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Sartorial innovators Sofia El Arabi, Lisa Folawiyo and Firyal Nur share their guides to curating personal style with authenticity, one joy-inducing separate at a time.

By David Nwachukwu

Feb 24, 2022

There is an art to dressing effortlessly, one built on the strong synergy of the wearer's garment, body, and mind. Social psychology suggests that the clothes people wear significantly affect their behavioral patterns and how they approach life.  self-expression through clothes. The challenge lies in building a wardrobe that is unique to the wearer. One could argue that this is mainly due to the homogeneous nature of fashion due to social media's impact on the industry in the past decade. While the rise of these platforms has helped brands connect better with audiences and raise profits, the viability of influencer marketing has birthed a culture of copy-cat fashion, where wardrobes mirror a singular accepted aesthetic. Across Africa, our clothing choices are informed by the revolving door of global trends and digital media and the unwavering influence of indigenous culture and social dynamics within different regions.

We spoke to three noteworthy African women with distinct personal styles about defining what it means to develop a collection that feels inherently true, discussing how they navigate the omnipresence of trends, stick closely to methods that spark joy, and create lasting, hassle-free wardrobes. 

Sofia El Arabi


Sofia's style is deeply influenced by her culture, a unique Arabic-bohemian mix, with the serenity of the East contrasting the fast-paced nature of the West. She recalls growing up “speaking French, English and Arabic in the same sentence, salivating over both French cheeses and Moroccan couscous at the same table and wearing blue jeans under traditional jellabas for Friday mosque prayers.” This cultural blend has come to define the aesthetic of her clothing brand Bakchic. The modern womenswear label promotes Moroccan culture through ethical fabric sourcing and indigenous artisanship while having a global appeal. On defining that aesthetic, she says, “It is not something I can put into words. It is better understood when immersed within the culture.” She adds, “As a fashion designer, I design clothes that embody my multi-horizon identity to make Arab clothing and heritage great again. I started my brand with a picture in my mind: barefoot, with mini shorts and a vintage kaftan.” The designer's personal wardrobe is peppered with her own creations and a treasure trove of luxury vintage items that she wears against the backdrop of some of the country's most beautiful landscapes, as depicted on her popular Instagram page. However, she remains conscious of letting clothes complement her life and not define it as to her, the most beautiful women are wearing the clothes, not the opposite. “Never feel the need to copy,” she advises. “Your style is personal, so only take Instagram posts as suggestions and be yourself.”

1. Describe your style in one sentence?

Feminine, cool and boyish. I like the idea of wearing a white t-shirt and vintage Levis shorts with funny white socks, vintage New Balance, and red lipstick.

2. What is your earliest fashion memory?

Wearing my "too big" corduroy pants from my mum when I was 11.

3. Would you say your personal style has changed over time? In what ways?

Not really. I like to maintain classic staples like blue jeans and white shirts, adding a touch of fringe or statement accessories. Think Brazilian bracelets, embroidered pieces, gold, hats, mini sparkling baguette. But, of course, it all depends on my mood.

4. How do you maintain a strong sense of personal identity amid seasonal trends? 

I don't follow the trends much, especially in the last two years. I always see what's happening through the fashion shows, but I can't say I'm really influenced by it. My style is primarily influenced by my mood.

5. What are your all-time favorite purchases?

Vintage Prada sandals, a vintage Fendi micro bag, Totem leather pants, vintage Reebok baskets, and a belt from Saks Potts.

6. What current African fashion brands speak to your sense of style, and why?

I love Abiola Olusola, Loza Maléombho and Maxhosa Africa.

7. It's near impossible to cut shopping down to zero, but we can still align our consumption habits with our core values. So what advice would you give people who want to be better and wiser shoppers this year?

Be very aware of harmful producers. We've all seen the information online. There are a lot of fashion brands that are pushing the Amazon Forest closer to an ecosystem collapse. In Morocco, we don't throw out any clothes. When the outfits start fading, they become your home outfits, then sleeping outfits, and when they are all tattered, you'll find your mum dusting the furniture with it. Alternatively, we skip the cycle entirely and give a lot to people in need.

8. What is on your fashion wishlist this 2022?

More vintage and perhaps a pair of Dior Mules. I don't feel obsessed yet, but I'm sure one is on its way.

Photo: via @sofiaelarabii

Photo: via @sofiaelarabii

Photo: via @sofiaelarabii



One of the most recognizable faces in Nigeria's fashion landscape, Lisa Folawiyo is equally known for her covetable wardrobe just as much as her eponymous label's sumptuous prints. Founded in 2005, the womenswear brand's mastery of reinventing indigenous textiles and motifs has earned international acclaim, including a spot on the Business Of Fashion's 500 list. Her approach to style is driven by heart, without overthinking any outfit or purchase, while maintaining a bold approach to getting dressed. It wasn't always like this, though. Her view on personal style has evolved: “Over time, I have definitely become more sure of who I am and what my style is. And with that comes a lot more ease and the confidence to experiment and play around even more.” Not one to be defined by trends, Lisa has taken new season must-haves over the years and made them uniquely her own, boasting a collection of functional yet uber-chic pieces from brands across the globe. In curating new pieces for her wardrobe, she reveals, “It has to be something that makes my heart skip a beat.” She adds, “And then, I will only buy pieces I can immediately visualize myself in and mix with my already existing wardrobe.” In a bid to extend the shelf life of her stunning buys, the designer sweetly pays it forward by giving away pieces each season to lucky followers who have come to form a warm online community. 

Photo: via @lisafolawiyo

Photo: via @lisafolawiyo

Photo: via @lisafolawiyo

1. Describe your style in one sentence?

I'm unable to. What I know is I wear only what I love.

