On Saturday, the 28th of October 2017, five of Africa’s biggest and most celebrated designers all showed on the same stage. Gert Johan Coetzee known for his eponymous couturier label , Amaka Osakwe whose label Maki Oh has become the standard for the Afrocentric New York fashion girl, Rich Mnisi the South African Wunderkind whose design challenge the boundaries of gender and sexuality, Tsemaye Binitie who recently completed a prestigious residency at the DC Fashion Institute and Christie Brown who has turned her label into the standard for Ghanaian fashion. In the front rows where Chioma Nnadi, fashion news director at Vogue US, Mobolaji Dawodu, style editor at GQ, Irene Ojo Felix buyer for Oxosi.com and stylist at Models Dot, Reni Folawiyo creative director and Head Buyer at Alara, Bryan Ramkilawan, head of Fashion at Africa Fashion International, South Africa and even media folk from WIRED Japan and Essence USA. Bloggers from across the continent flew in to see the shows, and document. It was a genuine celebration of the best fashion talent in Nigeria and the continent, a long way from the first showcase in 2011.
The Lagos Fashion and Design Week is easily Nigeria’s most prestigious platform, built painstakingly over the last 7 years by Omoyemi Akerele and her team into an Pan-African authority on African fashion and a global mover in the world of fashion. Akerele has been named an international gatekeeper of fashion and for good reason. She has crushed glass ceilings, courted giant sponsors and created a globally respected brand. Of course, the Lagos Fashion and Design Week has its flaws and shortcomings, many of which several fashion bloggers and journalists have highlighted in the past, but it is important that ignorant presumptions and personal bias never take the place of fact based, context driven critique.
Ignorant presumptions were the scaffolding on which Cosmas Akhere of New Age magazine More Branches built his ‘takedown’ of the Lagos Fashion and Design Week franchise. In his article, which you can read here, he posits that the LFDW is ‘exclusionary’ and ‘elitist’, because the organization sells tickets to see the four day shows. He argues that LFDW doesn’t ‘care’ about youth interested in fashion and the young designers who want to enter the industry based on the argument that there is a fee to see the shows. He also suggests that Nigerian youth have been socialized to feen for western brands and that perhaps opening up the Lagos Fashion and Design Week to everyone will somehow correct this narrative and alludes that the longevity of the music of Ebenezer Obey and Fela Kuti is a direct consequence of them opening their music to the ‘youth’ of their time. These are strong presumptions to make, especially when they are not based by fact.
First of all, we must get rid of this idea that fashion is simply an art form and that we are entitled to a person’s art simply because it exists.
Fashion might be driven by creativity, but it is more than just a medium through which a person expresses themselves. Good fashion always satisfies the tripartite purpose of aesthetic, design and functionality. It must look good, it must tell a design story that draws inspiration from external elements and it must be functional enough that it can successfully integrate into some facet of a person’s life while causing minimal discomfort. Every designer and fashion lover eventually learns that good design exacts a steep price both on the creator and the consumer. The designer must invest time and effort into every piece they make and walk a tightrope of sourcing materials that are durable, aesthetically pleasing and affordable. The consumer must choose to invest limited resources in pieces that are durable and aesthetically pleasing. Fashion is functional art and a fashion consumer only becomes a fashion lover when they start to see clothes as an investment.
How ever you swing it, good fashion costs money.
Not everyone has access to money. In fact, very few people have access to the kind of money that one would need to build a good fashion label. This is why, like in art and music, good fashion is often underwritten by a third party. Artists have galleries and curators and residencies, musicians have record labels and distribution deals, designers have fashion conglomerates and showcase organizations. These organizations provide the capital required for a creative to work on their craft, perfect it and present it to an audience. They also handle the mass marketing of said art and in exchange a take cut of the proceeds of the commercialization of the artist’s intellectual property. The artists and their financiers often have to compromise on how their art will be showcased and/or marketed to an audience.
