Lagos Space Programme: For the Culture and the Future

“I have always known that once you create good work and once it is authentic good work people will always come.” Says Adeju Thompson, creative director and founder of Lagos Space Programme. The brand’s debut at this year’s Milan Men’s Fashion Week was topped and tailed with a flurry of excited and laudatory press notices and more pertinently, in these economic uncertain times, global commercial interest. For Thompson who identifies as non-binary, the attention and plaudits have been novel, “I see [myself] as someone who exists on the fringe, as someone who sees themselves as part of the other,”. But although identifying as queer means many fora of existence in a CIS gendered centric world are somewhat liminal, what Thompson has unequivocally proved is that when the work is undeniable, the clothes covetable and the presentation and interpretation of ancient and current truths arresting, admiration is inevitable

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From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet The Dress Before We Greet The Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi

Creating Spaces for Different Voices

For Thompson, what started as a deeply personal aim to depict an alternative Lagos that was not steeped in the maximalist glamour and ostentation that the city has long been associated with, has evolved into a carefully curated challenging of norms and myths that have calcified into facts. They expand “It was very important that I contributed my voice..it was also important for me to create clothing from a very informed very in=depth well-researched perspective..[and] I know it is kind of weird but I felt a bit frustrated because I am someone who doesn’t like to be spoken for.” Indeed, since they founded Lagos Space Programme in 2018, the brand which takes as its raison d’être and Instagram bio the phrase ‘Sartorial Project exploring African futures’ has dared to interrogate, explore and propose alternative ways of being via the lens of apparel. Thompson not only challenges but upends many assumptions of the lived experiences of Africans and what luxury is and should be in the future. The clothes though in Milan they were shown in Men’s week are specifically non-binary and customers past and present have come from all genders Furthermore, they have dived into topics that for many of a more cautious disposition are off limits: traditional belief systems, gender norms, mental health and colonialism as a cultural decimating force have all been put under their forensic eye.

Frpm the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet The Dress Before We Greet The Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi
From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet Dress Before We Greet its Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi

Identity, how much significance we attach to it and what it is informed by is a theme that Thompson returns to frequently: “It has become important for me to have a cultural aspect in my collections…for me, my Yoruba identity is always going to be a huge part of my work.” For Thompson, dabbling is not an option. When they choose to expand upon a thesis, they do so fulsomely. Their break-out collection in Lagos dissected what a modern-day Babalawo, or Traditional Priest would need from his clothing and resulted in an exposition for Afro-Minimalism. The collection consisted of long line sleeveless coats with multiple pockets, Adire, a traditional fabric, which Thompson has returned to severally, fashioned into wrapper skirts, and shirts and jackets occasionally adorned thin strips of reflective fabric, a hint of the futuristic possibilities that a modern diviner might be able to see. An installation at Lagos’ interdisciplinary art space, 16/16 followed, complete with a divination booth that those open and curious enough could engage with. As Thompson dared to place what has since colonialism become a marginalised practise, due to the dominant religions of Christianity and Islam viewing Babalawos as fetish and demonic, there was an inevitable backlash from those who saw the show and collection as dangerous. They reflect: “In Nigeria people are very weird [about my work] and very scared about my work. And it really breaks my heart because I am Nigerian. If only people would take time to understand where my research is coming from.” For Thompson’s part their research into ancient Ifá Priesthood divination practices showed they had more in common with computer coding and applied mathematics than barbarism. It is this reclaiming of Nigerian cultural history and placing it under a celebratory light rather than a derogatory one that drives much of their work.

Yegwa Ukpo Wears Project 3 Awo Workwear, Image: Courtesy of Lagos Space Programme
Yegwa Ukpo Wears Project 3 Awo Workwear,  Image: Courtesy of Lagos Space Programme

This is not to say that Thompson is one for culture that is mummified. Their research always circles back to the contemporary, distilling knowledge from the past and using it as a tool to answer the challenging questions of here and now. This approach is most clearly seen in their ongoing work with Adire, a traditional Yoruba fabric, which in their hands they have defined as Post-Adire. “I find Adire itself stunningly poetic, this idea that you can tell a story on your body, like a woman will wear a print because she recently got married. This idea of subcultures passing on hidden codes within the pieces themselves, and it is only if you are part of this community that you understand…I find that idea on a surface level was very fascinating.” Thompson has experimented with different indigo dyeing techniques, a textile they also discovered had anti-inflammatory and immune system enhancing properties. Often working side by side with traditional artisans, they are reticent to use language and terms that have been popularised in the modernising textile and craft space. “I am trusting them [the artisans] to guide me… I don’t like using the word elevate. I think it is very presumptuous to say I am elevating a thousand year process. I think for me I see myself as a conduit to continue the conversation around these things..” Thus Adire prints that are still in production now, but that Thompson discovered were first created in the 16th Century, and speak to specific challenges and triumphs of then, are re-invigorated via print designs that reflect present concerns and joys.They note: “I am trying to create prints that are informed by my realities now, so dissecting ideas about queerness or mental health.” Thompson has taken the process one step further, creating knitwear from Adire, a process hitherto never done. The response has been resoundingly positive: “I am getting so much amazing feedback [and] I have hardly scratched the surface.”

 From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet The Dress Before We Greet The Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi

From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet  Dress Before We Greet its Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi

Collaboration As A Culture

We live in the age of the omnipresent collabo, where leveraging and partnering to make a bigger splash, particularly in the luxury spaces has become de rigeur. For Thompson, collaboration has always been an intrinsic part of how they work: “I enjoy my collaborations so much because I only collaborate with people like me, people who exist and create on the fringe. My fellow nerds. It is fun because there is no ego, it is just people coming together to create.” For the recently presented collection which has the dual name of Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet The Dress Before We Greet The Wearer, the crew was a veritable who’s who of creatives across disciplines. From artist and photographer Kadara Enyeasi who shot the fashion film and look-book to interdisciplinary designer and architect Kelechi Odu who styled the collection for Arise Fashion Week’s 30/30 Show, to Seetal Solanki who played the role of muse and model for the digital diary of the trip to Osogbo Sacred Grove. Yegwa Ukpo, the pioneer menswear retailer and and unofficial mentor to Thompson was also on hand throughout the process. In each instance Thompson notes how they shared an aesthetics and intellectual shorthand with the respective individuals and drew upon their reservoir of combined talent to add further texture and nuance to the collection. Of Solanki the founder of Ma-tt-er, a platform encouraging different engagement with materials, as well as a Lecturer at the Royal College of Art and Central Saint Martin’s they note: “One thing that made the shoot with Seetal pretty incredible was the context in which I shot her in. As this woman existing in this very matriarchal space because the grove is dedicated to Osun, the goddess of fertility. So she is interacting in the grove, whether in the water or in the middle of this herd of cows, it was so freakin’ incredible and we didn’t even plan these things … But I think that is also what happens when you are working with your friends.” In the instance of their collaboration with Odu, Thompson alludes to synergies and innately understood references: “We had a pre-meeting but he just got it immediately. I was very inspired by the Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto and Ann Demuelemeester shows. I wanted to give a very vulnerable experience. Because even with the models it wasn’t sexy it was very beautiful. There was a very dark element, but it wasn’t dark in a destructive way it was dark in a very sensitive way. Reflective of someone who thinks deeper about things. Those were the intersections; my identity as a Yoruba person, my queerness, and the fact that I am black.” The result was a haunting show that lingered in the memory longer than the few minutes the models were on the runway, and was one of the evening’s stand-out moments. In the instance of Enyeasi who they collaborated on both the look-book and the fashion film shown in Milan, Thompson succinctly says: “he is one of the few people I can work with and I just can leave him and go do something else because I know that whatever decisions he makes are decisions that I would like.”

