#SuzyLFWNG Lagos Fashion: Building Local, Feeling Global

Looking at the construction work hazing the Lagos skyline with towering cranes, it is hard to imagine that this vibrant city still has the energy – or the need – to build a fashion business.

Should we believe the words, “Africa – Shaping Fashion’s Future” written on the bold signage for Lagos Fashion Week? Or even imagine, while oil tankers lumber down chaotically choked roads, that this continent could be an international fashion haven?

Omoyemi Akerele set aside her law career eight years ago to focus on building Lagos Fashion Week. Her aim was to position fashion textiles and clothing, and grow the industry in Nigeria.

“We are trying to educate people; everyone sees the shows – the glitz and glamour – but not the concepts, especially in a country like Nigeria, where you don’t have millions of manufacturing companies,” she said. “So we want to reach out, to train women and youth in garment-making skills. Then, after eight months, they start to make clothes, such as shirts, and then there is a connection with the public. People understand how it’s made and the real people who are doing the work.”

I understood the thought process of Omoyemi and Tokundo, her husband and business partner. Yet the torrent of collections over three days in a giant tent on Victoria Island did not include many simple, plain white shirts.

Instead, there were shirts cut in batik, rich in colour and pattern; tops in the burning orange of an African sunrise; flowing trousers in silken green; or the reality of plain cream tailoring for women at work.

Touches of whimsy elevated the clothes above the ordinary. Beyond the tented shows, the Tiffany Amber line, founded two decades ago by Lagos designer Folake Akindele-Coker, offered among the elegant evening wear a draped black dress decorated with three-dimensional tinselled palm trees.

Yet there was a genuine sense of reality in these Lagos collections. And when British Prime Minister Theresa May chose an outfit from local designer Emmy Kasbit for her recent trip to Lagos, she proved that African fashion can be striking and stylish. Can you imagine Prince Charles wearing a dashing Tokyo James suit with snake-print inserts on an upcoming visit to Africa?

The first things I learned about Nigeria are its ever-growing youth generation in an African continent where 60 per cent of the population are under 25; and the consumer power of the wedding industry, which feeds 1.5 million nuptials a year – a demand larger than from all EU countries together.

Only in India have I seen such hunger for bridal clothes. And in Lagos I realised the financial power of beauty. US brand Maybelline, owned by l’Oréal, is a major sponsor for Lagos Fashion Week, and the audience at the shows suggested an effort with hair and make-up unseen in European or American fashion weeks.

Building a fashion image for a continent that once saw clothes as tribal totems is challenging. But Lagos Fashion Week hit the right note by embracing designers from a wider sweep. They included Studio 189 from New York, whose show I saw during New York Fashion Week. From its headquarters in Ghana, the brand’s co-founders – actress Rosario Dawson and designer Abrima Erwiah – have managed to turn sustainability into a vibrant and energetic style. There was also an excellent and original collection of knitwear from South Africa’s MaXhosa by Laduma.

A striking collection from Senegalese brand Tongoro caught my eye – even before I discovered that Beyoncé had beaten me to it! Sarah Diouf seemed to capture so sincerely a certain African spirit from Dakar. I met her later at the Temple Muse store – a crossover of art and fashion created by Avinash Wadhwani, whose eye for exquisite objects, artistic presentation, and sharp vision of the fresh and new create an aura of excitement.

As we sat over a cup of tea, discussing the importance of “the edit” in our shopping-saturated times, Wadhwani told me about his aims when he set out seven years ago.

“The temple is a sign of purity and ‘muse’ evokes inspiration,” he said, “so there are white walls everywhere.”

But why, I wondered, has Lagos still not established a high-end street like the ones that you find in almost every capital city? The Ermenegildo Zegna store, founded five years ago, still stands proud and alone, surrounded by car showrooms.

Not too far away – although only hawkers selling water or candy dare to walk in the car-clogged roads – is Alara, the concept store with a mountainous climb of steps to view a finely-edited collection of fashion, mostly international, but some local.

Reni Folawiyo, the store’s founder and inspiration, told me about mixing in beautifully made goods with a story, international and pan-African. I drooled as much over an embroidered stool as the elegant shoe placed on top of it and admired the way both objects and settings seemed to fit together in an artistic way.

What didn’t I see on the streets of this vibrant city? The answer is the Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and other big brand stores so prevalent in cities from Europe to far-flung parts of Asia.

At the Polo Avenue store opposite the Raddison Hotel, I saw a floor of accessories from well-known, mostly Italian labels, all chosen to compliment the long-established watch business in the entrance area. Jennifer Obayuwana, a second-generation retailer, is adamant that high-end customers in Lagos are not yet demanding upscale boutiques, preferring to buy designer pieces discreetly on private, pre-arranged visits.

Discretion seems to be the essence of high-end shopping in Lagos – and maybe in other African cities.

“I do not think that Nigeria is ready for a flagship store,” said Melani Rhawani of the En Vogue boutique. “I do feel the social lifestyle is growing, and although it is an emerging market, I do think we are heading in the right direction.”

“I would say it all depends what happens in February,” she continued, referring to the country’s upcoming general elections. “Whoever is the next President, it will be a big step.”

But it may also be that attitudes to getting and spending are changing. They might develop differently in Africa to the previous wild enthusiasm for boldly branded goods in China and the Far East.

Omoyemi has an interesting vision of the budding African market and its chances of bursting into flower.

“Two years ago we launched a campaign called ‘Connecting the Dots’, because for a long time, designers were beginning to think it was all about them,” she explained. “It was high time we said, ‘Guys, this has gone on for too long. Meet this woman – this is what she does; and meet this person who actually makes the clothes.’ Beyond the designer is the value chain, because the only way we can take it from where it is now to the next level is if the wheels are well oiled and everyone plays a role.“