In Nigeria, we do not have the structures that would guarantee investors proper returns on creative investments (think piracy, corruption) and as such, creative industries remain largely underfunded. Most of our labels are run out of pocket by their owners and this limits their creativity, their reach and their access to the millennial generation of savvy youths to which their clothes appeal. It also keeps their price points high, since many of the benefits of industrial backing (mass production) are absent.
Third party showcase organizations like the Lagos Fashion and Design Week have become an important part of the Nigerian fashion ecosystem; they democratize the process of showing finished collections by providing a mutual pool of resources (models, equipment, stylists, accessories and access to press) which individual designers can tap into by showcasing with the organization for a preset fee. These resources best serve younger designers just breaking into the industry for whom the costs of organizing private showcases would be overwhelming and helps them piggyback off the press and attention celebrated Nigerian designers bring. But running a world class showcase is expensive, and while the LFDW routinely partners with multinational sponsors to defray some of the costs, the organization has to pay for some things out of pocket. This is where the showcase fees and ticket sales that Mr. Akhere cries Wolf about come handy. Ticket sales also serve a secondary purpose; all the venues the Lagos Fashion and Design Week has used for its showcases was designed to hold a certain capacity of people. After VIP ticketing and passes for press have been handed out (about 600 in all) ticketing is used as way to ensure that the spaces are not overwhelmed and damaged. And ultimately, if you cared about an artist’s work, why wouldn’t you want to support them financially? Isn’t that what we all preach to consumers of art?
There have been a few preliminary responses to the Akhere’s “Fuck LFDW” article, but this one in particular by Anthony Audiri, goes some way in correcting Akhere’s errors. But I chose to reference it as well, because Audiri makes an erroneous error of his own, and it is one that many millennial Nigerians secretly hold. This misconception that fashion showcase organizations, and the LFDW in particular do not ‘care’ about the young designers who showcase on their platforms. It is quite simply inaccurate, as anyone who follows Nigerian fashion will tell you.
Programmes designed specifically to provide financial support and access to mentorship opportunities and resources have always been an integral part of the Lagos Fashion and Design Week. A good number of the country’s celebrated young designers are alumni of the LFDW’s Fashion Focus incubator programme which partnered them with the British Council, provided scholarships to Instituto Maragoni in the United Kingdom and internships with eco-friendly New York label Edun and provided them free slots to showcase capsule collections at the showcase itself. The Fashion Focus programme has constantly evolved to better serve young designers, morphing from a month long intensive, to a year long incubator for the 2016 finalists who showed critically received collection’s last weekend. The LFDW also facilitated three consecutive teams of Fashion Focus finalists to exhibit at the prestigious International Fashion Showcase, one of the world’s most coveted fashion showcases. The LFDW has also facilitated for a slew of Nigerian designers, emerging and established, to showcase at several international tradeshows, the companion platform showcases where designers court sponsors and sell their collections to international buyers, a huge deal if your brand is ever going to transition into the big leagues.
There are also Fashion Business Series held around the country and open to everyone with an interest in fashion and the LFDW’s garment manufacturing partnership with the Human Capital Development Centre for young people who want a way into the fashion industry but don’t want to work as designers, the Lagos Fashion Talks. We could go on and on.
It is important to reiterate that the Lagos Fashion and Design Week has it flaws. Information about their work could be presented in ways that are more accessible to young people without fashion connections, multiple venues could open the showcase to more people, a reevaluation of the current Western fashion calendar is long overdue and guiding designers to create more functional pieces for our cultural and literal climate is something that needs to happen. But it, and all the other mainstream organizations bridging the gap in our punishing socio-economic climate aren’t ‘bad’ simply because they are mainstream. The discussion has far more nuance than that.
And if we are going to contribute to the conversation, ‘New Age’ or not, we are going to have to do so armed with a comprehensive, fact backed understanding of the subject matter that we choose to tackle. Anything less is unconscionable.
Edwin eats his rice and cabbages. Tweet at him@edgothboy