On Saturday night in Lagos, Nigeria, women are restless with anticipation. On the mainland, where slums built atop landfills run into middle-class housing estates, a young hair stylist is putting on makeup and taming her mane of extensions, getting ready to meet her older boyfriend for drinks. On the island in the city’s center, where wealth and political power are concentrated, a twenty-something ad executive in a clingy dress is going with her friends to a club; if she doesn’t find a man she likes, she’ll text a friend, who is rich and good-looking, though not ready to settle down. The fact that there is church tomorrow is barely in the back of their minds. A decade ago, they would have been expected to attend services regularly, to dress conservatively, and to save their virginity for their husbands. They are still expected to convey the appearance of doing most of those things. So they see the men they want, and then wake up the next morning, dress carefully, and make it to church for the last service; it is still, after all, a great place to meet men.
A few days before the weekend began, Amaka Osakwe, the designer of the fashion line Maki Oh, welcomed a private client into her atelier, in a serene enclave on the island filled with walled mansions and cultivated greenery. The showroom had deep-purple walls and rows of clothes on hangers suspended from bronze chains. Behind the space was a bare office and Osakwe’s studio, where tailors bent over sketches and bolts of fabric.
Osakwe’s clients see her clothes as an illicit escape, intimidating but inviting. Photograph by Lakin Ogunbanwo for The New Yorker
Her client, a bubbly twenty-seven-year-old woman named Bidemi Zakariyau, who owns a public-relations company, hugged Osakwe and admired the furniture.
“Do you want to get started?” Osakwe said in a singsong voice. “New season!” She led Zakariyau into a dressing room, where pieces from the latest collection hung on a rack.
“You know the white top I sent you a message about?” Zakariyau said. “You know I always send you multiple messages—‘I want this, I want this.’ ”
Osakwe laughed. “Which white one?” she asked. Her assistant produced a low-cut top of translucent tulle, so delicate that it resembled a necklace hung with white tinsel.
“This is what I’m wearing for my boyfriend’s birthday,” Zakariyau said happily, examining herself in a mirror. Osakwe, in a loose black tunic and pants, started pinning the top. She fussed around Zakariyau, occasionally murmuring approval but saying little else.
When the top fit properly, Zakariyau walked out of the dressing room to show it to a friend who was also in the atelier that day. The friend scrutinized the sheer fabric and her exposed cleavage and made a dubious face. “Where are you going to wear this to, in Nigeria?” he asked.
“We’re going overseas!” Zakariyau said. “But you can—” She mimicked flaunting her chest. “You’re just out, and there’s nothing wrong with it.”
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it,” Osakwe said.
In Nigeria, where I lived for three years, this is not an uncontroversial view. The country is deeply religious, split almost evenly between Christians and Muslims, and a woman’s standing is tied to her adherence to sexual mores. Women are treated like minors until they become wives and mothers. Even in Lagos, which is relatively liberal, an electrician who comes to a woman’s apartment to fix a light switch might refuse to address her unless her boyfriend is present; a middle-aged man in a parking dispute with a young woman might call her a “harlot” and take off his belt as if to discipline her. One recent morning, while I was trying to hail a taxi on a busy avenue on the island, two men advised me that I’d probably get raped wearing what I had on: a shirtdress that fell a couple of inches above my knees.
Osakwe is obsessed with the female form and seduction, subversive interests for a Nigerian woman. “That’s where I find beauty,” she said. “I took anatomy classes, and I would always find more inspiration in female anatomy. I never really cared for dangling phalluses.” Her clothes wrestle with ideas of desire, sexual pleasure, and female autonomy; they are sensual and provocative, with cutouts, high slits, and sheer fabrics.
While her designs have often shocked Nigerian audiences, Osakwe is unassuming; she is slight, and usually wears glasses with large black frames, with her hair in skinny braids. She speaks in a husky whisper, and often makes eye contact with a point in the distance. “She is more the observer, smiling in a quiet place on the edge of the room,” her friend Papa Omotayo told me. Her favored pastimes—photography, watching anime—are solitary. “It’s my form of therapy,” Osakwe said. “Sometimes I just want to be away from human beings.” She is wary of large social situations, and small ones. Even her clients sometimes complain about the difficulty of reaching her. But, in the past seven years, Osakwe has become West Africa’s most celebrated designer, with work exhibited in the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, in New York; the Vitra Design Museum, in Germany; and the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, in England. “She has a very clear voice,” Yegwa Ukpo, a cultural critic and co-founder of a Lagos fashion store called Stranger, said. “It feels very neurotic and prickly. There’s a friction, and there’s a crackling electricity that doesn’t feel safe. It implies a sort of energy that you don’t often see associated with black women.”
