Traditional Nigerian aso-oke fabric reworked into a yellow and black striped jumpsuit come tuxedo, tribal beaded necklaces with red feathers, benin fabric turbans with traditional African prints: these are the looks that came down the runway at one of the most exciting fashion weeks this season. Although this wasn’t Paris or Milan but Lagos, Nigeria, and the designers showing here are taking advantage of Africa’s second ever fashion week and an emerging industry that is allowing them to make clothes inspired by the rich heritage of Nigeria’s tribal outfits, which for so has long been used by Western designers.
The last few years have been an exciting time to be a fashion lover in Nigeria. An explosion of talented young designers, many having been trained in some of the best fashion schools in London and New York, are returning to their home country to make clothes that fuse technical excellence with the unique cultural history of the Nigerian tribes. The success of the ARISE AFRICA FASHION COLLECTIVE , which has been showing at New York Fashion Week for three seasons, giving Nigerian designers like Deola Sagoe and Jewel by Lisa a chance to showcase their designs on a global stage, is evidence of a community of fashion creatives who know that the time is right for them to succeed in their own country and on their own terms.
Designer Kemmy Solomon is one of the success stories of this new fashion community. Raised in Massachusetts, USA and having studied fashion design at the London College of Fashion, she has relocated to her parents’ home country to launch her on line, Kemkem Studios. For her Autumn/Winter 11 show in Lagos, she combined ancient tribal prints and aso-oke, ankara, adire and damask fabrics with a tailored silhouette for a look that spelled out the essential wardrobe for a modern Lagos woman.
“Nigeria is my first base for inspiration in all my designs,” she explains. “I look deep inside the different cultures and fabrics and prints we have here on the ground.” This inspiration revealed itself in chunky tribal necklaces and headdresses. Meanwhile, stepping away from the muted 70s trend that was seen on so many runways at the Western fashion weeks, Soloman’s show was an experiment in colour, with neon blocking throughout. A striped rainbow blazer worn over a coral skater skirt was sublime: a clear example of what can happen when a vibrant vision is teamed with the confidence and fearlessness of such a young label.
Lagos offers a space for its designers to build a world for themselves. As such a new and emerging market, its designers and consumers are putting out tentative feelers for what works and what will be the defining look. “You get a genuine love from the people around you here. It’s a very nurturing culture to be creative in,” Solomon says.” The saying ‘The village raises the child’ explains it in a nutshell. Fashion is dictated by one’s lifestyle and the culture and traditions of Nigeria have influenced my designs. Hopefully one day I will be in a position to grow worldwide, allowing me to give something back to the community, not only with money, but in helping the youth here believe they can dream as big as they want.”
At a time when the fashion industry in the West is receiving a lot of bad press and scepticism, it is encouraging to see that it can have a restorative impact on people’s lives. One designer who is using her success and influence to make a difference in her home country is Autumn Adeigbo who donates 5% of profits from each dress sold to Women For Women international, a charity which aims to help victims of sexual violence in Africa.
“Sex is the most powerful act of creation we possess,” she says. “I feel very deeply for women who have this power stolen from them in such a brutal way. That is why I wanted to shed light on this particular issue, which is such an unspoken problem in many places in Africa.”
But Adeigbo seeks to offer more than just practical support but to give women inspiration, to encourage them to celebrate their femininity through fashion. Drama and turbans were the theme of her Autumn/Winter show, with African printed sweetheart dresses and floaty tiered skirts offering a sensual femininity, while brightly coloured cropped trousers and sheer chiffon shirts offered a tougher approach. The women of Lagos are freer than they have ever been to live their lives the way they want with killer clothes to match.
“Fashion is so super inspiring, it can improve the lives of African Women in so many ways,” she explains. “The entire experience showed me how fashion can positively affect the lives of women in Africa. Not only by donating directly via eco friendly initiatives like giving back a percentage of sales, but also by creating opportunities for employment for women in Africa. It’s time for young African girls to add stylist, fashion designer, pattern-maker, buyer, and editor to their stock list of what they want to be when they grow up.”
The success of these young designers has been charted by a hoard of bloggers and writers who are building a new media platform for Nigerian fashion and culture. Terence Sambo began blogging under the name One Nigerian Boy last year and has fast gained a loyal following for his take on the latest news from Nigerian Fashion. “A lot of attention is currently being paid to African fashion,” he says. “Maybe it’s because Batik prints and Afro-mania is in, or maybe it’s because the industry has matured to that level. Only time will tell, but Nigerian fashion is at a point where we have had 50 years of independence and it has allowed us to incorporate Western influences while maintaining our cultural heritage.”
Sambo is behind a campaign called ‘Vote, It’s In Style’, which used the influence of fashion and the media to encourage young people to participate in the recent general elections. He got the idea one day while going through spam mail on his Blackberry telling him to vote and decided to do something that would really appeal to people his age. “These designers are ambassadors who the youth will look up and listen to,” he says. “The Nigerian youth have long being written off but they are the ones who suffer the most. There are around 40 million people in this country who don’t earn enough to live on. Now is the time for them to stand up and make a difference.”