 From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet The Dress Before We Greet The Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi

From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet Dress Before We Greet its Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi

Co-creation extended to the clothing and accessories, something that has been an organic part of how Lagos Space Programme operates. The ongoing knitwear project with Alexandra Weigand’s Studio Sattelit continues to widen its locus of expression and added to the Post-Adire canon are tapestries created with Flatspot_, an artist studio based in Oakland, California and masks with London based artist David Gardner who Thompson adds “is a friend who created the masks within the realities of our shared queerness.” One of the most talked about elements of the current collection has been the jewellery and objects,cq collaboration with Dunja Herzog of Red Gold and Phillip Omodamwen a seventh generation master bronze caster based in Benin City, Southern Nigeria – a place that is seen as the spiritual home of bronze-casting in Western Africa. For Thompson and Herzog, their working engagement came about through a variety of synchronic conversations and meetings. Herzog is Swiss but came to live in Nigeria, where she rented an Afro-Modernist house designed by the iconic architect Alan Vaughan-WIlliams that acted as a salon and meeting point for creatives in Lagos, as well as a location for a Lagos Space Programme shoot. Thompson relates: “I was talking to Dunja about how my new collection was informed by clothing as spiritual objects and how I am very fascinated by the idea of designing bells for the collection, and she says ‘hold on, say no more,’ and she is rushing upstairs and bringing these series of bells she had developed herself. And it was like what? It was these two nerds nerding out in Ikoyi about bells and sound and soundscapes and the possibilities of our potential” they add laughing. Apart from the bells, staffs that could double up as wands, bangles and harness jewellery that had a modern talismanic quality to them, all designed in concert together, was the crafting process itself. It involved a road-trip to Omodamwen’s studio, where the master caster still employs the lost-wax method of casting, one which is also practised by the goldsmiths working for the Asantehene of the Ashanti in Ghana. Thompson and Herzog describe the completed collection as ‘sculptural accessories’ and the soundscapes they make in their movement is of equal import to how they adorn the bodies of the wearers. In a sense the aural effect is akin to an Emeka Ogboh, piece, only in this instance one is transported to a world of Ifá Priests and Priestesses, divination and Yoruba deities. It also reflects the collection’s title, with one ‘hearing’ the ensembles as much as ‘seeing’ them prior to greeting them. For Thompson, collaboration was also an artistic form of defiance adding: “I like that I have created my work outside of the system in Lagos and its gatekeepers. A lot of people don’t know me, don’t care about me and I literally don’t care [because] I have created my own community.” But more than that, Thompson and their ever-evolving and expanding roster of co-creators are illustrative of what collaboration should really be – a cross-fertilisation of ideas and methodologies, a playground for new ways of thinking and being and a crucible for realising beauty in it’s most undiluted sense.

From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet The Dress Before We Greet The Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi
From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet Dress Before We Greet its Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi

Redefining Success and Luxury

Challenging what success is and educating consumers in luxury’s possibilities is one of Lagos Space Programme’s modus operandi. Prior to the Milan show, the brand was already on the international fashion community’s radar, courtesy of a full feature in Vogue in 2019; “I got that article when I was less than 800 followers (on Instagram) and it wasn’t by any connections just the strength of my work” Thompson reminisces. But although the praise party has expanded exponentially in the months since, reaching fever pitch in the last few weeks, they are adamant that they don’t want to get caught up in being the next big thing from the continent or part of “Africa Rising” narratives. For Thompson, Africa, and their locale of Nigeria, and South-Western Nigeria in particular, has always been a nexus of innovation, excellence and spiritual dynamism and these things are not contingent on praise or acknowledgement from a Western gaze.

 From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet The Dress Before We Greet The Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi

From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet Dress Before We Greet its Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi

Value always starts with self-acknowledgement and love, and it is something that Thompson chooses to imbue their work with. For them. inspirations always emanate from what has been previously overlooked, forgotten or hidden but that is too important to remain so and they are consistently drawn to those existing on the margins. The prior collection Gay Guerrilla was inspired by the composer Julius Eastman, who died after a lengthy battle with drug addiction and mental health challenges: Thompson notes: “when I studied the life of Julius Eastman I was very struck by the similarities of our lives and a lot of my friends were cautious about how much I consumed, because there was a lot of darkness. But I told people that darkness is also part of the human condition and when I am creating a collection it is a form of therapy for me first and foremost.” With Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet The Dress Before We Greet The Wearer, Thompson was making a comment on dress as spiritual armour complete with supernatural properties. Their explorations were further augmented in an essay by the late scholar Ulli Beier, that explored similar themes, and who alongside his first wife Suzanne Wenger spent time in Nigeria in the 1960s and was part of the Sacred Art Movement in Osogbo. For Thompson the clothes and accessories are meant to have a dual role: one as luxury adornment and second as meditative aid, they add: “When you dissect my work further it is me weaving these different narratives in a way that is very seamless.” Thus Thompson’s work which straddles the medicinal, spiritual and apparel becomes desirable on numerous levels.

From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet The Dress Before We Greet The Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi
From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet Dress Before We Greet its Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi

Thompson is keen to communicate to consumers that production takes time, is done in a human-scale with quality rather than profit in its purest sense being the driving factor and that runs of pieces will inevitably be small. In the purest capitalist sense it is a foolhardy model but it chimes perfectly in this more compassionate age we are living in, and also is a clever response to the challenge facing the luxury industry globally. If anyone who has the money can purchase an item and shareholders are demanding the maximum number are sold, how do you retain exclusivity? How do you honestly respond to the accusation of adding to the collective environmental Armageddon we are all facing? For Thompson and Lagos Space Programme, their response is to follow a conscious capitalist model; one that also places equal value on the knowledge and cultural systems that the pieces explore, the means in which they are made, and the resultant quantity produced as much as how they look on the body and how hard the tills ring in their making. Sustainability as a lifestyle is further reflected in the ordering method: the current collection is available to order until the 31st January 2021 with items sent to clients in mid May 2021. This is not fashion for those accustomed to ‘drops’ and who need to post their #ootd post-haste. Thompson adds; “The people who connect with my work, who buy the stuff, tend to be older so they are not people who go around on Social Media taking selfies, they just like wearing the clothes and getting on with their lives.” It is however, a niche without borders as clients are dotted across Africa and the globe with a particularly strong presence in the creative industries and in Europe, America and Asia.

 From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet The Dress Before We Greet The Wearer, Image: Isabel Okoro

From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet Dress Before We Greet its Wearer, Image: Isabel Okoro

Whilst clothes are the starting point for Thompson they are ultimately a medium for deeper discourses something that they indicate when we conclude our conversation talking of future plans: “I envision Lagos Space Programme to be much more than a fashion brand I want it to be a research based establishment where we are contributing and adding to the conversations around African design.” `Not only have the clothes have acted as a catalyst for conversations around gender, queerness and conservative norms in Nigeria and Africa as a whole, they have also provided an important link between culture past and the current experiments that will inform culture future. That Thompson returns to motifs and methods that have centuries old provenance such as indigo dyeing, textile weaving, brass casting and divination but explores them via the lens of contemporary mores, fears and wants creates for thrilling results. That they do so in a contained palette of soothing blues is evidence of a maestro of mood evocation. In these tumultuous times we  could all benefit from feeling calmer and having greater insight of where we have come from and how we wish to proceed in light of that. The brand and its founder may be young but Lagos Space Progamme’s agenda is rooted in eternal truths that Thompson aims to reveal one collection at a time to a global audience: “We are incredibly complex and we have been lied to and I think that as a designer it is my job to highlight my culture. We need to continue the conversation around these things. I feel like our ancestors would have expected us to continue the dialogues around what they started.” The oracle has spoken and the fashion world continues to listen, wear, and love it all.

