The East African - - MAGAZINE -

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.

Pic­ture: Jan Hoek and Stephen TAYO/NYT

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