How I Shop: Bolu Babalola

·16-min read

The author of "Honey and Spice" and Twitter's leading Romcomoisseur™ talks using fashion to build fully realized characters, building her "writer" wardrobe and amassing a collection of Telfar bags.

<p>Photo: Caleb Azumah Nelson/Courtesy of Harper Collins</p>

Photo: Caleb Azumah Nelson/Courtesy of Harper Collins

We all buy clothes, but no two people shop the same. It can be a social experience, and a deeply personal one; at times, it can be impulsive and entertaining, at others, purpose-driven, a chore. Where do you shop? When do you shop? How do you decide what you need, how much to spend and what's "you"? These are some of the questions we're putting to prominent figures in our column "How I Shop."

Much like the characters she writes, Bolu Babalola isn't just one thing. She's a published author — of the best-selling anthology "Love in Colour" and now of "Honey and Spice," out July 5. She's a culture columnist, with bylines in Paper, Dazed, GQ, New York, Bustle and more. She's an executive producer and television writer (Channel 4's "Big Age"). And she's Twitter's leading "New Girl" historian, a self-proclaimed "Pop Culture scholar" and "Romcomoisseur™" (and pretty much the only must-follow on the platform).

The 31-year-old enters a new era this summer, making her debut as a romance novelist. It's a role that, for many of her longtime followers and readers (myself included), she's not just long been positioned for, but meant for: with her sharp and incisive writing, her caring and intentional storytelling, her deep knowledge and clear reverence for the genre.

Without spoiling much (because this book is really so delightful, I want to keep as much of it for you to discover), "Honey and Spice" follows Kiki Banjo, a student at Whitewell University and host of the popular radio show "Brown Sugar," as she enters a fake relationship with new-man-on-campus Malakai Korede as a way to save face after a spontaneous — but very public — kiss. There are callbacks to many beloved hallmarks of romance, but Babalola isn't one to simply rely on what's been done before.

"As far as tropes go, the fundamental one [for 'Honey and Spice'] was obviously fake dating. But within that, I built in smaller patterns," she tells Fashionista. "I had the friendship one, which was like enemies-to-lovers, but in the middle of that, I had friendship. Within that, I have friendship turning into love. It was all of them miss-mashed together. I think there's nothing wrong innately with tropes — it's how they're done. I wanted it to not feel formulaic. I didn't want it to feel like just tropes-by-rope, like, 'Boy meets girl, they go through some trials and blah, blah, blah, they end up together.' I wanted them to feel fully realized as people and characters. When I read or watch romance, the thing I'll get frustrated by or tripped up on is the fact that I don't even feel like these people like each other. I don't know what's drawing them to each other. I don't see how they challenge each other. I don't see anything apart from superficial attraction. So one thing I worked hard on is forensically breaking down why Kiki and Kai go together, why they were drawn together and why they would work together."

Ahead, Babalola talks about how she thought about the fashion in "Honey and Spice" (and why those details are important for building fully-realized characters), her personal style evolution and much more.

<p>Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins</p>

Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins

"A lot of [the fashion in 'Honey and Spice'] was based on high school movies — the cliques and stuff like that. Fashion is such a great way of identifying who people are. It's not shallow because it's how people choose to express who they are and why they do that.

"Kiki is feminine, but she also loves oversized shirts and is very chic-casual. When she goes sexy, it's still very real. One of the first outfits I describe in the book is Kiki wearing an oversized Fela shirt. Fela is a popular Nigerian artist. His music influences so much today, like jazz, rock afro beats, pop. It's an homage to her love of music and her identity. Although she's an attractive girl, she doesn't lean into it. She's not like ultra-femme. And she's very confident in that. I wanted it to respect the fact that her personality and her love of music are the first thing. Fela, also, his music represents something. It's a man who was very strong in his identity as an African and as a Nigerian — that was something that I really wanted to put forward in the book.

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"Kiki also has a playful side to her. When Kiki and Malakai first get intimate and there's a weird moment, she's wearing a sweater but during the night removes it, and she's wearing a hot pink bralette [underneath]. I think most people wouldn't identify Kiki with a hot pink bralette, but I wanted it to hint a secret fun side and also a confidence in her sensuality. In that scene, she's the one to want to make a move on Malakai. The Kiki we know is shy, but I wanted to show that, in that moment she's emboldened, and she's emboldened because she feels safe with him. That's a crucial part, because earlier in the book we see why she doesn't feel safe with so many men, and here she's choosing to reveal herself. That was something I was very particular about.

