004 – Ely Hopkins, Serial Fashion Entrepreneur
Ely Hopkins Oyemade shares her childhood traumas, domestic abuse, rejection and how these have played a key role in her life as a business owner.
On 25th May 2019, a beautiful baby girl named Alaïa was born. Adorned in a floral embellished blanket, the world – everyone outside her inner circle – got a glimpse of her on 2nd June. Resting the newborn on her shoulder, Alaïa’s mother posed a faint smile; She was no doubt exhausted from the new reality of motherhood, but still gleaming with the pride and radiance only seen on a woman who had just experienced a life-changing event.
Holding her baby in one hand, while capturing the moment in the other, is Ely Hopkins Oyemade. A thirty-year-old jewellery designer who lived in London at the time of Alaïa’s birth. At first glance, her social posts serve a healthy dose of inspiration. Leading up to Alaïa’s debut Instagram selfie, Ely shared a host of insights into what life is like for a female entrepreneur operating not one or two, but three businesses – all with a baby bump in tow.
One photograph revealed a snippet of the new Jill Jill Accesorios store. Ely’s commercial jewellery line, based in Tepic, Nayarit. Shortly before that was a promotion of Medusa earrings, sold on the designer’s luxury label, Jill Hopkins Jewellery.
“The third one [business] came because I was part of many pop-ups, but it became so expensive for me to participate,” says Ely. Meanwhile, exposing the inner workings of an entrepreneurial mind in action (seeing a problem and immediately thinking of ways to resolve it). “Everything was all about money and not supporting upcoming designers. It was not fair,” she says, in an almost stirred up yet compassionate tone for other designers who were in a similar boat.
The designer felt compelled to fix this self-realised injustice of paying high rates for little brand exposure and set out to make things fair. She explains, “I have a lot of contacts, and they’re designers with amazing brands. So, we thought that we could all help each other.”
And sure enough, exactly three weeks before Insta-world got to meet Alaïa, Ely announced the launch of Culture Concept. A pop-up business co-founded with friend Georgina De La Guardina and located in high-end places like Mayfair and Chelsea. The pop-up showcases international designers such as Tonya Hawkes and Alin Jotar, to the UK market.
To this day, Ely continues to unveil the “behind the scenes” of a life that many aspire to have. Alongside her businesses, cute baby, adoring husband, Pinterest-worthy home and sprinkles of a great social life (with holidays in beautiful parts of the world), anyone looking in wouldn’t be crazy to assume that the designer grew up in wealth, right? With rainbows and sunshine, all part of a picture-perfect childhood. But by contrast, hers’ is an entirely different tale.
Sharing a telling moment that she encountered a few years ago, Ely says, “During one fashion week [a friend] who was living in Spain…came to stay with me. She made a comment like, ‘I want your life; you have such a perfect life, and it’s always been perfect.’ I opened up to her, and I told her no! My life hasn’t been perfect at all.”
With sorrow in her voice and a deep wounded pain penetrating each uttered word, she continues, “maybe [people] see what I do and think that my life is perfect. That everything has been easy for me. But it hasn’t.” In fact, by most accounts, Ely’s upbringing was turbulent, violent and isolating. Her earliest years were filled with physical and mental abuse, betrayal, as well as a recurring theme of rejection.
“During one fashion week [a friend] who was living in Spain…came to stay with me. She made a comment like, ‘I want your life; you have such a perfect life, and it’s always been perfect.’ I opened up to her, and I told her no! My life hasn’t been perfect at all.”
Born in Tepic, a city in the western Mexican state of Nayarit, Ely’s parents met as teenagers. Her father was charming and handsome. A real heartthrob who drove all the girls “crazy”, with his ‘man about town’ persona, leather jacket and motorcycle. He was “literally like [a character] in Grease,” gushes Ely. “He was this sensation and used to drive by the school where my mom [went] because it was an [all-girls school].” Rosie – not her real name – “fell crazy in love” with the nineteen-year-old and by age sixteen discovered that she was pregnant with Ely.
The whirlwind romance led to a short-lived marriage. Despite the young couple’s attempt to ‘do the right thing’ and raise the baby in a marital home, Ely’s father wrestled with an addiction that eventually led to a breakdown in the marriage.
