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From Harare to Lagos: Africa's gender-changing models defy norms



Written by Nosmot Gbadamosi, CNNLagos, Nigeria

Orange Culture doesn’t have so much clothing to identify as a brand of men's clothing. In the label's studio in prestigious Lagos – traditionally feminine details – silk ruffles and pink fuchsias.

“You have to be a man before you are old enough to realize that being a man is overpriced,” the Nigerian designer working on the label Adebayo Oka-Laval often said.

The brand is part of a new generation of continent-based designers who challenge outdated ideas about gender in the context of identity, culture, and race.

“I found myself growing up, people were told that they needed to be tough. They must be such that they are perceived as men.

“And it was so embedded in our culture, and I really just wanted to defy this conversation,” said CNN's Oke-Laval about the goal behind the gender fluid label.

“It was important for people to think outside of a certain type of African man, but believing that men can be very different things. We can be emotional, we can be vulnerable, and we can express ourselves as we want, without being seen as anything less than African. "

Ake Laval – a quiet 28-year-old native of Lagos – has been a favorite of the international men's wear market since he launched his label in 2011.

“I found myself growing up, people were told that they needed to be firm. They must be such that they are perceived as people. And it was so deep in our culture. ”

Adebayo Ake Laval, Orange Culture

His specific mission statement earned his projects to a dedicated global audience. He was a finalist for the LVMH award, became the first Nigerian brand to be presented at the London Collections Men exhibition in 2016, and his collaboration with Nigerian musician Davido was immediately broken by Selfridges in London.

Not far from the studio Oka-Lavala there is another designer – Papa Oyemi. The 26-year-old Nigerian is behind Maxivive's subversive men's clothing label.
Since the founding of his label ten years ago at the age of 15, Oiemi has divided Nigerians. The Maxivive collection, shown at Fashion Week in Lagos, received mixed reviews from the Nigerian press, despite international recognition.

One post on Instagram has generated over 600 responses. “I received so many hateful comments,” Oyemi said.

But – “their youth is more progressive,” he added. "Even if he does not speak his native language, they understand, and they appreciate it, and they will not distinguish it."

Bright subculture

Maxivive's androgynous label often shared Nigerians, despite its international recognition.

Maxivive's androgynous label often shared Nigerians, despite its international recognition. Credit: courtesy of Kosol Onwudinjor / Maxivive

The label's inspiration comes from Paris Burning, a 90s documentary dedicated to the vibrant, stylish subculture of transvestites living in New York.

Images from his presentation at Fashion Week in Lagos can be considered a metaphor for discussing LGBT rights in Nigeria, where it is illegal to be gay. This is the same law in 36 other countries in Africa.

But for Oyemi, this is a more nuanced conversation about inconsistency: “It's about trying something new. Let's move away from the ideology that this should be, ”he explained.

"In the past, I had conversations about religion, sexuality, human development …

“Tomorrow I can decide to create a line of women's clothing, but I will still name it for men, and anyone can wear it. I don't want to be restricted. ”

Papa Oyemi was photographed in the Ikeja area, in Lagos, Nigeria.

Papa Oyemi was photographed in the Ikeja area, in Lagos, Nigeria. Credit: Nosmot Gbadamosi

“In the end, gender fluidity is not related to sexuality. This is more so that people can communicate with their male and female side, ”noted Oke-Laval.

This movement is reflected in the Nigerian magazine A Nasty Boy, with which Maxivive and Orange Culture collaborate.

"There can be no single type of Nigerian man or woman, there should be a place for other definitions that do not necessarily correspond to this opinion," Richard Acuson, the editor of CNN, told earlier.

"If people do not understand that such a person can exist, then I need to insist more on such men's clothes."

Adebayo Ake Laval, Orange Culture

"Moving with the outside world"

Elsewhere, South African designer Lujano Mdingi breaks gender constructs with men's tailoring for women and long flowing silk fabrics on men.

“When we started creating plays with gender fluidity, we simply moved with what we saw in the outside world,” said Mindi in a telephone interview.

“The reality is that I was in the company of incredible people who defined what masculinity is for myself, and it also allowed me to evaluate and define what it means for me and how it developed in my Cape Town space.”

The views of a 25-year-old teenager on a changing “cross-cultural” environment fit into the overall look of his latest collection, entitled “Soulful II,” which draws replicas from Japanese finishes.

Others adopted a gender neutral cut for more pragmatic reasons.

AKJP's Cape Town Fellow, designer duet Keith Henning and Jody Paulsen, focuses on functional braces with several distinctive male and female silhouettes.
The AKJP South African label's idea was to create finished products combining flowing silhouettes with artful prints.

The AKJP South African label's idea was to create finished products combining flowing silhouettes with artful prints. Credit: Courtesy Neil Roberts / AKJP

“At first, it was an easy way to start making women's clothes,” Paulson said via e-mail. "Women's clothing was based on the ideas we created in our collections of men's clothing."

Such an approach makes sense financially, noted Zimbabwean designer Tanya Mushayi from Harare.

“When I grew up with two brothers, I took some of their T-shirts and jackets and wore them, but they could not do the same with my things,” said the 29-year-old boy. “The idea of ​​my unisex jackets was accessible to everyone.

"Zimbabwe is ideal for a gender-changing fashion because of the current financial climate, in which we find ourselves with high unemployment, minimal disposable income and limited resources."

Rooted in heritage

In Lagos, Gozel Green's luxury women's apparel line uses androgynous fashion to subtly convey heritage information.

Together with the fashion designer and playwright father, the 31-year-old twin sister Silvia Enekwe and Olivia Enekwe-Okoji founded the label in 2012 to reflect their childhood in Enugu in eastern Nigeria.

Gozel Green presentation at Arise 2018 Fashion Week in Lagos, Nigeria.

Gozel Green presentation at Arise 2018 Fashion Week in Lagos, Nigeria. Credit: Nosmot Gbadamosi

“Our late father wrote many poems in his life, so for each collection we create, we interpret his stories in our design aesthetics,” said Enekwe-Okoji.

Their outfits experiment with forms of femininity — they are gaining international recognition, including the Italian Vogue “The Next Green Talents of 2018”. Felabraeshn designed a collection inspired by Afrobite legend Fela Kuti, which could be worn by both men and women.

But what do local consumers make of inconsistency? Zimbabwean Mushayi recognizes that most of its customers are from the United States.

“The response was good” for AKJP South Africa.

Perhaps because in South Africa, according to a survey by the Humanities Research Council, there are 350,000 men and 2.6 million. Women claim that they dress in public and act without respecting gender.

But 67 percent of South Africans, according to the same report, agree with this statement: “It's disgusting when men dress like women and women dress like men.”

In Nigeria, adoption was equally slow. A 2015 survey conducted in Nigeria by the Voices 4 Change advocacy group showed that most Nigerians "believe that men must be tough, smart, fearless and responsible."
A male model is preparing for a photo shoot at the Orange Culture studio in Lagos, Nigeria.

A male model is preparing for a photo shoot at the Orange Culture studio in Lagos, Nigeria. Credit: Nosmot Gbadamosi

“Many men's clothing brands that appeared at that time were very sleek suits, it was very manly, and we came with this brand that was in the opposite direction,” recalls Oka-Lawal about the launch of Orange Culture.

"So people just weren’t accepted by this.

"I saw that if people do not understand that such a person can exist, then I need to insist more on such men's clothes."

Attitude is changing. “Now people are not in a hurry to understand what we are doing and why we get such a big loan outside Nigeria,” said Oke-Laval.

"It really helped us find a stronger voice in our locality."


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