Andy Akinwolere was born in Nigeria and became the first black male presenter on the children’s flagship show Blue Peter on the BBC. He was also the first person in history to swim across the deepest stretch of ocean in the world, known as ‘Challenger Deep’, despite only learning to swim ten weeks prior to the challenge.
We joined Andy at his home in De Beauvoir, London to get his take on how classic European styles interplay with those of his country of origin, and how he interprets this for his personal Afropean style.
What is the epitome of style? My view has always been based on simplicity and paying homage to well-crafted and timeless goods. My style icons are not in the public eye but from the tribe I am happy to call my Family. I’m a Nigerian-born English man. My father once told me, “buy a good pair of shoes that will last” and he wasn’t wrong. As long as I’ve known the man and despite his flaws, he’s always looked like a gentleman. This was a guy that coveted all the clichés of the seventies black male Afro swagger. He studied in France sporting aviator sunglasses, a leather jacket and a Minolta SLR camera strapped around his neck. I see what my mum saw – this was also the same guy that dabbled in a bit of polo playing whilst studying to be a doctor. He’s well travelled and educated, but more importantly is a Nigerian through and through. His style, though has always taken inspiration from the idea of the European gentleman, possibly because Nigeria was a former British colony. He taught me things like how to polish my own shoes – a skill I have never forgotten.
My older brother at the age of 17 was a punk – he wore sarongs, had his ears pierced and a bleach blonde Afro
An African man from the day he is born is blessed with a ‘Sunday best’ outfit. No matter what the financial constraints, the day of The Lord is kept holy and there is a pair of shoes often reserved for a Sunday, and a particular outfit consisting of a long sleeve shirt, trousers and (for the lucky or sometimes unlucky ones) a bow tie. There is the notion of publicly being an ambassador for one’s home. I can remember my mother telling me: “people need to know what home you come from, you are not leaving the house like that”. That has always been my mantra when thinking of what to wear, the notion that I must always look presentable no matter what the occasion. Inevitably it’s about taking pride in one’s self and understanding public perceptions.
I feel a lot of this comes from African families wanting the best for their children, teaching them to be both presentable and comfortable in their own style. I think black people can offer a unique take on European fashion, and add a different dimension to it- there is something about the skin that works well with bright and bold prints as well as a vibrant colour pallet. I look at the style of the Sapeurs of Bamako and how they have taken classic European style and added an African twist to it and with this in mind, one of my favourite British designers is Paul Smith, because so much of his clothing hints of Africa. As much as it sounds like an oxymoron there is a real simplicity to his boldness that must come from a well-travelled and curious mind.
I’m not going to lie, when I look to buy clothes, fashions and trends do influence my decision, but I look to see what is happening around and try to add my own interpretation to it. I collect watches and still wear the first watch I bought many years ago. I feel it’s about mixing things up because fashion expresses my identity. I like embracing the old as well as the new because trends always come back around like a boomerang.
through the years there has almost become a status quo to the garments worn by many black youths. This is very much based on street culture and the ghettoisation of black culture …but bravery is about stepping away from the rigid structures society has come to represent as the norm
I’ve been very lucky to travel to lots of countries in my life through my work, and I love playing with the idea of what masculine style should look like. Italian and Spanish men, for instance, wear scarves quite freely as do many Indian and Arabic men, such flare is very acceptable in their cultures, and I think it should be acceptable in all cultures. There is a real beauty in adding femininity to male style.
Another style icon for me is my brother who for as long as I’ve known him has pushed the boundary of stereotypical black style. I use the term ‘black’ loosely, simply because through the years there has almost become a status quo to the garments worn by many black youths. This is very much based on street culture and the ghettoisation of black culture, but my older brother at the age of 17 was a punk – he wore sarongs, had his ears pierced and a bleach blonde Afro. He’s very much straight but very, very daring, despite living in an inner city low-income environment in Birmingham and being from a Christian Nigerian family. His style was pioneering and avant-garde and I’ve always respected him for that.
Let’s face it not everyone is that brave, but bravery is about stepping away from the rigid structures society has come to represent as the norm. I like brands but they have not come to define me. The beauty is searching for the right things, the ability to peruse freely, the ability to be inspired by our surroundings and not feel inadequate for doing so. The old classics have always been my staple, there is a reason why the Converse All Star is one of the most popular shoes out there – it does not pretend to be anything else. That is a good mantra for style and fashion – be yourself, but don’t be afraid step out of your comfort zone every now and then. We should try and understand what we feel comfortable in, but also be critical and objective of our own appearance. We’re only on this earth for a short time so even if we are wearing tracksuits on the high street, let’s wear them with pride and swagger.
Text: Andy Akinwolere, Photographs: Johny Pitts
Ayo (Andy) Akinwolere
Broadcaster and World Record Holder