Harriett: An account of our research trip to Lagos

I travelled to Lagos with Martin Pel, Curator of Fashion and Textiles, in order to research content for the Fashion Cities Africa exhibition to be held at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery from April 2016.

This work also served as an introduction and initial research for longer term fieldwork for my PhD, which is funded by Brighton Museum & Art Gallery and the University of Sussex.

Lagos is an energising place. Fashion is everywhere and not limited to higher classes. The presence of tailors in Lagos ensures that people eeking out a living on the street selling fruit and other goods express themselves through wearing wraps and unique bespoke garments. Younger people also have their own tailors.

On our first day we met Jennifer Onnochi, Project Manager at the British Council, who introduced us to Lagos’ fashion scene. There is a lack of faLagos #2shion design training in Nigeria, which the British Council is trying to address through various projects, such as Tool Kit Training, Young Fashion Designer of the Year and Pitch to Stitch, which encourages banks to invest in young designers. Formerly the creative industries were not particularly valued in Nigeria and parents often expect their children to embark on careers such as banking, law or science, meaning that many Nigerian fashion designers have not actually received formal training in fashion. Many designers have been trained in highly academic fields and then go on to work in fashion later in life or employ their creativity at the weekends.

We were introduced to Lanre da Silva, who holds a Master’s Degree in Business Administration. She sells her fashion pieces at Temple Muse, a shopping centre in Lagos, and Alara, a new concept store on Lagos’ Victoria Island. She also stocks with Dolce & Gabbana, and obtains her fabrics and materials from Paris, Switzerland, Turkey and the UK. She has a factory in Lekki, Lagos, and employs twelve fashion cutters, seven tailors and two beaders. Oil wealth often provides backing for some of Lagos’ designerLagos #4s; Lanre’s husband works in oil and gas.

Wadami Amolegbe, who we also met at the British Council and who accompanied us for two days, works for Style House Files, which produces Lagos Fashion and Design Week. Wadami is a young fashionista whose family lives in the US. She attended university in New York and decided to come back to Nigeria to make the most of opportunities in fashion. She said herself that she “balances faith and fashion”, wearing garments by designers and also attending mosque in full Muslim attire. Wadami writes a blog and has a lot of contacts in the Lagos fashion world.

Next we visited designer Yegwa Ukpo at Stranger, a concept store in Lekki aimed at promoting up and coming designers. Stanger stocks what they call “progressive” designers such as I.am.isigo, Orange Culture and Post-Imperial. Yegwe is inspired by aso oke and historic textiles such as those in the collection of Nike Davies Okundaye. Yegwe is currently exploring using indigo dyed textiles in his work.

We then visited the Nike Art Gallery which was set up by Nike Davies Okundaye and houses artworks ranging from paintings, to furniture, to jewellery, to historic textiles.

The following evening we visited a fashion party at Alara, the concept store mentioned earlier. The shop is similar to an art space and was the vision of Reni Folawiyo. Folawiyo has successfully created a platform for Nigerian art and fashion through Alara. Her standards are high and she only includes designers who she feels are of the correct standard. Couture clothes are stocked in the shop’s upper levels, with mostly European designer labels such as Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney being sold. African designer labels stocked include Jewel by Lisa, Duro Olowu and Post-Imperial. This party was the place to be seen in African fashion circles and designers themselves were in attendance, such as Maki Oh.

We then visited Bubu Ogisi (ILagos #5.am.isigo) at her studio. An earlier collection of hers titled ‘Taboo’ was inspired by the Wodaabe tribe and the celebration of female sexuality and sexual freedom. I.am.isigo explores ideas like androgyny, challenging strong patriarchal notions which exist within Nigerian society. Bubu’s ‘White Noise’ collection of oversized shirts or one-size-fits-all box shapes with striped designs was inspired by static flow whilst waiting for her TV to switch on! I.am.isigo stocks at shops such as Stranger and Grey Velvet. She is also a stylist for Orange Culture and Kenneth Ize.

Next we went to see Mai Atafo, who began creating a clothing line in 2007. He specialises in wedding wear and formal suits. In Nigeria there are three elements of a wedding; the introduction to parents and family, the traditional wedding and the show-stopping white wedding. A little while ago he invited Darren Beaman, a tailor from Saville Row, to come to Lagos for a week and train his tailors. Every two years Atafo organises an elaborate fashion show involving a narrative.

Later that day we met Rukky Ladoja and Obi Obi from Grey, who specialise in ready-to-wear clothing. Their target market is young professionals, young mothers and people in their late twenties. These designers Lagos #3show at Lagos Fashion and Design Week and Ghana Glitz.

The next day we visited the shop of Deola Sagoe. Sagoe uses adire textiles and aso oke fabric. Clients visit her shop, are measured by its in-house tailors and request an outfit style, which determines the price.

We then visited the shop of Folake Coker (Tiffany Amber), which is aimed at the wealthy, high-class lady and has outlets in New York, Paris and London. Launched in 1988, Tiffany Amber was Africa’s first ready-to-wear label. Coker has a diffusion line and a couture line. She has her own factory and uses a level of quality control inspired by that of Europe; she says that Europeans have a sharper eye for detail. Coker has become “tired” of Ankara, which has become a stereotype for African Fashion. Coker spoke to us of the challenges of being in the African fashion industry, such as the difficulty of moving around the continent due to restrictions such as Visa issues. Coker observed how the African fashion industry is still to be recognised on a global scale, as even designers such as Maki Oh, who has the best PR, have not yet had success in the US.

Finally we visited the showroom of Jewel by Lisa, where we met Zara, the Brand Development Coordinator. Jewel by Lisa has different sub-lines; Lisa Folawiyo, which has a good global following, Pretty Precious, a children’s label, and J Label, an affordable diffusion line. The brand’s general aesthetic boasts a lot of African prints and beadwork embellishments.