In my Behind the Scenes look at Lagos Fashion Week, I promised you Pretty Birds a closer look into some of the amazing design talent I was introduced to during my trip. Today, I am so excited to help you get to know some of these rising stars, whose collections I also had the good fortune to shoot with the very talented photographer Stephen Tayo.
Inspired by Issa Rae and Tracee Ellis Ross, who have worn looks exclusively designed by black designers at each of the award shows they have most recently hosted, and my friend Natasha Nyanin, who always incorporates local designers into her images, I wanted to create the opportunity to amplify these designers and their respective stories here on ATPB and on my social platforms.
What convinced me that Stephen was the perfect artist for this piece is the energy that his work projects to the viewers. There is a unique sharpness and clarity in the movement, and the colors and textures are so vivid, so that even when they are hazy it feels like you were there in person when the image was shot. I felt his eye would truly help me to contextualize my experience during Lagos Fashion Week as a long lost daughter to the continent, and perhaps country. So please join us in getting to know these designers and their fantastic brands.
You started your brand in 2005, the same the NYT published an article exploring the difficulty women designers have had breaking through in the fashion industry; and in 2015, BOF wrote that women are still in the minority as leaders of womenswear brands. What advice would you give to an aspiring female designer?
The advice I would give, which I continue to give myself every now and then, is to understand who you are as a designer and to stay true to that. And even though you will evolve, which is key, it is important that you have an aesthetic that is easily identifiable as yours, because this is what people will come to love and know you by over time.
How would you describe the woman that you design for?
She’s confident, she’s free and spirited, assured of her style, but not limited to a ‘look’, she loves life and stays youthful and energetic in her approach to it.
A list of women who you would love seeing in Lisa Folawiyo.
Oh gosh there’s a long list of women! To name a few: Tracee Ellis Ross, Tamu McPherson, Yara Shahidi, Kat Graham, Natasha Goldenberg, Khalana Barfield and Michelle Obama.
You’ve become a style icon, making many trends your own. Do you often incorporate your personal style in your design process?
Through my design process I constantly ask myself the questions ‘would I wear this?’, and ‘how would I wear this?’, ‘what details do I personally love and want to see more of?’, and most times I won’t move further until I can confidently answer those questions in design, interpretation and execution.
However, I am always mindful that I am not designing solely for myself but so many other women, and so have fashion muses in my head that I also design for.
What’s the most important aspect of your creative process?
From the point of personal inspiration to research to print design to the actual design process, construction, sampling, putting the collection together, styling, presenting. To be honest, every single process is just as important as the other. I particularly love to see when each piece is made and I see the collection coming together. It’s always a wonder to me that what was an idea has now become an actual garment. It’s incredible!
How was the transition from law to fashion, and what encouraged you to make the leap?
It was a relatively easy and rather organic transition because I knew I had very little interest in furthering my law career, and the call to fashion seemed almost second nature to me. I may have been naive then, and I am grateful for that because it made me somewhat fearless with very little questions asked along the way. I knew that even without formal training in fashion design, I had a natural flair, a great eye, great ideas and a such a great sense of freedom and focus to do exactly as I wanted. I had a burning passion and was determined to ‘learn on the job’ and make a success out of it.
You are a very hands-on mother. How do you balance raising two children and your expanding business? Advice to other career moms?
I am a Christian and my time spent with God everyday in prayer and meditation is extremely important. This keeps me truly centered and gives me the ease to do all I have before me. My family is my world, so I make most decisions based on what is in ‘our’ best interest at any given time. I have the most fantastic work team who ensure the brand runs smoothly always. Delegation is a wonderful thing. I make time for myself. I retreat, I spend time alone. Usually my best design ideas are birthed then. I have learnt to say no. And to say yes.
My advice to other career mums would be to do whatever is in your own best interest at any point in time. Be confident enough to say NO when you can’t, and to say ‘YES’ to help or whatever makes life easier for you. Delegate. Time may move very quickly, but never feel rushed to achieve goals. Spend quality time alone whether meditating or just doing what you love to do. Have a business plan. Short/ mid and long term and constantly work in line with them. Have your goal in mind always. Keep your eyes on the prize. Never stop acquiring knowledge. Stay curious. Be kind to others. And as you move up the ladder, always ensure that all those around you are moving up too.
You have developed an international following and have secured top retailers abroad. What advice do you have for emerging African designers in terms of establishing an international retail business?
Global Visibility is key. Thanks to social media, our world has become much smaller. When we first started, we had to take our collections to New York and Paris to introduce the brand to buyers and press first hand. These days, a really great product and a strong visual aesthetic to match is all you need to grab that initial attention. The next thing would be to consider your price points and ensure that they are appealing to a global market. As an emerging brand, be sure to price your product to cover all costs while keeping them competitive. You don’t want to price yourself out of the market. Finally, partner with retailers that understand your vision and can position you within their spaces as a new and exciting brand.
