Meet the designer who’s making football jerseys fit for the high-fashion crowd

Sierra Leone-born Foday Dumbuya combines classic tailoring with West African influences to make the office — and the pitch — more stylish places

Dumbuya at the Labrum studio in London. Picture by Francis Augusto for Bloomberg Pursuits

A constellation of celebrities and pop stars sat in the front row in February as fashion brand Labrum showed off its latest collection inside London’s Tate Britain museum.

But it was a rugby player who led the catwalk. Three-time player of the year nominee Maro Itoje walked in a brown collarless jacket that had been digitally embroidered with images of visa documents.

The ensemble — and the choice to feature the athlete — epitomised the theme of the show, ‘Designed by an Immigrant: A Journey of Colours’. Itoje’s parents had migrated from Nigeria to England in the early 1990s.

Other pieces similarly paid tribute to the stories of immigrants, including suitcases that could be worn like a hat, blazers and caftans patterned with cowrie shells and jackets with graphics that mimicked the design of a passport.

Foday Dumbuya, who founded Labrum, thrives at this intersection of sport and continental displacement. He was born in Sierra Leone, spent his formative years in Cyprus and moved to London when he was 12.

His designs refresh classic tailoring for a new generation with colourful patterns. “I love British tailoring, and I love West Africa flair,” he says. “I love telling stories on textiles.”

He’s also become a go-to designer for the creation of sports jerseys that even non-jocks might wear. “Sports have always been part of my life,” he says. “I used to play football, and I run a lot of marathons.”

In September, he enlisted Ian Wright, former Arsenal striker, to make his catwalk debut. Wright opened the show in a blue blazer and Adidas Samba trainers.

Dumbuya says Wright inspired him as a child moving to the United Kingdom, so having the childhood hero as part of his show was a moment to “give him his flowers” as he puts it.

Three-time rugby player of the year nominee Maro Itoje walked Labrum’s autumn-winter runway in a brown collarless jacket that had been digitally embroidered with images of visa documents
Pieces in the collection paid tribute to the stories of immigrants, including suitcases that could be worn like a hat

The year 2020 brought what he says was “a pivotal moment” when he was approached to design the uniforms for Sierra Leone’s Olympic team.

His design used an interlocking S and L to form a base pattern, with alternate blue and green stripes representing the 16 tribes of the West African nation.

Then, in 2022, Dumbuya collaborated with Netflix to design the uniforms for Hackney Wick, a local football club founded by former gang member Bobby Kasanga. The streaming giant’s hit series Top Boy is set in a fictional neighbourhood in East London, and much of the filming took place in the Hackney area.

The clothes featured a zigzag motif inspired by traditional African art; Dumbuya has since designed the home and away kit for the football club’s 2023 to 2024 season.

Dumbuya designed the 2020 team kit for Sierra Leone’s Olympic team

Now, he says, “Everybody’s just like, ‘Oh, if I need a kit, Fods” — his nickname — “is my guy.’ Everybody’s starting to come to me.” At a time when luxury fashion brands and sports are converging (Balenciaga released a football kit collection this year), Labrum is ahead of the curve.

Luminaries such as Idris Elba, Daniel Kaluuya and Doctor Who star Ncuti Gatwa have worn Labrum to red carpet and press events. Fans at his shows have included BBC Radio 1 host Clara Amfo and British-Zimbabwean comedian Munya Chawawa.

BRIT award-winning singer Ella Eyre and Tiwa Savage, the Nigerian ‘Queen of Afrobeat’ were front-row attendees at his February collection.

In May 2023, he received the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design, following in the footsteps of Saul Nash and Richard Quinn. It was presented by King Charles, with soccer legend David Beckham and actor Woody Harrelson present.

Dumbuya’s origins were much more modest. Largely self-taught, he studied information systems and design before going on to do a year at the London College of Fashion. According to Dumbuya, he learned mostly from YouTube and took only one-on-one courses regarding specific things he wanted to learn. “It was just trial and error,” he says.

An early stint at Nike as a bespoke designer showed Dumbuya “the way Nike tells stories so beautifully”.He determined to start a brand with storytelling at its heart.

He takes inspiration from British-Ghanaian fashion designer Ozwald Boateng, the first Black man in the UK to open a store in London’s Savile Row. “When we talk about the long game, he would talk about storytelling, he’d talk about developing fabrics,” Dumbuya says. “All of those things, I wanted to do.”

A connection with Ibrahim Kamara, Off-White creative director and editor-in-chief of Dazed, has been central to his success. “He’s been part of my journey,” Dumbuya says.

Both hail from Sierra Leone and grew up in London’s creative community. “Ibrahim has played a key role in styling the majority of my shows. His influence has been pivotal in shaping and defining my brand, assisting in the development of a distinct style language that has become synonymous with our creative identity.”

For his part, Kamara calls Dumbuya “a true creative. He takes inspiration from everything and weaves so much culture into fashion and the creative industry we’re all part of,” he says.

Just 8 per cent of employees in Britain’s fashion industry identify as Black, according to a report by the British Fashion Council. “Some people think if a brand has a Black owner, they just assume that they are going to be doing streetwear,” he says, describing a recent experience in Italy.

Fashion designer Foday Dumbuya on runway after the finale at the Labrum London show during London Fashion Week June 2022 on June 11, 2022

The opposite occurs, too: people assume that a White founder stands behind Labrum because it’s stocked in such luxury stores as Selfridges and Browns.

Dumbuya recounts a story about meeting British-Ghanaian comedian Michael Dapaah, who was shocked to discover that one of his favourite brands was actually owned by a Black person.

Dumbuya sees an appetite for a Saville Row in Africa. “Everyone wants a garment that fits perfectly,” he says. While wealthy people in Africa usually travel to Europe to get suits, he thinks they should be able to obtain them where they live.

The continent’s infrastructure should support African luxury brands serving African consumers, he says. He aims to be at the forefront and plans to expand Labrum to the US and Africa.

“Foday places his culture and identity at the forefront of his designs,” says Caroline Rush, chief executive officer of the British Fashion Council, where Dumbuya has spent the past three years participating in its New Gen programme, an incubator for emerging talent. “His work celebrates the significant role immigrants have played in the development of the British creative industry,” she says.

Dumbuya’s interest in designing sportswear will come full circle this year when he again designs Sierra Leone’s Olympic uniform for the Paris Olympics in July. “This opportunity has fuelled my ambition to delve further into the realm of sports,” he says. “I aim to showcase the fusion of fashion and football in my future work.”

Labrum loosely means “having an edge” in Latin. For Dumbuya, that edge lies in his storytelling about migration and the Black experience around the world. “It all stems from either my heritage or my travel — my upbringing,” he says. “They’re not fantasy stories. It’s real life.”