From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet The Dress Before We Greet The Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi
From the Collection Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Èntìyàn / We Greet Dress Before We Greet its Wearer, Image: Kadara Enyeasi

 

Sukeina: Sartorial Story Tellers

Finding time over Zoom to speak to Omar Salam, the founder and creative director of Sukeina, is a tricky process, but for the best reasons. In spite of the world being in the grip of a global pandemic, things have never been busier, Since launching Sukeina  in 2012, his has been a giddy, upward trajectory. Critical acclaim and impressive press notices, including a multi-page editorial in the prestigious US Vogue September 2020 issue, iconic supermodels such as Naomi Campbell and Natalia Vodianova as early adopters  of his signature pieces and stockists globally, point to him having created a fashion house with firm commercial and creative foundations, that is built to last. But unsurprisingly, that is not the whole story and he is refreshingly candid as we speak in the company of Dimeji Alara, who is not only his fashion director but his aesthetics collaborator and visual touchstone, about the making of this thoroughly modern African luxury brand.

Tocca Jacket, SS2021. Image: Amanda Pratt Styling: Dimeji Alara
Tocca Jacket, SS2021. Image: Amanda Pratt Styling: Dimeji Alara

“What I was really interested in wasn’t creating a fashion brand, it was telling stories.” Initially Salam was on a path to film-making, but he abandoned his movie ambitions when he noted the inherent and structural prejudices built into the industry. He expands “two years into my programme I realised I no longer want to be in screenwriting,  because the opportunity wasn’t given to all and only a handful could really get a platform.” With clothing he saw an alternative form of communication noting “fashion was quite interesting at an ornamental  level but mainly I was drawn to how quickly every single person was able whether they were conscious of it or not, to tell  stories about how they felt at that very moment through dress.” It is an oft noted trope that what we wear is the most potent non-verbal communication we share with the world and also with those we meet on an inter-personal level. Even an active disinterest is a statement of intent. For Salam, the idea of rather than convincing people to part with two hours of their time in a darkened auditorium to engage with his vision, but instead co-opting his vision to reflect something of themselves was far the more intriguing direction to pursue. Indeed, film’s loss has proven fashion’s gain, but not without some similar principles in play of narrative arc, dramatis personae and heroic quests being sewn into each piece he creates.

Butterfly Blouse and Delta Skirt SS2021 Image: Amanda Pratt Styling: Dimeji Alara
Butterfly Blouse and Delta Skirt SS2021 Image: Amanda Pratt Styling: Dimeji Alara

Of Origins and Mandates

Fashion loves an origin story, and in fact often demands that ones involving people of colour are even more dramatic. Who can forget the (very much debunked because it patently wasn’t true) rumour of supermodel Iman having been plucked from obscurity in her previous role as a tribal herds-woman? She is in fact the daughter of well-travelled, educated and urbane Somalian diplomats. Salam has been both lauded and somewhat misrepresented in the bid for editors and writers (often western based or educated) to place him in a neat box assigned to black creatives in terms of both their roots and their consequent influences.  `’I am so happy  that you are giving me the opportunity to perhaps try being a bit more clear. I often get asked what influenced you? What inspired you? And while it has become such a normal thing to ask a creative or a designer and we rush into answering… There are many many things that come with you that are prior to you and are sometimes beyond your understanding of understanding, So I just want to put it out there that I am an African man that was partially raised in Europe  that in adulthood is working in the American space, that speaks Wolof but also speaks French but also speaks English, that works with customers that are Japanese but also some who are Arab and American and European and I am very very enthused and curious about the world.” Dimeji is silently nodding in agreement at what Salam is boldly articulating –  that Africa and Africans are not one singular entity or set of experiences and levels of exposure. That not every African’s background includes abject poverty, a paucity of educational opportunities and knowledge and, spoiler alert, requires a dash of fairy-dust by way of western media acknowledgement. If anything, that Salam still finds himself being viewed as an anomaly, speaks to unconscious biases that still exist, in spite of the Summer of Race Reckoning that was 2020. Some writers have been too speedy to place him in Senegal or their own ‘tribal’ version of it, when there exists  layers of nuance that are blithely ignored due to his race. The multiplicity of locations both for himself and also for his inspirations is not the exclusive domain of a designer living in a particular locale, or colour. It is in fact reflective of the 21st century, where prior to the pandemic affordable travel coupled with the digital capabilities to travel anywhere via your phone means that inspiration can and is picked up anywhere, that curiosity can be readily sated by all, and that clients can and will come from far and wide.

Celio Jacket SS2021 Image: Amanda Pratt Styling: Dimeji Alara
Celio Jacket SS2021 Image: Amanda Pratt Styling: Dimeji Alara

Sukeina is in fact named after Salam’s mother and he adds there are further etymological roots of the name itself: “ when I would ask  my grandmother the question what does Sukeina mean she would say it means ‘bright light’ and I would be like okay. And then she would say, ‘When a room doesn’t have a table it is table-less but you can still sit, when it doesn’t have a chair, it is chair-less yet you can still  stand’…and she talked at length on the importance of perspective and perception and she felt that when there was no light everything goes missing. But when there is light in the room you can see where the chair is…where everything is and only then can you see the value of all. And I was fascinated by the kindness of it [of the light and it’s role]…That notion kind of stuck with me when the time came to create a company. Not only did I like very much the wording and meaning around it but also the person that I got to know very early in my life was kind of that. While my father had a very important position in the UN and in government and whatnot, my mother was kind of the glue behind it and added things, removed things, strategised. In the end she made him shine.” But beyond being a personal eulogy to the essence of his mother, Salam expands his thesis wider adding : “Sukeina is shining a light on what women truly are and have always been and aren’t always perceived as .They jump very quickly into the everyday motions…and don’t get a chance to turn the focus on themselves and say who am I, what am i, what am I outside of what I do? And what Sukeina is trying to be in a woman’s closet is to create armours, to create outside shells, create directions, create stimulus that remind a woman how incredibly necessary, how incredibly pivotal, how incredibly important and how incredibly key she is, has been and will always be.”

