Nigerians can be considered among the most resilient people. This is because, in spite our colonial heritage and the influence of international mass media holding up one culture as superior to African cultures, many Nigerians have stayed true to their culture and traditions in food, marriages, fashion, and lots more. For example, wherever you have a large number of Nigerians abroad, a restaurant opens to cater to Nigerians’ desire to eat their own food.
The same applies to fashion. Regardless of where you find Nigerians, whether in the cold reaches of Iceland or the hot terrains of Australia, they turn out resplendent in colourful traditional attires to the admiration of other nationals. This pride in our wear andstrong sense of fashion – the average Nigerian loves to look good – could be cultivated into becoming a massive industry, providing livelihood for hundreds of thousands of Nigerians as well as contributing to the growth and development of the country.
Adire, ankara, asooke and all our other fabrics, among several others, are indigenous to us and hold huge potential to replicating what the government is doing in the oil and gas industry via the Local Content Act, or the rice sub-segment of the agriculture sector; or indeed, the excellent policy of ensuring that federal government’s contracts have enforceable local content components.
The aforementioned fabrics are produced in Nigeria by people who have either learnt the trade, or acquired skills which have been passed from one family generation to another. Investing in these people to enhance their skills, to boost the quality and quantity of their output, will have an immediate impact on the greater acceptance of these fabrics among a wider audience. As a result of the expected boost in production, suppliers of fabrics and inputs, etc will also experience growth. Cotton farmers will benefit as a greater percentage of their produce will be required to meet the expected demand.
But without fashion designers creating clothes that are acceptable to Nigerians, particularly the upwardly mobile, there is no future for Nigerian fabrics. In order to enhance the acceptability of Nigerian fabrics, they must be turned into pieces that can be used in various forms, worn to work or for leisure, and not just to weddings and religious engagements. The challenge we are currently facing in the industry is how to fashion the asooke, for instance, to make it look more versatile in its use and worn as formal, acceptable pieces to the workplace. The wearers need to look trendy and not out of place. Same holds for virtually all Nigerian fabrics.
Is it possible to pair a skirt made from asooke with a top made from another fabric? Or make a formal suit from ankara? You see, ankara must not necessarily be patterned in the usual big, bright colours. The white coat favoured by medical practitioners and indeed nurses’ uniforms could be made from tie-and-dye, which will certainly make these professionals look less foreboding. At Patterns&Stitches, we have attempted to do all of these and many more to the delight of many Nigerians at home and in the Diaspora. From our experience, we have seen that there is acute hunger for Nigerian wears among the Nigerian Diaspora and our traditional fabrics amongst foreigners.
The greatest opportunities though, lie with the younger generation whose pride of Nigeria is perhaps unequalled by previous generations. Their preference to identify as Naija rather than Nigeria, to ask for Nigerian foods at quick service restaurants rather than burgers, to dance to Nigerian music rather than that of the biggest music star from the United States, is testament of the need of these generations of Nigerians to identify with their own. They don’t just want to identify with their own out of sheer patriotism, but because their own is much better than the foreign variety. The same level of awareness and acceptability can be achieved in the fashion industry.
In order to meet the high expectations of the fashion needs of the younger generations of Nigerians, we don’t need to appeal to their sense of patriotism but to their need for self-expression, to look beautiful and well turned out. The music industry and to some extent, movie industry, hold vital lessons for the fashion industry. These two sectors no doubt have flourished as a result of keying into the needs of the younger generations to create what they can identify with and can take anywhere in the world without feeling alienated or diminished.
To engender the same level of acceptability, the fashion industry must consciously work towards turning Nigerian fabric into wears that can be worn to work, can be worn to the beach and other leisure activities, among many other endeavours. Always seeking to replicate the styles we see in western magazines or the fashion shows of major fashion capitals of the world will not take us far. We must look at going beyond the Indians who take pride in wearing their saris to work but are starting to realise that such elaborate clothings get in the way and slow down the pace of work, just as it is with the agbada or flowing buba and wrapper.
At the point at which we succeed in taking Nigerian fabric and fashion into the workplace – not only on Fridays – there will be an exponential growth in the industry particularly if there is a policy to develop the entire ecosystem of an industry that could potentially meet the clothing needs of 50 – 70 million active Nigerians! And this is not counting Nigerians abroad and other people who will be attracted to our colourful fashion. The farmers, producers of inputs and fashion labels including neighbourhood tailors to marketers and the media will all benefit from the expanded level of activities. Millions of jobs will be created, just as there will be more export.
Interestingly, the market is far bigger than we currently imagine it to be. Our fabrics can be made into soft furnishings such as throw pillows and also covering for chairs (asooke, tie-and-dye come to mind); bags and sneakers made from adire; uniforms of students in primary and secondary schools made from tie-and-dye or ankara. The possibilities are endless. Of course, there is the notion that Nigerian fabrics “don’t last”. This is however not always the case: the durability of fabrics is dependent on the skills of the producers and their eye for quality. Nigerian fabrics have been known to last for decades in their original state.
As Nigeria celebrates its 57th Independence anniversary, we must look inwards to see how we can contribute to grow the country on a sustainable basis. When we make a success of many sectors, just like the music and movie sectors, there will an exponential growth in the economy of the country.
Atinuke Adelakun is the CEO and Lead Creator at Patterns&stitches, one of Nigerians leading fashion labels. She is also a resource person at the Lagos Business School.