designer interview: adebayo oke-lawal
Date: November 2016
‘Gender fluidity’ has become the hot topic of 2016. High street brand Zara released its interpretation of agender clothing earlier this year. Designer labels like Casely-Hayford, Rick Owens and Maison Margiela have sent models down the runway and straight into a conversation around neutrality. The conversation existed before this year but as Mrs. Prada surmised “more and more, it feels instinctively right to translate the same idea for both genders.” It is part of the contemporary movement towards recognising diverse identities and interrogating the precepts we have for feminine and masculine identity.
Women have embraced gender fluidity with some ease as we’ve been wearing men’s clothes for decades anyway. The foray into gender fluid dress for men, however, is more stigmatised, especially in traditional African culture.
So, I was so excited to speak with Adebayo Oke-Lawal, designer and founder of Orange Culture, the Nigerian gender fluid fashion label that literally arrested my newsfeed following Lagos Fashion and Design Week earlier this month. It might seem natural that western culture should be embracing gender fluid fashion now but I was certainly curious to find out what the African breed of gender fluidity looks like.
OA Tells us about your fashion ‘education’ and influences
AOL I am self –taught. I did not study. I actually studied banking and finance and international business management. My influences vary. Because I run an androgynous brand I am inspired by both womenswear and menswear. I am inspired by people who are free-minded and free-spirited and people who believe in an individualistic lifestyle. I do like Fela, Andre 3000, Solange but I am more inspired actually by people who I’ve actually met than people who are in the limelight. Like when I see pictures of my dad when he was younger. He was adventurous and expressive. In general, I enjoy the spirit of men in the 70s.
OA What does ‘Orange Culture’ mean?
AOL I would say an orange culture is about nomadism. The ‘Orange Culture man’ is definitely adventurous and his lifestyle is creative- not necessarily because of his job but because he has a lifestyle that is constantly tapping into creativity. And when he is buying clothes he likes clothes that tell a story. I would say an Orange culture man is emotional because he wants to feel rather than just wear a garment. He wants to feel and hear what the garment is about. He is open-minded and a forward thinker. I would sum him up as a modern day African man.
OA So this idea of nomadism is interesting. Why do you think this is important to the Orange culture identity?
AOL It is important because the Orange culture definitely likes the experience of being in new and different places. The idea of meeting new people, learning about their culture and speaking about your own is what I am speaking to. It is very much about educating people about what is happening here as well and what exactly is developing her. A lot of people outside of Nigeria are ignorant about what is happening in the country. The appeal of nomadism is that when you travel culture travels with you. It gives people the opportunity to meet and embrace your culture and to fall in love with it. It’s about immersing people in knowledge of different places. I think we have a responsibility to teach people. We have to let people know that the stereotype of the African man we have is false. He is not the scammer you see on media sometimes.
OA Another interesting thing you mentioned was being emotional and how you convey that through materiality. How do you ‘translate’ emotion and expression to your garments?
AOL Part of the idea behind the emotionality is that the Orange Culture man, men in general can also be vulnerable. So we try to include delicate elements to the garment. Even an incredibly structured suit will have a detail that adds softness- whether it is the shirt that it’s paired with or the fabrication or what have you. We do like to create emotionally-driven pieces so with everything that comes about there is a feeling that softens up the perception of the African man and shows that emotionality that we are so much about.
OA How would you define androgyny within your brand specifically?
AOL Androgyny is really just about fluidity and the idea that pieces can be passed between men and women. It is about easy conversion. It’s a good business strategy as you’re easily covering a wider market. For us we are really concerned with the softness that I have already talked about that in African culture is a trait only afforded to women. We are telling people that actually that vulnerability exists in a man as well and that does not take anything away from his manhood. If we say a woman was taken from a man’s rib, we also then must accept that her femininity also exists in him and that should be celebrated. He should be allowed to tap into these emotions that we have deemed feminine without his masculinity being called into question. That’s the sort of androgyny we like to explore. We are pulling from the ‘feminine’ softness and putting into masculinity.
OA Why do you think gender fluidity is such a big conversation in 2016?
AOL I think what is happening now is that we are seeing the idea of the masculinity that has upheld so many societies is being challenged and broken down with younger generations who do not want to accept that they need to be assert one sort of masculinity alone. There is a conversation that allows for a man to experience all sorts of emotions. It is also allowing men to explore fashion in a different way and enter realms that have traditionally been female. And now everyone wants to wear everything. That divisive line that used to be so black and defined is becoming grey. People are voicing who they want to be and that has really created an atmosphere that delimits expression. The fashion industry is responding. It is offering people a way to express and escape and feel.
OA You’ve called Orange Culture a movement-not a clothing line. Would you mind elaborating on that?
AOL We are a brand that is about opposing stereotypes, particularly negative and demeaning ones. So if you are in the ‘Orange Culture army’, you are passionate about opposing the norm and challenging the boundaries. We are about spreading the idea that there is more to life that the four corners we have placed around ourselves. We are not just creating clothes, we want to change perceptions. It’s almost to create your path through the world, or to find a selfhood that is truly yours.