Kyte Cloud Dress SS2021 Image: Amanda Pratt Styling: Dimeji Alara
Kyte Cloud Dress SS2021 Image: Amanda Pratt Styling: Dimeji Alara

With a brand mandate that is more closely aligned to a broader manifesto of equipping women with the tools for self expression, providing them with aesthetic permission to explore their many selves, and most critically of all, demand that they are fully celebrated as a result, it would be easy to ask pithily how do such lofty ideals and goals translate into apparel. But Salam is not one for hyperbole or empty platitudes and in the collections one sees his creative aims and cultural objectives being fulfilled one piece at a time. Initially lauded for his occasion wear, he steered clear of obvious cliches such as using classic luxe fabrics exclusively. Many of the pieces were made of a silk neoprene. It was an interesting choice as neoprene is often utilised in protective garments  and Salam’s decision could be seen as both a comment on a woman requiring her apparel to act as the aforementioned armour, but with the choice of silk blend, still needing to feel luxurious. Contrasting and compelling juxtapositions are another notable feature in Sukeina collections: pieces are sometimes adorned with ostrich plumes, adding flamboyance and an unapologetic celebratory air to proceedings. For Salam whether one is off to a Red Carpet event or celebrating a milestone birthday with family and friends, the pieces act as a frame for the memories made, but must elicit an interior emotion in their movement, feel and ultimately the wearing. Furthermore, in an age where women not only demand but also expect sexual autonomy, even the more overtly sexy pieces hint at revealing oneself on your own terms with tea length dresses with cut aways at the hip bones and sheer panelled body suits with opaque ribbon effect panels. The overall thesis is one of exploration and as Salam says of the Sukeina woman, “she is someone curious about herself but more curious about the world than she is judgmental of it.” It thus follows that clothes that play on silhouette, notions of opaqueness and transparency and hint at power and vulnerability would become wardrobe staples for such a woman.

Cloud Jumpsuit SS2021 Image Amanda Pratt Styling: Dimeji Alara
Cloud Jumpsuit SS2021 Image: Amanda Pratt Styling: Dimeji Alara

Curiously, the ‘Sukeina Woman’, compartmentalising and deconstructing her further, is something that Salam has intentionally avoided, both in his head while designing and in interviews. Like his own personal journey, he does not see customers fitting one sort of lifestyle, location, age or interests. Proof of such was a private soiree held in his honour in Lagos in 2018, when he showed at GTB Fashion Weekend,  that intriguingly brought together a cross section of the city’s fashion tribes and beau monde all of whom were as keen to see the clothes and purchase them. For him, the brand does not ascribe to a narrow set of normative concerns and nor does its clients. What he does however, return to are the evolution of notions of self and identity: “I use as the cue the area of emotional  dimensions of a woman. So we go back to the woman and ask, is she sexy? Is she straightforward? Is she strict?… My job is to avail myself as a translator of what a woman feels or wants to feel…to display the rhythm of the woman or the vibrato around that woman, whether she is feeling sexy, or feeling motherly or wants to be covered or elusive.” Seeing women as multifarious indicates that Salam is following a recipe that guarantees longevity as many brands get stuck in a design brief silo, speaking to an increasingly smaller set of people or disconnecting altogether with the wants and needs of clients both existing and potential as their lives evolve and locus of concerns changes accordingly. In widening the lens of moods and actively not ascribing to the ‘African fashion’ tag, which in many instances, particularly its most recent iteration, can prove problematic, Sukeina has deftly sidestepped a creative and commercial cul de sac.

Bassari Turtleneck Dress SS2021 Image: Amanda Pratt, Styling: Dimeji Alara
Bassari Turtleneck Dress SS2021 Image: Amanda Pratt, Styling: Dimeji Alara

Watchwords and Future Plans

We alight on Salam and Alara’s partnership – one which has seen them working together to build upon Sukeina’s initial success and widen its reach and appeal. Although hailing from different disciplines in the fashion system: Alara is Nigerian and was the former editor in chief of Elle South Africa and a noted fashion stylist in his own right whilst Salam has operated firmly in the design space, there are clear synergies: both men are West African Parisiennes now situated in New York City with a clear sense of self and a shared passion for steering conversations forward on African design and aesthetics via Sukeina.  One recent move has been  distancing themselves from the demi-couture and couture labelling that followed the brand from the outset. Alara expands “We are exploring daywear. Because a sweater, a simple white shirt or a pair of pants can be special.” To buttress the point Sukeina recently  created a capsule winter collection entitled Silex that saw them reinterpret winter-warmers for the woman who cares for silhouette and construction as much as she does for heat retention. It was an expansion of a day-wear exploration that had already been seeded in the Spring/Summer 2021 collection that were an immediate hit. The Boyfriend Sweater gets a luxe formal makeover with contrasting copes and sleeves and stiff white collars, mesh pencil skirts could be as easily worn to a meeting or cocktails and leggings are removed from planet basic via the clever inclusion of vertical panels – a trick that also lengthens and slims a leg’s appearance.  It also chimes with Salam’s wider mandate of being able to enter a woman’s consciousness and propose ensembles that reflect her mood or greater intent.

Bpyfriend Sweater and Pencil Skirt SS2021 Image: Amanda Pratt Styling: Dimeji Alara
Boyfriend Sweater and Pencil Skirt SS2021 Image: Amanda Pratt Styling: Dimeji Alara

“I have seen so many collections, so many shows but I think seeing Sukeina for the first time was a big surprise.” Alara reminisces, adding; “I felt it wasn’t just something that you see and you forget. The level of craftsmanship and the level of work that is done on the clothes compared to a lot of the brands that we have out there today, African designers, European or American designers you know…that is what drew me to the brand, and what drew me to Omar is his mind and his level of thinking and the way that he works.” Their collaboration is more than a mutual admiration society. Alara is keen for Sukeina to optimise all the current green shoots in the company’s line of sight and for Salam he now has a professional, creative journeyman who understands the brand’s DNA and his own personal desire to never compromise. Craft, a capstone in much of his work, remains centre stage, but in Alara’s interpretations it is modernised and made relevant for women today.

Bassari Cardigan and Chiffon Pant SS2021 Image Amanda Pratt, Styling: Dimeji Alara
Bassari Cardigan and Chiffon Pant SS2021 Image Amanda Pratt, Styling: Dimeji Alara

Although the brand is young, Salam is still mindful of legacy building and of Sukeina upholding its core values for years to come. Fashion’s woeful reputation as one of the environment’s worst abusers and contributors to the climate emergency has prompted him to rather than clumsily jump on the sustainability bandwagon, champion mindful purchasing, something which is at the heart of how his collections are conceived and how he anticipates women will wear them. He expands “By going back to creating products that you don’t need to have hundreds of but just ten of because they mean  something to you [and], by going back to true craftsmanship with integrity, the true meaning of clothing,  clothing that perhaps won’t cost the price of a salad but won’t be exhausting and polluting the planet less will be upheld.”  Buying less and only what you will love forever is a mantra that not only those wedded to minimalism can afford to adhere to in our current times, but in Salam’s hands, perhaps because of the kind of pieces he creates, it doesn’t feel like a sentence to be endured. But arguably the most enduring of all Sukeina’s legacy building projects, beyond the brand’s commercial ambitions is challenging dated and inaccurate notions of what a fashion house with an African creative director should be producing or have as it’s central design thesis. Salam adds, “We don’t need to flex and say we are better than anyone. It is not about being better it is about being true to who we are. We are asking politely but firmly for the opportunity to share that with the world as our contribution to humanity.”

