Originally published August 20, 2020 on voguebusiness.com. Photo credit: fashionGhana, Emmy Kasbit, Spring/Summer 2019.
Clay pots filled with a concoction of natural indigo dye, water and ash are stirred at intervals over seven days. The cloth, which is tied in various ways or pasted with cassava to create distinctive patterns, is saturated in the pots and laid out to dry. This is the labour-intensive tie-and-dye technique known as adire. Passed from one generation to the next, this resist-dyed textile has been made by the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria for centuries.
Traditional Nigerian textiles such as adire are being rediscovered by a new generation of designers and appreciated afresh for their beauty and complexity as well as their natural, sustainable processes. As the international luxury industry focuses anew on artisanal techniques, Nigerian textiles’ time has come, offering potential beyond its domestic customer base.
Adire is one of many Nigerian textiles embraced by designers. One of its most high-profile proponents is Amaka Osakwe, designer of label Maki Oh, founded in 2010 and worn by Michelle Obama and Lupita Nyong'o. Osakwe is constantly working to evolve new patterns, adding a modern twist to what she describes as “the revitalisation of this overlooked art form”.
A resurgence of interest in Nigeria’s rich tradition of hand-woven textiles is reviving artisanal methods for a new generation of consumers with a modern twist, says Lagos-based fashion consultant Bolaji Animashaun, including aso oke from the Yoruba, Akwete cloth from the Igbo and akwa ocha from the Aniocha people of Delta state. All have featured in the collections of leading Nigerian designers such as Tiffany Amber, Kenneth Ize and Emmy Kasbit.
The aspirational value of these high-profile designer brands has boosted the desirability of indigenous textiles over the past decade, says Animashaun, who attributes growing pride in African heritage to the increasing popularity of these techniques. By popularising them, designers are fortifying the livelihoods of the artisans that make them and defining a specifically Nigerian design identity.
“There’s a new approach to identity,” Animashaun says. “We started to strip ourselves of our colonial identity and probe who we really are.”
This sentiment rings true for designer Tsemaye Binitie, who sifted through the aso oke archive of his mother and aunt, rediscovering the intricacies of a hand-woven fabric that he took for granted as a child. “They have a treasure trove of aso oke. It’s history sitting in a suitcase,” explains the designer, who studied in London and worked at Stella McCartney before setting up his own label in 2009.