person. It can be hard to hear negative feedback but sometimes it’s needed. Other times, some people might be saying things from a point of ignorance and you just need to educate them. However,  you do not owe anyone an education.

What has been your coolest feature to date?

Definitely this Man Repeller article! I am such a big fan of Leandra! They reached out to me and I FREAKED out. It was such a cool experience and I’ve been in the online space since 2008 so definitely took time for this to happen.

Who is the coolest person you’ve met through your line of work?

Solange — I met her in May of 2017! When I met her, I was freaking out internally but tried to play it cool. I received a ticket through Black Lives Matter Vancouver and after Solange’s performance, she chatted with us. She’s even more beautiful and great in-person. I was surprised at how laid back she was.

That being said, Solange’s performance had some controversy because it was a the Rennie Gallery and the owner was accused of being someone that preys on the poor and marginalized. When we asked Solange why she agreed to perform here, she said that it was important for people like her to be in these spaces because she can do what she wants in these spaces and elevate everyone to that level. It’s not just about the money — it was a pointed choice for her. She wanted to bring art that’s perceived as niche to a wider audience.

Anything else you’d like to share with the readers / words of advice?

Stick with it! There were so many times I felt discouraged in my career and didn’t want to participate in the fashion space anymore. However, if I gave up, I wouldn’t have gotten some of the awesome opportunities I’ve had.

If you are in a good headspace, keep doing it. Make sure it’s not affecting your mental health in detrimental ways though!

You also don’t need to be a “big influencer” to create change or have genuine connection to what you like. People tend to present “overnight success” stories and it’s never the case — it takes a lot of determination and work. However, it’ll pay off and get better.

HUGE THANK YOU TO lydia for sharing her thoughts and experiences with us!

Be sure to follow her @styleistyle