Neo Dress SS2021 Image: Amanda Pratt, Styling: Dimeji Alara
Neo Dress SS2021 Image: Amanda Pratt, Styling: Dimeji Alara

The last few years has seen a steady expansion in terms of numbers operating successfully, and celebration in terms of media coverage, of African fashion brands. Furthermore, in response to the growing appetite from consumers globally for African fashion, online retailers  such as  Industrie Africa,  Onchek and Avivere have launched. Africa has gone from being ‘hot right now’ to being ‘too hot to ignore’ and it is a trend that has traveled across other creative disciplines beyond fashion to include jewellery, music and fine art . But for all the commercial wins there is still a darker reality for brands that have African roots, brands such as Sukeina, and it lies with notions of respect, perception and positioning. Throughout our conversation, Salam, a measured, intellectual man of the world, did not talk of a fashion system ‘out to get him’, or of a desire to be on any of the hastily compiled lists of black designers  and black owned businesses that emerged in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, but he has had to be deliberate and consistent in his upending of assumptions and crystalline clear in how he presents his brand across all touch-points. There is a growing cadre of creatives who are choosing this modus operandi rather than slogans, hashtags and call out culture to make a name for themselves and their brand, and more pertinently to create a space for existence, without the historic  pejorative noise that is the mood music of being black from a global systemic and socioeconomic standpoint. Salam is firmly of the school that his oeuvre will speak for itself. That his raison d’être of being the aider and abettor of women discovering and displaying their many selves and feeling powerful and magnificent in the process is enough. For Salam, real validation doesn’t live in the land of likes, but in the closets of the growing number of women who choose Sukeina pieces as the lens to illustrate their passions, peculiarities and truths

Tocca Gown SS2021 Image Amanda Pratt, Styling: DImeji Alara
Tocca Gown SS2021 Image Amanda Pratt, Styling: DImeji Alara

Inside The World of Kenneth Ize

Tucked away on a side street in Yaba, a historic part of Lagos that is also home to the city’s art school, is Kenneth Ize’s studio. It makes sense entirely that the man attributed of single-handedly spearheading Nigerian fashion’s  revived love affair with woven cloth, contemporising it and designing collections of covetable pieces worn by the global fashion cognoscenti and a smattering of celebrities should choose this corner of the mainland for his base. He elaborates: “I picked here because I like colonial houses , I like old buildings and architecture and I just really wanted to be in a space where my staff and I could be here together.” For a designer who is known for the kaleidoscopic nature of his fabric choices and juxtapositions the two storied light filled, white walled and monochrome terrazzo floored house offers a striking and visually calming counterpoint to the pieces he creates. The overall vibe is of a conscientious creative commune, his aforementioned staff, two weavers and an assistant continue to diligently work in the adjacent room, samples are neatly arranged in a corner,  and only his dog seems to be allowed to rush in and out as he pleases interrupting us every so often from his base camp of the veranda. Away from the hubbub, the plaudits the clients who keep returning to Alara for another Kenneth Ize fix, he has created the optimum cocoon for him to continue to live and work.

Image: Courtesy of Kenneth Ize
Image: Courtesy of Kenneth Ize

An Education in Aesthetics that’s find its way home

As with many designers Ize’s path has the aura of predestination. Regarding being drawn to fashion design he explains: I would say it was something I believed I could do best, it is something I saw around me [and] I customised my own clothes.” Attention to detail was inspired by his father: “I grew up seeing my dad wearing suits and the alignment was perfect. Even his singlet he would make sure, like, it was proper like flat…He would tell me there are some pants that you wear that it has to be so slick, like your bum has to be so smooth, you can’t have the pant line so my dad was rocking g strings to not have a pant line. I mean that guy, I don’t know what planet he was from…. But thinking now it is beautiful because it is my Dad who taught me mostly how to dress.”  Upending the assumption that most African parents are reluctant for their child to embark in a career in the creative industries, much less fashion, he expands: “My parents are very nostalgic but cool… I studied psychology for a year and I never went  to class [but] when I called my Mum and I am like Mum I think I know what I want to do I want to be a fashion designer, she was like go for it , this is what you should be doing.“

Image: Courtesy of Kenneth Ize
Image: Courtesy of Kenneth Ize

Of course, this was not misplaced optimism on the part of Ize’s parents; who had left Nigeria and settled in Austria as a family. He won a place at the prestigious Institute of Design, University of Applied Arts, Vienna where he did his BA under the instruction of Bernard Willhelm and his MA under the tutelage of the legendary Hussein Chalayan.  Immersing himself in a demanding programme that was interdisciplinary in its approach and allowed him to explore the semiotics and theory of fashion as much as construction remains evident in his approach, which unlike many who are self-taught possesses an intellectualism and rigour that is every bit as important as the rack appeal of the finished pieces. “I just started playing with yarns during my thesis. I was researching, and I kept asking around where could I get weavers…one of my cousins knew a lady that made fabric and that wove here [in Lagos] so she took me there we did a sample and it was so experimental…I was saying everything I wanted and we sat outside and started doing it. And I was like wait, I could actually just expand this thing into something.” For many the finished fabric is aso’oke, a traditional woven fabric technique that is native to the Yoruba of South Western Nigeria but Ize sees his iteration of being an expansion on the traditional fabric. “It took me about two years… I feel like the experimentation we have done with this fabric has now shifted it from being aso’oke to being a woven cloth that should be celebrated everywhere in the world as we have moved this technique to a different level” In experimentation Ize has created a fabric that is 60% silk, 30% rayon and 10% cotton, allowing for more malleability and a glossy sheen in the finish. But this is not to say that he has abandoned the craft aspect in the process as he notes: “We hand weave here, a two-yard scarf for instance to prepare and design the pattern takes about a day and then to weave the actual fabric it takes about seven hours. It’s very labour intensive and the lady I started working with, she’s getting older, but I am so happy because one of her nieces is really loving this and has gotten into it now. I also have a team in Ilorin so we make the samples here and the team in Ilorin produces to a very large scale.” The organic nature of the process and the communal nature of the team behind it results in a more personal piece of luxury. In the age of the ‘drop’ and an insatiable client base that designers are pressured to feed at all times and costs, Ize’s process places skills, sustainability and perhaps most important of all, humanity at the centre.

Image: Courtesy of Kenneth Ize
Image: Courtesy of Kenneth Ize

Asked about his design language Ize is emphatic when he states: “For me the aesthetic is very pragmatic. It’s real definitely, and that is the kind of person I am designing for, because it is all comfortable clothes, just put it on and off you go. Also, the brand is very genuine and genuine aligns with one being very pragmatic.” Certainly, much of what he has offered on the runway has been classic in cut, from single breasted jackets to city shorts, trousers and jumbo scarves that can be draped and shaped in a myriad of ways. With the colours and textures being so audacious restraint is indicated in the silhouette. It also reveals commercial savvy; colour and print can often frighten the average shopper but made in an easy to wear shape the leap of consideration to purchase  becomes easier. He also sees his brand as acting as conduit for others to plug into what is happening in Nigeria culturally and having an ambassadorial role in changing negative perceptions:  “I am not just making these clothes for myself, I am making them for every African person. I want people to go Google oh yes, Nigeria, Lagos because they have seen the clothes and it makes them so fascinated.” In a world where cultural signifiers hold far greater currency than policy statements or government pronouncements, Ize’s thesis of Africa charting a positive course through its creative industries is far from naïve.

Image: Courtesy of Kenneth Ize
Image: Courtesy of Kenneth Ize

Muses, Supporters and the Fashion Eco-System

For a designer working in the 21st century there is something delightfully old-school in Ize’s methodology. Similar to the likes of Yves Saint Laurent with Loulou de la Falaise and Betty Catroux or Karl Lagerfeld with Ines De La Frassange and a host of fabled beauties and it-girls since, Ize works closely with a muse. In his case the muse is Baingor Joiner, or  as he is known more simply Bai, a creative consultant and photographer and part of the Lagos Cool Set. Ize is effusive in his praise for Bai: “Oh my God, I had a crush on Bai, the first time I met him my fantasies were on Bai, I just wanted to dress Bai…. I saw Bai and it was about clothes, it was about a design and about the runway which is interesting because runway is one thing that makes my collections really cohesive because even before a collection is made I have seen it, I have had the vision. Bai helps me narrate my vision.” It also helps that Bai by virtue of his activities as a DJ, model, photographer and fixture in Lagos’ creative nexus is in touch with many of the creative and cultural outlets that Ize infuses into his work and reframes via clothing. Ize adds: “We have conversations on design. He tells me how he feels about clothes because he also really understands where my mind is.” When asked how long he sees their working relationship lasting, Ize shakes his head at the thought of having a revolving door of muses: “I would love to use Bai in the next 20 years if he is not too busy for me…and even it gets that way Bai is an open spirit and I am too, we just really connect together and he knows how to say yes and never say no to me.”

