Here is the Guardian UK review of the Arise Fashion Week that was organised in Lagos. The write up by Eleanor was titled “Lagos fashion week: putting Africa on the fashion map”.
Amid the gridlock, the power cuts and the pay rows, African designers and models are making their mark on the fashion world.
The stress of travelling to shows at any fashion week can be compounded by bad traffic. Arrive late for a show and you may not get in and have to – God forbid! – watch it online. However, take this as gospel: you have never seen traffic until you go to Lagos in Nigeria, where I was for the Arise Magazine Lagos fashion week.
Here, a scheduled 10-minute journey can (and frequently did) take well over an hour. Cars form giant segmented beasts that chug along the potholed roads at glacial speed among packed buses and open-backed trucks with dozens of construction workers riding them like surfboards. It’s worlds away from being stuck in a taxi on the Champs-Elysées and, if you are prone to motion sickness as I am, quite tortuous. Especially in 35C heat with 80% humidity that, when you finally do open the car door, feels like you’re walking into a casserole.
The event itself was as chaotic as the main road outside its location: a series of tents outside a fancy hotel that foreign visitors nicknamed the “fashion cruise liner” because it resembled an enormous P&O ferry, swarming with fashion buyers, designers and journalists. The shows started almost two days late, due to problems with electricity – power outages are widespread in a city that largely depends on generators for power. So, with 77 African or African-influenced designers (including British labels David David and PPQ) scheduled to show, this meant quite a backlog.
Rumours circulating among designers staying at my hotel suggested delays were also due to local models storming out in protest when they learned that the international models were being remunerated substantially better than they were. And this wasn’t the only model-related issue. Upon arriving at the hotel from the airport, our rooms weren’t available due to a “clerical error”. The real reason? An international model agency offered to pay more for the booked rooms – 26 in total – and got them. That is, we were told, just how it works in Lagos, so we were moved elsewhere. It’s funny now but, after a bilious journey from the airport, patience was fraying.
When the shows finally began, the atmosphere was extraordinary. One of the marked differences to the major fashion weeks was just how many local people populated the audiences. In Milan, Paris and London, the public barely gets a look-in. Here, it’s all about the public. Seating was a first-come, first served affair so, along with the international buyers and journalists, the front rows were full of ridiculously glamorous people (mostly women) dancing animatedly along to the show music and rising from their chairs to applaud designers.
Glamour is something the women of Lagos do inimitably; their dresses come in fabrics the colours of the rainbow, their made-up faces are immaculate, and their nails – long and sculpted – are covered in jewels the colours of the ocean, reflecting the catwalk spotlights. They’re not messing around. In a sweaty T-shirt, with my hair having its ultimateMonica-from-Friends-in-Barbados moment, I’ve never felt dowdier. I asked a girl in the toilets how long it had taken her to get ready. “Three and a half hours,” she said, slicking her lips with more violet lipgloss.
Designers have had a love affair with Africa for decades, from 60s YSL to Derek Lam’s S/S 12 shows, but Nduka Obaigbena (aka The Duke), the Nigerian media mogul who publishes the This Day newspaper and Arise Magazine, and who funded the whole week as well as paying for more than 300 international visitors, sees Lagos fashion week as essential for putting Africa on the fashion map proper. “We are demonstrating that Africans can contribute, be the best and be world class,” he said, wafting around the crowds in a billowing white gown, martini in hand. “This is about putting Africa on the map.”
One of the standout designers, Central Saint Martins-educated menswear designer Buki Akib – who is hopefully showing in London next year – concurs, but says it’s also about Africa “losing its novelty factor.” Being an African designer should simply be about where you’re from. “Anyone can copy African design,” she tells me in the back of a car, “but hopefully platforms like this will show the industry that African designers can fit in internationally without having to be a separate entity.”
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Her collection, based on intricately patterned monochrome knitwear with metallic leather panels and big, swooshy boxing gowns, was one of the most accomplished of all the shows I saw. Other highlights were Bestow Elan, a British Ghanaian whose chic, feminine dresses came splashed with vibrant, Christopher Kane-like prints and large plaited collars. Loza Maleombho was another high point, debuting a diverse collection inspired by traditional Afghan wear and the nomadic Tuareg people of the Sahara, but using the Ankara print fabric that’s hugely popular in Nigeria.
The main attraction of the event for many was Ozwald Boateng, the British couturier with Ghanaian parents and the first black tailor to move to Savile Row back in 1995, who presented a mostly black-and-white, super-masculine collection inspired by a trip to Japan he made in 1990 when he was starting out. At the end of the show, which closed the week, he got a standing ovation as he saluted and danced his way around the U-shaped runway.
It was a perfect distillation of the spirit of the whole week – where fashion creates a collective experience, rather than one of isolation. I met women from all over West Africa – from Ghana, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – who travelled to Lagos to see the shows. “We love fashion and come to be inspired,” said one, “and to support our sisters.”
The local fashion industry is still in its infancy, though, and it remains to be seen whether the African models will break through internationally. Certainly, the ones I spoke to backstage all want to, and were inspired by the presence of South Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek, now in her mid-30s, who modelled for designer Tiffany Amber, but they all have to keep day jobs to sustain themselves. As the week progressed, I felt ashamed of how few African models – whose frames are lean and muscular compared to the near-skeletal Europeans – there are in the fashion industry. It’s absurd.
The Nigerian models’ chances may be slimmer still with Obaigbena’s announcement that the next Arise fashion week may happen in Cape Town or Nairobi. It makes sense to move somewhere where fashion is the only focus, not maintaining an electrical supply. But I have a sneaking suspicion that Lagos fashion lovers may convince him otherwise. Despite their obstacles with power supplies and resources, designers across the country are determined to make their mark.
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