"Malakai is very chilled. I wanted him to be somebody who's vaguely aware that he's attractive, but it's really not a big deal to him. Obviously, he knows he's a good-looking guy — that's how he gets all these girls — but I don't think it's his personality. So, I wanted it to be something relaxed. Whereas Amina [Kiki's best friend], she's a boss. She's very put-together. She thinks about things very particularly. I wanted her to be preppy chic. She's an upper-class Nigerian girl, I wanted that to come through, but I also wanted her to be fun with it. Then, towards the end, they have the Afro Winter ball. I was very specific about those outfits as well. I wanted them to be very Afro-centric, paying homage to African influences but also infusing their personalities. I didn't want it to just be like, 'Hey, this is Africa'; I wanted it to meld with who these characters are.

"It was really important for me to just fill out the world, so when people read the book, they can really envision these characters and see them in real life. I know the girls in the book — they pulled from so many of my friends and so many amazing women that I know. Kiki's fashion is quite close to my style now, but when I was young, I didn't have that. It's with that self-knowledge that I built Kiki's style. That shirt that Kiki wears with Fela's face on it, I have that. I also wanted there to be like a '90s R&B vibe to [Kiki's wardrobe], so she wears a lot of baggy trousers and crop tops, because that's, again, influenced by her taste and her personality. And that's me.

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"I love to balance femininity with freedom. I love a baggy trouser and crop top combo — I'm 31, and I don't know when I'm going to let go of that. I love being sexy when I want to be. My sexy isn't ultra-femme. It's not like Amina, where it's very pink all the time. Maybe I'll wear a pop pink, or if I wear pink, it's for a very specific reason or something that I'm trying to convey. But I love owning my sexuality and my sensuality by balancing freedom and an edge with something softer. That's who Kiki is as well: She's got an edge, but she's got a softness to her. 

"I didn't date before university, and then, I was in a rush to assert my femininity. I didn't think about my style — I just automatically went to Hervé Léger knockoffs, like whatever Kim Kardashian was wearing.  Obviously, they weren't very good, but for me, that was my way of almost learning to love my body. When I became confident in my femininity, in my body and in my shape, that's when I started to hone it.

"I'm very much a city girl. I love metropolitan-chic. Street style is my thing. I've only just started to get into dresses, now that I'm invited to stuff. And even those dresses aren't ultra-femme... It's weird to describe your own personal style as 'cool,' but I will say [the dresses] have pops of color, and that I make sure that they're interesting and display my curves. But I feel like there are other interesting aspects to them aside from the curves.

"I shop way too much. What arrived the other day... It was a knit dress from Zara, so, unfortunately, fast fashion. I feel like it was a knockoff; it's halter neck and half orange, half pink. It's really bold and very summery and it clings nicely, but in a way that's not too constricting. I also bought a gigantic Telfar bag, the biggest size. It's huge. I've traveled with it once: I went to L.A. with it in March, and it was so perfect, it fit everything. I ordered the copper Telfar bag, and when it arrived, I wasn't sure about it, but it was a grower — I love it now. It's my summer bag. I'm carrying it everywhere. I wasn't sure about the color, but I discovered that it goes with and elevates everything. It adds a pop, and it fits so much to it in there as well. I love a bag that can fit a book in it. I can fit a lot of stuff in it, but it still looks glamorous. If I have to go to a party after a meeting, I wouldn't feel like I'm lugging a laptop bag around.

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"I've got four [Telfar bags]. I feel like I have an addiction. When I first started, I got the tan because I wasn't sure. I was playing it safe. Then I started getting wilder and wilder. I've got a baby pink one. Like I said, I'm not even ultra-femme, but I was like, 'Maybe I want something fun for the summer!' I feel it's broadened my style because ordinarily I wouldn't go for a mini pink bag, but it's allowed me to go through and pair it with something and not feel like it's ruining my style. It adds to it.

"I have a baseline, for when I don't want to think about what I'm going to wear. I love fashion, but also I don't want it to take too much time from my day, when I'm rushing from meeting to meeting. I've chosen a uniform for myself: an oversized blazer, a crop top, quality high-waisted jeans, sneakers. Right now, I'm wearing the Fenty creepers — they don't sell them anymore, but I found them on Amazon and I love them. Even though they're casual, they have height to them, and they elevate an outfit.I know it's very age-old, the business-casual thing with the blazer and something casual, but it really does work. And it looks good. I'm a sucker for a dress-up, dress-down outfit. That's actually my ideal, because that's really my style. That's me. I like going to these events, but also I'm a very relaxed, chill person, and I love to feel comfortable with my clothes.

"It's definitely weird being a writer that's also quite public-facing. I'm not on an Instagrammer. I'm not somebody who curates their feed to look a certain way — I'm so jealous of people who can do that, because it just takes too much time. It's too fiddly. It's weird having to think about what I look like, in a way that I didn't have to before. But I combat that anxiety by making sure that I'm the most me that I can be. I'm never trying to be someone else, someone that I'm not. I've been offered clothes, but I'm not going to work with you  if it's not my style. I also think that the identity of a writer is important, because the characters that I write are very true to themselves, and I feel like it would be disingenuous of me to present myself to the world in a way that isn't true to who I am.