“My dad was into drugs,” shares Ely. “He was on a bad path in his life and was doing a lot of drugs.” To make matters worse, Ely’s paternal grandmother had taken a dislike to her daughter-in-law and would often threaten the teenager with unsettling remarks and hostile action. “My mom was terrified,” explains Ely. It got to the point where she “used to write letters and hide them under the mattress because she thought something was going to happen to her.”
By the time Ely was four-months-old, her parents’ relationship had crumbled under the weight of the tension. Taking the infant with her, Rosie moved back home to her parents. Her former husband, on the other hand, became entirely absent from the picture.
Three years went by when Rosie started to date a new guy. Shortly after, they moved in together. “She didn’t marry him,” expresses Ely. “But they started a life together, and at the beginning, everything was fine.”
At this point, her emotional tone unveils a crucial but little-unknown clue of the distress that was to come. As luck – or misfortune in this case – would have it, Ely’s “stepfather” also struggled with a drug problem. The habit, coupled with a violent temper crippled young Ely with so much fear that she would burst into tears and pee herself at the sound of his footsteps.
The mother and daughter duo usually found themselves on the wrong side of his anger, which repeatedly ended in countless beatings. Whispering in a low, soft voice as if trying to catch a breath in between her sobbing, Ely manages a few words. “he used to beat my mom and me.” After a long pause, with only sniffles occasionally interrupting the silence, she continues, “we lived in a lot of violence…it was literally like a horror movie.”
What was the punishable offence? Well, in young Ely’s case, it could be anything as trivial as drinking a glass of water. “He used to hit me for everything…and for any reason,” recounts Ely. “Anything I would do he used to hit me really bad. Even for falling asleep in the car.” One time, the youngster was struck so hard with the “metal [part] of a belt” that it cut her skin open.
Yet, despite Ely being aware of her mother’s ordeal, her own trauma was buried under a veil of secrecy and hidden from everyone, including Rosie. Indeed, Ely recalls watching her mother defend her from beatings when they were together – even when Rosie was pregnant and got hit in the stomach or pushed down the stairs – but it was when Ely was home alone with her stepfather, that her nightmare occurred.
“My mom was working, so she was never at home,” she explains. “He used to threaten me and say, ‘if you tell your mom I’m going to hit you more when she’s away’…I was little, I was a kid, I was only four years, and I was scared to tell my mom.” Attempting to make sense of everything that happened during those early years, she continues, “you are weak, you are vulnerable, you’re scared of everything, and you’re scared of adults, especially if they’re hitting you.”
Eventually, around the time when Ely was eight years old, the school staff started to notice that something was terribly wrong in her life. Being constantly afraid and nervous was a clear indication that she was in a dangerous situation. Social services were notified, and upon learning about her daughter’s private ordeal, Rosie left their abuser.
In therapy, Ely was able to articulate her true feelings. “When, [I understood] most things, I [became] so upset with everybody. I was like ‘why did everybody let this happen? Why did no one save me or help me?’ I felt alone,” she shares.
Up to this point, Ely also believed that Rosie’s ex-partner was, in fact, her biological father. After all, there was no reason to think otherwise, considering the true identity of her birth father had been concealed her entire childhood. “All these years, I thought he was my father, that’s why I accepted what happened because I thought he was my father” she shares.
It was not until her family – on her father’s side – got in touch, after hearing about the domestic violence, that Ely knew part of the truth. “My uncles showed up, trying to help me and offered to support my mom economically. They were actually good,” she remembers. “They told me…that the person that made [my] life horrible, was not [my] father.”
At the time, Ely’s father was serving time in prison – for an undisclosed crime to protect the subject’s family – but this information was kept a secret from Ely. Instead, she was told that he lived in Alaska, and due to an immigration-related issue, he was unable to travel to Mexico for visits. “I was very naïve, I was young, and I believed everything,” she says.
A while later, Rosie resumed contact with Ely’s father and allowed Ely to speak to him on the phone, which quickly became the highlight of Ely’s week. Her desire for a loving father who would protect and look after was now a reality. Or so she thought!
“He used to threaten me and say, ‘if you tell your mom I’m going to hit you more when she’s away’…I was little, I was a kid, I was only four years, and I was scared to tell my mom.”
