Very recently, as I was perusing through Facebook, a collection showed up on my Feed from Nigerian designer Nkwo Onwuka, founder of her epynomous label: NKWO. With the images came this accompanying text:
‘After 2 years of trying, I finally achieved my goal – a 100% made in Africa collection.
Our new collection MODERNITY SS16 showcased at Lagos Fashion and Design Week…A very modern take on the buba and iro for women and the buba and sokoto for men…’
As I scrolled down to look at each piece from the collection, I was thoroughly taken in by the quirky use of raw materials like wooden pegs, sticks and ropes to create accessories, manipulation of fabrics, cool and light Spring/Summer palette, shapely aesthetic, distressed detailing, the clever use of fashioning the denim pieces into turbans (you KNOW I love a good turban)…I could go on… This collection is a perfect example of how Nigerian designers fuse their heritage and tradition with Western culture to create contemporary and wearable pieces.
Keen to learn more about her collection, I got in touch with Nkwo, and here is what she had to say:
MFSL: What was the inspiration behind your S/S 16, Modernity Collection?
NKWO: I was inspired to do a collection that had a modern take on Africa. Over the years I’ve researched and worked with artisans in Nigeria, many of whom are probably the last in their line of craft. Some of their processes are time-consuming and outdated, as a result, the artisans and their children feel that a more ‘Western” way of life is the best way forward. In my opinion, a lot of handcrafts are being lost as there is a general lack of understanding of just how valuable these traditions are. I feel that a deeper understanding of these traditions will move us towards innovation and a new way of thinking that is not Western but truly modern and that is what inspired the collection.
MFSL: You mentioned that your collection was a modern take on the Buba and Iro for women and the Buba and Sokoto for men- tell us more about that.
NKWO: The Buba and Iro/Sokoto pronounced “boo-bah and ee-roh/sho-koh-toh” is a classic and traditional style of dress, which consists of a simple wide-sleeved top and wrapper or trousers. It is a long-standing part of traditional West African culture, predominant among the Yoruba people of South West Nigeria. My modern interpretation of this most traditional form of dress worked as a great starting point in the transition from tradition to modernity.
MFSL: What fabrics did you use in your MODERNITY collection?
NKWO: I used denim, organza and aso- oke which is a local West African handwoven textile. There were also decorative panels of hand-made lace and sisal.
MFSL: I love the use of denim in this collection, I think it’s a very clever and commercial way to make the pieces crossover effortlessly from Nigeria to an international market. Was this your thought process/what motivated you to use denim?
NKWO: As the collection is all about portraying Africa in a modern way,denim was the most modern fabric I could think of using. It was readily available to me here in Nigeria,it reminded me of our traditional indigo and it was perfect for the elements of deconstruction that ran through the collection. From a business point of view, the universal appeal of denim meant that it was a great way for the pieces to cut across global markets.
5. MFSL: What was the biggest challenge you faced making a 100% Made In Africa collection?
NKWO:Thankfully, I didn’t really have much of a challenge this time…I tried to do a 100% Made In Africa collection 2 years ago and learnt a lot of lessons, so I was well prepared. The only thing that went wrong was that the shoes we designed for the collection, got delivered to us a week after the show!!!
MFSL: Really?! How did you overcome that obstacle?
NKWO: Innovation kicked in…I bought flip-flops from the market, sprayed them white and then tied short wooden pegs on all of them!
MFSL: Ingenious, Brava! When I look at the menswear pieces in your collection, I see it being worn by all the cool, male Street Style Bloggers across the globe. Do you follow street style bloggers/platforms and do they influence your work?
NKWO: Oh wow! My husband will be happy to hear that! He was actually the muse for my menswear…I was inspired by his style.
MFSL: Well I certainly take my hat off to him! What year did you launch your brand and bring out your first collection?
NKWO: The brand was launched in 2007 and the first collection debuted that year at the prestigious Kulture2Couture, where we won the coveted Phoenix Award presented by the Mayor of London’s office, in conjunction with the V&A museum.
NKWO: Over the years my confidence as a designer and business woman has strengthened considerably. For my debut collection, I did printed silk wrap dresses and large feather neckpieces way before anybody else…it was so new and far ahead of it’s time but I didn’t have a strong enough conviction in what I was doing. Same thing applies to the business side of things, listening to too many voices cost me a lot of great opportunities!
MFSL: What has been the highlight of your career thus far?
NKWO: Keep focused and remember that creativity will only get you so far, the business side of things is so important!
MFSL: Where can your pieces be bought?
MFSL: With LFDW, Kampala fashion week and the Mercedes-Benz fashion show in Johannesburg all taking place recently, all eyes are on Africa. What do you think of the current state of ‘African Fashion’?
NKWO: I would just like us to get to the point where ‘African Fashion” is not defined by print!!! It seems all too often that the eyes on us only want to see fashion from Africa in a certain way.
MFSL: I concur wholeheartedly! Finally, you must have been very busy recently finishing of this collection, what do you to unwind?