Historically, Africa’s story has been told from a European gaze. However, we are witnessing a reawakening to the sense that the entire story has not been told—a history before colonialism. Brands like IAMISIGO spearhead this renaissance and use their platform to tell prehistoric African tales by preserving traditional and artisanal fabric production methods. Based across Lagos, Nairobi, and Accra, founder Bubu Ogisi’s approach to traditional design maintains her quest to discover what she calls “true African fabric.” The process undertaken by the label highlights sustainability as an African way of life, with materials created by hand. As a result, making small batches is only one reason this brand has been lauded locally and internationally.
Though IAMISIGO has been featured in British Vogue, CNN Style, and worn by Nollywood actress Rita Dominic and supermodel Naomi Campbell, the real focus remains on protecting the dignity of her ancestors. Ogisi’s extensive knowledge of fabric-making resulted from her travels across Africa and Europe. Consequently, the basis of her work lies in bringing much-needed attention to the origins of fashion. Industrie Africa talks to Ogisi about establishing the continent as luxury's birthplace and how her approach to preservation plays a role in how Africa defines its place in the global luxury fashion market.
The Foundation of luxury
Like European luxury brands, including Chanel and Christian Dior, whose haute couture collections are defined as “custom-made garments, created entirely by hand by the industry’s most skilled artisans and craftsman,” according to an article by CNN Style, Ogisi’s approach to making clothes is much the same; only she takes it a few layers deeper. Her method starts from a single concept, then evolves, leading to the physical manifestation of the fabric, all before the final product is complete. “This is the idea of techniques being brought from an unseen world and coming into the seen world. The idea is that everything comes from somewhere unseen and the more you use it or beat it, it becomes seen, much like the process of using bark cloth, or spinning wool, or silk. In the same way you have the weaving or the crochet process, you begin with nothing in your hand, and after an hour, you have a textile. It’s the play between the tangible and intangible,” says Ogisi, who likens this exercise to meditation.
“The slowness of the creativity is how we maintain the sacredness of the fabrics. It’s important to consider the materials involved in creating the pieces we make, with cotton being one of the oldest fibers to exist and having played a huge role in the present and past. Cotton is super sacred to us as Africans and our evolution, along with raffia, bark cloth, and silk.” These considerations have set the foundation for a truly sustainable brand and highlight that African creation practices have long been sustainable, with a considered approach to using raw materials.
ANCIENT PRACTICES INFORM THE FUTURE
Beyond just fashion, traditional African attire is most often associated with spiritual symbolisms that convey an ethereal message, usually bestowing a great deal of dignity to the wearer. Initially worn by the Ashanti people of Ghana and Coté d’Ivoire, Kente cloths are hand woven. Royals and noblemen of their tribes typically wore them due to the meaning attached to the different colors—white for peace, yellow for wealth, black for mystery, and blue for wisdom. Similarly, Ogisi’s family uses the Aso-ebi textile as a form of clan recognition at important events. “The Aso-ebi is something that we wear when attending a family function. It literally means ‘family cloth’ in Yoruba. It’s worn to represent a clan or collective.” As these outfits are sacred and cannot be worn twice, they are often kept as archival pieces or, in Ogisi’s case, handed down to her by her elders. She then reimagines the looks into modern-day wear while still conserving their sacredness.
This approach to dressing in African communities confirms that textiles mean more than their outer appearance and intrinsically hold sacred depth through their threads. Ogisi has successfully interwoven these traditions into her clothes by means of sartorial presentations, as seen through the SS’23 CELESTIAL BEING collection, where she questions colonialism’s ban on witchcraft and points our attention to its power. An excerpt from the collection’s manifesto reads: “Before colonial rule, witchcraft formed an integral part of social structure in most traditional African societies, with anti-witchcraft measures beginning during colonial invasion. It was/is considered that the practice is a crime in itself. To treat it as such involves the admission that witchcraft has a real force and can be effective to produce physical consequences.”
Africa’s growing voice in global fashion
Africa has been under a consistent global spotlight for the last few years. Global events like London’s Victoria and Albert Museum’s Africa Fashion exhibition, which explores the global impact of Africa’s fashion scene, Chanel’s historic Métiers d’Art 2023 fashion show held in Dakar Senegal last year, and even Thebe Magugu winning the 2019 LVMH Prize are a case in point. However, there is still some ground to be covered to recognize the continent as a pioneer in luxury fashion practices, but Ogisi believes this is possible. “Nothing is hidden under the sun. You need to continue growing as an individual, harnessing your identity, and preserving our cultures and traditions. Then everybody may begin to understand us and put us on the pedestal we deserve to be put on.”
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