With theater, traditional fabric studded with precious stones and decorated motorcycle helmets, Africa's up-and-coming fashion designers put on a dazzling show in a three-day runway event that debuted Friday in an unconventional city.
Lagos, Nigeria's commercial megacity, doesn't have a fashion district packed with big-name stores, and its tropical climate doesn't justify seasonal collections. That didn't stop organizers of the Arise Magazine Fashion Week from showcasing 50 new and established African designers _ some of whom have won critical acclaim in Paris and New York _ who fielded clothes ranging from business suits to dresses woven from raffia and silk.
"Before now, we used to be part of a program that belonged to someone else," said Perry McDonald, managing editor of Arise Magazine.
Nigeria's burgeoning fashion industry warmly welcomed the event.
"The retail industry hasn't blossomed in the way it should have here," said Kabir Wadhwani, co-owner of Temple Muse, one of few designer boutiques in the city.
A city of contrasts, Lagos is home to a minority of wealthy elites, a growing middle class and an overwhelming majority of people just trying to get by. A culture of tailoring, however, means that West Africa's most populous city sizzles with an individual sense of style. Lagosian men and women often have outfits made for special occasions using the vibrant, multicolored fabrics offered at local markets.
In recent years, some world-class designers have been exporting that fashion sense beyond the coastal city's shores.
"This fashion week is an input into a fashion industry that needs to be taken more seriously," Wadhwani said. "A lot of the designers have shown at international fashion weeks, but this will also give exposure to the abundance of local talent."
JEWEL BY LISA
Lisa Folawiyo is one such local designer whose designs have a strong following in Nigeria and abroad.
A top gun on the Nigerian fashion scene, Folawiyo is known for her experimentation on a woven cotton fabric known as ankara. She embellishes the traditional cloth with sequins, hand-beading and stones, resulting in designs that can look feminine, modern and chic at the same time.
She uses traditional European shapes _ high-necked tops, shorts and flirty dresses _ but with unexpected fabrics and patterns.
"She's flying," Wadhwani said. "She's done superbly well."
Ituen Bassey also uses bright-colored ankara fabrics, but her trademark look took a back seat in her new collection that favored a hand-loomed African fabric known as aso-oke.
The fabric is commonly used for the head wraps women wear with traditional gowns for ceremonies, but she combined strips of single, brightly colored aso-oke to create a patchwork effect.
In an environment where design expertise is lacking, Bassey is also notable for starting a fashion school in Lagos. Some of her students have gone on to start their own labels.
Her retro-style circle skirts, a-line minidresses in stiff fabric that hung far away from the body and trousers sewn from many strips of solid material made for simple but strong designs. Against black leggings or long-sleeved black tops, her bright hues popped.
She also added a touch of social commentary. Her models wore motorcycle helmets with paint work reproducing the common patterns of the ankara fabric. A new law requiring helmets for passengers of motorcycle taxis came into effect a year ago in Lagos, but many people remain wary of them even though crashes kill about five people every day on the city's crowded streets.
Asked about her inspiration, she said: "Road safety!"
A brown, gold and pink striped jacket in a rough, denim-like aso-oke cloth with a cashmere collar stood out in the men's collection by twins Kehinde and Taiwo Okunoren. The look showed an elegant African interpretation of the classic suit that Kehinde Okunoren said took inspiration from Nigeria's era of British colonial rule.
Each model portrayed male characters from the colonial era which ended in 1960. The models' looks included an officer in a tight-fitting royal-green uniform and a working father striding down the catwalk with an oversized leather suitcase.
The show also included a bit of drama and religious overtones, as two models wearing hooded robes opened and closed the show.
"We were tired of models just walking down a runway," Kehinde said.
Alexander Amosu is best known as the designer of the world's most expensive suit. The >70,000(about $112,000) piece made out of rare fabrics and shot through with 22-karat gold threads, adorned with 18-karat gold buttons and encrusted with diamonds has earned the London-based Nigerian a mention in the Guinness Book of Records.
Amosu focused on accessories, with models carrying blinged-out gear including gold-plated and diamond-encrusted iPads, iPods, mobile phones and pens.
"Amosu blings everything," his agent Gori Baruwa said. "You name it, he can bling it."
The final piece by Korto Momolu, a Liberian-born designer, was a full-length gown in shimmery gray with poet-blouse puffed sleeves.
The fall collection of the first runner-up in season five of Bravo's "Project Runway" drew from many inspirations: the Middle Ages, the Victorian era, and her own African heritage.
"Backstage, I got all teary-eyed because I haven't been to Africa in 23 years," Momolu said.
It was Momolu's first show on her continent of birth after moving to Canada as a child to flee Liberia's civil war. She infused into her design the lively colors and rich fabrics of her roots paired with African-inspired jewelry made by the designer.
Momolu said she loves full-figured women. Layers of heavy black fabric flaps dropping from the waist exaggerated her models' hips.
"I design for women like me," she said. "If you don't wear it, it's going to wear you."
Arise Magazine: http://www.arisemagazine.net/