LEVI’S® MONTHLY MUSE
Meet our latest Monthly Muse: Lydia Okello, a model, writer and content creator using their platform to uplift the voices of those often tokenized by mainstream media and empower others to express themselves through fashion. We parted with them having learned so much about acceptance—both of ourselves and others—and feeling a little more whole. We hope you do too.
You probably have more in common with folks than you think you do, because people can’t be boiled down to just one adjective.
How’d you first get into the fashion industry?
I’ve been working in fashion in different capacities since I was 15. I grew up in a small city and worked at the coolest store in the mall when I was a teenager. Even before that, I was interested in fashion history and read every magazine and book I could get my hands on, so I was already pretty immersed as a consumer of fashion. In 2008, I started Style is Style, which has since evolved into various social media channels. People generally weren't as into clothing where I grew up, so it was exciting to find a community of people who got my love for fashion—and got me. At the time, it was just a place for me to share my ideas, talk to friends and nerd out about the latest collections. I had no idea I’d be doing this 13 years later.
Where has your career taken you?
I adore the fantasy and the escapism of high fashion, but my deepest love is storytelling through the medium of clothing. So I love empowering others to express themselves that way, because I think that’s something we all deserve.
On that note, what advice would you share with someone in the process of discovering their own style?
Just wear the thing. However worried you are about looking silly or out of place, it’s clothes. You can take it off if you don't like it. Keeping a lighthearted attitude is key. I've worn so many pieces that I’d never wear again. But that’s ok! I was figuring out if I liked it or not. I'm glad I felt comfortable enough to do that. No one’s as concerned with you as you might think, so you shouldn't hold yourself back.
That's such a good reminder that other folks aren't scrutinizing you the way you are yourself. Like, they have better stuff to do.
They’re probably busy scrutinizing themselves! Because that's a mindset we all fall into. Whatever your major concerns are, whether it’s “Is everyone going to be staring at me?” or “I’m not sure I can pull this off,” just know that it's not that deep. It just isn’t.
How would you describe your style?
Preppy grandparent style. In terms of silhouettes, I tend to gravitate towards button-up shirts, a nice pair of slacks or trousers. I also love a loud statement dress. The individual garments I wear are what seniors would wear pretty often. But I love colors and patterns, so I tend to express myself through unusual color pairings and playing with silhouettes.
Who or what are your greatest style influences?
I also look to nature for inspiration, because the natural world has the best color combinations. Sometimes people tell me they would never think to put certain colors together. It's kind of corny, but if you look at a garden, you’ll find all the colors that exist, paired in ways you wouldn't necessarily expect, but you don't look at a flower and say, “I don’t think you should be purple.” You just accept it. Nature is infinitely inspiring.
How has your style evolved throughout the years?
Who are some creatives whose work you admire?
I also admire a writer named Zeba Blay, who was previously a film critic and now more of a cultural critic. I connect with her because we share a backstory of strict African parents and coming of age as a first-gen person. Her Instagram shows both current and archival footage of Black people doing various things. Sometimes it's art, sometimes it’s Black hair. Sometimes it's Black romance or Black people being happy. It might sound simple, but there’s still such a lack of representation of ordinary Black life in the media. Her work connects to both her personal experience and the greater experience.
You’re a model, a writer, a content creator and an overall fashion icon… What's your secret? Do you have a daily ritual that keeps you balanced?
I would love to tell you I have a ritual, but I really don’t. This past year, I’ve spent way too much time on work. I don’t have boundaries with that, especially because for a while we weren't going to social engagements. Working from home, I didn't have many excuses to leave the house. I recently got a desk space in a shared studio. And I think it’s going to be great for me to have a space designated for work and home for downtime. I haven’t achieved balance just yet, but it’s a work in progress.
You exist at the intersection of being Black, specifically Ugandan Canadian, queer, non-binary and fat. How does this experience shape your style and your creative practice?
