From Harare to Lagos: Africa's gender fluid designs are defying norms
Updated 31st January 2019
Credit: courtesy Orange Culture
From Harare to Lagos: Africa's gender fluid designs are defying norms
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The brand is part of a new generation of designers based on the continent that are defying outdated ideas about gender within the context of identity, culture and race.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.
"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."
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."
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."
"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.
"If people don't understand that this kind of man can exist then I need to push more for this kind of menswear."
'Moving with outside world'
Elsewhere, South African designer Lukhanyo Mdingi breaks down gender constructs through masculine tailoring for women and long flowing silk fabrics on men.
"When we started creating pieces that were gender fluid we were just moving with what we were witnessing in the outside world," Mdingi said in a phone interview.
"The reality is that I have been in the company of incredible human beings that have identified what masculinity is to themselves and this too has let me gauge and identify what it means to me and how it has evolved in my space of Cape Town."
The 25-year-old's views on a shifting "cross cultural" environment feed into the overall look of his latest collection titled Soulful II which take cues from Japanese trim.
Others have adopted gender neutral tailoring for more pragmatic reasons.
Fellow Cape Town label AKJP by design duo Keith Henning and Jody Paulsen focus on functional staples with few defining male and female silhouettes.
"At first it was an easy way to start making womenswear," Paulson, said via email. "The womenswear came from ideas that we previously established through our menswear collections."
That approach makes sense financially, noted Harare based Zimbabwean designer Tanya Mushayi.
"Growing up with two brothers I used to take some of their t-shirts and jackets and wear them but they couldn't do the same with my stuff," the 29-year-old said. "The idea behind my unisex jackets was accessibility for everyone.
"Zimbabwe is perfect for gender fluid fashion due to the current financial climate we're in with high unemployment, minimal disposable income and limited resources."
Rooted in heritage
In Lagos, luxury womenswear line Gozel Green uses androgynous fashion to subtly convey messages on heritage.
With a fashion designer mother and a playwright father, 31-year-old twin sisters Sylvia Enekwe and Olivia Enekwe-Okoji began the label in 2012 to reflect their childhood growing up in Enugu in eastern Nigeria.
"Our late father wrote a lot of poems in his lifetime, so for every collection we create, we interpret his stories into our design aesthetics," said Enekwe-Okoji.
Their outfits experiment with forms of femininity -- garnering international acclaim including Italian Vogue's The Next Green Talents 2018. Felabration saw them design a collection inspired by Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti that could be worn by either men or women.
But what do local consumers make of non-conformity? Zimbabwean Mushayi admits the majority of her customers are from the US.
"The reaction has been good" for South Africa's AKJP.
Perhaps because in South Africa, 350,000 men and 2.6 million women say they dress and act gender non-conforming in public, according to a survey conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council.
But 67 percent of South Africans, according to the same report, agree with this statement: "It is disgusting when men dress like women and women dress like men."
In Nigeria acceptance has been equally slow. A 2015 survey carried out in Nigeria by advocacy group Voices 4 Change noted the majority of Nigerians "believe men should be tough, intelligent, fearless and responsible."
"A lot of the menswear brands that were happening at that time was very streamlined suits, it was very hyper masculinity and we came with this brand that was in the opposite direction," Oke-Lawal recalled about Orange Culture's launch.
"So people were just not taken by it.
"I saw that if people don't understand that this kind of man can exist then I need to push more for this kind of menswear."
Attitudes are changing. "Now people are taking the time to understand what we are doing and why we are getting so much credit outside of Nigeria," said Oke-Lawal.
"That's really helped us with finding a stronger voice within our locality."