When Cynthia Otiyo-Abila launched her eponymous clothing label in 2016, her mission was to create a brand rooted in female empowerment and preserving African culture. Since its genesis, she’s stayed true to her vision, meticulously crafting pieces produced locally from hand-woven cotton indigenous to the Niger Delta area of Nigeria. Each drape, bead, and pleat adorning her fiercely feminine pieces speaks to her African ancestry. “Telling our own stories on our own terms is very important to me. I am very passionate about incorporating cultural artifacts through storytelling in my collections,” she tells Industrie Africa. “Each piece I create is a clear reflection of our rich and deep history. I want everyone who sees my clothes to come into contact with these tales.”
SS'20 Campaign. Photo: via Cynthia Abila.
The creation of the brand itself, however, was purely coincidental. After a routine visit from Port-Harcourt to the nation’s capital, Abuja, to visit her now-husband, Abila had not expected the trip would be a permanent move. “It was supposed to be a short trip,” she recalls. “I ended up getting married to my husband, and I did not have a chance to go back home to get a lot of my clothes. I had packed so little and had to build my wardrobe from scratch.”
However, finding clothes that were well made and reflected her flamboyant personality proved difficult. Finally, bored and frustrated in her new hometown, she decided to reach out to a friend who had recently started a fashion label to help get her business off the ground and partner with her. “The plan was for me to handle the business side of things while she handled the creative direction. I was very excited to be part of a business that made clothes that catered to my bold yet feminine personality.”
Unfortunately, that excitement was cut short when she received a phone call from her friend, who suddenly decided to opt-out of the partnership after two months, leaving Cynthia devastated. “I had invested a lot of money into the business. She was the creative one and knew more about the intricacies of the fashion industry. I had no fashion background and no idea how to make clothes. There was no way I could run a fashion business without this knowledge.” After much deliberation, Abila decided to strike out on her own. She was accepted into the University of the Arts London for a garment-making course, and soon after completing her studies, she returned home to Nigeria armed with new skills and launched her eponymous label.
At the core of Cynthia Abila’s brand DNA, beyond the bold prints and textured fabric, is the desire to create a sustainable legacy that isn’t buoyed by trends. Made for the “modern traveling woman,” the brand updates tailored classics like skirt suits and wide-legged trousers with cultural illustrations and elaborate coral beadwork to ground her work in tradition. “It’s so important that we tell our history and preserve the stories from our culture,” she muses. “If we don’t do it, then who will?”
One example of this can be seen in her SS'21 collection titled “1803!”, which was heavily influenced by the Igbo Landing Mass Suicide in 1803—a powerful story of resistance when captured Igbo slaves, upon arriving in Savannah, Georgia, on the slave ship The Wanderer, took their lives as a form of protest. “In that collection, I’ve inscribed the number ‘1803’ in some pieces as an explicit reminder of our past. I wanted the clothes to carry the weight of what some of the forefathers sacrificed and to honor that bravery.” The collection reflects this power and boasts items like a two-piece tonal set with an exaggerated lapel and a handwoven trench coat with dramatic fringe sleeves. It is a testament to Abila’s laser-focus vision and commitment to delivering impactful pieces.
With this vision in mind, Abila employed a team of local craftspeople composed mainly of women trained by Abila herself on how to produce their fabric in-house. “When I first started Cynthia Abila, I used to travel from state to state sourcing fabric and artisans to help weave them into what I was looking for. So we’ve set up training camps in some states to help us produce our own fabric called njam (‘my wrapper’ in Owerri) for the brand." As a result, she’s produced unique patterns and textures that result in a distinct aesthetic that’s striking yet with a feminine flair.
Okoroshi Skirt. Photo: Courtesy of Cynthia Abila
Orie Shirt Dress. Photo: Courtesy of Cynthia Abila
Anyanwu Suit. Photo: Courtesy of Cynthia Abila
For Abila, creating something meaningful is also about building systems that positively impact the lives of the women who work for her. “I grew up watching my mum look incredibly stylish when she went to work. She was a banker and how you present yourself visually in that industry is important,” she says with a twinkle in her eye. “I saw how empowered clothes made her look and feel and wanted to be a part of that. Although I didn’t know I would end up in the fashion industry, I was drawn to the emotive power clothes can have, especially with women.” After setting up training camps for local artisans in 2021, Abila noticed the ripple effect within their communities. These training camps, which comprised approximately 70% of women, enabled them to sharpen their skills and supply their own local communities with hand-woven fabrics. The result? It opened up more women to financial opportunities and independence.
“So far, we’ve trained about twenty women who can make some extra money on the side with these skills,” she tells Industrie Africa. “It’s important for me to see the women responsible for producing my pieces feel enfranchised. They carry the vision just as I do and are responsible for carrying on this legacy I’m trying to build.” Familiar with gender biases at work that can disproportionately affect women, especially mothers, Abila has also incorporated flexible working hours to accommodate the women who work for her and help them balance work with their domestic responsibilities.
Abila’s brand is also passionate about sustainability and ethical production, operating a zero-waste policy at their factory. “I am big on recycling. I think there’s so much value in re-purposing as much as possible. The first thing we should ask ourselves,” she continues, “when it comes to sustainability, is how we make sure we are leaving behind resources for future generations? People don’t always see the value in these materials like I do. Maybe my Environmental Science degree is coming to the fore, but I know how much waste there is, and I don’t want to be a part of that.” The push to be more eco-conscious speaks to Abila’s reckoning with one of the fashion industry’s most pressing concerns: consumption.
This approach reflects Abila’s focus on longevity rather than speed. Instead, her values center on forging a lasting, authentically African brand.
“The Cynthia Abila woman is rooted in her own history. She wants to tell her story on her own terms. Each of my collections speaks to a larger cultural narrative.”
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