LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Africa-influenced fashion, from Yves St. Laurent's 1960s collections to Proenza Schouler and Derek Lam's Spring 2012 shows, have been featured in designs for decades. Now, however, more and more African fashion designers are using both their heritage and international trends to gain attention on the world stage.
ARISE Magazine Fashion Week in Lagos, now in its second year, highlighted the work of mostly African or Africa-influenced designers. The 77 designers offered a range of outfits blending traditional fabrics with international aesthetics, elevating the mundane with elegant dresses and offering a taste of haute couture in a hotel-turned-fashion haven, separated from the hustle-and-bustle of the megacity of Lagos.
"We are demonstrating that Africans can contribute and be the best and be world class," said media mogul Nduka Obaigbena, who publishes ThisDay newspaper and ARISE Magazine and partially bankrolled the event.
But the struggles affecting both the poor and the rich wrought havoc on an event meant to run six days. The first two days were canceled as electricity problems are rampant in a city where most depend on generators for power. Obaigbena himself, wearing a traditional outfit, supervised the installation of four generators the size of a standard moving van at the site, while local up-and-coming models complained about their pay compared to their international counterparts.
But the show finally began and drew a crowd that embraces African fashion not as a sideshow, but as a main component of international design.
Folake Folarin-Coker, the creative director of Tiffany Amber, has been making dresses for Nigeria's rich and famous for 13 years. Last year, she was invited to her first London Fashion Week, after showcasing collections in Paris and New York.
Folarin-Coker belongs to a school of Nigerian designers who have attracted international attention by translating local prints usually found on stiff fabric onto flowy cloth that drapes the body.
In her "Metissage" collection, she took it a step further by printing sequences of woven bamboo on silk to make a head-to-toe patterned ensemble. She also featured classic dresses, some referencing a military trend, such as a black flowing chiffon dress with long sheer poet sleeves and three rows of heavy metal buttons sewn on a black guipure lace with a wide and sturdy pattern. Lace, like prints, are widely used to make traditional clothes across Nigeria. Here, they found a new interpretation.
A Paris exhibition on Alix Gres, a peer of Chanel and Lanvin, was the starting point of London-based Nigerian designer Tsemaye Binitie's research.
His textured collection included a sleeveless black catsuit festooned with bits of hand-embroidered vinyl, creating a kaleidoscopic effect.
He then added utility to elegance by pairing a black backpack with a little white dress.
"I wear a baseball cap every day, a T-shirt and a backpack because my computer is in it, so I took those pieces from my wardrobe and interpreted them for women," Binitie said.
Binitie is a young designer who has worked for famed British designer Stella McCartney. He sells his designs in London, New York and Lagos.
"We do everything in London, but we are a global brand," he said.
New York-based designer Loza Maleombho debuted a collection that draws from the nomadic Tuareg people of the Sahara Desert and Afghan traditional wear. She brought another twist by using popular West African fabrics such as the colorful Ghanaian woven cloth known as kente and the ankara print fabric popular in Nigeria.
It was an eclectic and wearable collection of browns and blues that reflected the young designer's own cultural mix.
"My inspiration is to mix different cultures, because that was how I was brought up," said Maleombho, who was born in Brazil, raised in Ivory Coast and later moved to New York.
Ozwald Boateng, a British couturier born to Ghanaian parents, was the main attraction for those attending the event. He presented a collection inspired by a trip he made to Japan in 1990, while he was still making his name in fashion.
"It's a traditional English look, with a Japanese inspiration," he said.
Male models wearing the designs walked in dim lighting that dramatized the mostly black-and-white collection of a designer who has been called the "peacock" of British haute couture for his generous use of color in the past. Still, the feel was very modern and strongly masculine.
Color did make an appearance in some pieces. At the end of this finale show, the crowd gave a standing ovation when Boateng himself appeared on the runway in a royal green suit, canary yellow shirt and black tie with a matching straw. He walked the U-shaped runway, dancing at the end of his walk, to applause and cheers.
Boateng, the first black tailor to move to London's prestigious Savile Row area back in 1995, said he makes clothes for the man who wants his clothes to communicate who he is.
"My clothes help that happen," Boateng said.
Like Boateng, South Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek, received rousing applause when she appeared on the catwalk, each time responding with a smile.
"I was very impressed designer after designer; the diversity and the shapes, the fabrics, the music and the energy," said Wek, who's now in her mid-thirties. "It's beautiful to be a part of that."
African models are eager to participate on the international playing field. Many of the Nigerian models who walked on the runway have day jobs to sustain themselves, with the local fashion industry still in its infancy.
Those local models remain eager to take up the mantle from Wek's generation and other African models who have come after her. However, it remains unclear when another chance will come. Obaigbena announced at the show's finale Sunday that interest had been building up in Cape Town, South Africa and Nairobi, Kenya to host the next Africa-focused fashion week. With Nigeria's logistical challenges, Obaigbena and his partners may seek a new location where fashion — not electricity — remains the only concern. Unless the great number of designers and fashion lovers in Lagos can convince them otherwise.
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(Photo: AP Photos/Sunday Alamba)