In fashion speak, NY-LOS (New York—Lagos) is the new NY-LON (New York—London). There’s a Nigerian brand of boldness and entrepreneurial zest taking one of the world’s fashion capitals by storm. Wings meets three designers bringing West Africa to the USA’s East Coast.
Words Amber Croyle
In the fashion world, ‘African’ remains one of the hottest buzzwords. African Fashion Week is increasingly successful and now in its third year. Season after season, major American and European designers embrace the colours and prints that are unmistakably African. In a time when the continent is so popular, it’s refreshing to also find African designers who don’t stake their future success in the current fads and, instead, operate as individuals who focus on expressing their own unique fashion philosophies.
With a wealth of new talent, Lagos is being recognised more and more as a source of influence in the broader fashion world. Meanwhile, a significant number of the Nigerian designers are making their mark in one of the predominant fashion capitals, New York City. In a metropolis where fashion is synonymous with lifestyle and clothing designers are a dime a dozen, the ability to be original, successful, and stand out from the masses is no mean feat.
Impressively, Nigerian designers Adeleke Sijuwade, Lola Faturoti, and Jimi Gureje have not only made their mark in New York, but they’ve done so while drawing inspiration from home, reflecting appreciation for their upbringing, and honing a unique view of the future. Each of their labels is branded under their own name, demonstrating a strong sense of self-assurance and purpose. These three serve as examples of individual recipes for a universal type of success, that which comes from creating one’s own unique niche with confidence and commitment; an approach that’s relevant in both the fashion world and beyond.
Nigerian-born Sijuwade first arrived in the USA in 1982. A big believer in timeless, individual style, he has dressed Tyra Banks, Erykah Badu and Chanel Iman among others. His first name means ‘the crown will overcome,’ and his last name means ‘open your eyes and see the crown’.”
What are the specifically Nigerian elements of your women’s collection that New York women find attractive?
I emphasise colour, pattern, print and the enhancement of a woman’s shape. To me, all women are pretty much the same. They are born with a body shape and there’s going to be a time in their lives when they’ll flaunt it. The only differences are what her culture accepts, and how much risk a woman is willing to take. My collection is meant to satisfy all of the elements — a woman has a lot of choices in terms of how to wear my garments.
Your menswear appears to grow from your own style. How do you compare it to
your women’s collection?
My menswear is completely different because it’s built around my individuality, and what I believe style should encompass for a man. It’s showing my journey, my history, and studies of culture. My menswear definitely takes a mature, confident man who’s found himself to actually wear it and represent the clothes properly.
However, the similarity between the men’s and the women’s lines are the colours. My colours are a complete expression of individuality; they’re not founded on trends.
What are other specifics that make your collections special?
With the men’s line, I pay a lot of attention to detail. The ideas come from my love for the history of fashion, pictures of my father in the ’60s and ’70s, and watching movies from the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. By the time I go to the fabric store, it’s about looking for something classic that works ten or 20 years from now. It’s like breathing in all of this culture and history and, by the time I breath out, I’m breathing out Leke.
With the women’s line, my creations have a lot to do with tradition, things I’ve known growing up, and things I’ve seen my mother, aunties and women on television wear. Life itself was my fashion school.
My style tip for travellers is: Know where you’re going, before you start packing — Don’t just pack based on style, but take into account the climate and what you’re going to do at your destination.
New York style is… not to be defined, it’s to be created.
The Heritage Designer
Born the daughter and granddaughter of tribal chiefs in her native Ondo State, Faturoti is deeply influenced by her personal history and cultural heritage. After arriving in New York in the 1990s, her Nigerian-inspired designs have been acquired by the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum Of Art and she was lauded as “one of the best in America” by the
New York Times.
With the fashion industry being so fast paced, how have you maintained such longevity?
I think it’s by staying true to myself. I’ve always been very focused and private. I don’t
allow myself to be distracted by what is supposed to be the latest trend.
It’s not easy. Not only do you have to think of the style, but you also have to work so hard on maintaining quality. I sleep at the factory, and sometimes I do my own ironing.
Looking back on your career up to this point, what has been your biggest success?
It’s very simple. I remember when I got my biggest buyer, Harvey Nichols Saudi Arabia. That was a huge turning point for me. I did not think I would even be able to produce for them because I was so intimidated. My biggest success was being able to ship on time, and them coming back for an order the next season.
If you were counseling an emerging designer, what advice would you give them?
I would say first of all, really, really, really think within yourself what you want to achieve. If designing is what you want to do, go for it 100 per cent, without looking back. There will be times when you will cry, but if you love it, the love will override the challenges. If you don’t, don’t bother, because you won’t last.
What’s next for you?
I want to go back to the source of what fashion is all about and learn as much as I can. That is my new project and luckily, it involves many things, including the world of TV. It will be an educational project for people.
I was brought up by my grandmother, a clothes-maker in Nigeria, taking out stitches from old asoke, so I think all of that makes me. I love fashion and getting my hands into it and I think that is where I want to go back to in order to come to the next point.
What to pack when travelling to NYC: Sweatpants, a scarf, and flip-flops for the plane. Comfort is key.
New York style is… universal; it embraces the whole world. There’s nothing stopping you from expressing yourself here.
The Community Creative
Born in the rural town of Ilesa, Nigeria, Gureje moved to Lagos as a teenager and got a job as an apprentice for designer Jimi King. He used his last paycheck to buy fabric and dye, and set up on his own. After a while, he moved to New York, worked briefly for a corporation and finally left to follow his dream; turning a run-down former mechanic shop in Brooklyn into a boutique, performance space and gallery celebrating his designs and the work of other local creatives.
Men‘s and Women’s ready-to-wear, and custom tailoring
Not only do you create your own label, but you sell it in your own store called Gureje Village, which includes a gallery and community space. What is behind that approach?
I was inspired by my mentor from my early days in Lagos, Renate Albertsen-Marton. She’s the only reason I’m doing any community work. She gave me direction through the life she lived: always throwing parties for artists and organising exhibitions; always making her home available. She would go to Ahmadu Bello University and use the flagship of the Goethe Institute to influence art in ways that would open doors for artists to travel and do exchange programmes. Her influence in that particular way of nurturing art made an impact on me. Initially, I created the gallery space and I smelled a community. I called the space a shrine, the ‘Gureje Afro Shrine.’
Because this is your space, you’re seeing first-hand how people interact with your designs. What have you observed?
People hear, but they could never imagine this place. Here we have a one-stop place for clothing and beyond. People are shocked that it exists. I like the energy; I like the sacredness.
Your work has a palpable essence that spans across collections; how would you describe it?
People come in and they identify me as the chauffer that can drive them to their imagined destination of what they want to wear. I don’t get to that destination and return; I keep going to new places creatively, exploring and delivering more of the new ambiance to the store. That brings people back here. That is often what my collections tend to embody – they’re like pictures of a particular encounter in time.
My style tip for travellers is: When on the road, choose something that’s very elegant, wrinkle-free and lightweight while keeping in mind utility and the purpose of the trip.
New York style is… a combination of everything, because that’s New York. Everyone’s here and we are influenced by one another. Remember, New Yorkers