At the corner of fashion and activism is K.NGSLEY: the genderless brand of tank tops designed by Kingsley Gbadegesin. Building on his years of experience working for the likes of Versace, Celine and Loewe, Gbadegesin quickly grew to be a name to know in the industry. Inspired by the nightlife culture of NYC, the Nigerian-American and Brooklyn–based designer is known for his line of meaningful tanks with open backs, asymmetrical straps, and curved hemlines.
Launched during the summer of 2020 – amidst a pandemic and a historic fight for racial equity – Gbadegesin’s namesake brand serves as a vehicle to uplift and give back to Black, Queer and Trans people. Proceeds from each of his collections are donated to various nonprofits that benefit those communities.
We recently chatted with Gbadegesin about designing during quarantine, his work to reinvent the tank top and fashion activism. Plus, he shares his advice for other aspiring Black designers who are just starting out in the industry.
You’ve described the idea for K.NGSLEY as a bit of an epiphany. Where exactly were you when this “ah-ha” moment happened? What or who flipped that switch for you?
The first garment I made was actually kind of an accidental success. It was a tank top I created before going out one night in NYC a few years ago to a party called F.I.S.T (Fun Is Still Transgressive) which the tank is named after. I was going through my closet and couldn’t find anything I wanted to wear, so I grabbed a tank I had, cut it up and styled it, and ran out the door. I did it so quickly and didn’t really think much about it, but people kept stopping me at the club – even strangers – asking where I got it. I posted it on Instagram the next morning, and it took off a life of it’s own. That was the moment I stopped and thought, maybe I’m onto something here.
What have the past seven months looked like for you? What has designing and creating in the midst of quarantine looked like? What has brought you joy during this time?
It’s been exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. You should see my living room! I live in a full logistics warehouse. There are boxes and packages everywhere, as I’ve been working out of my apartment mostly, because of COVID-19. And while I’ve had to overcome obstacles, I also have had such a blast.
What has brought me most joy is the people who wear K.NGSLEY! It truly is a community and I want nothing more than to continue to celebrate you and your spirit. The Black, Queer, Trans, Femme community brings me so much joy. This is for THOSE GIRLS, by your girl. That is what I live for.
Do you remember the first time you saw someone wearing K.NGSLEY? Talk us through that experience.
I remember that moment so vividly, I was coming from brunch and ended up at a friend’s place. While we were chatting and catching up, I got a notification on my phone saying one of my first orders was delivered and it sent a shock through my body. A shock of happiness and joy I never knew existed. I saw him (the customer), like I could identify myself in him and it got a bit emotional to know that he got it. He was a K.NGSLEY girl. Now I love seeing people on Instagram and on the interwebs wearing K.NGSLEY. They’re giving IT! What I love most is that they’re all shapes, races, gender identities, and body shapes. I wanted this brand to reach all kinds of people, and I’m really proud and grateful that it has.
What about designing basics lights your fire? How do you go about reinventing a silhouette as iconic as the tank?
Something about basics feels very raw to me. A “back to basics” reimagining of clothing is something that has driven me in this work in my early days. For example, we know masculinity is a toxic piece of our society, especially in the Black community. Tank tops, broadly known even as “wife beaters,” are a symbol of toxic masculinity. So I literally queered it, elevated it and flipped it to reclaim it.
Is fashion as activism a concept you’ve always subscribed to?
In a way, yes. When you’re Black, Queer, Femme, Trans – when you’re different and don’t fit whatever mold society says you should – even your existence is resistance. Sometimes we have to tone down our identity for survival, and that’s just the reality of the world we live in. And when we can exist in the world as everything we are and wearing clothes that help express our true, unfiltered identities…that is powerful as hell! Every day becomes a mini protest.
In your own words, why is it important to think of your business as bigger than designing and selling?
For me, that’s just not why I’m doing this. K.NGSLEY started as a small project to give back to Black, Queer, Femme and Trans communities. I’m not designing just to make a sell – I have a deep belief in the power of Black brands and breaking down social barriers as a Black, Queer, Femme creator who creates specifically for people like me and helping curate and tell our own narrative. The Black Lives Matter movement has called on the industry to take a drastic and necessary step towards equality, equity and a world where fashion is actively anti-racist.
On set with Kingsley Gbadegesin:
Do you have any advice for young Black designers?
We need you. We need your ideas, your passion, and your presence. You have everything you need within you to make it, and if you doubt yourself, that is all our oppressors winning. Keep at it!
- Current mood: Grateful
- First fashion memory: The Victoria Secret Fashion Show in 2005! Yes, Miss Thing!
- Personal fashion icon: Black Women
- Life-changing read: The Power Of Now by Eckhart Tolle
- Last thing you Googled: Weather in California
- Guilty pleasure: No pleasure should be guilty! Drinking.
- Best advice you’ve ever received: “Usually conflict comes from pettiness, delusion and some sort of jealousy and I don’t do that!” – Symone Avalon, Season 13 RuPaul Drag Race.
Watch the full Designer Download interview featuring Kingsley Gbadegesin on our Instagram!