Styled in the latest grails, END. caught up with @gullyguyleo in London to talk plans for the future, cancel culture, and the craziest person who follows him on Instagram.
Leo Mandella can't drive a car. He can't legally drink in his hometown. He has never voted because he's not allowed to yet. On the edge of his 17th birthday, there are many things that Leo Mandella can't do. But having spent a day with him, walking the shopping streets of Soho, it's clear that Leo has never been worried about the things he can't do.
So what can Leo Mandella do? Better known by his Instagram handle @gullyguyleo, he has catapulted himself from DIY fit pics outside the Peter Street Supreme store to sitting front row in Paris and Milan. Commanding the attention of nearly 1 million Instagram followers, Leo can make or break streetwear trends; effortlessly mixing pieces into a special kind of personal style that many strive for years to achieve without success. He can collaborate with one of the biggest footwear institutions of all time and have his image plastered across busses and billboards throughout central London. He can be flown first class from New York to Tokyo to DJ at some of the industry's most exclusive events. He can drop his favourite designer a text and expect a response.
With all this success under his belt at such a young age, it's easy to make assumptions about Leo. I won't pretend I didn't harbour a few myself. But within just a few minutes of meeting him, it's clear that Leo Mandella is not what you'd expect. Passionate, authentically knowledgeable, and completely humble, Leo is surrounded by an earnest 'can't-quite-believe-it-himself' aura that makes it impossible not to like him. In fact, by the end of our day together not only do I understand exactly why he's managed to achieve all that he has, cementing himself as a global streetwear icon, but I find myself actively rooting for him. Because at the end of the day, what's better than seeing an ambitious superfan working hard to live out their own dreams? Despite having grown up with his head in the clouds, Leo Mandella has managed to keep his feet planted firmly on the ground.
Over the course of an afternoon, END. breaks down the rumours and assumptions to find out where @gullyguyleo has come from, where he is now, and where he plans on going next.
You've just left school, right? A lot of people have questioned why you bothered sticking in at school when you were already doing so well without it. Why was that important to you?
Leo Mandella: People cancelling each other on the internet is so insane – you can literally get cancelled for crossing the road wrong it seems like. So, I've always just thought 'imagine I dropped out of school to do Instagram and then people were done with me suddenly.' I stopped getting jobs, no one cared anymore. And I had dropped out of school so had nothing to fall back on. I just figured it was a better idea to stick with it, get the grades, and then they’re there if I need them. It wasn’t that hard, to be honest with you. People sort of made out like it would be mission impossible, but it’s not. I finished school in May and I’ve just been working and travelling since really. There’s a lot going on – I can’t say too much right now – but my focus is on making the move away from just focusing on Instagram and getting into things in TV and radio. Watch this space.
What do your parents make of your success - do they 'get it' or are they kind of baffled by the whole thing?
Leo Mandella: To be fair, they are really cool with it. They trust my manager, Cora, and they trust me, too. They know if I’m away working that I’ll be fine. I think they just see it as 'you’re doing well, you're making your own money, and you seem really happy' so they don’t have a problem with it. They’ve always been supportive, back when I was having to juggle this with school and stuff. I was never really a 'school' kind of person, and they've supported that. They understand it’s my job and it has to be done. I’ve always been a bit weird anyway, so they know I’m not really someone to be held down. It’s just second nature to them now.
What about your friends from back home in Warwick?
Leo Mandella: It was mad because when I started doing Supreme drop date pictures I would skip school on the Thursday to go to the drop and then I’d come back in on the Friday with 6,000 new followers and my mates would be like ‘you are buying these followers!’ and I had to convince them I wasn’t. I just hacked the system I think at a time when you could. I slid into this crack I think. Over time as it grew so quickly, people were just kind of in disbelief a bit. By the time I was doing my exams, everyone was aware of it. Even my teachers and stuff. I’ll see my mates now and they’re like ‘how am I still in school doing A levels and you’re flying from New York to Milan to Paris?’ but it’s from a good place. They just think it’s mad, but everyone is really supportive to be honest.
You’ve become a bit of a poster-boy for this new culture of kids – not necessarily from super affluent backgrounds – sustaining their own desire for streetwear by reselling old pieces. How do you know what’s going to hold its value?
Leo Mandella: When I was younger, I was more switched on to it because my only source of income was reselling. I think it’s quite easy to know what will resell. It's just about knowing what brands are good and what brands will stay popular. It's also about knowing that if you wear something it's going to lose some of it's value, but that's okay. If you like something then buy it to wear it.
How do you know when it's time to sell something on?
Leo Mandella: When it doesn’t fit anymore is usually a good reason. Sometimes I’ll keep things even if they don’t fit anymore, though. If it’s something that would be impossible to find again. I like to hold onto those pieces for my kids or someone who would really want it. If a celebrity wears something – A$AP Rocky, for instance – that's a good time to sell if you don't want it anymore, because that’s when you’ll get the best price for it. It’s just about being in touch with the market and knowing when people will want things most. It’s all about being aware. You can make insane money from reselling your clothes.
Online hate has been a big thing for you – same as anyone with an online following – but have you experienced much of it in real life?
Leo Mandella: When I first started getting into streetwear people would be on my case like ‘what the fuck are you wearing?’ But the best part is they’re all wearing it now. Dickies and straight leg trousers are the new skinny jeans, you know? Other than that, as a general rule, no one in real life is ever going to say even half the stuff they’ll say to you online. I’ve seen people who’ve spread hate on my Instagram in real life and they just keep walking. It's just part of the deal, I guess.
What’s the biggest assumption you see people making about you that’s not true?
Leo Mandella: The biggest one for sure is that it’s 'mummy’s money'. People will look at my account, see a 16-year-old with all these streetwear and designer pieces and just automatically assume I’ve come from money and my parents are buying all my clothes. Where else would I be getting it from? That’s the main one that bothers me. I think people also think I’ll be arrogant or have no personality or just be rude. That’s a big one as well. I can’t prove it to people, so at the end of the day I just have to get on with it. It’s hard to gauge someone’s personality through a fit pic, and there’s a bit of putting on a persona type thing and showing the things people want to see on Instagram of course. I didn’t just wake up and have these opportunities land in my lap. The success and the relationships I have, I really did work for them. I remember sneaking into boiler room when I looked about 10 years old when the bouncer was looking the other way. I just got up by the decks and was speaking to everyone I could. There’s been a lot of work and getting to know people behind the scenes that no one sees.
The list of people who follow you is impressive. Not just the number but some of the individual people. Who is the craziest person who follows you on Instagram?
Leo Mandella: That’s a tough one. All my mates at home are always shocked at how many footballers follow me. Hector Bellerin and stuff. Tyler, The Creator is crazy to me. When I was growing up before I was doing anything in fashion I looked up to him. Let me think... Actually, to be honest, probably Joey Essex. Listen, yeah? Because I need people to know that the glow up is real! I was the biggest fan of Joey Essex ever. I queued up from 3am in Birmingham to meet him and now he follows me and I’m going to his house for his housewarming. That is mad, thinking about how it's played out.