Fashion has always been an integral part of the Nigerian experience. Whether decked out in Isi Brown or strutting away in Sisiano, Nigerians have always had a deep love for clothes and the way they are worn. The last five years have seen the fashion industry grow in leaps and bounds as talented individuals have been able to establish consistent and exportable fashion brands. In order to fully appreciate this growth, it is important to look back at the history of how we got to where we are today. The history of the Nigerian fashion industry tells the story of the couturiers and designers that pushed for the recognition of pieces by homegrown talents.
Shade Thomas-Fahm was one of the pioneers of the Nigerian fashion industry in the 60s. At the time, women’s fashion featured fitted and oversized silhouettes and mini-skirts akin to European style as Nigeria was freshly post-colonialism. Thomas-Fahm opened Shade’s Boutique which was Lagos’ style haven of the time. From there, she created and sold both European and Nigerian fashions and her most notable creations were the boubou and the zipped wrapper skirt which women still adore today.
The 70s was a time of truly funky fashion. From huge afros to lose tops and bellbottoms, there was an ever growing affinity for juxtapositions of proportions. This period was particularly boisterous for the Nigerian fashion industry as the military government of General Olusegun Obasanjo imposed a ban on the importation of ready-made clothes. The ban gave rise to the creation of brands like Sofisticat which was founded in the late 70s by Lanre Ogunlesi to provide an alternative for stylish Nigerian men who were used to only importing their clothes. The Oleku style trend originated in this period as illustrated by a 1997 movie of the same name by the legendary Tunde Kelani. Women loved oversized sleeves with high-waist wrappers which either stopped at knee length.
Extravagant European fashion thrived in the 80s with TV’s favorite characters like Dynasty’s Alexis Carrington Colby Dexter and Dallas’ Sue Ellen Ewing setting the decade’s biggest trends. This extravagance reflected in Nigerian fashion as power shoulders and bold color clashes ruled the style scene. Folorunsho Alakija ruled the decade’s design scene with Supreme Stitches––a brand she created which dressed the wives of top echelon socialites and the wives of military heads of state whose style choices everyone sought to imitate. Labenella Creations, though founded in the late 70s by Princess Abah Folawiyo, was also a major player in the Nigerian fashion industry. The label aimed for inclusion by catering to Nigeria’s full-figured women with kaftans, culottes and the likes and presented collections in the world’s major fashion capitals. Alakija went on to create the Fashion Designers Association of Nigeria (FADAN) in the late 80s which is still active today. Dakova was another top label of the 80s. It was founded by David Kolawole-Vaughan and was a household name as many of the top 80s celebrities dressed in elegant pieces by the label.
The 90s was a bit of a tumultuous time in Nigeria as we were going through the motions with military rule. Many designers had already left Nigeria in the late 80s to find greener pastures and establish themselves in other countries. Retro and vintage style infused with cultural references were popular alongside classic pieces. Ade Bakare Couture was a top fashion label of the 90s. Its eponymous designer ran the brand from his atelier in England but maintained a presence in Nigeria by presenting in shows and dressing fashion forward Nigerian ladies. Also prominent in the 90s was Deola Sagoe. The designer started her label in the late 90s and since then, it has remained one of the most respected fashion labels in Nigeria. Known for her attention to detail and peculiar design aesthetic, Sagoe has consistently been a notable yardstick in exploring the business of fashion as she still operates her by-appointment-only atelier in Lagos.
The 2000s was a time when the idea of leaving traditional career paths for pursuing a career as a fashion designer started to become less farfetched in Nigerian homes. Designers like Lisa Folawiyo and Lanre DaSilva Ajayi hit the scene with their eponymous labels which were known for using African textiles and design skills to create contemporary pieces which were authentically Nigerian but could compete with designs on any global platform.
Ankara beading and lace mixtures were popular trends of the period as individuals sought to embrace Nigerian made pieces in a way that made them standout from what their mothers wore way back when. Also, bespoke culture had always existed in Nigeria prior to this period but prevailed more for traditional wear. The rise of menswear designers like Mai Atafo and the Okunoren Twins led to a greater understanding of bespoke suit making and fine tailoring.
Today, Nigerian fashion designers have quadrupled in number. Gone are the days where fashion labels were considered as ‘rich kid vanity projects’ and careers for failures as Nigerian designers are proving that it takes hard work and a lot of dedication to make it in the fashion industry. Style trends constantly evolve thanks to social medial and our growing aso-ebi culture has brought back trends like the Oleku (brought back by Ejiro Amos Tafiri) which has taken fast fashion into overdrive. Designers like Orange Culture and Maki Oh have been at the forefront of leading the charge for Nigerian-made pieces being welcomed into retail stores far beyond the shores of Nigeria. Stores like Alara, Zazaii and our humble Grey Velvet have created spaces for Nigerian designers to sell their pieces to the mass market who no longer have to rely on foreign-made pieces.
History has led up to Nigerian fashion stepping into a position of prominence in Nigeria. Now, more than ever, is the best time to be in the Nigerian fashion industry as development is occurring as a very fast pace. As history is an ever-moving phenomenon, we eagerly anticipate the direction the industry is heading to next.