Clothes can make a nation during Lagos Fashion and Design Week

by @postcardjunky November 13, 2014 5:00AM ET

In global world of fashion, Nigerian designers adding heft to national economy and identity

Models wearing outfits created by designer Lanre Da Silva Ajayi are readied for the runway backstage during Lagos Fashion and Design Week, November 1, 2014.
Andrew Esiebo for Al Jazeera America

LAGOS — Standing in her crowded workshop in the working-class neighborhood of Ikotun recently, fashion designer Ejiro Amos Tafiri stared out of a dusty window, looking across the corrugated iron rooftops to where a bulldozer trundled down a nearby street.

“They’ve been fixing this road for over a year,” said the 31-year-old.

The workshop around her thrummed with the steady buzz of electric sewing machines, the snipping of scissors, the mutterings of young assistants with measuring tapes around their necks and pins clenched between their teeth.

If time was on Tafiri’s mind, it was with good reason: Her spring collection would be hitting the runway in just five days, and as with many young designers at Lagos Fashion and Design Week, which ran from Oct. 29 to Nov. 1, the stakes were high.

Ejiro Amos Tafiri directs the production in her atelier a few days prior to her show.
Andrew Esiebo for Al Jazeera America
One of Ejiro’s designs on the runway.
Andrew Esiebo for Al Jazeera America

Tafiri isn’t yet a household name in Nigerian fashion, but with the opening of her flagship store this September in the tony Ikoyi neighborhood of Lagos, she is a designer on the rise — one of many Nigerians who are increasingly staking a claim to the catwalks of the global fashion world.

It’s the reason why Lagos Fashion and Design Week, now in its fourth year, has become such a vital platform for local designers looking to burst onto the international scene — those like Maki Oh, a favorite of Michelle Obama’s, who hobnobbed with Diane von Furstenberg and Narciso Rodriguez at a White House reception last month, or London-based Duro Olowu, whose print dresses also fill the First Lady’s closet. For four days each year, in a blaze of klieg lights and cocktail parties, the Lagos fashion world comes together to preen, gossip and rub nattily dressed elbows as they take stock of their growing industry.

The audience at the Iconic Invanity show.
Andrew Esiebo for Al Jazeera America

According to the event’s founder, Omoyemi Akerele, who runs a creative development agency for African designers called Style House Files, it’s part of a broader effort to boost the profile of local designers and create a greater public awareness around the importance of fashion — both to the Nigerian economy and to its sense of national identity.

“People [need to] understand fashion is a multibillion-dollar industry, and not just a bunch of bored housewives,” says Akerele.

“Fashion might seem frivolous, but it contributes to who we are as everyday people — as Nigerians, as human beings.”

While her clothes are made for the modern woman, Tafiri draws inspiration from the past. In her workshop she wore an indigo-dyed batik blouse with matching pants, updating an outfit made with a traditional dyeing technique by giving it a sleek, contemporary cut.

“I try to infuse my culture into everything I do,” she explains.

Ejiro shops in the Tejusho textile market.
Andrew Esiebo for Al Jazeera America

Tafiri has dressed Nollywood actresses and Nigerian pop stars, but her target demographic is the young woman flipping through the pages of magazines like Complete Fashion, eyeing those same starlets. While her dresses can run upwards of $200, many of Tafiri’s pieces are in the $50-$60 range, accessible to the young, upwardly mobile and aspirational women whom she sees as her ideal customer.

“They’re the ones who want to get what the actress is wearing,” she says. “They’re working hard and they want to treat themselves at the end of the month.”

Tafiri can relate. Raised in a family of civil servants, she’s spent nearly 15 years in Ikotun, on the densely populated mainland of Lagos, a long, traffic-jammed slog from the Champagne flutes and red carpets of the more fashionable islands at the city’s foot.

“It helps to come from this kind of neighborhood [because] I know who I’m dealing with,” she says, again looking out the window. “I’m not living in the clouds.”

Ejiro grew up in Ikotun, a working class neighborhood in Lagos.
Andrew Esiebo for Al Jazeera America

Earlier this year, Nigeria overtook South Africa as the continent’s biggest economy, and with a rapidly growing middle class — representing as many as 40 million potential consumers, according to some estimates — the retail sector is booming. Today the retail economy is an even bigger contributor to Nigeria’s GDP than oil and gas. McKinsey & Company, the global consulting firm, estimates that the sector will have grown by as much as $40 billion between 2008 and 2020. []

Nigerians are celebrated consumers — Selfridges, in London, ranks them among its five biggest spenders, and Champagne sales are rising faster in Nigeria than anywhere outside of France — and on Lagos’ ritzy Victoria Island, which boasts one of the highest concentrations of millionaires on the planet, conspicuous consumption is the norm. Porsche opened its second African showroom on the island in 2012, and European brands like Ermenegildo Zegna and Hugo Boss have arrived in recent years to tap into the voracious local demand for luxury goods.