2. What is your earliest fashion memory?

One of my earliest fashion memories is me, at around 7 years old, shopping with my mum for fabrics at Tejuosho and Balogun markets. We then went off to her seamstress (who made my first patterns when I started designing) to make matching outfits for my younger sister and me. And I must say, we wore the prettiest print dresses.

3. What are your all-time favorite purchases?

Every favorite piece of mine is a Lisa Folawiyo piece. And I love my Hèrmes bags.

4. Which aspects of your culture inform your wardrobe selections? Why?

My love for color, print, texture, and craftsmanship definitely indicates my heritage and cultural influences.

5. What current African fashion brands speak to your sense of style, and why? 

I love Abiola Olusola because there is simplicity and ease with her pieces, yet such beauty, strength, and mastery in her work. I also admire the works of Shem Paronelli. His creativity and attention to detail is undefeated.

6. What advice would you give to someone just starting to develop their personal style?

I will advise them to wear what they feel most comfortable, most confident, and most like themselves. And still, to not be afraid to try new things, some play with color, texture, and proportions must be welcome.

7. It's near impossible to cut shopping down to zero, but we can still align our consumption habits with our core values. So what advice would you give people who want to be better and wiser shoppers this year?

Shop your wardrobe! Add on only things that will update what you already have. It's sustainable and your own little way of being kinder to the earth and your pockets. Also, buy only what you genuinely love and can truly afford.

8. What is on your fashion wishlist this 2022?

Everything from my Collection 1 2022. 



A deep respect for quality craftsmanship informs a considerable part of Firyal's personal style. The designer and cultural curator had her first introduction to artisanal processes through childhood shopping trips with her late father. “It was this thing, no matter where we were, he would always find an incredible tailoring shop and get a made-to-measure suit or tie, spending hours due to how long the bespoke process was, picking trimmings and carefully taking measurements.” These trips formed a precursor to her five-year role at Gucci, where she served as a Global Brand and Culture Manager. “A lot of my career in fashion was spent in men's tailoring and made to measure. I ran some of those programs [for Gucci] and really learned about artisanal workmanship in-depth. Still, I already had an understanding thanks to those painfully long shopping trips.” This appreciation of the work that goes into great design is also evident in how she buys new items. “Nowadays, I look at the money in my wallet as an investment. My functional pieces tend to be a small portion of my wallet share. The bigger investments go into supporting designers I love and believe in because of the incredible work they do.” Supporting African artisanship led her to create her own fashion brand, Nur, which she describes as “a pilot fashion project that became something bigger.”

1. Describe your style in one sentence?

A collection of some great basics paired with really unique statement pieces. It is so important to have a core wardrobe and pair it with artistry.

2. Would you say your personal style has changed over time? In what ways?

It has always been consistent, and it has amplified over time. During the pandemic especially, so many things changed for me. I was living in New York at the time, and I had to move back to Kenya within 24 hours because things in the city got bad really quick, as we all know. So I was faced with the challenge of packing up my life within a short amount of time and choosing what went with me and what stayed behind. I ended up taking all of my super essential pieces, bodysuits, leggings, and pieces I had a love connection to, pieces with sentimental value. Since then, I've continued to play that balancing act with functional elements and items that truly mean something to me.

3. How do you maintain a strong sense of personal identity amid seasonal trends?

I worked for Gucci for 5 years, and you have to represent in public-facing roles. However, it's crucial to have a personal style and not lose yourself at work. I had my own brand Nur before this role, which started out being very print-centric in my young understanding of fashion, but that shifted quickly. The more I traveled the continent, the more I discovered indigenous materials not typically known as African. In that same vein, some of the concepts of my own identity also changed during that time. This was reflected in my style, too. I no longer felt like I needed to look “African” performatively but was more interested in wearing African-made clothing.

4. How do you balance cultural expectations with self-expression?

Such a big topic for an African Muslim girl. I come from a very conservative Muslim background, and my golden rule has always been as long as I am respectful to myself, then it's okay. I love my feminine beauty, and I always like to wear things I can stand by without portraying an oversexualized version of myself. I also appreciate a modest wardrobe, as I feel it is so chic. I try not to get caught up in people's expectations or their projections of culture. As long as I feel good, that's all I need to inform my decisions.

5. What advice would you give to someone just starting to develop their personal style? 

Nail that capsule wardrobe first! Get that one pair of great jeans, that perfect white tee, a couple of sneakers you can wear out, a great blazer for work opportunities. You must have these basics because they will stay with you forever and make it easier to incorporate statement pieces/accessories. In addition, you'll have the tools to shape a complete look versus having one piece and building around that.

Photo: via @firyal.nur

Photo: via @firyal.nur

Photo: via @firyal.nur

6. It's near impossible to cut shopping down to zero, but we can still align our consumption habits with our core values. So what advice would you give people who want to be better and wiser shoppers this year?

For the average consumer, a great starting point is being informed and making informed purchases. Find out where a piece was made, what fabric it was made out of, what teams were responsible for its production. Shopping African is important, though not always easy. We must do the work to support local creatives as we are helping local communities and, in turn, ourselves.

7. What is on your fashion wishlist this 2022?

I don't necessarily have one, so to speak. I would love to see more African swimwear brands come to fruition, as there is such a massive gap in their market. Thinking of the thousands of kilometers of beautiful coasts on the continent, I hope to see more activity in that space. I am also working on relaunching my brand, so I am very excited to see that happen in 2022. I hope it will fill some gaps because it's definitely all things I feel are shoppable and necessary in building a capsule wardrobe. I am overall excited to see all the creativity across the continent come forth, especially in Kenya.