Three years of telephone conversations and the deceit was beginning to unravel. “Obviously, I was growing up, and started putting things together,” she says. A photo received from her father triggered some old memories, and Ely remembered that when she was three years old, her aunt had taken her to visit her father in prison, unbeknown to her mother.
The image was imprinted in Ely’s mind. “I was like ‘I’ve been here, I [recognise] that place,’ so I used to tell my mom and started questioning her,” she shares. “I started suspecting that he was in jail.” But Rosie kept insisting that her ex-husband was in Alaska, which resulted in heated arguments between the two. Asked why she thinks her mother stuck to her version of the story, Ely says, “she thought I wasn’t at an age to handle [the truth].”
The truth would, however, find its way to Ely in a manner that Rosie had little control. During a visit with her uncles, they drove her to their mother (Ely’s paternal grandmother) because they needed a babysitter. What happened next has been described as the making of the “worst day,” according to Ely. Her grandmother took her into a room and made her look through an album of prison photos. She then blatantly told Ely that her father was incarcerated and had been her entire life.
The atmosphere in the room quickly thickened when their conversation turned to Rosie. Now, here was a person that Ely’s grandmother loathed, and this was no family secret. Ely recalls, “she [grandmother] started swearing on my mom and saying horrible things, like ‘she [Rosie] is the worst person in the world.’ She was like the devil…and I was crying.”
Ely’s sense of betrayal turned into rebellion and hatred towards her family. Drinking, smoking and hanging out with older friends gave her the escape that she craved. But time passed, and Ely accepted the reality that her father was in prison.
She decided to build a relationship with him, in person and would often visit him with her uncles. Things were okay for a while, until one day when Ely went alone, and her father tried to touch her, inappropriately. “He stopped because someone came,” she says in disbelief. Ely didn’t utter a word to anyone about the incident, till she was in her mid-twenties. She was afraid of “getting in trouble,” or that no one would believe her.
Irrespective of her devastation, Ely never relinquished the dream of a father/daughter relationship. When she was eighteen years old, he was released from prison and was doing quite well as a professional boxer. He stayed healthy, provided some financial support and actively tried to gain his daughter’s trust. The pair spent every weekend together, having fun, and this change helped Ely forgive her father for everything that transpired in earlier years. Now more than ever, she felt hopeful about the future.
When Ely finished high school, she received the opportunity to study English in London and lived away from home for a year. Unfortunately, during this period, her father’s transformation came to a halt. “When I went back after the first year he was completely gone again,” recalls Ely.
“I think he had an injury in one of his boxing matches and wasn’t going to be able to fight again,” which affected him tremendously. With no education to fall back on and a criminal record that prevented him from finding employment, her father succumbed to drugs and went into a downward spiral, mentally.
His behaviour became increasingly erratic, and their relationship deteriorated for the worst. Thankfully, Ely found an escape in her second stint in London, when she was invited to study jewellery making at Central Saint Martins London. “I was in my world, so I didn’t have to deal with that,” she recounts. However, the peace was short-lived. “I couldn’t get my visa,” she explains. “So I had to go back and start university again in Mexico from zero.”
Her father lived in the same city as Ely’s university, and upon learning of his daughter’s arrival he reached out to reconnect. The decision to resume the relationship was immediately regretted on her part as it became extremely distressing and unfruitful. “He used to tell me horrible things that until now I do not understand how a father can do that to their daughter,” she recounts. “Really horrible things that no person should go through.”
“At some point, my body couldn’t take it anymore, and I collapsed,” she recalls. “I got a lot of stress-related illnesses, and the doctor said to me ‘if you don’t put it [stress] out, you’re going to kill yourself.’ That’s when I decided, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ This was when I was in uni.” Shortly after, A restraining order was issued against her father, and the pair have not been in contact since.
In true Ely fashion, however, she tries to put a positive spin on this tumultuous period in her life. Her love for her half brothers – born from Rosie’s second relationship – is apparent as she sings their praises and says, “I don’t see them as half brothers. They’re literally my everything.”
Growing more emphatic in her voice, she places her mother as the true hero of her story. “My mom had to go through a lot as well, I felt bad for her, and I respect her a lot because she suffered so much. I think she was still young and thought that she had no other option because she didn’t study,” says Ely. “At the end of the day, I always had my mom’s love.”