But more high-end concept stores, like Temple Muse in Victoria Island and Stranger in nearby Lekki, are opening each year, and they’re increasingly stocking local brands. Early next year, a new concept store, Alara, designed by the acclaimed British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, will be the latest newcomer on the scene.

An afterparty during Lagos Fashion week.
Andrew Esiebo for Al Jazeera America

On the runway outside the Federal Palace Hotel, which hosted fashion week this year, the collections — from elaborate haute couture to playful pret-a-porter — merged distinctly Nigerian wax print patterns and bold colors with a more globalized sensibility.

According to Bayo Oke-Lawal, creative designer of the menswear label Orange Culture, more Nigerians are looking inward for “a modern ideology of what Africa looks like.” That support will go a long way toward determining how much the fashion industry can grow.

“Add Nigeria to your closet,” Oke-Lawal says he advises potential customers. “Buy Nigerian.”

Models present creations designed by Maki Oh.
Andrew Esiebo for Al Jazeera America

Poor infrastructure, unreliable power supplies and the high cost of doing business in Nigeria, however, make building a fashion industry from the ground up a challenge. Even with a growing number of retail spaces, the country’s anemic manufacturing sector is an obstacle for designers looking to produce locally. “What comes first — the cart or the horse?” asks Akerele. “Do you sort out manufacturing or distribution?”

Finding consistency across the supply chain is also a hurdle, says Joke Ladoja, founder of the contemporary clothing line Grey, as well as Eve and Tribe, a casual line designed for the growing online market.

Ladoja estimates that up to 30 percent of the clothes produced locally each quarter for Grey have to be scrapped because of poor craftsmanship. (For that reason, Eve and Tribe’s last collection was made in China.) While Nigerian designers and retailers dream about tapping into the mass-market customer base of the continent’s most populous nation, the goal of scaling up — and bringing prices down — remains elusive.

“The mass market in Nigeria wants it so, so cheap,” says Ladoja, “and that’s where we still struggle.”

Ejiro sits with her business partner Diana Ubah, left, hours before her show, tinkering with the sequence her models would appear on the runway.
Andrew Esiebo for Al Jazeera America

Hours before her show, Tafiri sat in a meeting room at the Federal Palace Hotel with Kanayo Ebi, her head stylist, and business partner Diana Ubah, who sat at a raspberry-colored MacBook, tinkering with the evening’s playlist. Tafiri was hunched over the table, shuffling around pictures of her models in the order they would appear on the runway. The mood was tense, as if three generals were preparing to send a particularly stylish army to invade a neighboring country.

Tafiri was stressed. A few days before, her car was impounded; and then, on the eve of her show, the dry cleaner destroyed nearly half her collection. The designer and her team were up through the night, making new dresses from scratch. At the table she closed her eyes, rocking her head slowly to the beat coming from Ubah’s laptop. Someone asked if she’d be going to one of the VIP parties after the show. Tafiri made a face.

“Tomorrow’s Sunday,” she said matter-of-factly. “Church.”

Backstage at the shows.
Andrew Esiebo for Al Jazeera America
Ejiro's collection waits to be steamed before the presentation of her collection.
Andrew Esiebo for Al Jazeera America

By 8 p.m. the night’s first models were strutting down the catwalk. Latecomers were still pouring into the tent, which was standing room only. Watching from the rear was the designer Lanre Da Silva Ajayi, who would be showing her spring collection later that night. Just days before, Da Silva had caused a social media firestorm when she told the host of a morning talk show that fashion was more important than soccer — a claim that provoked the soccer legend Daniel Amokachi and sent Twitter-mad Nigeria into a frenzy with the competing hashtags #GoFootball and #GoFashion.

Da Silva, who has shown her collections in New York and Milan, stood her ground. “The world is looking to Africa now,” she told Al Jazeera. “[Fashion] is about redefining our heritage and showing it to them in a different way.”

Finally, sometime after 9 p.m., Tafiri’s collection hit the runway. The room was still dark. Whispers ran through the crowd. A few people began shouting, “Lights!” Earlier in the week, the power had gone out for nearly half an hour, sending high-heeled socialites teetering out into the humid evening air. This time, however, the blackout was by design: Small, luminous flowers on the models’ dresses glowed on the runway. The effect was lost on much of the crowd. When the lights came on, people cheered.

In her workshop earlier in the week, Tafiri called Lagos Fashion and Design Week an important measuring stick for her growth — both as a person and as a brand. “It’s something that keeps me on my toes,” she said. “By this time next year, where will we be?”

As the final model hit the catwalk in a billowing bridal gown, and more cheers went up around the room, Tafiri’s future seemed bright. Backstage she received congratulations from other designers and stylists. Her phone rang, friends and family sending their well-wishes. She paused to hug a buyer from Ivory Coast. For the first time all week she looked relieved, slumping into a chair.

“It’s over,” she said, heaving her shoulders. And then, after a pause: “It’s just starting, actually.”