A Fashion Label Defies Notions of Nigerian Masculinity
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Adebayo Oke-Lawal has battled business, infrastructure and cultural challenges.
By Neil Munshi
Nigeria is one of the few countries in the world where fashion designers like Adebayo Oke-Lawal must consider the price of diesel in addition to those of fabric, labor and equipment. But with electricity accounting for 45 percent of manufacturing costs because of a dysfunctional power sector, the price of fuel for the generators that power his workshop and design studio is always on Oke-Lawal’s mind.
“Every day we use a generator because … we do a lot of orders every day — and that really cuts down your profitability, puts a strain on how you work,” says the designer behind Orange Culture, one of the most popular menswear brands to have emerged from Africa in the past decade.
I was trying to push to create something that I hadn’t seen before.
“Every time you’re thinking about pricing, you’re actually factoring in a generator and diesel — things you wouldn’t have to if you were in another country. It’s a crazy thing to have to think about,” he says.
Shoddy electricity access is just one of the many challenges Oke-Lawal has faced since he launched Orange Culture in 2011. His challenges are emblematic of the forces working against designers across the continent — particularly those who, like Oke-Lawal, want to keep their companies as indigenous as possible, from sourcing and staffing to production and sales.
As they seek to develop local industries, designers in many African countries must also contend with deficient infrastructure, a lack of financing, high costs and governments uninterested in developing their industry, even as they are celebrated abroad.
When he launched Orange Culture as an untrained 20-year-old still working in corporate finance at an oil company, the first obstacle Oke-Lawal faced was cultural.
“A lot of the menswear that existed was very much in a box of the way men have dressed in the past, this idea of masculinity and suits,” he recalls. “When I started the brand I was trying to push to create something that I hadn’t seen before.”
The idea behind a gender-fluid brand that appeals to all was to question a traditional vision of manhood in conservative Nigeria, where same-sex marriage is still illegal and LGBTQ organizations are criminalized. “I wanted to challenge this cliché about the African man,” Oke-Lawal says.
His collections, then and now, incorporate bold colors and elements of traditionally feminine designs, fabrics and silhouettes, such as wide cuts and plunging necklines. He began setting up his own small pop-ups — “I didn’t have access to stores, they weren’t interested in stocking the brand” — but the reaction, even in fashionable Lagos, was one of revulsion.
“People were telling me it was trash…that it was demonic,” Oke-Lawal says. But he also received messages from customers “who said they needed this kind of clothing,” he continues. “Now it’s all changing, but then it was extremely conservative, especially for menswear.”
Then came Instagram, which transformed Oke-Lawal’s business. “We started getting interest from people all around the world, which helped build a consumer base,” he says, as well as provoking interest back home in Nigeria.
With global interest has come global recognition — including a nomination for the prestigious LVMH Prize for young fashion designers in 2014. Orange Culture has sold clothes to clients in more than a dozen countries, throwing up an entirely new obstacle to a company operating from a country with high shipping costs.
“When you have customers who are abroad, sometimes the shipping is just as high as the [cost of] the garments,” Oke-Lawal explains. “We as a brand take on half the cost of shipping — which is what we have to do … because we don’t want our customers to run away when they see the price of [delivery].”
As the company has grown, Oke-Lawal has had to hire more staff — including technicians to operate machines that are far older than those in more-developed countries.
“A lot of our work here is very labor-intensive, a lot is done by hand, or done by human manufacturing, not just pressing a button,” he says. “When people take it upon themselves to actually produce here, you know they’re really dedicated to it because it’s much harder to do it here than anywhere else.”
Dedication is the point, he adds, both for his company and for many of his contemporaries across the continent.
“We really try to work hard to make our clothes ‘Made in Lagos’ and nowhere else,” he affirms. “The only way to develop our industry here is to do all the work here.”
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