A dream that led from dolls to the First Lady

Breaking into an industry as cutthroat and fickle as the competitive world of fashion was never going to be easy but the rise to prominence of a young fashion design graduate from West Africa via East London shows that, with talent, a stroke of luck and a contact as highly placed as Nelson Mandela or Michelle Obama, anything is possible.

Bunmi Olaye, 27, was born in Nigeria but moved to England at the age of 14 to go to boarding school in Hertfordshire. Her path to success later led her to the University of East London, where she enrolled for a fashion design and marketing course.

Olaye had always dreamed of being a designer. "I've always been fascinated by garments – probably from the age of about four," she said. "Initially, I'd just dress my dolls – using an artistic background." But dreams started to become reality when the student designer's work started to gain the attention of fashion editors. Her distinctive style, which combines influences from her Nigerian and Scottish heritage (her partner Francis Udom's ancestors are from Scotland) then caught the eye of Melanie Brown, the former Spice Girl, Mel B.

The pop star asked Olaye to make her a dress for this year's Brit Awards, where she picked up a special award for the best performance of the past 30 years. Photographs of her wearing the dress alongside fellow former bandmate Geri Halliwell appeared in newspapers the following day.

"It has been a really good relationship," Olaye says of Brown. "Because of all the exposure we got, we've had a lot of interest from other people in the celebrity world."

Olaye set up a company with her partner called Bunmi Koko (Koko is Udom's affectionate nickname for her, meaning "my other half") and soon got her next high-profile spot at the African Fashion Awards in Johannesburg earlier this year, where she won an award – and an audience with Nelson Mandela. "Just talking to him was an awesome and very humbling experience," Olaye says.

Bolstered by their success, the couple sent a prospectus featuring Olaye's designs to a number of places, including the White House. It wasn't long before Udom received a telephone call from Washington. "Someone said they were from the first lady's office and she was interested in a cream coat we had featured and could we make it for her," he says. "We were stunned but kept calm and said we would making her a coat in September. We really hope she likes it."

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