In Conversation With… Haute Fashion Africa
Meet Nigerian Brands Post-Imperial, CLAN, Tokyo James and Orange Culture. From preservationist approaches to gender neutral pieces, these four brands’ varying but distinctive aesthetics continue to help shift narratives away from singular ideas of African fashion. In a conversation with Haute Fashion Africa’s Romola Sodiq and Joke Ladoja, these four designers give us some insight into their backgrounds, their inspirations and their opinions on being defined as an African fashion designer.
On their background
Orange Culture’s Adebayo Oke Lawal: I didn’t study fashion. As most Nigerian designers will tell you, studying Fashion wasn’t really an option growing up. I Studied Finance. While I was in school in Lagos, I interned and worked as a stylist with a few Nigerian fashion brands including Lagos fashion week and Arise magazine fashion week, whilst saving up to start my brand.
Tokyo James: For me, studying and being in London was a great inspiration for me. When I was growing up, there were not a lot of options for boys like me in fashion. The only route was to go to fashion school and the criteria for entry was really elitist back then. So even though I studied mathematics, my passion was always in fashion. I actually started my own publication called “Rough” before eventually making the transition to menswear design.
CLAN’s Teni Sagoe: CLAN was birthed from the desire of three sisters to provide the modern-day woman with a contemporary offering enriched by a distinct edge stemming from our multi-cultural experiences. At the time we started there weren’t very many local alternatives for ready-to-wear clothing. Having spent our formative years in the UK and naturally being influenced by the technical and quality standards upheld by our mother (fashion designer Deola Sagoe), we decided to fill this gap by creating timeless premium staples for every occasion.
“I embrace the label of African fashion. All of this is an exercise; even for myself. I am attempting to decolonise ideas of what it means as a Nigerian in the diaspora.”
Niyi Okuboyeyo, Post-Imperial
Post Imperial’s Niyi Okuboyeyo: Post-Imperial embodies my experiences as a Black person. I draw inspiration from my awareness of my everyday life, taking in my experiences and transforming them into an embodiment. The idea of Post-Imperial started off with me thinking about what African design could be. I had a desire to create the African equivalent of minimalism, but whilst infusing colour in my designs. I love the work of a renowned Senegalese architect, Diebedo Francis Kere, who references African structures and designs using a modern approach. Now, that is my vision: designing clothes whilst drawing inspiration from a wide lens view of what it means to be African. Finding creativity in Modernism, mythology, identity expression and posthumanism.
Tokyo: I always take inspiration from the current Zeitgeist, so my collections are usually politically charged. My last collection, “the last winter”, touched on the topic of climate change. I tried to imagine if it started snowing in Lagos and if winter disappeared from Europe. The question “what would you wear if this was your last winter?” was present in my mind and I created around that.
Teni: We take inspiration from the women we want to create pieces for. We wanted to create a brand for strong, formidable women that was created by Africans but does not necessarily look “African”; in that there isn’t the use of Dutch wax prints, African symbols, patterns or bright colours that are stereotypically synonymous with African designs. In terms of aesthetic, designers you could compare CLAN would be Dior as they believe "The Dior woman can be feminine in a strong way". We also have a similar aesthetic to Dion Lee, who just like CLAN is a fan of complex cuts, simplified lines and structural forms.
Adebayo: My personal experiences helped me gain a clear vision of what I wanted my brand to focus on. I wanted to use my designs to tell a story and challenge traditional hyper-masculine views in Nigeria and Africa as a whole. Beyond creativity or design, Orange Culture is a movement that aims to educate people on the importance of affording men the opportunity to express themselves when it comes to fashion and style. Nine years ago, international buyers dismissed my sheer blouses as an ambitious option for menswear, only for that same collection to be completely ripped off by an international brand a few seasons later. Now, every menswear brand has sheer blouses as staples in their collections.
“When someone says “this doesn’t look African”, I don’t see it as negative. It is an opportunity to be an ambassador; to educate them. I don’t let that term limit or define how I design. Whatever you thought we were, this is a moment to learn.”
