In 2005, London-born, Nigerian-Ghanaian novelist and essayist Taiye Selasi wrote an article for Lip Magazine titled, Bye-Bye Babar. The article, a reflection on the shifting nature of African identity, presented a new term for which to describe a generation of global professionals and creatives with strong ties to the continent: Afropolitan.
Selasi defines Afropolitans as, “the newest generation of African emigrants, coming soon or collected already at a law firm/chem lab/jazz lounge near you. You’ll know us by our funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes. Some of us are ethnic mixes, e.g. Ghanaian and Canadian, Nigerian and Swiss; others merely cultural mutts: American accent, European affect, African ethos.”
Understandably, not everyone identifies with the term. In fact, the phraseology continues to spark lively debate amongst academics and those interested in discourses around changing notions of Africa.
For some, the idea of the Afropolitan is appealing because it gives language to yet another self-defined identity, one that falls outside of the negative preconceptions often thrust upon immigrants and the children of immigrants. For others, it signifies an uncomfortable projection of pseudo-bourgeoise elitism that is rooted in socio-economic privilege and a Western-leaning ivory tower mentality.
Which school of thought is more correct is arguably much less important than the dialogue. By making an effort to define her own identity on her own terms, Selasi moved the dial on a self-facilitated conversation about what being African means to a new generation. While cultural critics, essayists and novelists explore their identities in verses of prose, an up-cropping of talented designers are asking some of the very same questions with fabric.
For fashion in particular, the visual storytelling aspect provides a truly unique platform for illustrating cultural intersections. However, the industry’s historically insular nature also lays the groundwork for designers creating outside of markets deemed “mainstream” to feel isolated.
“Let’s face it, there’s a lot that Europe is already providing,” said British-Nigerian designer Tokyo James, who founded and continues to run his eponymous label out of Lagos. “There’s a lot of competition in Europe. Despite that, major corporations like LVMH, Kering Group and Only the Brave forget there are also a billion Africans – 75% of whom are under the age of 35 – who want to have their own identity. That’s an untapped market.”
A Billion Strong
Still, James isn’t necessarily suggesting a luxury retail conglomerate-led invasion is the solution. He would, however, like to see some of the same initiatives for finding and grooming promising talent offered by such corporations Stateside and in Europe, come to Africa. “One of the biggest challenges is funding. Right now we do everything by ourselves. I can’t speak for every person but everything you see from me – whether it’s on the runway, in a look book or part of a campaign – was funded by me. I dare a Balenciaga or Gucci to come and create under my conditions and produce the quality of work I produce,” joked James.
Fellow Lagos-based menswear designer Adebayo Oke-Lawal of LVMH Prize nominated brand Orange Culture echoes James’ sentiments. ” The industry was still finding its ground when I started, especially in terms of menswear. The things most industries have from the start we as designers didn’t have. We lacked funding, skilled labor and infrastructure early on; it was definitely quite tough figuring it all out as I went.”
Of course building a brand is exceedingly difficult in the best of circumstances – even with the luxury of investors and strong fashion institutions – but building a brand before the existence of an infrastructure that actually supports the kind of large-scale production that turns profit is exponentially harder. Despite that, young designers – even ones with strong ties abroad – are increasingly choosing to launch their labels on the African continent. James, for example, earned his stripes in London styling clients like Brioni and Issey Miyake while completing a degree in Mathematics. He also founded online magazine Rough, acting as both creative director and art director for the platform.
“At the end of the day, building a brand in Africa might have its challenges but I strongly believe there’s a better quality of life here. I was seriously depressed in London for the longest period of time. I would look at things like, ‘when am I going to be able to afford my own house?’ I’m in Nigeria right now building my own home to my specifications.” In returning home, James says he believes that he is not only happier, but is also helping to create a homegrown infrastructure that will further bolster a growing industry.
