In Nigeria, Fashion Makes the Man

Within minutes of speaking to Orange Culture’s Adebayo Oke-Lawal, I realize that making a splash with menswear is simply the Nigerian way. Never mind the kaleidoscopic patterned shirt the designer is sporting from his Lagos-based menswear collection—a collection that in five years has become a cult favorite among fashion-forward Lagosians who are eager to push the boundaries of gender fluidity through dress. As Oke-Lawal tells it, for years fashion has been a way for men to communicate wealth, status, success, and personal taste. From donning traditional caftans and fila hats to the new influx of colored suiting, men’s grooming habits, and the robust Nigerian wedding scene pioneered by a younger generation, presentation is a point of major consideration. Nigerian menswear is also enjoying a major moment of transformation and evolution, says Oke-Lawal, largely influenced by social media and the ever-changing masculine ideal. It’s a cultural shift that comes at a pivotal point in the country’s political climate, as the economy works to diversify itself to include other strains of commerce, like fashion and retail.

Sitting down with me before his Lagos Fashion and Design Week Spring 2017 show, where his new collection, School of Rejects, explores Oke-Lawal’s all-boy schooling, the former LVMH Prize finalist talks what’s hanging in every Nigerian man’s closet, the new fashion tribes, and how his father was a major style influence.

Fashion Runs In the Family
“My dad is really stylish. He kind of rebelled and left Nigeria with his friends and started traveling when he was 16. He used to wear berets and all of these strange things. He always says, ‘You know you got your fashion from me.’ I feel like the reason I was able to have a sense of style is because my parents were very open. I think they were also sort of adventurous in terms of style when they were growing up. I’ve had friends come to my house in the weirdest short-shorts, and my parents are like, “Okay, interesting.” And they wouldn’t say anything about it, so I think that’s what allowed me to be expressive in terms of my style and experiment as much as I have. To be honest, when I was growing up, my parents’ friends would be like, ‘Why are you allowing him to wear this?’ I think it was just them knowing, Okay, this child is quite different from our other children, and if we force him to be this and that, it might not necessarily work out. But most parents aren’t like that.”

The Rise of the Colored Suit in Lagos
“I think now the modern man in Nigeria would have a colored suit, for example. A few years ago, to see a man in a colored suit was ridiculous. I know five years ago I made a suit that was red and I received a lot of backlash. But now I see men with a pink suit, a green suit, a yellow suit, and I’m like, whoa! I think men are open to color. I think that’s one of the strongest advances. It’s exciting.”

. . . But Traditional Wear Always Wins Out
“The caftan is our luxury piece. In Nigeria, we’re not allowed to wear sandals or slippers when clubbing, but if you wear a caftan and slippers, you’d be allowed into a club. When they see you in a caftan, they think you’re wealthy. It’s a sign that you’re doing well, you’re a man of leisure. It’s a staple here.”

Fila Hat Game Is Strong
“We have different filas for different tribes—they are traditional caps and each tribe has various shapes. It’s a royal adornment in a sense. The Yoruba fila has a curve, and the Igbo fila is straight with a pin in it, and the Hausa is flat. I’m using Hausa flat filas for my Spring 2017 collection. Styles have now converged, so everyone wears whatever one they feel like. We have a huge wedding culture, so you find you’re buying all sorts of different types. Everyone wears the fila now—even women wear the filas now, and men’s caftans and heels. It is such a big trend!”

Nigerian Men Are Starting to Flex for the ’Gram
“This generation of men has changed so much—even our physical culture has changed! If you go on this bridge, on Lekki-Ikoyi Bridge, men are just jogging every day. Last year, that wasn’t even the case, but because of social media and the awareness and progression of the arts, we’re seeing new things and realizing that it’s not just up to the woman to take care of herself. You have to be well presented. And now everyone is showing off their bodies on Instagram! I think, because everyone is putting themselves out there, people are trying more.”

. . . And They Aren’t Skimping on the Skincare
“I was doing an interview for a skin-care blog recently, and they asked me how men were dealing with their skin, and this year alone, a lot of men have been asking me about what to do for their skin. People used to just apply body lotion and that was that, or they wouldn’t use deodorant! Taking care of yourself was a sign of weakness or vulnerability. But it doesn’t mean anything now. It’s like, ‘Me and the wife can wear the same skin cream!’”

Nigerian Men Like It Custom Made
“I find that Nigerian men are very impulsive. If they like it, they buy it. We don’t necessarily have an e-commerce culture here, so they have to go the store or the designer directly. Nigerian men are also more open to buying Nigerian brands rather than those from abroad. They like the idea of custom tailoring. They’ll come with a bag of fabric to a designer, give them money, and have them make things for them. I remember this one customer came to me and wanted a wrap shirt I have in seven colors! They are very much like, ‘I want it! I like it! Make it for me!’ It’s more about investments.”

Fashion Tribes Taking Over Lagos
“There are the dapper guys, for sure. We fall into the quirky guys—the alté. It’s short for “alternative” and a huge trend for the younger generation. And then there are the guys who are just chill and like their chinos and loafers. They’re preppy. And then there is the traditional guy—he can wear a caftan every day!”

Is Androgyny Next?
“I find that women adopt men’s trends very easily here. I think it’s pretty universal, but when it’s men adopting women’s trends, it goes left quickly. A lot of people just don’t want to accept that—it’s a very thin line between menswear and womenswear right now, and the androgyny factor is very much becoming mainstream. If a man wore a buba, that would be considered ridiculous! It’s a tough progression.”