Image Courtesy of Kenneth Ize
Image Courtesy of Kenneth Ize

The familial energy extends to clients and supporters many whom are also cultural ambassadors in their own right: “I gain support from past relationships I have with people like Reni Folawiyo…friends like Faridah Folawiyo, Jomi Marcus-Bello from Waffles n Cream, Tokini Peterside of Art X and I love Nduka from This Day too.” Reni Folawiyo, owner of Alara is not only an early stockist, she has also invested significantly in the Oji Showroom in Paris (which with assistance from the Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC) saw Kenneth Ize and other menswear brands showcase their work) furthermore, Faridah Folawiyo a fine art consultant is a close friend and confidante. By having such a close network of friends and a clear sense of purpose Ize has been able to navigate challenging episodes most recently the rumour mill that went into overdrive when he didn’t show at either Lagos Fashion Week or GTB Fashion Weekend this year. He shares candidly: “My mind runs very fast…I am going through a serious depression right now… I had this collection ready before because I follow the international fashion calendar, but these weren’t the spaces for me to show anymore in a runway that I can’t be able to control or organise…I want to be able to be given the time and to be able to express my feelings and my emotions on the journey of making these clothes.” Instead he spent a month at a residency in New Orleans arranged by The Assemble a London based architectural and design collective and funded by two New Orleans based reclusive philanthropists who want to invest in the city’s creative possibilities. Ize expands on what the students should hope to experience: “I am really excited to be teaching how to make things more cohesive. I also  have a project that I am going to give them… I am going to use the source of what I learnt from my university days because I feel like I have learnt so much from my uni and I am excited because it is a way of me remembering myself and refreshing my spirit and my energy because I really wanted to leave Lagos because I need a break not to see things that I see every day.”

Image: Courtesy of Kenneth Ize
Image: Courtesy of Kenneth Ize

He also provides a broadside on the efficacy and relevance of the spate of fashion weeks, shows and events saturating the Nigerian calendar when he adds: “I don’t think I have to lash anybody, but I do think maybe we just really have to go back to bed, sleep a bit and wake up again and think things through. I think fashion weeks here, there are too many already….I don’t know why this is like this because the fashion industry in Nigeria is just 1% , the 1% we all know each other…Everything I make and every one of my decisions in my life has to be very relevant. So if it is hurting me there is no point in showing. Then I also thought that why do I have to keep running around making this or making that to show? To show for who? Who am I really showing this for if my client isn’t really there? I mean I have done shows over four years under Lagos Fashion Week and I don’t think I have gotten a buyer from there one time.” It is an assessment that whilst not often spoken about overtly, for fear of offending industry leaders, gate-keepers and business leaders is whispered quietly by many designers regarding the different fashion weeks on the Lagos fashion calendar be it LFW or GTB. From the relative absence of buyers vis a vis journalists, influencers and bloggers to the flying in of big names in the international fashion scene that do not offer any ongoing engagement with the local industry beyond excitable social media posts during their brief visits and prestige by association for those who have hosted them. Whilst the flurry of articles and write ups that appear in the international press hailing the Lagos fashion scene might be deemed great for profile building, especially for the brands that get a mention, questions still remain as to why they do not necessarily translate into orders and sales. However, it is a nascent industry, and this too is something Ize concedes noting : “It’s a very tricky one,  they, the organisers, are doing what they think they can do but it is self-taught. I don’t see the fashion shows here to be a business because at the end of the day that designer that has shown for one hundred years or whatever is still a bespoke designer. Ready to wear culture is not really known here…. Where are those clothes going to after the shows? So okay maybe [they are] going to go to Zinkata, Temple Muse, Alara but what else again?” By raising these questions and choosing to pause from the domestic fashion merry-go-round Ize is displaying a bravery that some might seem deem reckless, but conversely, if one does not critique or question, how does one grow?

Image: Courtesy of Kenneth Ize
Image: Courtesy of Kenneth Ize

He is equally passionate about the state of the Nigerian fashion industry and the paucity of opportunities available whether one is starting out in the business or more established. He notes: “We’re getting the press but we’re not making the money here. There are loads of international designers  I won’t mention names, but you could show me their collections and I can show you how African designers or our aesthetics have been referenced.” And whilst the occasional Social Media ‘name and shame’ might cause a flurry of activity on threads it does not translate into revenue as he puts it more succinctly: “I mean the fashion industry is growing here but I don’t think it is making money. Because for example I do not know any Nigerian fashion designer that is selling in Dover Street Market.”  He is equally scathing of the Pop-Up model which has seen a number of Nigerian designers be stocked albeit temporarily in prestigious stores overseas as he adds chuckling: “They want to pop you up honey but that’s just it. A pop means they don’t trust you. They are low-key trying to tell you that ‘oh let’s give you a pop up you know and then be happy and it’s going to be good’. But if someone offered me a pop up I would say no, because I am not willing to make 50 jackets for a pop up as what is really the assurance of me selling? If you really trust in someone’s brand you would actually want to have it in that store and buy the collection outright that’s my belief.” Training is an ongoing issue, something Ize with the benefit of his education feels needs to be urgently addressed: “The lack of education here in our system is a problem. The fact we don’t have a fashion school that would teach students how to  grow an aesthetic. We need a strong fashion school here. it’s time.” He also questions the intent of the international spotlight so firmly on Africa currently when he adds .”They are consuming (our creativity) and we are not making the money…We think we are exposing these African brands but we are really not , we are only exposing the continent for people to take from.” And whilst his upbringing makes Ize very much an internationalist his warning to Nigeria and in the greater scheme Africa as a whole  of needing to chart its own destiny rather than assume an equal playing field will be created on the global fashion landscape is pertinent.

Image: Courtesy of Kenneth Ize
Image: Courtesy of Kenneth Ize

Fame, Fandom and Future Plans

For someone who has seen his client list grow beyond Nigeria to include the likes of Donald Glover, Anum Bashir and most recently Beyoncé, Ize is decidedly muted about the implications for his brand. “You know it’s a sustainable brand and I don’t think about popularity, not at all. Trust me I didn’t know who Childish Gambino was. I don’t feel like I know five lyrics from Beyoncé’s songs… I know people would assume he would know this he would know that, but I just don’t…I am thinking about how can I better myself and better my environment? The way it works in my head is I care more about my staff than chasing celebrities to wear my clothes. I am not a crowd chaser. I am just about being natural. I am also very aware of how destructive this world is already so all I am[focusing on is how can I as an individual person make a change in the world or  add to this world so that it can be better.” It is for this reason that Ize doesn’t engage in sending pieces out to celebrities speculatively or go into PR overdrive during awards season. Instead, stylists approach his team and orders are taken from there, just as with any other client. A contrarian approach but it allows for greater freedom in the long run as he is not enslaved to insta-popularity or the foibles of a few famous clients.

