From Harare to Lagos: Africa’s gender fluid designs are defying norms

genderless fashion Nigeria
Lagos, Nigeria CNN  — 

There isn’t much in Orange Culture’s clothing to identify it as a menswear brand. At the label’s studio in upmarket Lagos - traditionally feminine detailing - silk frills and fuchsia pink robes feature heavily.

“You are required to be a man before you are old enough to realize that being a man is overrated,” Adebayo Oke-Lawal, the Nigerian designer behind the label has said frequently.

The brand is part of a new generation of designers based on the continent that are defying outdated ideas about gender within the context of identity, culture and race.

“I found growing up, people were told they needed to be hard. They needed to be that to be seen as a man.

“And it was so embedded in our culture and I really just wanted to challenge that conversation,” Oke-Lawal told CNN about the aim behind his gender fluid label.

“It was important for people to think outside of a particular type of African man but believing that men can be so many diverse things. We can be emotional, we can be vulnerable, and we can express ourselves however we want to without being seen as anything less than African.”

Oke-Lawal – a soft-spoken 28-year-old Lagos native – has been a favorite of the international menswear market since he launched his label in 2011.

His particular mission statement has earned his designs a devoted global audience. He was a finalist for the LVMH prize, became the first Nigerian brand to show at London Collections Men in 2016, and his collaboration with Nigerian musician Davido was promptly snapped up by London store Selfridges.

Not far away from Oke-Lawal’s studio is another designer – Papa Oyeyemi. The 26-year-old Nigerian is behind disruptive menswear label Maxivive.

Since founding his label ten years ago at the age of 15, Oyeyemi has divided Nigerians. Maxivive’s collection shown at Lagos Fashion Week received mixed reviews by the Nigerian press despite international acclaim.

One posting on Instagram generated over 600 replies. “I got so much hate comments,” said Oyeyemi.

But – “the youth they are more progressive,” he added. “Even if it doesn’t speak their sort of language they understand and they appreciate it and they will not discriminate it.”

Flamboyant subculture

The androgynous label Maxivive has often divided Nigerians despite its international acclaim.

The label’s inspiration stems from Paris is Burning – a 90s documentary looking at the flamboyantly stylish subculture of drag queens living in New York.

Images from his Lagos Fashion Week presentation can be read as a metaphor for discussing LGBT rights in Nigeria - where being gay is illegal. It is the same law in 36 other nations in Africa.

But for Oyeyemi it is a more nuanced conversation on non-conformity: “It’s about trying new things. Let’s move from the ideology of this is what is meant to be,” he explained.

“In the past I’ve had conversations about religion, sexuality, human development…

“Tomorrow I can decide to make a womenswear line but still call it menswear and anyone can wear it. I don’t want to be restricted in any way whatsoever.”

Papa Oyeyemi photographed in the district of Ikeja, in Lagos, Nigeria.

“At the end of the day gender fluidity is not tied to sexuality. It’s more just about allowing people to be in touch with their masculine and feminine side,” noted Oke-Lawal.

It is a movement reflected in the boundary-pushing Nigerian magazine A Nasty Boy that Maxivive and Orange Culture have both collaborated with.

“There cannot be one singular kind of Nigerian man or woman, there has to be room for other definitions that don’t necessarily fit that opinion,” editor Richard Akuson told CNN previously.