Gmebi Okunlola didn’t think she would become a wedding dress designer.
At age 11, Okunlola was a self-taught seamstress with dreams of making it in the fashion industry. Bridal attire wasn’t on her radar.
“I was sewing regular clothes and upcycling anything get my hands on,” Okunlola, now 27, told Insider over
But her career pivoted into bridal after two of her clients approached her about designing wedding dresses.
British fashion designer Gmebi Okunlola stumbled into the wedding world in what now seems like a twist of fate
When the clients approached her, Okunlola said she hadn’t positioned herself as a wedding dress designer.
“Based on what they had seen of [my] eveningwear, I could make the wedding dresses for them,” she said of being propositioned by the clients. “Being that I love a challenge, I said, ‘okay, let’s do it.'”
A few months later, Okunlola’s sister got engaged, so she once again found herself making a wedding gown.
During the design process, Okunlola discovered she has a knack for creating bespoke wedding dresses. She said she also developed a real passion for the craft.
“A wedding dress is obviously a dress that’s more sentimental than any other dress that you ever wear,” she said. Designing the gowns, she added, felt special.
Okunlola felt she could shift her business into the wedding industry, and founded the London-based Alonuko in 2013, at age 19. She hosted her first fashion show the following year.
Today, Alonuko ships dresses worldwide, and Okunlola has designed wedding dresses for celebrities like Danielle Brooks. The brand has more than 200,000 followers on Instagram.
Okunlola expanded her brand by cornering a niche market: illusion gowns made specifically for Black women
Okunlola is particularly known for her illusion gowns, a style made with a sheer, tulle base and embroidered with crystals or lace. While she isn’t the only designer working with illusion gowns, she’s one of few in the world crafting them with Black women in mind.
The big difference: most wedding gowns on the market feature a nude fabric based on a white skin tone. That blends well for lighter-skinned brides but isn’t inclusive of the broad range of skin tones of women.
“When I was making my sister’s wedding dress, we found that everything that had a nude underlay only gave us the option for a beige tone, as opposed to what would be nude for the wearer,” she said of looking at wedding gowns at bridal salons.
Sheer gowns are intended to blend in with the wearer’s skin, so Okunlola said she thought it was “weird” there were no darker underlay options.
“It would never happen the other way around and be seen as okay,” she said.
Okunlola went into research and development mode to see if it were possible to create a sheer tulle for Black women. The key was a thin but strong tulle with some shininess to it that allowed it to blend in with skin.
Okunlola said it “took a lot of work” to create the specialty tulle, but it was worth it once customers started flocking to her gowns. When thinking about other options on the market, Okunlola said she felt brands weren’t even trying to accommodate women with darker skin.
“It’s not just about having a brown option; it’s about having a brown option, a beige option, a dark brown option,” she said. “No matter what color skin you are, you should feel like the dress is for you.”
Brides say Okunlola’s designs made them feel seen
Kehinde Adekoya enlisted Okunlola to design her dress because she had a very specific vision for her wedding day.
“I wasn’t willing to compromise because I love fashion,” Adekoya said. “I knew that she would be able to deliver, and she did.”
Bride Kehinde Adekoya on her wedding day in her illusion gown designed by Okunlola.
“The mesh matched my skin tone perfectly,” Kehinde told Insider of her Alonuko dress. “Because I’m dark-skinned, it’s not easy for designers to get that kind of mesh to match someone as dark as I am.”
Similarly, Daisy Boateng chose to collaborate with Okunlola because she thinks of her as one of the best wedding dress designers in the U.K.
Boateng supplied Okunlola with an inspiration photo, but said that the final dress was better than she could have imagined. The illusion fabric was particularly meaningful to Boateng.
Bride Daisy Boateng on her wedding day in her custom Alonuko gown.
Timi Oshin Photography
“In the world, band-aids are beige. If you get tights, they’re beige. In these wedding dress shops, everything’s beige,” Boateng told Insider. “Nothing ever matches.”
Boateng explained that because of this, the skin-matching bodice was really impactful to her as a Black woman.
“To have a dress that was made for Black skin, make it look so beautiful, and allow you to have that moment that white girls have had for years was really important,” Boateng said, adding that she was “grateful” to Okunlola.
Okunlola hopes she can make the process of finding a wedding gown more enjoyable for all types of brides
Okunlola expressed her sadness to Insider that swaths of people aren’t “thought of” in the fashion world.
“Specifically for bridal, it’s meant to be a really enjoyable, sentimental experience that you have from start to finish,” she said.
Often, she said, that’s not the experience her brides have at dress salons. She shared that one of her clients went to 30 different bridal stores to find an illusion dress that would work with her skin tone. No one had one.
Okunlola said she is hopeful her work will change that.
Okunlola is currently expanding her brand’s offerings. In addition to bespoke gowns, Alonuko has made-to-order dresses, accessories, and a new collection of robes. Okunlola is planning to release a ready-to-wear line at the end of the year.
“The brand that we’re building doesn’t end with wedding dresses,” Okunlola said. “It’s a global brand that surprises, and that has longevity.”