LAGOS, Nigeria – A model struts the runway wearing a flowing newspaper print gown in this African megacity where international high-end fashion buyers are looking beyond the country's bleak headlines to uncover the next new thing.
There have been steady efforts to turn Lagos, a city with a fearsome reputation, into a fashion destination. They reached new heights at the MTN Lagos Fashion & Design Week that ran from Oct. 24 to 27 and drew European high-fashion brands such as the United Kingdom's Selfridges & Co. and Munich-based MyTheresa.com to Nigeria for the first time.
Ituen Basi's newspaper inspired Spring/Summer 2013 collection was among 39 collections spotlighted at the city's latest major fashion week. The Nigerian label's collection evoked fun and glamour through its use of print and color — characteristics which have come to define the vibrant local fashion scene.
With local brands seeking wider platforms and international retailers hungry for novelty, designers and buyers see opportunities for collaboration.
"There's something about the fresh, the unknown, the possibility of seeing a new brand springing forth into the limelight. ... These are becoming interesting to people outside Nigeria," said Omoyemi Akerele, the fashion week's founder and creative director.
An encouraging response to African-inspired designs by top Western labels gives buyers confidence that designs straight from the continent will also sell.
"Over the past few seasons, there's been a strong trend for print," said Bruno Barba, the brand public relations manager at Selfridges. "If you look at the collection of Burberry inspired by Africa last year; there was also Vivienne Westwood, Paul Smith. ... They've made that inspiration quite mainstream now. So, for us, it was interesting to take that trend and take it from its roots in Africa."
Online retailer MyTheresa.com, which ships top designers' clothes including Miu Miu, Givenchy, Lanvin and Isabel Meron to clients in 120 different countries, is also looking for products in Nigeria that will sell well. The company hopes that will set it apart from the competition in a fast-paced industry.
"For me, Nigeria represents a fun individualism," the company's buying director Justin O'Shea said. He also said that MyTheresa.com was looking to work closely with designers and adapt products for their clientele if needed.
Previously, several Nigerian designers have helped put the West African nation on the global fashion map.
Deola Sagoe has gained recognition from U.S. Vogue editor Andre Leon Talley and Oprah Winfrey. London-based Duro Olowu is considered one of Michelle Obama's favorite designers. Maki Oh has dressed American singer Solange Knowles and Hollywood actress Leelee Sobieski from her Lagos workshop. Jewel By Lisa, who has also dressed celebrities, designed limited edition BlackBerry mobile phone skins and jeweled cases for Canadian manufacturer Research In Motion Ltd.
While looking to Nigeria could bring much-needed novelty to clothes targeted to global audiences, it could also endear a Nigerian clientele. Though the majority of the nation lives on less than $2 a day, the nation's wealthy elite have a growing appetite for top-shelf brands. Luxury goods stores are increasingly opening in a country where seemingly gratuitous displays of wealth are the norm.
"Nigerians are part of our Top 10 highest-spending foreign customers," Barba said. "It felt right for us to try and find a response that would appeal to them, excite them and be over and above what they already buy, almost as a recognition that they're an important part of our consumer base."
JEWEL BY LISA
Fashion week after fashion week, Lisa Folawiyo, the creative director of Jewel By Lisa, is a consistent Nigerian designer. She recently started retailing at the New York-based online luxury store Moda Operandi and continues to draw attention from international buyers and labels looking for a modern interpretation of African style.
Her Spring/Summer 2013 collection is named "Fula" after the Fulani women it draws inspiration from. The Fulani are a nomadic people spread across several African countries, including Nigeria.
Their women typically have fine traits and slender frames, not unlike the models that took to the catwalk with soundtrack that crossed the high-pitched melody of the African guitar and the heavy bass of house music.
The Jewel by Lisa collection turned traditional loop earrings into a motif that repeated itself throughout her satin fabrics across stunning color combinations.
ANITA QUANSAH LONDON
Anita Quansah London is a prolific one-woman operation based in a London workshop. The Ghanaian-Nigerian designer describes her work as a "labor of love." She sells to a global market including Asians and Europeans. She says she is now in talks to build a diffusion line to meet up with the growing demand of her work that has caught the eye of such designers as Christian Delacroix.
Her Spring/Summer 2013 collection is dramatic for "ladies who want to make a statement when they walk in to a room."
Her show-stopping bib necklaces are embellished with intricate bead work. The beads include imitation coral beads used for traditional outfits in southern Nigeria. Some bibs are lined with chicken feathers which also evoke traditional heirlooms.
Her dresses were understated and mostly in solid black, ceding the limelight to the jewelry that included suggestive chain designs inspired by bondage. Quansah said she wanted to show "women that weren't afraid to be sexy."
LANRE DASILVA AJAYI
Designer Lanre DaSilva Ajayi is well-known in Nigeria's fashion scene for her love of 40s elegance. International buyers such as Selfridges & Co. expressed interest in her designs for retail at their UK stores.
Her ultra-feminine collection used a color palette ranging from cool nude and turquoise to warm orange and gold.
She showed flowing silhouettes and easy-to-wear maxi dresses, using chiffon, raw silk lace and the lace used in traditional Nigerian outfits to carve European shapes.
Her clothes are for the woman on the move, bold and sophisticated.
The MTN Lagos Fashion and Design Week 2013 was also the culmination of a months-long competition for new talent. The competition winner was menswear designer Josh Samuels, an architect turned designer that offered a geometric collection.
"I like things organized and appropriate," said Samuels who won the equivalent of $25,000 and the opportunity to be stocked in some Nigerian boutiques.
His collection called "Casanova" included finely tailored suits with classic checkered and houndstooth patterns and matching string ties.
Lagos Fashion & Design Week: www.lagosfashionanddesignweek.com