OA You decided to discontinue your line for women. What led to that decision?
AOL We have temporarily discontinued the womenswear line but we will definitely bring it back. But I don’t want to rush into it. I want to create a legacy around Orange Culture and I want to build such a strong aesthetic for the womenswear so that it will really stand alone and be just as exciting. So I am taking my time. Where she is now, she is definitely tied to the emotionality of the Orange culture man. She wants clothes that will enable her freedom and is about wearing clothes that allow her to be more expressive and adventurous. I love that ‘new cool’ and I definitely want her to embody that. But I need to define her for myself before I start creating clothes for her. For now, women are buying my menswear anyway.
OA Talk us through your Spring/Summer ‘17 collection.
AOL It is called the ‘School of Rejects’. It was inspired by my high-school experience. It’s about being an outcast. I wanted to oppose institutional learning where everyone is being taught to think the same way and to believe in the same things and where if you think differently, you’re guided into some sort of normative value system. I feel like a lot of Orange Culture fans were outcasts in some way at some point in their lives. They were likely told that they were not good enough to be who they are now. I wanted to create a school for those rejected stones to feel welcome. It’s about being whoever you want to be and still being accepted. So it’s a light-hearted collection inspired on school uniforms. Everything is polyester based. I was trying to say with the collection to never let anyone tell you you’re wrong for being who you are.
OA So, talking about non-formal education, how did you navigate being a fashion designer without the a fashion design degree?
AOL Well, I did a lot of internships and I used to watch a lot of tutorial videos. When I started learning to draw and I would use my Mum’s Argos catalogues to learn to illustrate. I literally looked for every avenue. I was so driven and determined. I would go from school to work at fashion houses and at magazines. I had a lot of people telling me I could do it without a fashion degree but when you’re that driven you can push past the nay-sayers. But, I just knew that I was going to try. Don’t get me wrong, knowledge is so important and I could have had an advantage if I had studied fashion but for me this was just the path I was supposed to take. And the experience makes me appreciate how far I’ve come so. It humbled me and it make me work 10 times harder.
OA How much have you been able to rely on or ask the advice of other designers in Nigeria?
AOL The industry is so small so we are almost forced to lean on each other a lot. But this is a good thing. I am very close to Lanre Da Silva and I can call her and ask her advice. This helps a lot I can talk to Kiki Kamanu. I interned with her. Even someone like Omoyemi Akerele, who founded LDFW. She is very business savvy. And Rukky Ladoja. Most of them are womeswear obvious but it is such a great and supportive network. We even call each other about staff. Knowing that the relationship exists is exciting because you do not feel alone. I’ve just been lucky to meet people in the industry that are just so amazing and to who I feel I have also been helpful.
OA The nascent fashion industry in Nigeria is gaining a global audience. Putting the international attention aside for a second, why do you think that Nigerian consumers are growing more interested in Nigerian designs?
AOL I think what helped with the local attention is firstly we started to get international attention. Its sad to say but it helped with the way people perceived the industry back home. The attention also pushed the bar for designers. With so many more eyes on us, we needed to take advantage of the opportunity. The state of economy also forced people to look inwards. The exchange rate and the regulations on buying outside of the country have encouraged people to look at the market here. With fashion week becoming so consistent and the industry really taking off and reaching a high standard, people are starting to appreciate that the Nigerian fashion industry is concrete and people are wanting to buy into it as a way of connecting to its growth.
OA And what is the appeal of Nigerian designers internationally?
AOL The fact that Nigerians are huge shoppers in many countries has firstly just garnered us attention. In Selfridges, I think we are the 3rd largest shoppers. I think that Nigerians are also just known to be huge consumers of luxury and so people have started looking here to see what else we are consuming- the Nigerian brand of luxury. Luxury brands are also trying to come to Nigeria and to cater to the market here. They see that Nigerians have a high purchasing power. But there is an exchange taking place because Nigerians do want to by Nigerian, so its not so easy to just sell us a Versace because we are also interested in a Lisa Folawiyo and we want to buy both together. And so looking in at our industry requires a look at what it is we want to buy and how and why.
OA Who would be your dream to work with?
AOL Lots of people, I’m really open-minded. I think Karl Lagerfeld is genius. I would work with Solange Knowles any day, anytime and the team at Opening Ceremony are amazing. I would love to work with Thandie Newton *winkwink*nudgenudge*.The key aspect is working with someone who is willing to embrace our story and to be a part of what we are about. I am certainly not limited to working with someone because of celebrity or popularity. For me, connecting with the story is so much more important.
OA Thandie and Kay often say they use make-up and beauty as a ‘Trojan Horse’ to explore themes of identity. You’ve talked about men and skincare products. What about men and make-up?
AOL Well, I think men already use make-up anyway. And it depends on who you are and what you want and that freedom is important. I think it is important to cater to the men who do want to wear make-up. Looking good is important for both men and women and- whether its good or bad, we are getting to be a superficial generation.