Adebayo Oke-lawal, CEO
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned as a designer?
That our voices are necessary. I never would have thought have a clothing line would have that impact on me. Everything can influence change no matter what.
Fashion has also taught me to see beauty in so many different things and ways – beauty is limitless and shouldn’t be confined to some societal stereotype.
As a designer of contemporary menswear, what’s the most important message you want to convey?
That destructive hyper-masculinity and misogyny are not things to be honoured. That men can be vulnerable, and it is important for men to connect with their emotions. That African menswear is important and deserves a spot internationally beyond the cliche expectations of it.
Who would you most like to collaborate with?
Oh my – I want to be in Opening Ceremony – my fave store and Shyness Space in London. I would love to collaborate with Andre3000 and Solange! I always wanted to collaborate with you and now that I have, thanks to Lagos Fashion Week, I know all others are possible.
ATPB: Your collections have a personal and emotional significance…does that create pressure when creating a collection every season?
It does lol. I won’t lie, it does. But it has helped me grow into my emotions. I find that Orange Culture really healed me and every season I’m healing more and more, and it’s giving me access to create things and tell stories I never imagined before.
Would you consider being self-taught to be an advantage?
Years ago – I was made to feel like it was such a huge disadvantage within the industry – especially by other designers. But one thing it does for me is it allows me to be a bit more organic – I’m not programmed to think anything specifically is right or wrong about design. I would love to still go to some classes – if time and opportunity permits.
ATPB: How does it feel to be pioneering a movement opposing hyper-masculinity through fashion in Nigeria, but also internationally?
It’s so crazy to think 8 years ago my emails were filled with hate messages and to see now so many brands are inspired enough to also speak on it . All I can say is I am thankful to have pushed on the necessity of this conversation, and I’m glad to meet people who have found healing through our stories. People shop the brand not just because they need clothes but because the story connects with them emotionally too.
How did you create the name Orange Culture?
I used to be in a writing class and we were told to write about colors! I was given the color orange, and at that time I had been going through a whole phase of being super bullied for who I was. So I wrote about my experiences as a boy being different in a space were a certain type of man was being celebrated – I remember writing “who says how a boy should be ? Can someone show me the book that says how boys should be?” Boys wearing blue and girls, pink. So I called people like myself orange because at first it looks strange but upon closer inspection the beauty is unraveled. Orange boys and girls. It became a published article and a corner for people to write to me. So when I started the brand, I wanted it to connect to that space that represented celebrating individuality! A culture that combated stereotypes and made people celebrate their uniqueness. So Orange Culture became the name!
How do you define fashion?
Fashion to me is an expression of self, mood and lifestyle.
Why did you decide to go to Parsons?
When I decided fashion was what I wanted to do, I knew I had to further expand my views and knowledge on the creative and technical aspect of fashion and design. I was certain I needed to train myself at one of the best institutions for design, and it was also important to me to study where I would also learn from a good diversity of talents.
Do you think your experiences growing up in Lagos, and then Washington D.C., shaped your designs?
Oh yes absolutely! As a young girl growing up in Lagos, I was always fascinated by our culture and the way women put effort into their style and ensuring that they make a statement every time they step out. Living in the states also contributed to my appreciation for minimalism.
How do you maintain an African identity in your brand?
While I’m not one to always make a literal “African” statement with my designs, I believe our African identity is often conveyed in the inspirations behind the designs.
How has your brand evolved since its debut collection?
This has certainly been one of the most exciting things for me. Seeing the brand grow from that place where you’re still trying to figure it all out to fully understanding the brand’s aesthetics and knowing what works for it. It’s great to see it more refined with every collection.
How do you want your brand to be perceived globally?
I would want it to be perceived as the African brand with a modern minimal reinvention of Africa with strong attention to detail, construction and creativity.
Image of Bridget Awosika courtesy of Kelechi Amadi-Obi for Style Mania Magazine.
Uju Offiah, Artistic Director
What is the meaning of Meena?
The name ‘Meena’ is an ode to my mother; coined from her name ‘Philomena’.
From where do you draw your inspiration for your collections?
I draw inspiration from my heritage (African culture), especially the Nigerian culture and its various tribes. I’m keen on history so I find myself doing a lot of research to gain ample knowledge on a particular subject of interest. I interpret my inspiration in various ways by using custom-made prints, texturizations and fabric manipulations all incorporated. Also, I’m intrigued by architectural works of art. I find them very mind-boggling and engaging; it plays a key role in the DNA of the brand.
ATPB: What is the most important message that you wish to communicate with Meena?
The Meena brand represents modernity, power, understated elegance with aplomb and poised minimalism.