Adebayo Oke Lawal, Orange Culture
On being an African designer
Teni: For CLAN, the notion of being an African designer is purely geographical. Clan could exist anywhere in the world and we would still be inspired by our environment to create the beautiful minimalist pieces that we do. That we don’t use fabrics considered traditionally African or Nigerian does not mean we are not an African brand. For us, beyond textiles or tradition, it is important to show that well constructed, high quality garments are also very much part of the definition of African fashion.
Tokyo: I see myself as a designer who happens to be African. I firmly believe that African designers should be afforded the dignity of individuality to express themselves freely without having to fit in a mould of the world’s opinion of what African designs should look like. As a designer who grew up in London, I am inspired by the eclectic energy there but also with the vibrancy here in Lagos. The idea the Tokyo James’ brand has is to create pieces that can be worn all over the world.
Adebayo: A lot of global thinking about African fashion is based on limited knowledge. For me, the discourse is always an opportunity to educate people about additional thoughts or definitions of what it means to be African or Nigerian. When someone says “this doesn’t look African”, I don’t see it as negative. It is an opportunity to be an ambassador; to educate them. I don’t let that term limit or define how I design. Whatever you thought we were, this is a moment to learn.
Niyi: I have no problem with the “African designer” label. It’s just someone’s idea of being placed within one box or the other. I embrace the label of African fashion. All of this is an exercise; even for myself. I am attempting to decolonise ideas of what it means as a Nigerian in the diaspora. There is no cannon or reference for it. So I am happy to be part of the narrative creating more inclusive ideas of what that term means for us. Plus, whenever it does limit my brand or tries to put in singular categorisations, I see it as an opportunity to look elsewhere to spaces and places that are interested in helping my brand develop instead of trying to change what my brand represents.
On the uniqueness of creating in Lagos
Teni: There is an urban renewal happening within the city and the juxtaposition of the old and the new Lagos is really inspiring. Lagos helps me push the boundaries of what is normal or acceptable - I can take inspiration from the ingenious street style and from traditional concepts all at the same time.
Bayo: It is more impactful to be here. There is an opportunity to create more infrastructure and shape the changing culture, and I love the fact that I have the chance to do it. Plus, there is so much resilience, beauty and rawness that comes with the freedom to express ourselves.
Niyi: Even though I live in New York, I was born and raised in Lagos, so it is important for me to continue to create from here. I also want to contribute to creating the foundation of a strong fashion industry there. From a philosophical investment, that means that we have our own local system within without a need for constant external validation.
Tokyo: My studio is here. It is important to me that I produce from here. It makes sense for me. It wouldn’t have been possible for me to produce this easily in London. In Lagos and with a bit of money, I’ve been able to set up my own production facility. Plus, Lagos chaos is magical. Nothing works how you’ve been told it should. But somehow it still works.
About the designers…
Parsons trained Niyi Okuboyeyo, creative director of menswear brand Post-Imperial, creates pieces that are a deft mix of classic and avant garde. Using traditional Yoruba indigo tie dye adire fabrics as his primary medium, the ethos of the brand focuses on colour, pattern and process. His range of print shirts, sports coats, ties and pocket squares are perfect for those men (and women) looking to add a jolt of vibrant energy in their wardrobe.
Since its inception almost ten years ago, Orange Culture’s use of traditionally feminine fabrics to create striking co-ords and jewel-toned pieces has affirmed its place at the forefront of gender neutral fashion on the continent. According to creative director Adebayo Oke Lawal, the brand is a “movement” that covers universal silhouettes with an African touch to a creative class of men.
Teni, Tiwa and Abah Sagoe of CLAN celebrate high-powered, dynamic women with their minimalist and distinctive pieces. Coming from a family of designers and creatives, the trio have grown their brand around the key values of authenticity and quality. With a line of pristinely tailored pieces that range from workwear to everyday basics to occasional wear, CLAN is designed for the quintessentially modern African woman.
Eponymous brand Tokyo James creates pieces for the confident man that wants the allure of simplistic silhouettes with a hint of edgier elements. James expresses his creative aesthetic by delivering hard-edged suits with embellishments and embossments, PVC offerings and textured pieces with obvious references to classic sartorial influences.
Words by Romola Onaadepo and Joke Ladoja