Image: Courtesy of Kenneth Ize
Image: Courtesy of Kenneth Ize

For female fans who have had to content themselves with slipping into menswear pieces of Kenneth Ize’s, if they are slender of hip enough to do so, this year brings the arrival of a full womenswear collection. “I have been working on this collection for the past four months I am still not done it’s a lot of work I have never made women’s wear before…, I want to know the body of a woman because I am making womenswear.” He gestures to me and adds: “I want to know your story as a woman I want to know everything…I want to know about your menstruation how you move how you feel everything. This is my headspace right now. I am so excited by this womenswear because my energy is so into it and I love it so much I am telling you it is going to be amazing.” His effervescence is infectious and with his meticulous approach to design conception female fans will no doubt flock for more. Womenswear is just one part of a broader expansion that will include lifestyle objects in due course. As Ize notes: “Because my brand is luxury there is a goal and there is a determination. My determination, I am going to be very honest here, is to be the brand that is from Africa that is on everyone’s radar globally because I am sick and tired of seeing negative things about Africa.”

Image: Courtesy of Kenneth Ize
Image: Courtesy of Kenneth Ize

Of his peers within the industry, there are only a few he admires: “I like Kelechi Odu and Maki Oh and I also  like Waffles n Cream and it’s very affordable and it’s one of the only brands that I feel I own a lot of pieces from, yes Waffles n Cream totally. I would say those are the three brands.” Expanding to brands based outside of Africa, once more it is the interdisciplinary visionaries that capture his imagination the most when he adds: “You know in as much as I get that I sound a bit shady but I don’t feel like I know or love many brands even international brands….I love Chanel , because I have these conversations with a lot of people and they are like oh,  they do the same thing and I am like no, the beautiful thing and the reason why I connect so much with Chanel is that every time you see his shows they are like fucking epic. This guy Karl, he thinks about everything with his shows. Sometimes I will just go on YouTube and be like let me just watch a Chanel show… I also like Christopher Lemaire and Paco Rabanne… it’s its own aesthetic, it is alternative, it’s a different sexy I can’t even explain it.” By not being over engrossed with what others are doing Ize’s career has to date not suffered from the critique of being derivative or homage heavy and in that lies its greatest strength.

Image: Courtesy of Kenneth Ize
Image: Courtesy of Kenneth Ize

It is clear that Ize has a long-term strategy for his brand and has assembled a team that can assist him in his journey, but he notes that although he is very much part of the renaissance that the creative arts are enjoying in Nigeria, challenges remain to him living a fully authentic life. Outside of the world of fashion, one where sexual orientation and identifying as non-binary barely raises a robed shoulder, society remains obstinately conservative: “I feel like my sexuality is something that will not allow me to be here for a very long time which is very sad… There are a lot of gay people here but at the same time if you have lived somewhere like Europe, lived all your life having this freedom and then someone is taking it away from you, someone you don’t even see, I am like why? The other day I was out with like twenty-one gay men at Nok and we were at a table and it was like the most beautiful thing for me in Lagos. It was so nice.” It is a poignant conclusion to my time with Ize as one is left with the notion of what does it take to have a truly dynamic fashion industry here in Nigeria? There is talent aplenty and a youth led population that is the breeding ground of innovation globally. Yes, structural challenges remain; capacity building is high up on the to-do and must-do list. But will we lose our greatest talents to other locales because we do not have a truly inclusive society? It would be a tragedy if this was the case. But for now we celebrate the places and spaces such as fashion where talent, beauty, creativity and possessing the ability to distil dreams into apparel still have the power to vanquish, and love and doing the work is enough.

Image: Courtesy of Kenneth Ize
Image: Courtesy of Kenneth Ize

 

 

 

 

 

 

Team Players: A Tale of a Nigerian Football Fashion Collaboration

Catching up with Chekwas Okafor the creative force behind Onchek.com, the one-stop African fashion focused online retail destination is a bit of a challenge. For one thing, Chekwas is perpetually on the move, base camp might be New York City, but  if he’s not sourcing new designers across the continent, he’s knee deep in the practicalities of garment production, not withstanding the endless calls internationally to speak on the myriad of ways that the African fashion ecosystem needs to be supported and invigorated. But connect we do, and not a day sooner, especially as today, Lagos, Nigeria and the Diaspora are fever pitch for the forthcoming  World Cup in Russia and today in particular as the Super Eagles will face England in a friendly. Nothing connects the world on a more visceral level than the beautiful game and if you add fashion to the mix you are onto a winning combination, which is why Unity, the football inspired collection, available exclusively on Onchek.com and for those hardcore patriots, made in Nigeria too, is particularly exciting. However, there is more to the name than an exhortation of just how football binds in a way that nothing else quite can, as the design process was something of a Superstar collaboration with Chekwas collaborating with design titans, Adebayo Oke-Lawal of Orange Culture and Shem Ezemma of Shem Paronelli Artisanal.

unity-family-onchek

The premise for the collection was a case of Chekwas wishing to alter perceptions regarding production, innovation and quality. He elaborates: “I wanted the collection to show that we can source design locally, that the sports space can collaborate with Nigerian designers to achieve the same high quality design that can compete with any other outsourced design.” For Adebayo his decision was based on a more romantic notion as he cites: “The idea of celebrating collaboration , oneness and the tenacity of the Super Eagles.” And for Shem it was the idea of creating something that is truly bipartisan when he notes:  “Soccer is about the only thing that unites Nigerians you know; suddenly they put the whole tribal differences behind and unite as one. So I guess that idea was it for me.”

Photo: Kosol Onwudinjor
Photo: Kosol Onwudinjo

The ideas coagulated into a football shirt incorporating the national colours of Green and White and using black as a metaphor to both race and excellence. Apart from the legend ‘Unity’ which is as much a statement of intent as it is a celebration in spite of difference, is the map of Nigeria which acts as a graphic motif on the side of the t-shirts. Whilst running or indeed dancing, the nation remains close to you, the wearer. Adebayo also speaks of the challenge of combining form and function when he adds “I had to think – what would people be able to wear while playing a sport. Is has to be breathable  but I also  wanted the design to be beautiful.” The shirt more than achieves it as it would look welcome on a pitch, in a gym or teamed with a killer heel, agit pants or easy, breezy shorts.

For the shoe, Shem choose to re-imagine his brand’s N-100 sneaker model, but with football visible in design accents. He adds “It was more of an adaptation; picking ideas, from the aesthetics and key features like the extended flap, a higher hugging counter and a much more pronounced and definitive cut that mimics the silhouette of a traditional a soccer shoe.” However, because this is a Shem Paronelli Artisanal shoe luxury flourishes include an oiled nubuck leather upper, and instead of studs a smooth sole making it a favourite for men and women alike

Photo: OGB
Photo: OGB

Perhaps most significantly, the Unity Collection illustrates the power of collaboration,  and how it offers a potent riposte for those still stuck on the old adage of there being only room for one shining light  at any given time in the African fashion design space, or designers being too ridden with rivalry to work dynamically and effectively together.  Adebayo notes that he has always been “open to collaborations” and Shem adds “the vision kind of just resonated with me and I was like yeah, let’s do it.” It also does not go unnoticed that Adebayo and Shem hail from different parts of Nigeria, places whose norms, language, culture and aesthetics will have to a greater or lesser degree informed their  design language thus far and yet in this instance are harnessed to create a greater whole. Food for thought for others operating in other disciplines to be sure. However,  the designers’ ebullience is also echoed by Chekwas himself who sees the collection as just the beginning of future projects that Onchek.com will be championing in Nigeria and other parts of Africa. One cannot help but be excited about the age of collaboration, a buzzword and a feature of the fashion landscape for sometime, fully taking hold across the continent.

