1. Weirdly, the opening sonic sequence at the runway section of the GTBank Fashion Weekend conveyed some foreboding. I had expected a celebratory tune.
2. But more weirdness was to come: a group of young women came out and for some minutes jiggled while chanting the name Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Because it wasn’t clear how this bit related to the rest of the event, I wondered if never resting in peace is the price Fela pays for his own greatness. Wizkid appropriates the man; Burna Boy wants to be the man; Macron and Ambode seek his blessings; now GT Bank, too, is fumbling towards the hem of his garment. Et tu capitalism?
Anyway, out came the night’s first collection, by Ituen Bassey. Her designs were colourful but her models wore barely successful NYSC boots, one, in particular, recalling the oversized nightmare of the original in any of our country’s camps. Her collection’s dependence on colours and spiral patterns escaped cliché but only just and her sweet smiling models were not pausing at the end of the catwalk, a decision that had to trouble the photographers crowded at the base of the runway platform.
3. One of Bassey’s outfits, a fluffy, feathery skirt with a clingy blouse, was particularly pleasing. When it was followed by an inverted form of the outfit, with the blouse now fluffy, the earlier outfit seemed even better than it had at first appeared. On many of the outfits, Bassey added some activist lettering: My Vote is not for Sale, In Brotherhood we Stand, and so on. You could argue that the designs themselves could have been radical and having words that were not completely visible defeated the purpose, but the idea of fashion as politics hasn’t gone mainstream in Nigeria.
4. Sukeina followed. His first model stood unmoving as artificial smoke and the spotlight surrounded her. Whoops went around. It was a spectacle in the way only a confident, beautiful woman under artificial lighting can be.
After what looked like a lifetime, she began to walk as some atmospheric music played. She seemed to be gliding, her waist visibly swaying under a sheer net opening in her black dress. Her ankles may have hurt in those heels but isn’t beauty always worth its price?
The slightly exposed belly would show up on more models: Sukeina works with the midriff as motif. It made you wonder what a woman with a paunch would wear. The designs were ethereal as though women are otherworldly and maybe even royal as some had tiaras.
Where Bassey’s models smiled and didn’t pause, Sukeina’s were unsmiling professionals pausing for clicks at the end of the runway. The chic but wearable collection had solo, solid colours and only a few mixes and the models’ walks seemed to have as much of an identity as their clothes. One walked languorously, one strutted, one glided. All that was left was for one to slide. None did thankfully.
It was a young night but Sukeina seemed the readiest to do business. He was the star already. The last of the models, also the spectacular first, wore an inverse cape, its hem billowing around her ankles.
“Do you think Sukeina is a man?” I asked my visiting Dutch journo friend.
“It’s a woman,” she said.
“I think he’s male.”
Her reason was there wasn’t a lot of flesh on display, which was indeed true, but his designs showed he thinks of women as beings from other realms. It took us a few minutes to find out that my hunch was correct, that Sukeina is indeed male.
(Much later, I’d learn that Sukeina’s founder Omar Salam, from Senegal, has clothed Naomi Campbell and Natalia Vodianova. His talent and philosophy were evident at the GTBank Fashion Weekend 2018.)
5. Romeo Hunte was next. His first two models, both male, received shouts. Perhaps starved of sightings of the male form, the audience screamed at the models.
“This would never happen at a European fashion week,” my friend said. “They would never scream.”
Hunte combined a hip-hop aesthetic with skin for his women; his men got some construction-worker-lite ideal with skin. His black and greys were occasionally enlivened with yellow. In the end, the designer, a short, dapper guy, danced with his Grace Jones-ish model to applause.
That, too, would not happen in Europe.
6. It was Gozel Green’s turn. Her easy-wear collection was housegirl chic. In their extraordinary ordinariness, all of her models looked exactly the same in pixie wigs. They — the models — might have been made at a factory with none of the hauteur of Romeo Hunte’s girls. They looked like low-rent Stepford Wives. The designer’s own outfit when she came out with its use of orange and an uneven hem suggested to me the way her work could be transformed into something more engaging. Why had she saved the best for herself?
The difference between the outfits made by men and women designers suggested that women think about other women differently from how male designers think about women. To the women, female models were ordinarily human. Male designers created looks that showed they think of women as the other, as more or less human. Both sides, you could say, have their merits.
7. At the intermission, the music switched to hit Nigerian pop. Again, it seemed unlikely this would happen at dour first-rate fashion shows anywhere in the west. But maybe that’s their loss.
Still, the appearance of Nigerian pop at a fashion show reminded me that there is a laziness around Nigerian creative spaces in just how much everyone relies on Nigerian music to save their work: You see it in the use of music stars in Nigerian films, you see it in the use of pop music by ad agencies working for Coke all the way to Globacom, you see it in plays at Terra Kulture and Freedom Park, you see it at comedy events. This overdependence has now reached Nigerian fashion shows.
Of course, it isn’t out of the ordinary that pop music shows up in these spaces. The trouble, though, is that dependence of this sort is an indication of an insecurity that ought to worry persons working in these fields. How does a field of with its own core practitioners build an audience of devotees if its most appealing feature is drawn from a different field?
8. The night’s strangest collection came from Clive Rundle. He got some models to sit within the runway’s depressed centre while others strutted around them. Their outfits — brown, black, dead, and dull — were items produced from a mind intent on producing a received idea of traditional Africa i.e the “real Africa”. The models’ nude makeup over sharp cheekbones would make for great photos but otherwise, the whole thing seemed borne of disastrous politics.
The soundtrack for Rundle was music from the Sahel: Lots of strings and yodelling, each percussive hit producing phantom clouds of dust. I did think of Rundle’s use of what appeared to be diaphanous material for wraps and skirts interesting but his politics was wrong, wrong, wrong. To drive home the point, the penultimate pair of models had the word “Afrika” on their clothing. I shook my head and turned to my friend.
“This must be by a white man right?”
“Must be,” she said.
And so it was.
While the black designers on the night were moving to be American or European or modern in music selection and styling, this guy was stuck in the space that created Cinema Calabash directors from Francophone Africa.
Why had the organizers of the fashion week chosen this collection from Rundle? Is it his best work? Was it selected to show attendees just how far we have come or did they think this was exemplary fashion design? There should be answers.
9. Some life returned with the designs of Adama Paris who worked with singular colours and near wedding outfits. The night’s last designer, David Tlale, had men in robes and Y-front underwear. When the men drew noise from the crowd, it wasn’t because of the robes.
Women in flowing gowns and headgear and beads soon walked in, quotes from Desmond Tutu and others on their outfits. Yellow gowns and shirts with words reigned, much like lettering on old newspapers. Tlale had the largest crowd of models but I couldn’t quite tell if there was a larger point to his collection, a philosophy for his set of outfits. Beyond what he was presenting, what did he represent? I couldn’t tell.
10. For its part, GT Bank presents money and represents capitalism. Its GTBank Fashion Weekend purportedly presents fashion, but what does it represent? A blurry idea of arty hipness or a well-organised avenue to reach into our pockets?
I didn’t think too hard about this question — but later that night I realised the ATM at the venue swallowed my debit card, and, now, I think the gods might have been feeding me a metaphor as answer.