"For my 'Love in Colour' book launch, it was a time during the pandemic when the U.K. was open for a little bit. We were allowed gatherings of 20 people or something, so I managed to slip it in. I was very specific: I wanted [my look] to be Black-owned, and I wanted it to be colorful. It reflected the colors of the book cover. I wanted it to be sexy and powerful, like regal. And I found a dress like that. It was a halter neck and had a mermaid tale. It was made with a traditional Nigerian material called Ankara. I felt very at home in that. I'm British-Nigerian, and I felt like it was a really good representation of who I am. It was very unequivocally Nigerian and African, but it also had a modern, sensual twist that I really enjoyed. That's me, and that's also the characters I wrote about.

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"This time around, I'm more relaxed. That was almost just shy of ballroom. I just wanted to be like a queen. [For 'Honey and Spice,'] I'm definitely going to go more chill. I'm seeking a Black-owned brand. I'm getting sent stuff, but I've also got pieces that I've collected throughout the years, like, 'When I go to an event, I want to wear this.' One is a lime green jumpsuit with a gold belt and a plunge neck by Hanifa. It's just gorgeous and Black-owned. One is multicolored, curve-skimming dress. The thing they have in common is that they're very colorful. And it's weird because in my day-to-day life, I'm very neutral. I love my blacks and my greys. But when I'm going out, I love color. I love hope and joy and brightness, and that's what I try to infuse into my work. That's a fundamental part of my personality.

"It's weird because people message me about it — like, 'Oh wow, I really like your work, and you're very cool. Your dress is cute.' I feel like there's this idea that as a writer, you have to be a shrinking violet, or be like, 'No, no, no. I'm all about the work.' But the work is me. It represents me. I come from a long tradition of Black writers who are fabulous. Look at James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, even younger authors like Alyssa Cole, Caleb Azumah Nelson, Raven Leilani, Tia Williams and Jasmine Guillory. They've always been fashion-forward and celebrated themselves alongside their work. That's what I want to continue doing.

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"I love Nigeria. There's a scene in Nigeria called 'alté,' and it's like alternative Afro beats. They are very cool and very edgy, almost like an Afro-punk vibe. I love that, with some glam — like traditional baddie glam. I love London street style. I love New York street style. I love Rihanna. Rihanna's amazing. 2016 to 2018 Rihanna was very much me, when she had very masculine cuts that were softened up. I think I attempt to do a version of that. It's a very janky version, but there's an attempt. The roots are there. I take my inspiration from that, but also I go with what I'm feeling. I will set an outfit out in the morning, for the day after, and then when I wake up, I'm not in the mood for that and I'll just pull out pieces. I'm all about mixing and matching as well. I love pieces that can work with different things, different feels, different moods.

"I love the fact that I'm seeing more African prints on people who aren't African and it feels like appreciation. It feels really lovely. It's such a massive part of my identity, and I love people connecting with [it]. African fashion is so regal and expressive and vibrant, and so much of Nigerian culture in particular is like that. I'm Nigerian, I'm Yoruba, and I like seeing that translated in mainstream fashion. That's what's really exciting to me. And also, the increase in Black-owned brands and African-owned brands — and the fact that they're being integrated in mainstream — is so beautiful to me, because for so long we were marginalized.

"From the high street, I like the basics shops — Weekday, & Other Stories. H&M has very good casual pieces. They're technically gym wear, but they have great crop tops and seamless wear that I love. A legging and a baggy T-shirt, I'll do that. In terms of Black-owned brands, there's Rouhi and Kai Collective. One of my favorite pieces from Kai, it has traditional platting, almost like corn rows, with a massive cutout on the side. I love it so much. I've discovered a shop called Alohas, which has a sustainability model. It's Spanish and has great pieces that are really long lasting — things that are quite feminine, but not FashionNova-y.

"[For rom-com fashion inspiration] it's got to be the classic — 'When Harry Met Sally.' The chunky knit sweaters, I mean, chef's kiss. My winter wear is purely shaped by that. I'm looking to write a book where I can slip that in. In 'Love Jones,' Nia Long wears a black turtleneck and looks so gorgeous. It's so simple, and it's very effortlessly glamorous. That's another one of my go-tos, a black turtleneck. I just love it. It makes my boobs look great, and it also looks official. Also, Morris Chestnut in 'The Best Man' is the epitome of what I man should dress like: very classic and elegant and also very masculine in a way that all the romantic interests in my fiction look like."

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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