Wilson Oryema: The Anti-Consumerist Margiela Muse
On the Runway and in His Poems, The Model and Author is All About Sustainability
- Interview: Erika Houle
- Photography: Angelo Dominic Sesto
Bridging the gap between the fashion industry and its impact on the environment by way of his words, Wilson Oryema positions himself as somewhat of a cultural anomaly. The 25-year-old London-based author has navigated an intricate and all-encompassing career path considering his young age, equipping him with the wisdom to make a habit of self-reflection.
Amid an era of drop culture and fast fashion, where the speed at which we operate has become our biggest obstacle in shaping a sustainable future, Oryema personifies the simple yet too often forgotten piece of advice to think before you act. With his debut book Wait, a collection of short stories and poems shedding light on contemporary consumption and our perpetual obsession with acquiring the next best thing, Oryema urges us to do the same; slow down.
Leaving school at 17 to pursue his interests in graphic design and computer science (he jokes about the video games he recorded and commented on as an early-era YouTuber still existing somewhere in the online abyss), Oryema spent years trying his hand at different jobs he considered more conventionally appealing. Experimenting in several lines of work—from tech journalism, to finance, to product development and marketing—he discovered he had little desire to scale up within the walls of corporate confinement. Instead, Oryema leaned into his creative inclinations and began interning for his friend, photographer Harley Weir which led to a collaborative show also titled Wait, building on the idea of zero waste. “I feel like we’re at a beautiful point in history where we should be pushing for the things we really care for,” Oryema says. Perhaps the most unexpected addition to his resume—when he was scouted to model, with an impressive first gig walking for Margiela—provided the most purpose. Since then, he’s harnessed this intimate access to the fashion world for the better—treating it as a resource for bolstering his efforts in sustainability, with a second book also focused in consumption scheduled for release later this year.
You’ve referred to yourself as a “walking contradiction,” which feels relevant having this conversation on an e-commerce site with a business model based around keeping ahead of what’s next. How do you consider your role within the fashion industry?
For me it’s about understanding my impact, whether or not that might be negative, and if so, how can I offset that? It ties back to your consumption, making sure that you’re giving more than you’re taking, whether that’s on an organizational level or a planetary level.
It’s interesting you’ve found a way to leverage your position as a platform to talk about these things.
You have to work with what you have access to. You can hope and pray that a lot of money or opportunities or benefits will fall into your lap, but you need to meet different people and see how you can help each other. It’s something I’ve picked up from all the jobs I’ve worked, realizing there’s never enough budget to do something—designing a product, or shooting a video—it’s like, oh, you don’t have the latest this or most advanced version of that, how can you work around that? A lot of my focus towards fashion and consumption was massively fortunate because I was already in the space. I can’t say I masterminded it.
Since you’ve gained access to different fashion spaces, often behind-the-scenes, is there anything that’s really surprised you?
A big surprise is that people actually care. Everyone I speak to does want to see changes to reduce the impact within this space and outside of it as well, that’s one thing I’m happy to have learned. Also, I didn’t know what luxury was. Anyone can see a diamond necklace as luxury, but there’s a language of luxury beyond functional terms, focused on form. It’s considerate of the user. You can say you’re hungry and I can take a potato out of a bag and it serves a purpose, but how would you prefer it? Would you like it if I made potato au gratin or fries? I think luxury comes from experienced design.
London Fashion week just came to a close. Were you excited by anything you saw?
There’s a brand called Ahluwalia Studio, and I know [the designer] Priya, so it was nice to see her presentation, her clothes are great. The performance levels of Charles Jeffrey’s shows are also unmatched right now, in London at least.
Has it been strange to be surrounded by people who have been working their whole lives trying to make it in the modelling industry?
Because most people are focused on titles, they will approach you or interact with you based on how they expect someone with that title to be; immediately compliment you on something to do with the role. As a model, people hear that and their way of speaking will be geared towards what they think a model would want to hear. It was weird in that sense, and created an interesting dynamic. I stumbled into this world, and meanwhile was working other jobs and getting back into art, design, and the creative stuff. Fortunately at that time, my friend Harley [Weir] needed an assistant, an archive intern and someone to help out on shoots from time to time. I worked for her and that’s when I gained confidence. I started taking photography more seriously, and understanding a pattern that was interesting to me, which led to the first show I did, also called Wait, in 2017. I was thinking more about consumption and the different ways it affects human behavior at large, and being in the modelling space, I got attention from the fashion side. The book launched and over the last year I’ve been inserting myself deeper into the other side of fashion—where are these clothes coming from? Who are the people making them? What are those people advocating for? Trying to better understand that space and better insert myself to create value.
There’s a poem in your book with only three words: water isn’t wet. Can you elaborate?
I was referring to what is a common belief in terms of what works, or what is typically the obvious solution, and how it isn’t always that. Regardless of whoever we speak to, we may do so with a particular thought that is completely wrong or outdated, but because it’s been so long standing in history, it’s spoken as the truth. If you’re looking at political situations, people hold the belief that it’s okay to be racist, but looking at it objectively, where we are now, this way of thinking isn’t going to bring us to the next stage. It’s like, how can you dispute against the conventional truth?
It’s kind of a metaphor for the whole book, this idea of pausing to reconsider our behaviors as consumers. You write about how our things become part of our being, and I’m wondering where that threshold lies. With the other forms of consumption you cover too, like narratives and friendships and histories—at what point do those become us?
The moment we interact with them. Nothing is actually still, we can look at objects and think they’re solid when really if you look under a microscope you can see atoms moving—horizontal gene transfer represents that things are in constant flux, and we’re always exchanging information with the environments that we’re in. The people, the objects, the flora, whatever things are in the space, it’s in line with thinking that growing your food locally is better for you. We’re constantly exchanging, and this happens on a very quick basis. When we engage with an object, there are thoughts and feelings exchanged with it whether or not that’s on a long-term basis. We’re basically cyborgs at this point because of the engagement we have with our phones, AirPods, computers. These things live as extensions of us, literally, embedded like additional organs serving functions that allow us to live.
How do you think we can separate from the material side of that?
It can be great to be part of a crowd, whether that’s within a company or as a collective human race, but you also need to have an understanding of why you’re doing things within the spaces that you’re in. I could easily say, “hey, hold yourself to only owning one pair of sneakers, or X amount of whatever,” but there’s a process of understanding the issue and questioning why it exists, and moving forward to find a resolution or remedy. I don’t want to be the person who tells people what to do, no one listens when you force their hand.
Erika Houle is an editor at SSENSE in Montreal.
- Interview: Erika Houle
- Photography: Angelo Dominic Sesto