Fashion week in Lagos: Putting African designers on the map

Editor’s Note:

Story highlights

Arise Magazine Fashion Week held in Lagos, Nigeria

It aims to showcase African fashion to the world -- but also has designers from further afield

Big names in attendance this year included designer Ozwald Boateng and model Alek Wek

CNN  — 

If New York, London, Paris and Milan have been the traditional compass points of world fashion, Lagos has typically not even figured on the map.

But according to Penny McDonald, organizer of the Arise Magazine Fashion Week held in Nigeria’s largest city last week, that is unlikely to be the case for much longer.

She said the event, which drew 77 designers and big names including supermodel Alek Wek, British couturier Ozwald Boateng and up-and-coming model Dudley O’Shaughnessy, had gone a long way to establishing Lagos as Africa’s fashion capital, a city with international style credentials.

“It’s raised the bar,” said McDonald, international managing director for Arise, a title which describes itself as Africa’s global style and culture magazine. “Everyone knows it’s New York, London, Paris and Milan – and we see this as the fifth destination now. We’re hoping to make Lagos a fashion destination, part of the fashion season.”

Read: Dedicated followers of fashion: Congo’s designer dandies

Why Lagos? “It’s the vibrancy, the colors. We feel it’s Africa’s capital,” said McDonald. “Lagos women in particular, they dress like no other. They love haute couture. They look the part, they get fashion. Where else would you host such an event?”

While last year’s inaugural event had a heavy Nigerian focus, this year’s fashion week drew designers from across the continent and further afield.

The runways, housed in massive tents on the grounds of the Federal Palace Hotel, showcased designs from Kenya, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, South Africa, Ghana, Liberia and Somalia – but also from Martinique, Jamaica, Thailand and India.

Eleven African-American designers attended, along with international media and buyers, demonstrating the growing power of the African fashion brand, said McDonald. “You wouldn’t have got them coming from as far away as America if there wasn’t a buzz around this event.”

Watch: Traditional dress of Senegal

Nigerian-based Italian designer Caterina Bortolussi exhibited her label Kinabuti at the event for the first time, using non-professional models scouted from Nigeria’s streets. She said she relished the chance for her “ethical fashion” label, which she describes as a Nigerian-Italian brand, to share a platform with accomplished designers such as South Africa’s Kluk CGDT – jointly named alongside Nigeria’s Maki Oh as “designer of the year” at the event. “It’s an amazing opportunity to learn, to challenge yourself, to network,” she said. “It’s not easy to do things down here.”

The most noticeable commonality among African designers was that they were “very proud of being African,” she said. “Fashion is a way to bring a message of positivity. People usually look at Africa in a skeptical way, a place that needs to be helped. But fashion creates a vehicle to showcase Africa in a different way.”

McDonald said that while many designers derived inspiration from the heritage of African textile traditions, no prevailing theme united the collections. This was a sign that African fashion had “come of age,” she said. “No one designer produced the same look as another, which really showcases the vastness of the continent. People were surprised the collections were so varied.”

The event had its share of setbacks, with the first two days canceled due to electricity shortages. But momentum was quickly recovered, with more than 1500 people trying to crowd into the tent on the last day. “The audiences were enthralled by it – the silks, the golds, the sheer size of the event,” said McDonald.

Away from the fashion, the presence of young British model Dudley O’Shaughnessy – hot property following his appearance in a Rihanna music video, and named “male model of the year” at the event’s awards – caused the biggest stir. “The audiences went berserk, there’s no other way of describing it,” said McDonald. “That was the biggest buzz behind the scenes – he couldn’t even leave the hotel.”