Highlights from Lagos Fashion and Design Week: Is Nigeria the epicenter of the fashion and design world?

Author: Michelle Millar Fisher

Items: Is Fashion Modern?
Items: Is Fashion Modern?

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Is Nigeria the epicenter of the fashion and design world? Or — at least — one of the epicenters? Because just as we know there is no such thing as “African fashion” (there are over 50 countries, all with unique local and national conversations happening, on the Africa continent) and that the quintet of Paris/London/Milan/Tokyo/New York does not have a monopoly on fashion, we also know that contemporary fashion has more than one locus. I’m here to tell you (and maybe you already know): Lagos ranks up there with the best of them.

I recently spent four intense days there researching for MoMA’s upcoming exhibition Items: Is Fashion Modern? and I’m certain that this dynamic city is one of fashion’s most exciting crucibles. And, through individuals and collectives focused on design, it may also be at the forefront of a self-organized revolt against and reorganization of the infrastructural issues that plague fashion entrepreneurship in Nigeria and many other African countries. (More on that in a separate post on Cape Town, my next research stop.)

Here are just a few highlights from my time in Lagos:

Omoyemi Akerele

Omoyemi is the founder and director of Lagos Fashion and Design Week (LFDW) and a driving force behind building a presence for Nigerian fashion on the international stage. (And a quick FYI: She is also a member of our amazing Advisory Committee for Items.) Her work is vital. Nigeria is a country where amazing talent exists in this field but (like many cities) is not nurtured and supported in the critical early and middle stages of a designer’s career, when long delays or gaps between shipping, payment, production, and delivery can quickly lead to financial precarity and ruin. Creating a platform that celebrates Nigerian designers — for that is who, almost exclusively, shows at LFDW — is a key part of a flourishing nexus that embraces high-end stores like Temple Muse (art, home goods, and luxury fashion staples like Lisa Folawiyo) and Alara (breathtaking David Adjaye–designed home goods and fashion store that stocks everyone from Stella McCartney to Maki Oh) all the way through to style experimentation on the street and outside the fashion week tents. (Check #lfdw2016 on Instagram for evidence.)

Yegwa’s book shelf at Stranger, Lagos. Heston Blumenthal and the Power of Making catalogue — two of my own favorites, too.

Stranger

Stranger is a collective working — and meeting, and talking, and hanging out, and meeting some more — space founded by the inimitable Yegwa Ukpo and his wife Bibi. (Thanks to designer Niyi Okuboyeju, founder of NYC-based Nigerian design house Post Imperial, for the tip beforehand.) It’s a place where fashion, design, future thinking, and high aesthetic standards converge to — like Omoyemi — support and energize local designers. Yegwa’s reference library bookshelves are stuffed full of great tomes, from a Margiela archive flipbook to Victor Papanek to Heston Blumenthal. His mantra is centered on self-education, and people can barter their skills and teach them to others in order to gain access to the Stranger workspace, which includes sewing machines and other production tools. I purchased two great adire garments (a shirt dress and a button-down) from Joseph and Ola, the minds behind JZO, a label carried at the space. Yegwa proudly pointed out that JZO doesn’t just sell their finished garments, they will also pass on their textile-processing knowledge to other designers via workshops held at Stranger.

My picture doesn’t do this gorgeous adire linen justice.

Yegwa and Bibi are even taking on agriculture, hoping to reimagine the south of Nigeria as a place where fresh produce is as plentiful as it is in the north and, in doing so, allow knowledge of crop production to flourish.

Nike Center for Art and Culture

An oasis in a bustling part of Lagos — is there a part of Lagos is not bustling? If so, I didn’t encounter it — Nike Center for Art and Culture was founded by Nike Davies-Okundaye, a painter and now gallerist who supports other West African artists working in a range of mediums, including wood, metal, canvas, and textile. The Center is several stories high and packed, salon style, with gorgeous paintings, human-height wooden states, large ceramic necklaces, and the most covetable adire indigo printed dresses and shirts.

Incredible craft, textiles, and clothing at Nike Art Gallery Lagos

Balogun and Lekki Markets

I went to Balogun Market in order to take in the hectic and fun atmosphere and purchase a few dashiki as references for our Items exhibition. Simply for reasons of time, I never made it to Lekki Market, but both are worth a visit for a different experience of textile and fashion shopping than you’ll get from the serene, pristine luxury department stores. No high fences, perfumed air, or price tags here.

In a small dashiki shop in Balogun Market.

Designers

There are too many to mention because the caliber of the designers on the runway at LFDW was incredible. As were the crowds who erupted when they wanted to show appreciation for a designer, a particular outfit, a model, or just the fact that everyone was looking so good all in one tent. Oh, and a beautifully choreographed marriage proposal, complete with carnations and Nigerian singing sensation Ric Hassani, happened live on the runway on day three. I particularly enjoyed some of the new stars of the Nigerian fashion constellation — Maki Oh, Loza Maleombho, Orange Culture, and (South African) MaXhosa by Laduma — and some names I hadn’t known before my trip, like Sisiano, Wanger Ayu, IamIsigo, About That Curvy Life Collective, and Johnson Johnson. See the full schedule here.

Textiles

One of the highlights of my trip was moderating a conversation on textile production and its relationship to fashion in Nigeria with young fashion designer Loza Maléombho (whose most recent big exposure was an outfit in Beyoncé’s Formation video) and award-winning textile designer and The Unwoven Threads of Nigeria author Banke Kuku. We covered a range of questions, including how textile craft is valued in Nigeria and abroad, where technology fits in, and the appropriation of designers’ ideas and of localized African textile traditions. The burning questions for the audience and speakers alike revolved around the formation of both short- and long-term visions for Nigerian fashion, which is where a platform like Lagos Fashion and Design Week proves crucial in terms of bringing a likeminded community together.

In conversation with Banke Kuku (center) and Loza Maléombho at Lagos Fashion and Design Week 2016.

One thing worth mentioning, especially if you’re planning to travel there anytime soon — or if you’re a designer or technologist who can suggest a solution: I was unable to take as many examples of design home with me as I would have liked, as many point-of-sale machines couldn’t make the transaction (I think Internet connectivity was part of the issue), and the same problem occurred with almost every ATM I tried away from those at the hotel. It was a real frustration for me, and even more so for the merchants who were otherwise perfectly set up to retail. This problem underscores what many designers I talked to described as the “import mentality” of the government: it’s easier to bring in foreign goods than to support homegrown talent, even though this is a losing proposition in the long term as it creates consumers and not producers. It was news to me, for example, that Paypal doesn’t let Nigerians receive money — they can only send it out of their country, in a perfect metaphor for this conundrum.

I’m not the first to pay fashion homage to Lagos. When I stepped into my ride from the airport, I found I was sharing it with the most delightful stranger-now-friend, Vogue.com senior editor Marjon Carlos, who has already been preaching the gospel of Nigerian fashion for the last year or two (though it was also her first visit). And, actor Lupita Nyong’o is known to wear young Nigerian labels, bringing them visibility on the red carpet. However, it’s certainly the case that many have yet to discover the strengths and diversity of approaches to fashion in this country, and I’d love to see more Nigerian fashion designers in international stores. Truly informed conversations about contemporary fashion and design can’t happen without them.

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