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Industrie Africa chats to the founder of Nigerian brand Babayo about artisanal preservation, the beauty of the Fulani culture, and the joy of being creative.

By Lindsay Samson

May 30, 2022

Upon initial consideration, it's difficult to imagine two vastly different fields than fashion and economics. One is an endeavor that calls for unfettered creativity and imagination. The other is a more linear approach and a robust aptitude for numbers and figures. However, when we spoke to the founder and designer of the Nigerian label Babayo, Aisha Babayo Shehu, she quickly corrected that assumption. A former economist who has worked in the oil and gas industry as a retailer, she's adamant that the skills and business acumen she developed in that area have been invaluable to her shift into fashion.

"It's been a great help, particularly regarding the business side of things," Shehu says. "When you are running your own business, you have to be able to apply the principles of economics in some way." Still, the transition from economics to fashion wasn't an easy one, she says, mainly due to a lack of support from those in her family who would have preferred Shehu not stray from the stability and security of her original pursuit in favor of the relative uncertainty of the fashion industry.

For Shehu, however, it was a calling that could not be ignored.

"I've always been more artistically inclined," Shehu says. "I wanted to create something through which I could celebrate African culture, and fashion seemed to be the best way to tell our stories. Through Babayo, I am focused on telling tales of culture and heritage, merging the old with the new, and appealing to the sophisticated, confident, and graceful woman."



Aisha Babayo Shehu and model, Chioma, both wearing Babayo. Photo: via @lagosfashionweekofficial.

Named for her late father, from whom she inherited the Fulani name, Babayo was officially founded in 2017, and much of it is inspired by the Fulani culture. An African ethnic group found mainly across West Africa, Shehu considers the Fulani "some of the most beautiful people on earth." Their traditions, dress style, and embrace of color all serve as inspiration for the brand's current aesthetic. But it is the Fulani people's traditionally nomadic nature that underpins Babayo's ultimate mission, serving as a metaphor for how Shehu hopes the brand will assert its presence across the continent.

"A nomadic Fulani person would move from place to place," Shehu explains, "so we express this nomadic identity through being both inspired by and exposed to and embraced by other cultures." 

Babayo's most recent collection prioritizes comfort through easy silhouettes and flowing fits, albeit with a few distinct and colorful twists. It was inspired by a visit to Shehu's family home. She unearthed an old, traditional Fulani outfit and wondered why the style was not more prominent in people's everyday wardrobes. "It seemed these beautiful designs were only pulled out to celebrate things like National Days," Shehu laments. Her discovery became the basis for the collection, through which Shehu aims to make the traditional Fulani style of dress more accessible for the modern woman.

Babayo SS'22. Photo: courtesy of Babayo.

Babayo SS'22. Photo: courtesy of Babayo.

Babayo SS'22. Photo: via @babayooffical

"I wanted to create something through which I could celebrate African culture, and fashion seemed to be the best way to tell our stories."

Featuring intricate and vibrantly hued hand embroidery applied by locally employed artisans upon stark canvases of white and black white shirts, blouses, crop tops, kaftans, and more, Babayo's Fulani Tribe collection—one that Shehu considers the brand's first "proper" collection—was brought to life through exquisite craftsmanship and innovative takes on classic styles. From a playful imagining of the traditional Nigerian 'Bubu' dress complete with balloon sleeves and hand-stitched embroidery to coordinated sets that seamlessly transition from day to night, Shehu describes the range as "simple but edgy, classic and timeless." Unveiled for the first time at Lagos Fashion Week 2021, it was met with solid acclaim.

"LFW was a real blessing to our brand," Shehu says. "Just being recognized and selected to participate was, for me, a huge deal. It gave me confidence, assurance, and ‌validation that Babayo is on the right track. I couldn't imagine the reach LFW would give me; it's thanks to LFW that you and I are even having this conversation!"

Looking toward the future, Shehu sees Babayo growing to include more than just womenswear. She hopes to expand into menswear eventually and hopefully even athleisure—another move that honors her father, who was a prominent figure in the Nigerian sports industry. Promoting local artisanship is another firm priority for Shehu, who deeply understands the importance of supporting those who work with their hands and conserving the centuries-old customs and techniques they practice. "These practices will simply fade away if we don't find ways to preserve them," she states earnestly.

Though these ideas of empowerment and preservation lay at the heart of Babayo, the real reward for Shehu is found in her customers' belief in her singular vision. "What I find most mind-blowing about being a creative is that you start with a blank canvas and color it with your imagination, with your original ideas, sometimes with ideas that you're not even necessarily sure of. So when someone else buys into that idea, that is where the reward is, and the joy lies. It's not someone supporting me because they know me, but because they fully believe in the story I have created. I don't know if I'll ever really get over that."

Shop the Designer

White Fulani Embroidered Shirt Dress
White Fulani Embroidered Shirt Dress
White Fulani Embroidered Shirt Dress
White Fulani Embroidered Shirt Dress
White Fulani Embroidered Shirt Dress
White Fulani Embroidered Shirt Dress

Babayo

White Fulani Embroidered Shirt Dress

$227
Wine Fulani Embroidered Shirt
Wine Fulani Embroidered Shirt
Wine Fulani Embroidered Shirt
Wine Fulani Embroidered Shirt
Wine Fulani Embroidered Shirt
Wine Fulani Embroidered Shirt
Wine Fulani Embroidered Shirt
Wine Fulani Embroidered Shirt

Babayo

Wine Fulani Embroidered Shirt

$227
Black Fulani Embroidered Kaftan Dress
Black Fulani Embroidered Kaftan Dress
Black Fulani Embroidered Kaftan Dress
Black Fulani Embroidered Kaftan Dress
Black Fulani Embroidered Kaftan Dress
Black Fulani Embroidered Kaftan Dress

Babayo

Black Fulani Embroidered Kaftan Dress

$255
Black Fulani Embroidered Top
Black Fulani Embroidered Top
Black Fulani Embroidered Top
Black Fulani Embroidered Top
Black Fulani Embroidered Top
Black Fulani Embroidered Top

Babayo

Black Fulani Embroidered Top

$227
White Fulani Embroidered Crop Top
White Fulani Embroidered Crop Top
White Fulani Embroidered Crop Top
White Fulani Embroidered Crop Top
White Fulani Embroidered Crop Top
White Fulani Embroidered Crop Top
White Fulani Embroidered Crop Top
White Fulani Embroidered Crop Top
White Fulani Embroidered Crop Top
White Fulani Embroidered Crop Top
White Fulani Embroidered Crop Top
White Fulani Embroidered Crop Top
White Fulani Embroidered Crop Top
White Fulani Embroidered Crop Top

Babayo

White Fulani Embroidered Crop Top

$227
Fulani Embroidered Shirt And Pants Set
Fulani Embroidered Shirt And Pants Set
Fulani Embroidered Shirt And Pants Set
Fulani Embroidered Shirt And Pants Set

Babayo

Fulani Embroidered Shirt And Pants Set

$330