There's a steady stream of models marching down the catwalk to a pumping beat. The flow's interrupted when one of them, her straightened hair held tight in a ponytail, stumbles. A moment later she kicks off the loose shoe and carries on walking, her shoeless foot touching the ground on tiptoe at every step. Striking a pose for a sea of blinking flashes, she stares blankly ahead. She strides off the runway to huge applause. After all, it's the first day of Lagos Fashion & Design Week and the show must go on.
Lagos is a fashion week toddler. As soon as the models, fashion editors, buyers and bloggers complete their biannual pilgrimage jetting between the front rows of New York, London, Milan and Paris, a second wave of equally fascinating fashion weeks kicks off. For the remainder of the year, beneath the mainstream radar, fashion weeks take place in countries on every continent, from Alaska to Zambia, Kigali to Phnom Penh, Islamabad to Kingston. As recently as two years ago, many of these events didn't exist.
It's early days still in Lagos's fashion-week history — the LFDW has just had its third year — but style, attitude and doggedness are in the DNA of this African megacity of 21 million people. Lagosians seem louder than everyone else, busier and more determined as they juggle multiple side-hustles.
Dressing well is a matter of pride here, whatever your circumstances, even if you don't have a job to keep you afloat. A huge informal fashion industry is already booming — from the ubiquitous hair salons and weave shops to bustling fabric markets. It's not unusual to spot men getting $1 manicures by the roadside. There's a strong bespoke tradition: people from all walks of life go hunting for fabrics in the markets to give to their local tailors. Raw silk, satin, chiffon, damask, taffeta, lace, Guinea brocade, Vlisco cloth made in the Netherlands for a near-exclusive African market... Lagos souks are a cacophony of colour and texture.
The city's landscape of looping bridges and mushrooming houses remains off the beaten path for most tourists. Yet a growing number of international fashion journalists are attending its fashion week, egged on by the British fashion doyenne Suzy Menkes of the International New York Times (formerly the International Herald Tribune), who has played a pivotal role in sparking the conversation about the future of fashion in Africa.
South Sudanese-British supermodel Alek Wek appeared on the catwalk for local designer Tiffany Amber at fashion week here last year. There's been an LFDW partnership with the British Fashion Council to award up-and-coming designers with cash prizes and London internships, and British designer Matthew Williamson headlined as international guest fashion designer. Propelled by such support, Lagos is gaining more visibility and buyers are taking notice. London's Selfridges tweeted: 'Suzy Menkes, front row at Lagos Fashion Week. It's officially on the map #lfdw,' followed by a picture of her sporting her signature reddish-brown pompadour. After the shows, Selfridges' buyers showcased the standout stars of the Nigerian design scene in a pop-up in the London store.
One of the most influential players attending the Spring/Summer 2014 collections is Browns' chief executive Simon Burstein. 'Browns has always been a pioneering company seeking talent wherever it is,' he says. 'We brought the Japanese to London, and the same thing with the American designers — it was their moment. Is this the African moment? I don't know, but we're certainly curious to see more.'
Designer Maki Oh at work in Lagos
Except for a bit more traffic and a few billboard adverts in the highbrow end of town, you'd hardly notice that fashion week was underway. Indeed, many Lagosians would be surprised to learn that their boisterous city has such an event cocooned within gigantic tents set up annually in the outdoor spaces of two of the city's most prestigious hotels. London Fashion Week has Somerset House, Lagos has the Eko Hotel & Suites and Federal Palace Hotel, complete with green carpets (a show of subliminal patriotism: green and white are Nigeria's national colours).
It's the first day of LFDW and scores of photographers are here snapping celebrities from Nigeria's vibrant film and music industries. Genevieve Nnaji, one of the country's highest-paid actresses and described by Oprah Winfrey as one of the biggest international superstars, is encircled by photographers as she tells waiting journalists that her stunning canary yellow asymmetric chiffon dress is the work of Nigerian designer Bridget Awosika.
Over the next four days, 44 designers will send more than 60 models down their catwalks, showcasing their latest creations. There's a wealth of talent here and a bevy of designers are already seducing international audiences: Lagos-raised designer Duro Olowu is a favourite of Michelle Obama; while Deola Sagoe, Nigeria's haute-couture icon, is vehemently supported by US Vogue editor-at-large, André Leon Tally.