What is the inspiration behind your latest collection?
My latest collection (Spring/Summer 19) was heavily influenced by tribal marks. Tribal marks are marks for identification and beautification designed mostly on the face and other body parts. It is a practice by Nigerians and other African countries such as Togo, Benin to primarily identify a person’s tribe, family and patrilineal heritage.
The Trans-Atlantic slave trade period made tribal marks and facial stripes relevant for identifying individuals. This process of identification is no longer a norm. Laws have been enacted to prohibit them due to the horrifying process of burning and cutting the skin especially during the infancy stages of a child; also considering the stigmatization that comes with such practice.
We interpreted this influence on our custom prints by having connecting tribal mark lines showing how this practice affected all irrespective of age, gender, tribe etc. For further interpretation, we used yarns to create strand-like fringe details on pieces. Exploring different range of tuck details and bias line bands, we created various texturizations of our subject. Denim made its first ever impression in our collection, with details of hand embroidery. For colors we went muted with various shades of blues, greys, off-white and black.
Is there someone you haven’t dressed that you’d love to see in your clothes?
The list is endless… I want to dress every powerful woman using her clout to make remarkable impressions in the world.
Where do you see your brand in five years?
I see Meena gaining vast global visibility, accessibility and in good company with other honorable brands.
As an African designer, What challenges do you anticipate you will have to overcome to realize your five year vision for Meena?
The African fashion industry is an emerging one which is gaining grounds and wider interests. As an African designer, we are faced with collective issues such as infrastructure – constant power supply has been one of the main concerns. The issue of Production has persisted over the years in the Nigerian industry as working factories are limited. You find in most cases, there is a struggle to meet the demands of the products. There is also an inaccessibility to funds and unavailability of grants for small businesses. And, sourcing and retaining skilled manpower is quite a task in this sphere.
The Designer Shirt Project by Designers Consociate
Zara Odu, Founder
When did you create The Designer Shirt Project?
The project was created in 2017.
What inspired you to create the project?
For as long as long as I can remember, I’ve been passionate about the manufacturing of luxury goods in Africa. Having worked in the industry for over 10 years, I’ve seen first hand how difficult it can be to source and manufacture locally due to many infrastructural challenges. I launched Designers Consociate in 2017 and with Local Production as one of our key agenda points, I began to think of ways to encourage this sector in our industry. I approached Omoyemi Akerele, who I’ve worked closely with for about a decade, and discussed the idea of asking designers to create a one off item produced by the Human Capital Development Center – an apparel manufacturing training center. Local production is also at the top of Omoyemi’s vision for our growing industry and her company, Style House Files currently manages the HCDC. The center has through training, created a skilled set of garment manufacturers, now operating as a factory. We developed a 3 way partnership, between Lagos Fashion Week, Designers Consociate, and HCDC and without the full support and sponsorship of Lagos Fashion Week, this project would not have been brought to life. For the first season, I wanted to use this project as an opportunity to support the HCDC, as well as encourage designers to produce locally using HCDC as their manufacturing hub. For the second season, we used organic cotton sourced from Northern Nigeria by ThisIsUs to produce the shirts as I wanted to encourage the designers to begin to think about using organic cotton or local, indigenous textiles in their collections long term. The response to both collections has been quite amazing.
What is the mission of the project?
Our mission is three fold : 1) to support and promote the manufacturing of garments in Nigeria, and ultimately, Africa as a whole, 2) to encourage the use of raw and natural materials available to us in Africa, and 3) to highlight the work of designers across Africa.
Please describe the state of sustainability in Nigeria at the moment?
Its difficult to describe precisely because sustainability has different meanings in different contexts. For example, in general, many designer brands pay their staff good wages, they work in healthy and safe environments, and sometimes give bonuses and premiums – in sustainability this is what we call “Good Practice”. In many cases, many of the products are still being made in slow and meaningful ways – something that the global market is now placing a demand on the fashion industry to consider as a means of production.
That being said, I don’t believe that sustainability in its sense of re-using materials, attempting to avoid waste, sourcing materials carefully and consciously, and manufacturing with a circular economy in mind is a priority for the industry and country at large. It’s still a niche topic, but something we’re extremely passionate about at Designers Consociate. Our goal is to highlight these topics and bring them to the forefront with special projects like The Designer Shirt Project.
What input are you looking to contribute to the local manufacturing industry in terms of sustainability at this stage in its development?
I want to inspire and encourage both makers and consumers to think more creatively, consciously, carefully, and responsibly – about how they make and consume products. We will continue to develop special projects that encourage this through the production of high quality, innovative products with luxury sensibilities – products that people will be not only excited but equally surprised to know were made in Africa. The Craftsmanship industry has a huge economic opportunity waiting to be tapped in to! We want to be influential in developing the existing skill sets of these craftspeople.