Bridging the Diaspora
Even established designers like James and Oke-Lawal – who have found ways around the funding issues most young brands contend with – face another obstacle: visibility. “We definitely need stores to see us as a valid part of the industry,” said Oke-Lawal. “Credit should also be given where credit is due – if you use the stories credit the source. People need to begin to see Nigerian fashion and African fashion beyond the stereotypes imposed on us by people who aren’t even African. Stronger stories and stronger platforms equal stronger opportunities.”
While studying in London, James felt the lack of visibility keenly. So much so, for many years he refused to post brand-associated photos of himself as a precautionary measure. “I never wanted my skin color to affect what I was trying to build. I wanted people to see the work and judge me based off of that. I’ve never said this before but when I was in London I stripped myself of all culture for a period of time. I felt the fashion scene in Europe was so divided – it was either you were in the white scene, which I call “mainstream” or you’re in the “alternative” scene, which I call the ethnic scene. Unfortunately, I still feel some of those problems persist to a degree. I’d love to get to the stage where African designers are just recognized for being exceptional.”
In 2011, OXOSI founders Kolade Adeyemo and Akin Adebowale planted the seeds to grow a platform that would do just that. At the time, they owned a boutique creative agency in New York. However, their longterm goal was to launch an “iconic African fashion label.” “We coined the term ‘Afromodernism’,” Adebowale said in reference to the ideology behind their intentions. “We believed it represented a new economic, creative and social African renaissance happening in the diaspora and on the continent. Our hope with OXOSI, which means ‘God of Justice and Wilderness,’ is to tame the wilds of fashion. We started it out of a shared appreciation for safeguarding culture — African culture; from art and music to design, literature and especially, fashion.”
Four years later, Adeyemo and Adebowale secured the funding to realize their vision. The duo partnered with Kupanda Capital in 2015 to officially launch OXOSI, a multichannel retailer carrying dynamic luxury and contemporary ‘Afromodernist’ brands. “There was a void in proper retail channels that connected the new energy around high quality African design to the global consumer,” Adeyemo explained. “A growing number of high-profile brands lacked the contacts, technological prowess, logistical resources and marketing savvy to connect with the global market.”
In addition to introducing an assemblage of curated brands to a global consumer, OXOSI also wants to cultivate a community of creatives who are eager to push cultural and sartorial boundaries. Orange Culture – one of the many labels Adeyemo carries in the store – has been heralded in Nigeria and abroad as the country’s first androgynous fashion brand. While disavowing gender is an increasingly relevant sentiment in younger generations, Oke-Lawal still found the idea of non-gendered clothing was rejected by many in Nigeria.
“People didn’t understand the idea – change isn’t easy so I got a lot of backlash and a lot of insulting messages and emails. It caused issues for us and it took years before people finally accepted our story was relevant and involved themselves in it. At first, people didn’t even want to stock the brand.”
Yet where Oke-Lawal encountered resistance on the home front, retailers like OXOSI redirected his vision to a global audience, many of whom applauded the brand’s gracefully unisex appeal. And, outside of providing a physical and digital space for creatives to show their work, the store also provides valuable data insights brands might not otherwise be able to access.
“We have amassed a substantial amount of data that enables us to provide actionable marketing and merchandising insights to our brand partners to help grow their global sales,” said Adeyemo. In fact, assuring the proper technical e-commerce setup – specifically designed to “remove the barriers of international cross-border commerce” – was one of the most difficult and instrumental stages of the initial store buildout process.
“We knew we had to deploy an enormous amount of technical effort to build the right proprietary e-commerce technology and services platform designed to remove the barriers of international cross-border commerce specific to this supply and demand market,” explained Adeyemo.
For designers like James and Oke-Lawal, such insights will indeed aid in future expansion. Even still, dreams of building the next great fashion house are outstripped by the desire to spark self-narrated conversations about what fashion and identity mean to them and others like them. “We finally have a voice,” said Oke-Lawal. “A lot of the time it’s still misconstrued, misrepresented and misappropriated but we are finally being given a chance to tell our stories ourselves.”
Special thanks to OXOSI in the creation of this feature.
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