From the war-torn streets of Uganda to the London catwalks (via a building site or two), meet Dennis Okwera...

The life of the model is easy to deride. They graduate from the academy of genetic serendipity, earning honours in standing around in obscure clothing  looking so intensely intense, all the while being well recompensed for their seemingly idle time. All of which is entirely nonsense of course. A good model is worth their weight in gold thread, able to bring to life a collection, to give it theatre, context, artistic merit and a real-life premise - all of which takes talent, energy, determination, and open-mindedness, characteristics that Dennis Okwera has in abundance. Oli has known Dennis for many years and counts him as a great friend. Dennis has walked in countless shows and has been the face of multiple campaigns for the brand. He's even refitting one of our stores right now! He's one of the most humble guys you're ever likely to meet. After starring in our Spring 21 campaign, Oli caught up with him recently to chat about his childhood in Uganda, his modelling career, building business and his goals for the future...

Left: As well as being one of the most recognisable faces in fashion, Dennis is also a very accomplished builder, plumber, carpenter, you name it! Here he is with Oli refitting the Favourbrook waistcoat boutique in the Piccadilly Arcade; and on the right: getting ready to walk in our SS20 show.

Oliver Spencer: Dennis, tell me what growing up in Uganda was like for you?

Dennis Okwera: My childhood was basically about survival. I could be sleeping in hideouts for three days a week, sleeping really rough. At first it was just me and my parents or some neighbours, but it got so extreme that my parents would drop me off near army barracks where the rebels never went too close to. We would sleep rough but at least we would sleep knowing that we were unlikely to get abducted. Parents would pick us up in the morning or we would walk back up into the village with adults. Sometimes it would start in school - in morning assembly they would say that if the time comes to run, find an adult or an older child and just run - there was so much togetherness and looking out for one another.

 BLENHEIM JUMPER MAGNA OCHRE

BLENHEIM JUMPER
MAGNA OCHRE

JUDO TROUSERS EVERING GREEN

JUDO TROUSERS
EVERING GREEN

WESTON JERSEY SHORTS ARLISS OCHRE

WESTON JERSEY SHORTS
ARLISS OCHRE

 

OS: That must have taken unbelievable courage and an unassailable hope each. and every day? 

DO: "When you see your friends going through the same thing, that keeps you thinking 'I’m safe for another day.' You tried to ignore the situation as best you could but sometimes something would happen to bring it into stark reality. My grandmother's youngest sister had young boys, one of whom was captured. This was someone I looked up to - to this day he has never been back.

COWBOY JACKET EVERING GREEN

COWBOY JACKET
EVERING GREEN

FISHTAIL TROUSERS FALKE CREAM

FISHTAIL TROUSERS
FALKE CREAM

ROBIN SWEATSHIRT
SUTTON OATMEAL

OS: Your eventual escape from Uganda and move to London where you would eventually reunite with your father, was also fraught with hardships.

DO: Yes. First, while still in Uganda, I went to live with my aunt, her husband and my cousins in a northern city called Gulu, where it wasn’t that bad when we first moved, but eventually it got extremely worse. The rebels were raping women, abducting really young children, and setting up landmines in fields because northern Ugandans are farmers, they grow crops. It was really terrible. Often it was young children committing these acts - they were petrified of retribution.

OS: But you eventually landed on British shores as an asylum seeker in 2000. With terrible conflict left behind, London turned out to be a cruel landlord and no bed of roses, is that right?

DO: My first thought arriving in London was 'Bloody hell, this place is cold!' Everyone seemed so civilised - I was used to seeing panic and fear etched on people's faces but everyone in London seemed calm by comparison. We got to Greenwich where my step mum was living with but she was in a council property and was on benefits, so we couldn’t stay there. My dad had a bedsit in Bethnal Green, which he shared a kitchen with another guy. The landlord found out that me and my brother were there so we were evicted. 

We had to pack up every day to go to a homeless office. We couldn’t start school because we had no paperwork or permanent address. We had nothing. But even though we had no money and were sleeping on the floor, I still saw my cup as half full. Even the food stamps didn’t bother me - in Uganda there were some days were we would eat the bare minimum.

OS: It's experiences like those that would break most people's spirit, and yet you have an unfathomable fortitude of will and are truly one of the most humble people I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. Despite everything, you've managed to get A-levels in maths, chemistry and physics, a 2.1 degree in biochemistry at East London University, started your own building business, and have become one of the most recognisable male models!!

 ELLINGTON OVERSHIRT BUCKDEN PINK

ELLINGTON OVERSHIRT
BUCKDEN PINK

THEOBALD JACKET
COBHAM CHARCOAL

DO: "Haha! Well the modelling was a weird thing! I was first scouted years and years ago when me and my brother were window shopping in Central London. We weren't really going to school at that time so we would jump on the No. 25 bus from Mile End and head into turn. We loved window shopping. One day someone asked me if I was a model. They gave me their card and told me to tell my dad to get in touch. So I explained this to my dad and he just thought it was such a ridiculous thing! Ridiculous! 'You just need to focus on school and get a degree - become a doctor!' he would say. Honestly, every African parent wants their kid to become a doctor or a lawyer, it’s true! I was scouted again in a nightclub years later but never pursued it. I just didn’t think there was much in it - I certainly didn’t think that it could be a career option.



It was when I was at university that I saw the potential. A couple of friends asked me to model for their uni project. They had just got themselves a studio space and I was really into my building and decorating at the time so I helped them lay the flooring. A stylist came up to me and she put me in touch with a friend who wanted to shoot me for their lookbook for £250, I was like what? For a couple of hours? I couldn’t believe it. When they posted the image on instagram, suddenly all these agents were getting touch asking who this guy was! So I saw a couple of agents and ended up going with AMCK. I signed with them on a Thursday, had an editorial on the Saturday, has another casting the following Tuesday for a show and within a week I had booked three shows for London Fashion Week! Call time was 6.50am at Somerset House so I turned up not knowing what the hell I was going to do. I see these guys sitting down with make-up artists and I was like what is going on?!! And that was the start of everything. I am so grateful for it - the money I have made through modelling has enabled me to pay the school fees for three of my cousins who have all finished university now.

OS: I've loved getting to know you for all these years and have really enjoyed watching the phenomenal success you've had. You've never rested on your laurels or got wrapped up in the self-promoting head spin of the fashion industry. You've even committed yourself to following your passion which is building and making things with your hands. What's next for you? I feel like there are many more chapters to your story.

DO: My initial goal was to build a community centre in my village of Lumule where young children and adults can learn life skills, carpentry, building, practical skills, but my friends recently sent me a picture of my old school which is in ruins, so I want to rebuild that first. Back when I was a child we used to study beneath a tree because the older children would use the school and I saw that exact same tree in the photo which brought back loads of memories. So I really want to restore the school so it can be a place where people feel safe and can really take great steps to improve themselves and have hope. I want to inspire the young women in Uganda especially. They’re just expected to stay at home but I want them to believe that they can do anything. I also want to educate the elders about sexual health because HIV has taken a terrible toll on the people of Uganda. I’ve lost so many relatives to HIV.

They're lofty goals for sure, but not even a betting man would count out Dennis Okwera from achieving them. When the glass is half full, there's always good work to do.

 

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