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Gone are the times when Nigerian fashion equalled traditional garments sewn in tiny roadside tailor shops.
Lagos, the West African nation’s commercial capital, has morphed into a major fashion hub – while Nigerian couture features on the catwalks of Paris, Milan, London and New York.
A growing number of luxury retail spaces have popped up in the wealthy neighbourhoods of Lagos, a city of eight million people. Every season seems to launch a new crop of young and daring designers, whose mix of ethnic culture and contemporary design appeals to Africa’s ever-growing middle class. Many of them have started to sell internationally.
Temple Muse, a luxury boutique in Lagos’s posh Victoria Island suburb, belongs to the new generation of stores that cater for affluent Africans, who used to buy their clothes overseas but now yearn for garments that reflect their heritage.
“We choose designers based on brand, identity and longevity. The look and aesthetic of the collections is important, of course, to make sure it is fashion-forward, but also has a commercial edge. Quality is imperative,” said owner Avinash Wadhwani, who prides himself on the fact that Temple Muse offers a worldwide delivery service.
Nigerians could easily count as Africa’s most stylish people. Lagos has long been known for its vibrant fashion scene, displaying a rich tapestry of colours and cuts: from clean lines to ruffles, florals to metallics and ornate to patterned. No wonder sub-Saharan Africa’s largest city is now at the forefront of representing African fashion around the globe.
“In Africa, there are three countries whose people are fashion freaks: Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Senegal. Among these, Nigeria occupies the number one position,” said Mudiaga Clement Enajemo, designer of the popular Mudi Africa label, who owns stores in Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, South Africa and Kenya.
British TV personality and former soccer player John Fashanu, former Ghanaian president John Kuffuor, Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour and Nigerian Nobel Prize-winning writer Wole Soyinka are among Enajemo’s regular customers.
Nigerian fashion design is fast becoming trendy overseas. International celebrities such as singers Beyonce and Rhianna, as well as Hollywood actress Kerry Washington, have been seen in outfits by Nigerian designers. The American First Lady, Michelle Obama, known for her sense of style, wore a blouse by Nigeria’s Maki Oh on a trip to South Africa.
Oh, who describes her range as “colourful and flamboyant, truly African”, has just been discovered by New York fashion editors, who propelled her to instant fame at the age of 26.
Taking pride in her heritage, Oh hand-dyes all her fabrics with natural indigo leaves and paints on prints with a cassava plant paste, a traditional Nigerian practice called “adire”.
The Jewel By Lisa line of Oh’s contemporary, Lisa Folawiyo, has become a favourite of British actress Thandi Newton.
Without formal training, Folawiyo started her label in 2005 while on maternity leave. She became famous for being the first designer to embellish West Africa’s characteristic wax-resistant dyed Ankara textiles with beads, sequins and crystals, making traditional African fashion “young and modern”.
Before she knew it, Folawiyo, who is popularly known as Nigeria’s “Queen of Print”, had created a global trend, turning her home-based business into an international women’s wear and accessory range with showrooms in New York City and South Africa.
“I wanted to turn something our great-grandmothers have worn into a stylish, global brand. Suddenly, I was inundated with requests,” Folawiyo said.
Since then, the colourful Ankara fabric has found a rival. In the heart of Lagos’s wealthy Ikeja suburb, KSL Fabrics, one of Nigeria’ top Ankara merchants, has partnered with the Dutch print manufacturer Vlisco to boost international sales in the luxury goods segment.
“Ankara fabric is going global ever since it has been seen on the catwalks of the New York Fashion Week and other fashion events worldwide,” said KSL Fabrics chief executive Ayokunmi Abdul.
The hype around Nigerian fashion is partially thanks to Lexy Mojo-Eyes, the founder of the Nigeria Fashion Show, which inspired off-shoots like the annual Arise Africa Fashion Week and Africa Fashion Week London, which every year attracts 20 000 guests.
Even New York’s fashion show now has an “African icons” tent to showcase the continent’s latest trends.
“I wanted to raise the bar. We now have international fashion buyers visit Nigeria from Europe, Australia, the US and China,” said Mojo-Eyes, who has, over the years, introduced dozens of emerging African talents to the global industry.
The new fascination with Nigerian fabrics even managed to flip the long-lasting trend of African designers copying Western styles. American singer Gwen Stefani reappropriated typical Nigerian prints into funky mini-dresses, trousers, jumpers and crop tops for her L.A.M.B fashion label, clearly taking inspiration from the continent. – Sapa-dpa