By Jack Davies
Stranger is out of place in Lagos, Nigeria. A concept store complete with boutique coffee shop, any visitor from London would feel as though they had just walked into one of the many independent coffee shops adorning Soho or Shoreditch. The coffee is brewed in a siphon in front of you, the fresh iced tea is infused with local fruit, and the whole place rests with a tranquillity and minimalism. The owners’ intention was to provide a haven for creativity amidst the chaos of Lagos. It is now a hub for local designers, artists, and musicians in the island city of five million.
It is here that I meet Adebayo Oke-Lawal, the creative force behind the fashion brand Orange Culture, one of the success stories of the Nigerian fashion market. Yet to turn twenty-five, Oke-Lawal has displayed his collection in Pitti Uomo of Florence for Vogue and GQ Italia. Orange Culture is stocked in boutiques across Europe as Western buyers look increasingly to Lagos as a source for stock. This year he opened the second day of Lagos Fashion and Design Week.
Established in 2010 by Omoyemi Akerele, Lagos Fashion and Design Week is fast becoming a global force for Nigerian fashion, signing Heineken as their lead sponsor and acting as an ambassador for Lagos style. Spread over four days, this year’s show featured seventy designers ranging from established brands like Maki Oh and Mai Atafo, to LFDW’s ‘Fashion Focus’ – 12 emerging and unknown designers from throughout Nigeria, sponsored by the British Council, who are offered a fortnight of support to hone their creativity and commercialise their work.
As one might expect, Nigerian designers frequently draw on their cultural heritage as an inspiration for their collections. One of the highlights from the 2015 LFDW was Ejiro Amos Tafiri, whose collection was inspired by stained glass windows. Two models opened the show by cloaking the runway in a haze of incense. The opening of the POC collection featured Eyo, or masquerade performers. Traditionally, Eyo would represent spirits of the dead whose job it was to escort the soul of a departed chief. POC cloaked the Eyo models in traditional white garments, replacing their billowing capes with clean lines. Moofa Designs looked to nature for inspiration: the vivid insects of the southern Nigerian mangrove swamps.
Of course, these poignant representations of Nigerian culture are not restricted to celebration. Princess Peaceful Owoghiri took her lap of honour displaying a #XBombing motif, her way of expressing outrage at the continued violence in the north of Nigeria. Throughout October nearly one-hundred people were kil led in a spate of suicide bombings in the state of Borno, despite the success of the Nigerian army at curtailing the activities of Boko Haram. Owoghiri’s display was the first example of politics being brought onto the catwalk at LFDW 2015, and possibly throughout the history of the event. Fashion is frequently used as a political platform in the West, and Owoghiri’s protest marks the beginning of this form of maturation in the Lagos fashion scene.
The sense of success and achievement backstage at LFDW was palpable. Months of hard work had paid off, and the designers were reaping their moment. A brief word with Mai Atofo got me his number and the promise of an interview. A day later he received the award for Best Menswear Designer, and within 72 hours he was booked until the end of the year. LFDW elevates Lagos, as style capital of Africa, closer towards London, Milan, Paris, and New York as a centre of design excellence. Just as the Big Apple fought to be respected as an equivalent to the European centres, now Lagos is successfully fighting to gain its place as a capital of fashion and design.
The potential for Lagos to be truly recognised as a design hub is increasing daily. ‘Torlowei’, founded by Patience Torlowei, is Nigeria’s first registered lingerie firm. The designer is now something of a local hero. Originally based in Belgium, Torlowei returned to Nigeria in 2009 to break into the massive bridal wear industry and leave a mark on her home country. She very nearly returned to Europe, feeling that she was failing to make an impact, but she persevered. Her pinnacle piece and break-out work, ‘Esther’, soon appeared and stormed the socialite circles. A hand-painted silk bal l gown, she depicts destruction of the environment, corruption, poverty and violations of human rights taking place across Africa. Esther is now on permanent display at the National Museum for African American History and Culture, Washington D.C. With support from the US Agency of International Development, Torlowei expanded her production of lingerie and bespoke gowns, providing training for the unskilled and unemployed whilst mentoring other designers in order to give back to her community. Her success is a combination of hard work, personal talent, and good fortune.
However, working as a fashion designer in an emerging market is no small feat. Nigerian designers are stil l limited when it comes to mass-production in Nigeria itself. These limitations are often associated with emerging markets – inefficient bureaucracy, poor infrastructure and an unpredictable electricity supply place extra hurdles on the already mammoth task of building collections. Local businesses complain of supplies being ‘stuck’ in the dockyard and requiring some financial lubrication to ease the process; interrupted electricity results in the expensive process of sourcing generators, as well as petrol to fuel them and someone reliable enough to make sure this process is seamless. Any hope of ‘justin-time’ production is dashed in Nigeria, where deadlines really are aspirational rather than a certainty. For a designer operating by themselves, this management process is daunting and distracting, and for those who are able to hire someone to handle this management, the production of their collection is often slowed down.
In order for a fashion brand to be successful and competitive internationally, it has to be able to mass produce its product whilst retaining its creative integrity. The capacity to do this depends upon a designer being able to exert influence on the factory floor: having control at every stage of the manufacturing process to ensure that their vision becomes reality. In the West, this is very possible – designers can typical ly afford to visit the production line, whether it is based in their local town or on the opposite side of the world.
Speaking briefly with a designer who showcased her shoe range at the 2014 LFDW, she commented that one of the difficulties she faced was producing in East Asia – she and her team were divorced from the production process, so they couldn’t fix any problems which arose with the design. She has now started to look back in Nigeria for somewhere to produce her line.
When produced away from the culture which created the design, collections can become somewhat hollow, lacking the heritage which designers originally poured into them. The deeply traditional techniques in Nigerian tailoring, taught from generation to generation, do become an art form, something which cannot be replicated by those lacking a similar heritage.
But with greater recognition both local ly and abroad, perhaps the designers of Lagos won’t have to wait long for the help they need. In the drive for a diversification away from their oil-dependent economy, the federal government and other organisations are better supporting other industries as a source of economic growth and employment. Rasheed Adejare Olaoluwa, the Managing Director of the Bank of Industry, used LFDW to announce their intention to fund a fashion-orientated production hub in Lagos, along with a three million pound fund to support designers.
Kinabuti, founded in 2010, has established itself as an ethical design label producing its range only in Nigeria. The Kinabuti Fashion Initiative (KFI) teaches youths from Lagos slums, especially young women, vocational skills in both fashion and cinematography, as well as community building exercises.
Already the style capital of Africa, Lagos is fast encroaching on the big players to become a contender for world fashion status, with Nigerian designers increasing their international presence and making a social and political impact. Designers have managed to maintain their diversity, retaining what makes their work unique even when exposed to the worldwide fashion industry. Nigeria faces the same challenges as any emerging nation venturing into new commerce, but the designers of Lagos are leading a creative charge that has started to tackle the authority of Western fashion houses, and begins to build the future of Nigeria in the global marketplace.
Jack Davies is a former Oxford student now living and working in Lagos. Read more from his travels at oxfordtolagos.com