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Clay pots filled with a concoction of natural indigo dye, water and ash are stirred at intervals over seven days. The cloth, which is tied in various ways or pasted with cassava to create distinctive patterns, is saturated in the pots and laid out to dry. This is the labour-intensive tie-and-dye technique known as adire. Passed from one generation to the next, this resist-dyed textile has been made by the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria for centuries.
Traditional Nigerian textiles such as adire are being rediscovered by a new generation of designers and appreciated afresh for their beauty and complexity as well as their natural, sustainable processes. As the international luxury industry focuses anew on artisanal techniques, Nigerian textiles’ time has come, offering potential beyond its domestic customer base.
Adire is one of many Nigerian textiles embraced by designers. One of its most high-profile proponents is Amaka Osakwe, designer of label Maki Oh, founded in 2010 and worn by Michelle Obama and Lupita Nyong'o. Osakwe is constantly working to evolve new patterns, adding a modern twist to what she describes as “the revitalisation of this overlooked art form”.
A resurgence of interest in Nigeria’s rich tradition of hand-woven textiles is reviving artisanal methods for a new generation of consumers with a modern twist, says Lagos-based fashion consultant Bolaji Animashaun, including aso oke from the Yoruba, Akwete cloth from the Igbo and akwa ocha from the Aniocha people of Delta state. All have featured in the collections of leading Nigerian designers such as Tiffany Amber, Kenneth Ize and Emmy Kasbit.
The aspirational value of these high-profile designer brands has boosted the desirability of indigenous textiles over the past decade, says Animashaun, who attributes growing pride in African heritage to the increasing popularity of these techniques. By popularising them, designers are fortifying the livelihoods of the artisans that make them and defining a specifically Nigerian design identity.
“There’s a new approach to identity,” Animashaun says. “We started to strip ourselves of our colonial identity and probe who we really are.”
This sentiment rings true for designer Tsemaye Binitie, who sifted through the aso oke archive of his mother and aunt, rediscovering the intricacies of a hand-woven fabric that he took for granted as a child. “They have a treasure trove of aso oke. It’s history sitting in a suitcase,” explains the designer, who studied in London and worked at Stella McCartney before setting up his own label in 2009.
Kenneth Ize Autumn/Winter 2019.
Binitie works closely with Nigerian weavers to create fresh modern patterns and colour palettes. The designer believes the use of aso oke gives his pieces originality, adding greater value. A Tsemaye Binitie aso oke gown retails for $1,800-plus. “We can tell a story of how the fabric was made. It’s not just beauty for beauty’s sake. We’re helping the community.”
A 2019 report by Cornell University notes that Nigeria was once home to Africa’s largest textile industry, with more than 180 mills employing 450,000 people in the 1970s and early 1980s. Today, few of those companies exist. Menswear label Post-Imperial prints its adire on a midweight cotton known as funtua manufactured in the north of the country. However, the brand’s creative director, Niyi Okuboyejo, says designers have no choice, but to depend on high-quality imported fabrics for the majority of their collections. Nigeria currently imports $4 billion of ready-made clothing and textiles each year.
Factory-produced batik from the Netherlands flooded West Africa more than a century ago, the best known by Vlisco, founded in 1846 in the Dutch city of Helmond. The brightly coloured wax-finished fabric is often referred to as an African textile, but was originally manufactured for Indonesia, a former Dutch colony. As it became fashionable in West Africa, the dominance of Dutch wax left little space for the domestic textiles sector to thrive.
Designer Lisa Folawiyo had no idea that the batiks she used in her creations had Dutch origins. She first started embellishing the textile with shimmering beading 15 years ago and has engineered a hybrid fabric for her most recent collection. Dubbed batkara, it takes Dutch wax cloth as a base then hand-dyes it using traditional African batik techniques. The method has allowed Folawiyo to create an original print that is challenging to replicate, therefore adding exclusivity to ubiquitous wax fabrics in West Africa. Her Nigerian customers cherish these specialist fabrics. “You can’t tell if it’s ankara, batik, adire. Batkara is a slightly different texture,” Folawiyo explains. “We loved the finish and the weight of it.”
Over the years, Folawiyo has also collaborated with textile designer Banke Kuku to create prints that reinvent cultural symbols. One collection took its inspiration from a lion head motif typically printed on men’s tunics, originating from the Igbo ethnic group. They reimagined the form on luxury silk and velvet in burgundy, ochre and purple — fabrics cut into womenswear in a subversion of dress codes.
When not designing for others, Kuku digitally reinterprets heritage prints for her eponymous loungewear brand. Her background in textile design (she studied at London’s Chelsea College of Arts) informs her fresh technology-focused approach to the creative process.
Computer-generated aso oke and batik stripes pay homage to Nigerian tradition. Production is in the UK and Italy, where she prints on a wide selection of luxury fabrics, creating silk kaftans, pyjama sets and shirt dresses. “Nigerians really love the nostalgia. It's something quite comforting to them,” Banke says.
Maki Oh Spring/Summer 2020 – Adire splatter technique.
Paris-based luxury brand consultant Uche Pézard says Nigerians are rebuilding their indigenous traditions to explore cultural narratives through the rich language of the craft. “What is happening is a huge transformation,” Pézard says. “Being a Nigerian designer today, that is using fashion as a platform to promote culture and heritage.”
Pézard says the production processes employed by Nigerian labels are a study in sustainability. “African brands are the blueprint,” she explains. “In Nigeria, by default, you can't waste anything, because there is the reality of scarcity. In a lot of cases artisans are limited in numbers. You already have a lot of restrictions within the supply chain.”
Nigerian brands face challenges manufacturing high volumes, leading them to produce quantities that closely reflect demand. Their use of natural dyes is less damaging to the environment than chemical pollutants used for mass produced ranges. Production bottlenecks mean it’s not uncommon to find Nigerian designers producing just one season each year. Until recently, such an approach presented a problem for these designers in the international marketplace, but its time may have come as the global industry contemplates how to reduce waste.
Creatively, Nigerian designers are comfortable with a less-hurried obsession with the new. Kuku says she often reproduces popular past prints, which fit seamlessly into her timeless loungewear aesthetic. Amaka describes her pieces as “wearable art”, which exist independent of trends.
Pézard points to the wider potential of artisanship for the Nigerian economy as an indicator of how this design style will unfold. “The more designers use these textiles, the more people are trained, the more economic benefits, the higher the volume of trade. It becomes an industry in itself and an economic contributor to Nigeria as a country.”
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