Not too long ago, the creative sacrifices African fashion designers had to make to succeed often fell into two camps. You were either pushed to fit your brand’s identity into a box that made it look more like its contemporaries in the global north, or you were driven to accentuate any aspects already recognized and accepted as ‘African,’ eroding authenticity by reducing signature design details to stereotypical signals. Today, the tide has shifted, and Pepper Row’s success is proof.
Designed for bold, free-spirited urban sophisticates, Pepper Row is a Lagos-based luxury fashion brand grounded in modern applications for indigenous handcraft. Their clothes, shoes, and accessories are a distinct, intuitive play space for color, texture, and pattern with intense, memorable, occasion-ready results. “My customer comes to me for colorful, cultural, artisanal craftsmanship that’s sustainable, unique, and encompasses African heritage in a way that translates globally,” says founder and designer Omafume Niemogha, who started Pepper Row in 2018.
Omafume Niemogha. Photo: courtesy of Omafume Niemogha.
HOW TO ENGINEER A FASHION CAREER
After studying and interning in engineering, Niemogha began exploring a fashion career with bridalwear, inspired by her father’s creative work in advertising.
The bridal line’s early success led to the ready-to-wear styles that became today’s Pepper Row. The brand officially launched with 2018’s Reighé collection, created after she completed a creative enterprise course offered by The Assembly and The British Council.
Niemogha intentionally brought modern production and artisanal craft together in service of sustainability as she built the brand from there.
“What sustainable processes will make production easier, better, for the artisans that work here?” is the question she pushes Pepper Row to ask and answer. This forward-thinking focus meets intuitive creativity in the design process. “The colors that work together while weaving our Aso Oke, they give themselves their own life,” says the designer of Pepper Row’s unpredictable color story.
Along the way, her work led Niemogha to be selected for the inaugural Arise 30 Under 30: The New Stars Initiative in 2020, and participate in Lagos Fashion Week’s Woven Threads II program in 2021, and win Fashion Scout’s Ones to Watch Award in the same year.
The African Renaissance
Blending a focused selection of staple silhouettes from contemporary global fashion with an unconventional approach to texture and a vast color palette that starts and ends with pink, Niemogha has built Pepper Row into a resonant creative force with a dedicated following. Pepper Row’s aesthetic represents what people think most African fashion should look like in many ways. Still, in reality, it lives and breathes beyond imposed limits and expired perspectives on what defines African creativity. It’s a good sign that everywhere Niemogha takes the brand, she’s finding a world ready to meet them in the present, not in the past. “It’s encouraging,” she says of how the brand has experienced the world’s increased interest in our continent’s creative offerings. “With the piqued global interest in African fashion, heritage, culture, we’re being included in the conversations, and it can only get better from here.”
Niemogha’s experience, finding suitable partners and a warm reception worldwide, mirrors that of several peers finding global success previously unavailable to African fashion brands. However, it’s in stark contrast to the experiences of previous generations of African designers. Many contended much more resistance, discrimination, and indifference when building their brands.
Along with the benefits of a more mature industry, today’s emerging brands enjoy the benefits of a more conscious, culturally-educated, and genuinely interested global fashion community. “Everyone is more informed, and they can see that you can’t put people in a box of what you might want or expect, especially when you can clearly see that these people [African designers] are not to be put in a box. They have their own voice, and they have something to say.”
Pepper Row SS'22. Photo: Courtesy of Pepper Row
Pepper Row SS'22. Photo: via @pepperow
3D render of ucycled denim design for Pepper Row x African Fashion Foundation. Photo: via @pepperow.
A sign of things to come
The enthusiastic community that gathered around the brand has also become a precious part of its process. “It’s an interesting journey, but it’s still a learning curve. If I know anything, I know that our customers are the lifeline of our business,” says Niemogha. “I let in feedback from the industry, stakeholders, and what’s going on in the world. As we’re growing and constantly shaping the brand story, we also pay close attention to the needs of our customers.”
A welcoming commercial and cultural environment means more than comfort. It provides designers the confidence to take risks, push forward, and get out of the early-stage survival mode every small business goes through. Niemogha has serious plans for her playful brand beyond its current successes. “The design is evolving in terms of technology and sustainability,” she says of developments currently underway at Pepper Row.
“We are putting in more sustainable processes to reduce our carbon footprint. We’re working with more craftspeople. We’re training, upskilling, and empowering the artisans in the small communities we work with further.”
She’s focused on ensuring the value of this work yield is fairly shared through community empowerment. For example, Pepper Row’s proposed Makoko Magic initiative will support skilled fashion craft labor from and around the underserved community in Lagos’ Makoko settlement. “We’re training them in the art of adire making, weaving, beading, crochet, shoemaking so that there’s more skilled labor in the pool for other designers to pull from and for us.”
Further plans are less concrete but reflect the confidence Niemogha has in the brand’s future. They include research, experimentation, and exploration of possible brand expressions where fashion meets tech. “We’re exploring the relationship between fashion and technology and how we’re able to exist in the metaverse.” A small NFT collection may even be on the horizon for “connecting with customers and friends of the brand globally,” she shares. Niemogha also expects tech to improve responsible processes at Pepper Row. “We’re also exploring circularity further by creating our own fabric from existing materials, so upcycling.”
If the state of affairs at Pepper Row is anything to go by, African fashion is in for an exciting few years. It hints at a future in which African fashion designers and their brands can focus on what they have to say instead of the space, support, and permission to say it.
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