What are the strengths or benefits of capsule collections like The Designer Shirt Project?
Capsule collections are great because they are exclusive, one-off, and a great way to present a strong vision on different projects. Their short-term nature allows for a big and quick impact. I’ve discovered it as an effective way to push the Designers Consociate vision.
How do you select the designers?
It ranges from season to season, but generally we look for designers who are super talented, with a great following, and easy to collaborate with. In addition, as their price points are usually on the high side, we’re asking them to create shirts which will be retailed at $55 or less, and this is a great incentive for shoppers.
What is the long term goal of The Designer Shirt Project?
With everything we do, we want to promote, support, encourage, inspire, and influence. We’re taking on a huge task, and its not an easy one that can be done by ourselves. This is one of the reasons why partnerships and collaborations are key for us. We’re a small part of the big picture and we’re doing our part to ensure that real, tangible, effective changes are made in our industry. Our long term goal is to begin to see a lot more designers and brands not only produce locally, but also source raw and natural materials locally as they create their collections and products. Sourcing and producing locally contributes to the growth and sustainability of the industry.
What is the message that you are trying to convey internationally with The Designer Shirt Project?
Our key message is that it is possible to produce high quality products in Africa. With our talented designers and expert craftspeople, along with a vast, unique, and rich repertoire of handcrafted techniques and raw materials, the possibilities are endless!
Shirt by Tsemaye Binitie , The Designer Shirt Project by Designers Consociate.
Folake Coker, Designer
Do you have a theme when drawing inspiration for a collection, or is your process more personal?
I believe it’s a combination of both. Season after season, the theme that inspires me differs based on where I am in my personal space, in other words I design from my soul.
My last collection Made in Africa… Made for now was inspired by a new wave of African women I came in contact with on a regular basis. They can best be described as global nomads in terms of their style. They pretty much sum up who the Tiffany Amber woman is today. They are not afraid to experiment with their culture, they stand out in any port they enter, they command a new type of chic, a new type of style, a new type of sexy, a new type of cool, a new type of elegance that is made in Africa… and is made for now.
Where did the name Tiffany Amber come from?
The name Tiffany Amber was inspired by the celebration of sisterhood through the precious bond I shared with my childhood friends Tiffany and Amber which I wanted to carry with me always. I remember thinking I would name my daughter Tiffany Amber whenever I had her…Tiffany Amber the brand might as well be my first child.
Since launching your brand in 1998, you’ve extended your brand into multiple lines. Is the DNA for all of your lines the same, or do they represent themselves as standalone creations?
I would say all the lines leverage on the brands signature, anchor and principle artistic line. So yes you can see the Tiffany Amber DNA in all the sub brands, but they have been modified to appeal to the specific appetite of a wider range of audience.
You’ve also created a home brand. Has the creative/management process
been more challenging than creating clothes? If so, have you gained new knowledge that you could bring back to managing and creating your clothing lines?
Because the home line is relatively young, it has not been as challenging. I imagine as it grows it would become more so. Again because the line draws on the core aesthetics of the anchor brand’s DNA, the creativity required is along the same line as the clothes.
When I started my journey in the Fashion industry…the industry was not what it is now. Tiffany Amber was the first ready to wear label established in Nigeria by a Nigerian. I managed every aspect of the business myself which was fine at the time when the business was very small. I was working 19 hours a day…over time I was burnt out and literally watched the roof cave in on me.
Going back to your question, I’ve learnt that when things become too challenging, look to find where (the aspect of the business) someone can be employed to join the team and ease up the load. This then allows me to focus on the core of designing and perform optimally on the creative process of all the lines.
How does it feel to be one of the strongest forces in the African fashion industry? Do you feel a large sense of responsibility?
In terms of my ego, I try not to connect to it and dwell on my achievements…this allows me to remain grounded and focused and keep looking into the future for more possibilities and opportunities. And yes it does come with a lot of responsibility. The constant need to re-invent myself and the brand in order to remain relevant in the ever so dynamic fashion landscape is extremely tasking. There’s also the responsibility of remaining ethical in every aspect of the business irrespective of what challenges we are facing. And lastly the need to stay on top of my game because of all the younger designers looking up to me as inspiration.
In the last 20 years, how has your brand evolved and alongside the fashion industry in Nigeria?
20 years ago when I launched Tiffany Amber, my aim was to bring African women in line with fashion trends as they evolve around the globe. Now it has become a fashion and lifestyle brand with a distinctly African accent and global appeal.
With the continuous changes in the society, culture, technology, people’s style and pursuit for individuality …I’m constantly adapting my strategy and plans to ensure that Tiffany Amber stays relevant in the market and her global pursuit while achieving her vision of becoming a global heritage brand.
Debra Brown contributed to this feature.