Nigeria’s fashion industry is an important source of employment. Design house Kinabuti aims to contribute to the growth of it, and the nation’s creative economy at community level.
Words Diane Lemieux Photography Adolphus Opara & Massimo Sciacca
“If any place can become the Milan of Africa it is Lagos.” Caterina Bortolussi, designer and founder of the fashion label Kinabuti, waves at the room of well-dressed people to prove her point.
We are standing in the living room of the Italian Consul General’s home, which has been transformed for the evening’s presentation of Kinabuti’s 2013 collection called Vlisco Carnival in the Desert. The fashion show is the highlight of the launch of Italian Cognac brand, Martell.
Kinabuti was established in 2010 by Caterina and Francesca Rosset, two passionate and idealistic business partners. “Kinabuti is a bridge between my background in Italy and the inspiration I’ve gotten during my eight years in Nigeria,” Caterina explains.
Her designs are a winning balance between European and African traditions, a fusion that has created a new, contemporary look. It’s modern and playful, while remaining elegant and classic. But designing clothing is only a small part of what the Kinabuti venture does. Another of the label’s goals is to contribute to the development of the national fashion industry as whole, thereby increasing the number and quality of jobs in the sector. “We are an ethical business,” Francesca explains. “We celebrate women with our fashion, but we also empower individuals and even whole communities with our projects.’
That there is potential for growth in the sector is undeniable, thanks to the huge demand for fashion-related items and services in Nigeria. According to African Economic Outlook (AEO), Nigeria’s economic growth has averaged about 7.4 per cent annually over the past decade, creating a wealthier elite with significant spending power. Add this to a cultural penchant for fashion, and the scene is set.
Standing at a strategic spot at the end of the runway, an onlooker, Lade, chats with me as we wait for the show to start. She explains how lucky she has been to get a ticket from her boss, who couldn’t make it that evening.
‘‘The vast majority of international online payments that pass through the bank where I work are fashion-related,” she tells me. Dressed in a pretty black dress and gorgeous necklace, she certainly looks the part as she explains the cultural fascination with fashion.
“A Nigerian woman can’t buy shoes without a matching bag. We spend a significant portion of our income on fashion-related items, no matter how much we earn.” She tells me that there are Italian shoemakers and Swiss and Austrian lace makers who produce primarily for the demanding Nigerian consumer. “Fabrics are more than just practical; they are a form of art.” Lade’s mother has a collection of carefully wrapped pieces of traditional fabrics bought years ago. These are family heirlooms to be cherished, in the way that silver tea sets may be elsewhere.
Back at their offices the day after the show, Francesca and Caterina are happy with their huge success. An estimated 600 people attended the evening and the event gained widespread international media attention. Seeing their label become increasingly popular is obviously hugely satisfying. But the two are quick to remind me that seeing clients walk out of their atelier with clothing they feel great in is only a part of what Kinabuti does.
“The first project we did was in the Waterfront neighbourhood of Port Harcourt,” Francesca explains: Wavefront is a shanty neighbourhood with few jobs and little development. “We trained 21 girls as models, and then made a series of photos of them in their neighbourhood wearing Kinabuti designs.”
The images, taken by Italian photographer Massimo Sciacca, became an international success. But Caterina and Francesca insisted on exhibiting the photos to the local community as well. The girls were amazed at the results, which were more professional and impressive than they had dreamed possible.
“They gained self-confidence and now have a regular income that they would never have had before,” Caterina explains.
And the whole community was proud of what ‘their’ girls had achieved: their newfound success in the fashion sector offered hope to others with ambitions and dreams beyond the confines of their disadvantaged neighbourhood.
So far, Kinabuti has trained young women from Port Harcourt as models, and taught single mothers how to print on material using the silkscreen technique. “We found that half the people we train are still working a year after the training, using the skills we gave them. That’s not a bad average.” One lady works with Kinabuti in the office, and two are shop assistants.
Queen Jaja, one of the label’s star models, is a prime example.
At the atelier, she helps with customer service and client fittings.
“I audition for other jobs such as model or as an usher for big events,” she says. “Working with Kinabuti is awesome. I don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t with them now.”
But the impact of Kinabuti’s activities goes much farther than the individuals they personally train: there are the tailors whose craft has been given a boost by working in a reputable fashion house, and the university students who audition for work at their events; there are the graphic designers they use for promotional material and the photographers. The employment opportunities created and the experience gained are substantial.
High-profile events like the fashion show, and showcases like photographic exhibitions help create national and international awareness of the work Kinabuti is doing. The clothing line itself is becoming known in other African countries as well as in Europe, which helps focus attention on the creativity and the quality of Nigerian fashion. The more popular the label, the more Kinabuti can invest in its community empowerment projects. The more publicity the company gets, the more organisations become aware of the impact of ethical business practices and join forces to increase the size and importance of the projects.
But Kinabuti also aims to create local awareness of the potential for small-scale activities. For example, they regularly participate in the Waterfront Sanitation Day, where they join the community in collecting waste.
“We were asked by the community youth leaders to help and we got the local Environmental Sanitation Authority Of Rivers State involved,” says Francesca. “They contributed trucks, bags, gloves and boots. This was the first time that the community and the local government had cooperated together.” Though this has nothing directly to do with fashion, it is because of Kinabuti’s initial work with the women in the community that they were able to raise the awareness of the local authorities about the potential they have on their doorstep.
Despite Kinabuti’s success, however, the fashion industry is still a fledgling sector in Nigeria today. Much investment needs to be made in order to evolve it from a cottage industry to a full commercial success. And that is where Kinabuti’s work comes in.
“For us, Kinabuti is a dream,” says Caterina. We are so lucky to be in Nigeria and have this opportunity to work towards our vision. It is challenging but also inspiring and gives us so much energy.” That energy is what we see translated not only in the wearable art that is the Kinabuti trademark, but also the incremental steps it has take to stimulate the development of the hugely popular industry.