A rising star is Amaka Osakwe and her label Maki Oh. Her show's predicted to be one of the highlights of the week and it's packed. One of the marked differences to the major fashion weeks is just how many local people populate the audiences. In London, New York, Milan and Paris, the public barely gets a look in. Here, it's all about them. Standing out in the front row, is the editorial director of New York's Paper Magazine, Mickey Boardman, in his animal-print framed Stella McCartney glasses. For the finale, the
girls walk down the runway swinging their hips to Daft Punk's Doin' it Right. The crowd of buyers and local fashion industry youngsters whoop, clap and cheer as Osakwe steps out from backstage. It's a big moment for a young woman who graduated in 2009 from Arts University Bournemouth with a BA in Fashion Studies.
A few days after the show, we meet up at her studio, a bright white space punctuated with pops of colour from the traditional aso oke fabric and organic-dyed cottons she's working on. 'Fashion came into my mind after I realised I wasn't going to be a lawyer or a Femi Kuti dancer,' she smiles, her long thin braids wrapped up in a turban. Her designs are strong and modern, but rooted in history with her use of ancestral traditions. The richness of fabrics is the most distinctive part of West African fashion, and if there's one thing that Nigeria's successful designers share, it's the use of print. 'Adire is one of the few authentic Nigerian fabrics we have,' explains Osakwe. Four years after she started her label, she arrived on the international scene when Michelle Obama chose to wear her design on a rare official trip to the continent. 'It was an iconic moment,' Osakwe says with characteristic understatement.
Nigerian-born designer Tsemaye Binitie, sporting his signature baseball hat, says his latest collection drew inspiration not from his African roots but from Japanese origami as his team packs his clothes backstage after his show. 'I saw a little origami flower and it set off a train of thought, "How do we fold fabric to make a shape in clothing?"' Binitie says. The designer, who graduated from Kingston University London in 2004, worked for John Richmond, Burberry and Stella McCartney before launching his eponymous label in 2010. 'It's good to show in Nigeria. I'm from Nigeria, I grew up here. And yes, you have to come home!'
One of the few non-Nigerians to show at LFDW is Ghanaian Aisha Obuobi. For her, fashion week here is an additional platform to increase her exposure. 'Lagos is well on its way to becoming a fashion hub for the continent,' says Obuobi, flush from her just-concluded show. Obuobi has shown her work in Milan alongside nine other African designers, as well as in Paris and Johannesburg. 'We are still a young brand,' she says, 'but we're getting there.' Hanging behind her is her new collection, which gives a new interpretation to traditional embroidery. Plain brocade boubous (the flowing wide-sleeved robe) are traditionally embellished with intricately embroidered bibs. It's the bibs Obuobi reinvents, hanging them from the models' waists rather than tacking them to the neckline. 'I wanted to find a new way to use West African embroidery,' she says.
Closing fashion week is one of Lagos's biggest designers, Lisa Folawiyo's label Jewel by Lisa. It's 9pm but the heat's stifling and the hip crowd are using their programmes as fans to stay cool. Folawiyo's new collection is worthy recompense: it's playful, with a bicycle motif printed on silky fabrics and embroidered on heavy white coats. At the end, she walks out to the crowd wearing a boyfriend shirt and ripped jeans. Folawiyo, who originally studied to become a lawyer, has been one of the country's best fashion crossover successes, collaborating with BlackBerry and L'Oréal.
Photographers at Lagos Fashion and Design Week
But for all the enthusiasm about this unexpected fashion destination, the industry remains beset by challenges. There are the regular power cuts, a moribund textile industry, the lack of professional fashion design schools and a still timid retail industry. For buyers whose ultimate goal is to be able to place large orders, the inability of many designers to produce in substantial quantities, and by extension, offer competitive pricing, is problematic. As Bidemi Zakariyau of one of the biggest Nigerian retailers DFNG, says, 'Within the last five years, the fashion industry has grown immensely. People are beginning to step up, but for now everything is so, so small.'
The 'pioneer' of Nigeria's fashion industry, Omoyemi Akerele (the creative director of Style House Files, the agency that masterminds LFDW) agrees. 'We're moving, but not as fast as we want to. You can only grow as much as your environment is growing,' she says. But while LFDW isn't profitable, it is spurring growth in other parts of the industry, such as modelling and retail. 'We see our role as catalysts, we're agents of change,' Akerele says.
The signs are looking good: Lagos is, after all, one of the ten fastest economically developing cities in the world. Buoyed by dynamic local designers, the shows will go on. And while the dominance of the kingpins of fashion isn't threatened by Lagos, it's one of the most dynamic new kids on the block, with the potential to become a new, exciting capital.
Johannesburg recently became the first African city to be included in the 20 top fashion capitals list compiled by the Global Language Monitor and there's no reason why Lagos couldn't be next. 'There are so many cities trying to join New York, London, Milan and Paris. There's a lot of competition,' says Paper Magazine's Mickey Boardman. 'But the future is more multipolar and isn't just about those four fashion cities.'
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