As humans, the clothes we wear are key components of our lives. Dissecting behavioral patterns regarding personal style across different countries is a function of varying factors cutting across climate, cultural diversity, socio-economics, gender identity, and even politics. In the globalized world we live in, there’s an unspoken rulebook of wardrobe cues—much more than putting on the basics—and for Africans living on the continent, this becomes far more nuanced. Here, the art of dressing up is strongly linked to the factors listed above, even within modern, gentrified major cities where you’d expect a homogenized way of life. Case in point: Lagos, Nigeria, a multicultural megacity united by its ubiquitous pursuit of prosperity, colloquially known as “the hustle”. The bustling metropolis is home to over 20 million Lagosians who balance a strong work ethic with a deep love for celebrations and parties. It’s this palpable gusto for life that defines its inhabitants’ extravagant approach to dressing.
Sade's Boutique in the 1960s. Photo: via @jeanpigozzi
Nigeria in the 60s reveled in freedom from colonial powers by proudly embracing traditional modes of dressing. As the center of the predominantly Yoruba Southwestern region of the country, the city’s bullish economic dominance allowed the people to embrace excess, creating its own unique version of glamour. Lagosian women wore elegantly cut blouse-wrapper-head tie combos with pride, produced in a variety of textiles from aso-oke, akwete, and adire to fine cotton. The clothes represented the diversity of multiple indigenous groups like the Yoruba and Igbo living in the capital pre-independence. On the flip side, the city also welcomed trends that outlined quintessential British fashion in the mid-twentieth century. Mod-style mini dresses, which were mainstays at dance parties, complemented by floor-length sheaths reminiscent of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis were the go-to for christenings and black tie events.
Over time, this dichotomy would come to define the city’s garment sector, as seen in the work of early fashion retail pioneers like Folashade Thomas-Fahm, noted for being the first fashion designer to open a boutique in Nigeria in 1960. Her store, Sade’s Boutique, allowed women to express the duality of cultures that colonialism brought on through modern cuts, bold colors, and fine details. This was seen in the way she reinvented the men's native agbada into the classic female boubou, a silhouette that remains an integral part of the West African womenswear wardrobe till date. While the style at the time was favored by society’s “ladies who lunch” for its ability to channel both style and comfort, today women of all ages have embraced its simple and timeless appeal.
With continued urban growth caused by migration, particularly after the civil war, the city evolved into a melting pot of cultures through the ’80s, with socio-economic diversity becoming more prevalent. This informed the way women dressed and the confidence that came with increased global exposure and financial independence. Veteran womenswear designer Odio Oseni, creative director of eponymous Nigerian ready-to-wear label Odio Mimonet, launched her brand twenty years ago as an ode to the frenetic pulse of Lagos and its dominant female presence: “Lagosian dressing commands respect,” she explains, “The women and men who live here have very strong personalities. The people of the city are [and have always been] well educated [and] well-traveled, and that strongly influences their style.”
“Lagosian dressing commands respect, the men and women who live here have very strong personalities.”
Mirroring global economic capitals like New York and London, modernity took centre stage in the 1990s. Minimalism grew in popularity, with muted tones, clean lines, and unfussy silhouettes infiltrating the different facets of daily life. While it may have trickled down to the ready-to-wear boutiques spread across Lagos' Ikeja G.R.A and Surulere shopping circuits, the pared back aesthetic never fully penetrated the ateliers of the bespoke tailors who provided the party-loving city residents with traditional regalia for their weekly soirees, events popularly known as Owambes. Even now, the love of festive dressing is one of the reasons aso-ebi culture—which is essentially the business of creating bespoke party attire for attendees—is one of the easiest markers of trend-spotting across the city. It’s one of the many reasons why industry titans like Deola Sagoe have come to define the trends of Nigerian women for the past half-decade. With her luxurious Komole range, an offshoot of her label’s custom offerings focusing on the needs of this demographic, she created a fabric that can be described as a unique blend of homegrown aso-oke woven with silk, a technique which took almost twenty years to meticulously develop. For most Nigerian brides getting married traditionally, the Komole is an identifier of high taste and exceptional quality. These opulent pieces are also a reflection of the multimillion-dollar wedding market, which Lagos plays host to.
Fashion consumerism changed rapidly at the onset of the 2010s, largely due to advancements in technology and the popularity of early e-commerce channels like Net-a-Porter. These disruptors permanently impacted the way fashion creators conceptualize their collections today. With the onset of homegrown fashion weeks and subsequently, dedicated ready-to-wear lines, local designers have learned to navigate this shift accordingly. Oseni agrees: “Modernity has brought about innovation. [As Nigerian designers] we’ve inherited years of tutoring from our ancestors on how to weave textiles, construct garments for us, and create beautiful clothes. Are today’s clothes more simplified? Yes, but that’s not a bad thing as increased mobility has called on functionality in clothes. The pieces still have a sense of art.”
OM Checkered Bubu by Odio Mimonet. Photo: via @odiomimonet
Lisa Folawiyo SS‘21. Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Folawiyo.
Maki Oh SS‘20. Photo: Courtesy of Maki Oh.
Her words ring true as this balance of the old and new prevails in the work of brands like Maki Oh, whose clothes tell stories largely inspired by creative director Amaka Osakwe’s upbringing in 1990s Lagos, or Pepper Row, a more recently founded sustainable fashion label by Omafume Niemogha, for whom modern design cues are implemented using neo traditional techniques playfully combined with fabrics like akwete and adire. Perhaps the work of Lisa Folawiyo, one of Nigeria’s definitive womenswear designers, paints the clearest picture of the modern Lagosian woman’s wardrobe needs; the brand deftly marries an intricate design process—where each hand embellished garment roughly takes 240 hours to finish—with a keen understanding of how to align these time honored techniques with global trends. These three designers are but a few that represent a new school of Lagosian feminism; women who are unafraid to embrace their sexuality and demand space in more vocal ways than their predecessors.
Understanding the dynamics of a classic Lagos wardrobe is to know how to weave through each piece to connect the dots. From the impact of colonialism on the collective psyche, to the reworking of traditional styles through a luxury lens to appeal to the upper echelon, personal style in Nigeria’s ruling capital has evolved continuously through the decades. This adaptability to rapid change, while still maintaining a certain level of panache, encapsulates the true ethos behind Lagos style: resilience.
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