Creating glamor in Nigeria's ghettos

Story highlights

  • Italian designer Caterina Bortolussi has started an ethical fashion label in Nigeria
  • Bortolussi has trained and hired girls from the region to become models and brand ambassadors
  • Next year she hopes to inspire more locals and teach tailoring skills
In the ghettos of the Niger Delta, one woman is on a mission to bring glamor to the region while at the same time educating and inspiring promising young talent from the area.
Caterina Bortolussi has always been interested in fashion. But what started as the dream of a young girl from a small town outside of Venice, Italy, has become a reality years later in the ghettos of Port Harcourt in the south of Nigeria.
In December 2010, Bortolussi started her fashion label Kinabuti. With designs inspired by Nigeria, reflecting the vibrant colors and traditions of Africa, Bortolussi decided on an ethical twist to her organization. She wanted to use fashion as an instrument for change in the region.
"I thought, 'Why can't we use fashion as a vehicle to make a difference?' We should lead by example," says Bortolussi.
"We should do something that will make a difference and inspire other people. That is what I want to do with Kinabuti: positive action."
The label's ethos is to engage with the local community as well as provide opportunities and training to the people who need it most, says Bortolussi.
She held casting sessions in various local communities, choosing 21 young girls aged 16 to 25.
With no prior experience in modeling, they underwent training at "Buti Camp" in professional skills such as make up and hairstyling, runway walking, posing and other fundamental tricks of the trade.
These women became the "Kinabuti girls" and work with the label to promote and model the designs. Their role also gives them the opportunity to meet people, work with other designers and learn skills to take with them in the future.
Bortolussi says: "I tell them, 'Not all of you will become a top model. Be realistic. Learn the most you can.'
"It's a job that we enable them to explore themselves. Their mindset is changing. This [Lagos] is a city with 18 million people -- one of the biggest cities in the world. And now they are learning that if they work hard they can achieve anything."
And Bortolussi's campaign of inspiration seems to be working. Twenty-year-old Abigail Okoye stumbled across Kinabuti by accident but says it has changed her life forever.
She says: "I was just walking down the road and someone told me I looked like a model and asked me to go to the casting that was going on. So I went.
"It has allowed me to learn so many things. I'm meeting new people and I can achieve more in life ... Apart from being a model, which is my dream, I also want to go into fashion designing because I love colors. It's a beautiful profession."
Another young model from the region, Ini Godwin, was an unqualified teacher in a small local school. Like many others in the Port Harcourt ghettos, life before Kinabuti was a constant struggle for her family.
She says: "You have to fight for your living ... I lived with my parents, my brothers, my sisters, and we tried to make ends meet. With Kinabuti, it was an experience that added something different and brought a new feeling to me.
"It's not everyday in life that we have the opportunity to do what we want to do ... Being part of Kinabuti has showed me that I can do things. It made me believe in myself. Having that in my head ... has been the most exciting part of this experience so far."
Bortolussi says that one year in, the journey has, at times, been difficult.
"Nigeria is such a hard country. It is very real," says Bortolussi. "There are some very creative designers but no distribution. Production is challenging, and there is no light, no electricity. All the time we are running generators. It makes everything expensive and hard to run a business. It's very challenging."
These obstacles were captured by Swedish filmmaker Marcus Werner Hed, who directed a documentary about Kinabuti called "In our Ghetto." The film follows the girls over three weeks providing an insight into the lives of the Kinabuti models as they prepared for the launch of the label.
Werner Hed admires the message that Bortolussi is trying to send to the community. "I was mostly impressed with the amount of self-confidence that Caterina's project brings to these girls," he says.
"[Port Harcourt is] quite a hard and depressing place, but incredible and vibrant as well. It's a city that has overgrown its infrastructure and it's not got the amenities it needs to function as a city," he adds.
Regeneration is part of Bortolussi's larger and rather ambitious plan for the region. As well as continuing with the brand and educational elements, she wants to try different types of training.
"Our focus is on the community," she says. "What we want to do for next year is organize training for tailors in skills like draping, dress-making, making patterns and creating new fabrics.
"We will show the participants the same way we got the models and I know they will be able to use those skills and get jobs straight away."
Bortolussi believes Nigerians need to embrace products made in Nigeria, rather than imported items.
"We need to create the capacity for manufacturing and development," she says. "It will take time and it is not a short-term project. But fashion is my passion so I want to make it an industry."