A lot of fashion media approaches representation by taking the “minority story” and funneling it through the lens of someone without that lived experience, particularly through a white lens. There’s also a lot of tokenization in fashion media. They’ll say “Wow, you're fat—that's great!” but they don’t make any clothing in extended sizes or only one style. Or they’ll highlight one Black person during Black History Month, but you’ll never see a Black person on their site throughout the rest of the year. And the same can be said for Pride month. I see that sort of behavior as rooted in a lack of true inclusion. If there aren’t people with these identities who work in those spaces, it's hard to understand why that’s tokenizing and not necessarily appreciation.
So it’s important to me to uplift voices directly, without an intermediary storyteller, so that people have a chance to share their voice and talents—as well as aspects of their lives that have nothing to do with those identities! That’s hard for a lot of media to grasp. It's a human experience. You probably have more in common with folks than you think you do, because people can’t be boiled down to just one adjective.
How do you incorporate accessibility and ethics into your practice?
Because I'm plus-sized, I have a tendency to think that if I fit into a brand’s clothes, then they’re doing a good job, but that's not necessarily true. There are lots of folks who are bigger than me and have a way harder time finding clothing that they like. So finding brands that are going above and beyond has been a greater focus of mine lately. If a brand I work with doesn’t offer the same options across their brand, I’ll ask what their sizing plan is. It’s not the only thing I can do, but because I’m in a place of privilege as someone working with them, I can voice those opinions and give them the feedback others share with me.
That’s also something you can do as a consumer. If you’re a straight size person and there’s a brand you love that doesn’t carry extended sizing, it’s worthwhile to send an email or DM. It doesn’t have to be a big call-out, you can say, “Hey, I really love your clothes, but I have friends who do too and can’t wear your stuff.” You have some power as a consumer. I think if more people who aren’t plus size spoke up to brands, there’d be more of a push for change.
Speaking of accessibility, so many sustainability options aren’t options for everyone. How do you approach this in your work?
One of the things I try to do is present options of varying price points rather than tell people they have to spend however much to be a sustainable shopper, because realistically, you're never going to become the perfect consumer. That's not a thing, because the system we're operating in is imperfect. I think it's important to not make people feel guilty for the options they choose, because there are many reasons why you might not be able to spend $300 on a pair of pants. And that's totally valid! I'm working on approaching improvement with kindness versus condemnation, because I know I tend to condemn myself, and that doesn't necessarily change my behavior. So I try to find ways to meet people where they're at, because people meeting me where I was at is how I improved the way I shop.
You identify proudly as fat. Why is it important to use that word?
Coming to that realization was extremely empowering for me, which isn’t to say that everybody who looks like me or is my size has to feel the exact same way. But this realization changed my perspective on what I could do and who I could be, because for a long time, I would imagine life when I wasn't fat, when I was whatever size I thought would be acceptable. And that really held me back from a lot of experiences. It was emotionally taxing and consumed my inner thoughts almost constantly.
You mentioned both the body positivity and body neutrality movements. Obviously, there’s been a lot of talk about the former over the last few years. Can you tell us more about body neutrality and what it means to you?
It's more of an approach where you just see your body, and your relationship to it, for what it is. I think a lot of people view body positivity as always feeling positive about the way you are. With body neutrality, there isn’t an expectation to always love your body, but there's also not an expectation to not either. For me, It feels more realistic, because I don't think I’ll ever get to a point where I feel great every single day. By approaching my body in a more neutral way, on days when I feel down or frustrated, I can just be however I'm feeling.
Overall, I actually have a more positive outlook on my physical body thinking of it in a more neutral way. I didn't realize how much messaging I’d internalized around fat people and how many negative stereotypes I projected both onto them and myself. I’ve been unlearning all that and accepting that your body is your body. You can feel great about it, you can feel not-so-great about it—but it's where you're going to be, so you have to find ways to experience joy as you move through the world. So many industries capitalize on you feeling unhappy about your body. Acceptance is a revolutionary act.
Photo Credit: Rebecca Benoit
Shop Lydia’s style below and stay tuned here, to our Off The Cuff blog, for more style inspiration, DIY tutorials, sneak peeks of our latest collaborations and all the insider goodness you can handle.