As traders sit by the side of their boxed compartment stores at the New Alade market in Ikeja, Lagos, the majority of sales are on imported clothing and textiles. Tailors unroll reams of Dutch wax fabric, known as ankara print, across their cutting desks, while sales girls hang racks of colorful outfits originally designed to European tastes.
Nigeria was once home to Africa’s biggest textile industry with 180 mills employing more than 450,000 people in the 1970s and early 1980s, according to the Cornell Alliance for Science. As of 2017, there were just 25 in operation, per a 2017 review of the sector by the Oxford Business Group. Cheap imports, combined with weakening infrastructure, have driven Nigeria’s textile artisans to the edge of collapse. Now, many fabrics recognized globally as “African prints” are mass-produced overseas.
But in recent years, Nigerian luxury labels working with locally made fabrics have brought new life into the industry. While dynamic brands like Maki Oh, Post Imperial, Duro Olowu and Orange Culture have incorporated motifs inspired by adire (textiles hand-painted with natural indigo dyes by Yoruba artisans in southwest Nigeria) into their collections, a new generation of talent is eagerly adopting the ancient, low-impact production methods behind traditional cloths, not just their aesthetics. For some, this has meant revisiting aso-oke, a cotton fabric woven on handlooms using techniques that have gone mostly unchanged since the 15th century.
This embrace of sustainable craftsmanship comes at a time when the fashion industry is being forced to reckon with its impact on the environment. Total emissions from global textiles production, at 1.2 billion metric tons annually, surpass those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined, according to a 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. If things don’t change, the United Nations Environment Programme estimates these emissions will rise by more than 50% by 2030.
Here are five Nigerian designers at the forefront of this wave of change.
Lagos Space Programme
Location: Ikoyi, Lagos
Born in Lagos, Adeju Thompson was persuing a degree in fashion design at Birmingham City University, before he was forced to drop out due to financial pressures. “It was a heartbreaking experience,” the 29-year-old recalled. But luck was on his side: he was able to land an internship with designer Amaka Osakwe at Maki Oh, the luxury Nigerian label worn by Michelle Obama and Lady Gaga, soon after.
In 2018, Thompson set out on his own and started his gender-neutral label Lagos Space Programme, taking inspiration from sources as varied as Afrofuturism and Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto. But his work is primarily influenced by the narrative traditions of his Yoruba roots. Flowing trousers and waistcoats are made from aso-oke and printed adire.
“Historically, when people wore adire it really was like a form of storytelling,” Thompson said. The motifs can communicate where a person was born, or that they are in mourning.
For Thompson, the decision to keep things local “was very practical” in terms of controlling logistics, but also a way to ensure the quality of his collections.
Location: Yaba, Lagos
In Bloke Nigeria’s photo shoots, bikini tops ruffle demurely over young male bodies at a time when gender constructs are increasingly being broken down. “I look at garments with the same perspective as furniture,” said Faith Oluwajimi, the brand’s 24-year-old creative director and founder. “I’ve never seen anyone… say this is a men’s or women’s chair.”
Born in Ijebu Ode in southwest Nigeria, Oluwajimi graduated with a degree in agriculture from the Federal University of Agriculture in Abeokuta, but shifted his focus to fashion in his final year. He honed his technical design skills watching YouTube videos and reading e-books before launching Bloke in 2015.
Almost all of Bloke’s artisans are from Lagos and neighboring communities. “We visit the artisans at their workshops, sometimes we invite artisans to our workshop to curate,” he explained.
Oluwajimi believes this way of working, coupled with the brand’s success overseas, is helping to create local jobs. “The more access to markets that the label has, the much more beneficial it is to the artisans,” he said.
This Is Us
Location: Ikoyi, Lagos
Founded by husband-and-wife team Oroma and Osione Itegboje in 2016, This Is Us specializes in slogan T-shirts and trousers made using handwoven cotton from the northern town of Funtua.
Oroma, who is 33, had previously worked at Alara, the Lagos luxury concept store designed by David Adjaye, which stocked products made from local materials alongside products made using foreign supply chains. Her experience sparked an interest in working with Nigerian craftsmanship.
“We wanted to explore something that was local,” she said. “In the past, Nigeria used to be one of the biggest exporters of cotton. But we haven’t maintained that very well.”
However, the designers aren’t allowing themselves to be constrained by old techniques. New weaves are designed in collaboration with artisans. “That’s how we kept it fresh,” said Osione, who is 35.
For global success, however, “logistical issues need to be addressed,” Osione noted. “There are capacity issues where tailors and factory workers need to be trained.”
Location: Katampe, Abuja
It’s the codes around human behavior that inform Nkwo Onwuka’s collections. Having majored in psychology at the University of Nigeria, in the country’s southeast, she intuitively understood “it was and is necessary to make (design) more about how people feel than about how they or their products look,” she said.
When it comes to design, Onwuka places upcycled materials front and center in an attempt to make better use of the staggering amount of secondhand clothing donated in the West and exported to Africa, much of which cannot be resold. “At the end it’s going to end up in our landfill as opposed to the West,” Onwuka explained. “It’s also had a detrimental effect on our textile industry. It’s cheaper to go and buy those clothes from the markets.”
Her solution was to invent a new cloth called Dakala, fashioned out of secondhand clothing bought from Nigerian markets and off-cuts from the country’s tailors. Materials are stripped into yarn and subsequently rewoven by traditional aso-oke artisans. She then turns what she calls “the new African fabric,” which is similar to African decorative quilting, into cropped jumpsuits and overblown jackets with nipped-in waists.
“We try to do patterns with zero waste so there is nothing cut off,” she added, which resolves the issue of creating more waste.
Location: Lekki, Lagos
“It was really important to me to make (something) from what already exists, and work with what we have here in Nigeria,” recalled 31-year-old Abiola Olusola.
Her digitally designed prints swap traditional adire motifs for modern designs that are then stamped in dramatic colors onto cotton by craftswomen in Abeokuta, in southwest Nigeria. “I feel like it’s a mix of this modern, functional approach and the African story and heritage,” said Olusola.
The Ibadan-born designer studied fashion design at Istituto Marangoni in Paris before moving back to Nigeria in 2016 to launch her eponymous label a year later. Her collections soon gained notoriety on Instagram, earning her private commissions, and her designs are now sold at Lagos luxury store Temple Muse and Folklore in New York.
“With Black Lives Matter, a lot of international buyers started to take an interest in black-owned businesses,” she said, which has given designers like her a boost in terms of sales to the African diaspora. “I hope it is a long-term thing rather than just being for the moment.”
Top image: Abiola Olusola Spring-Summer 2020
This article has been updated to correctly state the ages of Oroma and Osione Itegboje as 33 and 35, respectively.