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For the chief executive of the luxury etailer Luisavia-roma.com to attend Lagos Fashion Week, as he did last month, might have raised eyebrows a few years ago. Today, Andrea Panconesi is one of the city’s fashion scene’s most enthusiastic evangelists. “Lagos is the next important emerging economy,” he explains. “With the oil moving from the Middle East to Nigeria, the UN is expecting it to be the world’s largest city by 2015. It is the centre of business for the whole continent, like São Paulo is for South America. And where there is a strong economy, fashion follows.”
Nigeria has sashayed into the style spotlight this year: Michelle Obama wore London-based Nigerian-born Duro Olowu’s print dresses and a hand-painted indigo blouse by Lagos-based Maki Oh for a state visit to South Africa in June, while Beyoncé posted a selfie wearing a sweatshirt by London-born Nigerian designer Walé Adeyemi on Instagram in January.
Helen Jennings, editor of the pan-African fashion magazine Arise, says that Lagos designers are right at the zeitgeist. “The handcrafted quality and their locally-sourced fabrics tap into how luxury fashion is moving globally,” she says.
Malawi-born Daphne Kasambala, founder and chief executive of ethical African fashion etailer Sapelle.com, says: “Nigeria is a vast country with a diversity of tribes and tribal groupings. The Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo tribes, for instance, all have different cultural backgrounds, costumes and histories. This gives these designers a wealth of textiles, prints, and influences to draw from.”
Take the clothing currently on offer from Nigerian labels such as Jewel by Lisa, which incorporates exquisite hand embellishments into everyday patterned Ankara fabrics; Re Bahia, which uses traditional hand-embroidery techniques with modern-day prints (skirts from £340); and Buki Akib’s handwoven sporty styles (hooded jackets from $555). Orange Culture uses prints featuring old Nigerian coins for its tailored suits (blazers from £220), Nkwo’s slinky retro silk wrap (£375) updates the traditional wrapper and Bridget Awosika fuses an African aesthetic with a downtown New York vibe with handwoven silk-fringed dresses (from £250).
“These labels clearly have tribal inspiration but don’t shriek ‘Africa’, so they fit into the western wardrobe”, says Simon Burstein, chief executive of London fashion boutique Browns, which is planning an event to celebrate designers from Lagos next year.
Not all the influences are tribal. Joshua Udiminue, creative director of Josh Samuels and young designer of the year at last year’s Lagos Fashion Week, turned to architecture for his autumn/winter plaid menswear collection. “I studied it at college so I was bringing together vertical and horizontal lines to build a design,” he says.
Lagos-based designer Ituen Basi, known for her tasselled Ankara dresses, says: “We can’t buy internationally and it’s difficult to get fabrics because there are no textile mills. So we use what we find in the markets. It makes us innovative, as we find new ways of doing things.”
“I want my clients to turn heads wherever they go,” says Nancy Nwadire, creative director of Iconic Invanity, whose custom-made beaded pieces have attracted customers such as America’s first lady and Folorunsho Alakija, Nigeria’s richest woman.
While the new middle class is often credited for driving the emergence of Nigerian designers, Lisa Folawiyo of Jewel by Lisa points to the country’s huge youth population – 70 per cent of the 160m-plus people are under 35 – as an equally important factor.
“The youth dictate our fashion today,” she says. “And they want to buy Nigerian like never before.”