Nigerian Fashion Moves Beyond the Catwalk

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By Margaretd. Regina

LAGOS, Nigeria — For the past decade, Nigeria’s best-known ambassadors have, arguably, been its musicians: Burna Boy, WizKid, Davido, Tiwa Savage Asake and Tems, who have popularized Afrobeats beyond West Africa. At a moment when music, literature, visual art and food from across the African continent continue to gain global popularity, fashion designers, particularly those from Nigeria, are ready for their industry to take center stage.

“Designers have become better and more confident, said Reni Folawiyo, owner of Alara, a popular concept store in Lagos. “Some have come back from different parts of the world and are creating things that are interesting to people; some are making more contemporary pieces that people can wear every day. There’s more variety, and people feel proud to be wearing things made by Africans.” In 2023, Alara opened a pop-up shop as part of the Brooklyn Museum’s “Africa Fashion” exhibition.

“Currently the global fashion community is looking to the African continent for more than inspiration,” said Ernestine White-Mifetu, the Sills Foundation curator of African art at the Brooklyn Museum. “The fashion world at large is finally ready to pay attention.”

The Brooklyn Museum is one of many institutions that have tapped into Nigeria’s — and Africa’s — cultural offerings in recent years. Record labels, fintech start-ups and film companies have expanded into the country. Matt Stevens, vice president of international network planning for United Airlines, said the airline had added nonstop service to Lagos from Virginia’s Dulles International Airport in 2021 because it saw the city as “an important part” of United’s expansion in Africa (it also added routes to Cape Town, Johannesburg and Accra).

Nigeria’s fashion industry isn’t new — after all, designers such as Lisa Folawiyo and Andrea Iyamah have been successful in Nigeria and beyond for years — but it is booming thanks to international buyers and a rising desire from the continent’s growing middle class. A 2023 UNESCO report stated that the luxury goods market generated nearly $6 billion in revenue in Africa in 2022 and estimated that it would continue growing.

In Lagos, Nigerians’ love of style is everywhere, from the runways of the city’s annual fashion week and boutique stores scattered around the coastal city, to markets, festivals and weddings. Some wear traditional attire like boubous and agbadas, and many combine those looks with modern accessories.

Here are some designers making their mark on a rapidly expanding fashion scene.

Atafo

Mai Atafo’s decades-long career has been about making garments that don’t fit much of the world’s stereotypical ideas of what African clothes are. “There’s a mind-set that if something doesn’t have raffia on it, or if it’s not tie-dye print, if it’s not an explosion of colors, then it’s not African,” he said.

But that’s not Mr. Atafo’s style.

He loves suiting and tailoring. He makes men’s wear, women’s wear and bridal garments with the intention of selling them — something he says is sometimes overlooked in favor of making artful but unwearable clothes. His “trad,” or traditional, designs include embroidered caftans and caps for men; his Western styles include suits, wedding gowns and business casual attire; many items — like his “tradxedo” — combine elements from his home country with silhouettes and details from Western styles.

Banke Kuku

After returning to Lagos from London in 2019, Banke Kuku — who spent the prior decade making a name for herself as a respected textile designer — realized that people wanted her prints and patterns, and not just on their walls and furniture. “I wanted to do something that you could wear and feel incredible in these spaces that I would design, so that’s why I started with pajamas,” she said of the silky pajama sets her brand has become known for.

During the pandemic, when the world went into lockdown and it suddenly felt as though everyone wanted pajamas and comfortable caftans, Ms. Kuku leaned in. “We call it occasional loungewear, because it’s loungewear that you can wear at home and out and still look amazing wherever you are,” she said. The brand now also makes bodysuits, corsets, skirts and accessories.

Cute-Saint

In 2019, Femi Ajose quit his job as a fashion stylist. I wanted something that was mine — something original, something African, so I decided to make it,” Mr. Ajose said.

Mr. Ajose created Cute-Saint, a unisex — or, as Mr. Ajose describes it, genderless — brand. He has sent male models down the runway in wide-fitting pants with cropped mesh tops, knit asymmetric tank tops and corsets made of aso oke, a hand-woven cloth created by the Yoruba people. The clothes are all made in Nigeria with dead stock fabric that comes from prior collections or has been found at the city’s famous Yaba market.

Like many Nigerian and African designers, Mr. Ajose said that for much of his life, he had felt as though people in Nigeria placed higher value on products made in other countries, especially European ones. But that’s changing, he said. That was the old belief,” he said, “but now as soon as Nigerians try things, they say, ‘Oh, are you sure this is made in Nigeria?’”

Dye Lab

After closing down her ready-to-wear brand Grey Projects in 2020, Rukky Ladoja wanted to create a brand that wasn’t dependent on fabric imported from Asia and Europe or use Western sizing, which doesn’t always flatter African women’s bodies.

“It was, ‘What kind of outfit can we make where the entire supply chain is local, the entire value chain is local, and the product is one size fits all?’” said Ozzy Etomi, Dye Lab’s brand director. Having started in 2021, Dye Lab’s signature agbada — a type of flowing robe akin to a kimono — was born.

“It was an existing style — something that you’d see people wear all the time, that our moms put on when they needed to quickly rush somewhere,” Ms. Etomi said. “We just said, ‘How do we take this traditional garment and basically make it cool?’”

Éki Kéré

Abasiekeme Ukanireh, the founder of Éki Kéré, created dresses for weddings, parties and other celebrations, as many seamstresses do, when the pandemic arrived. With a halt on parties and weddings, she found herself with time to be creative, so she turned to her hometown, Ikot Ekpene, for inspiration. The town is known as the Raffia City, thanks to its people’s long history of using leaves from the raffia palm tree — which is native to tropical parts of the continent — to build, decorate and dress.

“Most people stopped buying raffia clothes — not because they couldn’t afford it or they had a cheaper option, but because they’re just tired of seeing the same thing over and over again,” she said. To shake things up, she uses raffia liberally, adorning the hems, pockets and sleeves of her eccentric garments.

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