Photo: Kosol Onwudinjor
Photo: Kosol Onwudinjor

As Nigeria garners more interest both regionally on the continent as an incubator of talent, and globally as a key location for exploring and immersing oneself in the African aesthetic; long term and lasting improvements in the garment production industry can no longer languish as a conversation piece in the corridors of power and must find themselves as an action point providing measurable results. It is here that the Unity Collection has both distinguished itself and excelled as Onchek partnered with a factory in Apapa, Lagos which has benefited from Human Capital Development Consultancy training and management that in turn has been facilitated by Style House Files Creative Agency and supported by the Nigerian Export Promotion Council. In doing this, rather than seeking production in other global, some might point out cheaper locations, Chekwas has positioned the collection as an emblem of the possibilities for the fashion industry. An industry that with the right infrastructure, a favourable environment for investment and long-term strategic development has the potential to be both a creator of wealth and a catalyst for the diversification of the Nigerian economy.

Photo: Kosol Onwudinjor
Photo: Kosol Onwudinjor

There is also something cheering of thinking that the whole process, from ideation through to production happened in Lagos, arguably Africa’s fashion capital. For Chekwas this element was a non-negotiable aspect for the project: “This is our company’s philosophy. It is in our DNA that all the products we carry will be made in Africa. That’s the only way we can live our company’s purpose of “creating jobs and promoting culture through fashion”.” As the world moves increasingly to a more conscious form of capitalism, such an approach not only resonates with customers but also with notions of sustainability and economic inclusiveness. And for those of us who love our football and fashion with equal fervour, what to wear when Nigeria plays, just got made simpler.

 

 

For the Love of Art: Lisa Folawiyo Autumn/Winter 2018 Presentation

Yesterday evening Lisa Folawiyo chose to step outside the fashion melee of last month and present her Autumn/Winter collection in an art gallery, Rele Gallery to be precise. A risk some might think, surely retailers, clients and members of the press would be thin on the ground to attend, document and most important of all figure out what they are going to order from her latest collection? As it was, the event was unsurprisingly a road-block, you do not, after all become bona-fide African Fashion Royalty and not build a loyal following, in the case of Folawiyo, of the glossiest kind. And besides what is fashion if not wearable art?

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Arriving and the space had more of a private view vibe than a major fashion happening, complete with open frames, presumably for the models to walk through, stand inside, do something performative, one couldn’t help speculate? A long single bench much like the ones placed in galleries so one can absorb and fully contemplate a painting was all there was by way of seating and for those who were not speedy, standing was the order of the day. It made for an intimate setting, one which made the focus entirely  on the pieces rather than the FROW and who was wearing what. And the show opener, a model walking through the crowd, barefoot, in a floor length Folawiyo gown and beginning to paint to the sound of Alexndr London’s hypnotic song April gave us a hint of what to expect, which was an immersive experience with a capital E.

Photo: Kadara Enyeasi
Photo: Kadara Enyeasi

Entitled “Textures, Chaos and Systems” the show notes read more like a curator’s statement with those present being promised “a collection, [that is ] a journey of reflective progression, in Lisa Folawiyo’s visual state of mind”. One was also keyed up by the same statement to look out for Bauhaus architecture influences and exemplum of Folawiyo’s  “bold, unashamed, and rebellious ideology reflected through a self-curated aesthetic.” There was nothing chaotic to my eye in what Folawiyo presented, if anything she has become a master of fluid assymetry, with hemlines, sleeves and backs being her playground of choice. Not for Folawiyo, the obvious and basic option of a plunging neckline and heaving bosom when one can produce an apron shaped exposed back instead, that manages to tread the line between demure elegance and erotic allure simultaneously.

Photo: Kadara Enyeasi
Photo: Kadara Enyeasi

This is not to say that piping-hot wasn’t available. Erogenous zones a la Folawiyo came courtesy of the exposed midriff, which if you are over 30, stop eating carbs post 6pm and you will be more than fine and able to participate. Alternatively,  if you have been chilling like a villain on a treadmill, or are just naturally, Praise the Lord, built like that, a scandalously short skirt is a seasonal must. It was sexy and sassy and perhaps because other elements were chilled, in the instance of the cocktail dress, via an over the knee hemline and in the case of the micro-mini with a blouse that had a variant of a leg-of-mutton sleeve, didn’t delve into the realm of tarty.

Photo: Kadara Enyeasi
Photo: Kadara Enyeasi

lisa-folawiyo-dress-with-midriff-beading-and-print

Photo: Kadara Enyeasi
Photo: Kadara Enyeasi

Art or rather brush strokes and painters’ splatters was referenced in two signature prints created with Folawiyo’s long time collaborator Banke Kuku, and were the calling card in all of the pieces. Palette wise, blue, grey and green dominated, and as a designer who has made a credo of audacious print combinations, fans of such were not disappointed. A sequence of three quarter length day dresses were  particularly successful in elucidating the aforementioned brave approach to print mixing as too were evening pieces, which brought back the J in Jewel By Lisa with bugle beading and embellishment adding sparkle and glamour to proceedings. Make up also got an artistic re-boot courtesy of painted ears and primary colour accents in the corner of models’ eyes. Accessories were minimal bar the small beaded evening top handle bags that have become another Folawiyo signature.

Photo: Kadara Enyeasi
Photo: Kadara Enyeasi
Photo: Kadara Enyeasi
Photo: Kadara Enyeasi

For an Autumn/Winter presentation, outerwear was scant although a jacket teamed with a skirt that featured pleats and not one but two prints was a welcome option, with it’s super cinched waist and dramatically long belt. Hero ensemble of the night however was a three tone ( there she goes again with the print-a-cular alchemy) pleated trouser with layered silk blouses atop one another, in the manner of a woman who just cannot decide between the two and decides, sod it, wear both. The trousers felt like a revelation – and it would have been thrilling to have seen the silhouette and the thesis of the piece expanded upon further – perhaps in a light wool for the cold?  But the sky blue blouse with it’s blouson silhouette and accented lapel was a masterclass in what women want to wear right now. As it was styled for the show or with those favourite jeans knocking about in the back of the closet it had useful, and gorgeous and super easy to team with existing items writ large.

Photo: Kadara Enyeasi
Photo: Kadara Enyeasi
Photo: Kadara Enyeasi
Photo: Kadara Enyeasi

It takes a brave designer to dare to go against the grain in terms of both timing and style of presentation. But Folawiyo is in a powerful position:  known, celebrated and at a juncture in her career where she can experiment and dabble in other visual media without there being adverse consequences on her principal offerings. Significantly, intimacy, authenticity and creating a design language that is truly one’s own have become buzz words in the wider conversations around luxury and fashion in particular. Folawiyo, taking a bow at the end of her show in a shirt of her own design, Monse Jeans and Fendi Shoes illustrated that loving and engaging in fashion needn’t be a straight narrative arc. It can take in art, music, other fashion designers and whatever else might inspire. The order books will be full, as per usual, but perhaps most significant is this is an artist, and let’s face it, fashion is art, who continues to push the envelope with herself and her craft.