Project room La mia Africa (modaiola)

We took part in the Lagos Fashion Week, the showcase for young Nigerian designers. And you will see their creations in your boutiques much sooner than you think. Believe it

By Cristina Manfredi • photos Marcello Bonfanti

Your first visit to Afric should be an epic event: mighty nature, boundless landscapes and the air filled with the spirit of Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke.
What I got, on the other hand, was Lagos, Nigeria, where the most typical sight is a long line of cars on a pot-holed road. It all started last summer: walking around the stands at Pitti Uomo, I came across a group of African designers in the W section (the off-shoot of the fair dedicated to women’s fashion). Amazingly glamorous stuff that, once a year, meets up in Lagos for the Fashion & Design Week. And, it would appear, also arouses the curiosity of those looking for business, given that in Rome from 14 to 16 November the International Herald Tribune is organising a summit that will discuss Nigeria, and Africa in general, as an emerging fashion market.
This country is one of the most unstable on the African continent, yet here I am talking to a lovely lady called Omoyemi Akerele, who organises all the “fashion kerfuffle” in question and who tells me not to worry because, if I go, nothing bad will happen to me. I note down information; mentally, however, I am registering the frequency and places of the attacks that alternate massacres of Christians and Muslims. Doctors in the hygiene office stick needles into me, one shot vaccinating against yellow fever, tetanus, Hepatitis A, diphtheria and meningitis and I ask myself: “Who’s idea is this?”, but it’s too late – now I have that kind voice running through my head. And that is how I find myself getting on the plane with the photographer, luckily the kind of macho I could see myself hanging onto tightly were I frightened.
No point beating about the bush here - Lagos is ugly. Even if the area we visit is the most flourishing part of the city, a kind of scruffy Beverly Hills, where high perimeter walls topped by barbed wire protect the mansions of the super-wealthy, surrounded by a total absence of structures. Power cuts are frequent because the local electricity board cannot guarantee an uninterrupted service, forcing those who can afford them to solve the problem with noisy diesel generators and leaving most of the population stuck with fluttering gas lamps. What on earth makes people who sleep on top of enormous crude oil deposits, albeit controlled by multinationals and shrewd oligarchs, take a gamble on fashion? Here, there are (for the moment) no districts manufacturing top-end clothes; those on the runways are a kind of proto-couture, a sort of wild haute couture, where stitching grows uncertainly on garments tailor-made to meet the requests of a variegated clientele, because no-one is capable of fast-paced series production. There is the wealthy lady accustomed to shopping for designer labels around the world, who likes the idea of wearing something “made at home”. There is the lady manager here on business, who falls in love with the local outfits that will have her friends at home green with envy. And then there are the less well-to-do women who save up to treat themselves to a special look every now and again. Not forgetting that men too share the same desire to be à la page.

“There is a huge discrepancy between the difficult reality that surrounds us and our level of happiness: we are a smiling people, passionate, warm-hearted and proud of our cultural heritage”, explains Akerele, skilled in pausing when she talks to let you arrive at the logical conclusion: “Just like Italians!” Like Italians, Nigerians would never go out unless they are dressed for the occasion and like us they have an inborn sense of chic. Rushing about as they get ready for the runway show, they are almost cute. Forget personalised casting and obsessive fitting. There are just so many models, the designers arrive, pull out their outfits and in the blink of an eye dress up the girls and boys available. Zero problems, even if some of the girls walk badly or the shoes are the same ones used show after show. It all happens in a single location, in line with Nigerian punctuality, which means that every appointment is a mobile affair, with minimum delays of 40 minutes . The local fashion people fill the room with curious excitement, the same emotion felt backstage with photos being taken on mobiles as a souvenir of the day when they played at being top models. The runway fills with dresses that flatter femininity, even in its curvier version, with pseudo-fifties silhouettes and explosions of colour. Plenty of applause, some of the designers are shy when they appear, others revel in it.  And together with the clapping of hands comes the answer. It is the enthusiasm that makes them do it. An unstoppable vibration that rises into the air and makes them proud to say: “I was there”. Enthusiasm and pride, a rare thing, which is perhaps worth more than crude oil at this moment in time.