WHAT IT MEANS TO DRESS IN LAGOS
INY Times n the 1980s, Nigeria was going through a series of military juntas in which cultural and artistic expression were suppressed and heavily policed.
Since then, the government has returned to a democracy, but most of Nigeria remains politically, socially and religiously conservative. Men and women tend to dress accordingly, in loose fitting garments made from vivid traditional textiles (brocade, adire, ankara) and Western-style business professional attire. They wear their hair in gender-conventional fashions: Long for women, short for men. Much of their clothing is stylish, but it is also meant to attract little attention.
These sartorial norms are upheld by institutions and social groups. In some congregations deacons scold female churchgoers for keeping their hair short and suggest that they try weaves instead. Most universities, often considered places for self-discovery, value obedience above personal expression. Stylistic accouterments — tattoos, makeup anklets, too many waist beads or rings stacked atop one another — are seen as excessive and inappropriate.
Still, some Nigerians continue to style themselves in the name of free expression.
Ezra Olubi had to contend with bans on jewellery, pants for women and jeans for everyone on campus when he was a university student. So it wasn't until after graduation that he found freedom in M.A.C. lipsticks and Deborah Lippmann nail polish.
“I got a lot of stares, but I also knew I looked good,” said Olubi, 33, showing off his brilliant purple polish.
Today Olubi attends investor meetings in San Francisco and Lagos with tousled dreadlocks, long nails painted in bright colours and lipstick. He is the co-founder and chief technical officer of a finance tech startup, Paystack, that has raised $13 million in investor funding and was accepted into the Silicon Valley incubator Y Combinator.
Sometimes passers-by ask about his style, expressing concern and confusion.
“When they ask, I tell them why,” Olubi said. “Because I like it.” Sometimes, as a follow-up question, people ask if he is famous — say, an athlete or a musician.
“Everybody thinks the only reason that gives you the right to look like this is because you are an entertainer,” he said. “It shows how much people don't think others are allowed to be individuals.”
There are more pointed responses, too. On his way home from our conversation, for example, Olubi was pulled over by policemen. They wanted to know if his company, Paystack, sold cosmetics. They threatened that painting his nails and wearing makeup is illegal. (It is not.)
In the past Olubi has also had his phone searched by police for pictures, apps and other evidence of his sexuality. The police reasoned that for him to wear makeup and paint his nails, he must be gay, the expression of which has been illegal in Nigeria since 2014.
“You don't owe anybody apologies for your appearance, but when people ask I tend to give them answers,” he said. “It is a teachable moment.”
Of course, there's a big difference between personal expression and what sells.
In 2015, Yegwa Ukpo set up Stranger Lagos, a concept store that stocked monastic, often gender nonconformist clothes inspired by Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto. Usually dark and loosefitting, the outfits deliberately lack the drama or extravagance with which some Nigerians present themselves; they are clothes that most would never wear.
“The standard I was trying to counter was the idea of ‘clothing as ornament' and ‘clothing as sign of wealth,'” Ukpo said. “The alternative would be clothing as something with worth inherently due to conceptual underpinnings, design — fabric, pattern cutting and construction — exclusive of this idea of whether or not it beautified the wearer.”
In 2018, just three years after it opened, the store shut down.
Adebayo Oke-lawal, 28, the creative director of Orange Culture, stocked his wares at Stranger Lagos while the store was in business.
For his first collection in 2011, Oke-lawal sent models down the runway wearing what he called “skouzers”: Half-skirts draped over trousers at the waist. It was, he said, an attempt to play on the thin line between what is regarded as masculine or feminine. Most people attending the show, a private presentation, were confused. They advised him to stick to fashion styling, which he was also doing at the time.
In subsequent collections, Oke-lawal had more to inspire discomfort. There were collarless tunics with side zips that opened to the upper chest, a suit with a large hole intentionally cut into its upper back, overlapping layers of sheer satin. In 2014, his efforts were recognised: He was a finalist for the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy Prize, a prestigious award for young designers.
These days, his clients include Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong'o and Chimamanda Adichie. His clothes are in stores in global fashion capitals and across the country, a leap from Stranger Lagos, which was the first and only store to give him a platform early on. He has shown in fashion weeks and presentations in Florence, Italy; Paris; London; Accra, Ghana; New York; and Johannesburg.