Osakwe’s career coincides with a subtle change in Nigeria. Women are working more and making more money; with that increased power, they are pushing against long-standing norms. Female organizers helped pass an act prohibiting violence against women, and a senate bill to ban “indecent dressing” was defeated. Still, abortion remains illegal in most cases, and nearly half of girls marry before they are eighteen. Amina Mama, a women’s-studies professor at the University of California, Davis, said, “When it comes to sexual freedoms, our society is rushing backward to a colonial, missionary idea. It’s almost as if they are overreacting to progress in women’s rights.” Osakwe’s clothes, for clients who can afford them, are both armor and lingerie: intimidating but inviting, with unyielding lines and delicate materials. They reflect her sense that Nigerian women are constantly negotiating how tough or how soft to be in a patriarchal society. “I’m living this also, and it’s still something I haven’t got the exact formula for,” Osakwe said. “I don’t think any woman has, and every woman makes a choice at a cost to something.”
One breezy afternoon, in the courtyard of Osakwe’s studio, an artisan was bent over a table, applying hot wax to white silk with a small brush. He reached repeatedly into a pot on a portable stove to paint rows of the word “OH,” a motif Osakwe has often used. (Like “Maki Oh,” it plays on her name.) When he finished, the fabric would be sent to a workshop in the southwestern city Osogbo, where it would be saturated with a vivid blue dye made from indigo leaves; then the wax would be removed, revealing white letters. The fabric, called adire, is a centuries-old craft of the Yoruba people, who created prints that communicate messages or observations. Osakwe is repurposing traditional motifs, while inventing her own. “With adire, it’s always used as a hidden conversation about the collection,” she said. In one collection, about the vagaries of romance, she used a mat motif, representing the bed given to newlyweds in the hope that they have many children, and a comb motif, which women wear to say “I’m angry at you.”
She leaned over the table, examining the silk. “When we go on about ‘hand-painted, hand-dyed,’ it’s real,” she said. “It takes months and months. That’s why we stick to the fashion calendar and nothing else.” There are six months between seasons, which gives her time to produce the clothes. “Fashion shouldn’t be so easily consumed,” she went on. She gestured at the fabric. “This is never going to be a machine print—it’s never going to look like one, it’s never going to smell like one. But that’s where the story lies.”
Osakwe’s mother once made clothes out of adire, too. The family lived in Ikoyi, a wealthy quarter of expansive homes and tree-shaded restaurants along the Lagos Lagoon. Her parents, Gabriel and Tonye, were lawyers; her mother, social and fashionable, also owned a chain of costume-jewelry stores and designed children’s clothing. Osakwe described the neighborhood as a “bubble,” where her friends “couldn’t move from point A to point B without a driver and a nanny.” When she was seven, she persuaded one of her family’s domestic employees to secretly take her on a city bus. “I just wanted to experience life,” she said. “But I didn’t feel trapped. I did a lot of market trips, I did a lot of cooking, I climbed trees. I made friends with street kids, I made friends with the house help.” Osakwe sewed clothes for her dolls, and her mother corrected the stitches. She and her siblings designed clothes, and their mother made them, from fabric she selected at Tejuosho Market. Osakwe remembered her mother as a “fire lady,” negotiating tenaciously with venders. “I learned that from my mom,” she said, laughing. She would push “up to the point when she walks away, and then the trader is, like, ‘Madam! Come back!’ ”
Osakwe’s nickname was Atawewe, “small pepper” in Yoruba, “because I could take care of myself,” she said. (One of her teachers described her as “politely rude.”) She ran track and did gymnastics and partied with friends; she liked drawing still-lifes and sketching “pretty dresses.” When she was fourteen, her mother sent her to a pattern-cutting class, and Osakwe began designing trendier clothes: a neon-green romper with an Aztec-patterned wrap skirt over it; bandanna tops, inspired by the American singer Aaliyah, which she wore with matching bandannas. But fashion didn’t seem like a viable career. People in her circle studied engineering or medicine to please their parents. In high school, Osakwe took advanced courses in economics and sociology, but eventually told her family that she wanted to be a designer. “My father freaked out,” she said. “My aunties, my uncles—even in church, the reverend came to me and was, like, ‘So-o-o, this fashion thing you want to study . . .’ ”
Finally, her parents agreed to send her to a two-year course in Oxford—learning to cut and construct clothes and to run a business—and then to a fashion program at Arts University Bournemouth. In England, she spent time with a small group of mostly international students. “They all came with their different aesthetics and cultures,” she recalled. “I made such a conscious effort to be open, almost in a selfish way, like, ‘Show me the next thing.’ ” In time she realized, “Their cultures’ beauty and my culture’s beauty are on par, and mine may be even more amazing, and there’s no one around speaking about this beauty.” The designers who influenced her—Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo—were thoughtful about the materials they used and the traditions they invoked. “They are taking elements of their culture and redefining it and taking it to the future,” Osakwe said. As she learned about the traditional indigo dyeing practices of Japan, she thought of her own country’s adire technique.
In 2010, she moved back to her parents’ house, in Lagos, and fell in with an uninhibited, creative crowd. “It was a soft landing,” Osakwe recalled, sounding nostalgic. With funding from her family, she began buying sewing machines and searching for tailors to hire—a difficult task in Nigeria, where many people work for themselves in the informal economy. “I went through so many tailors, tailors from Ghana and Benin and further out,” she said. She also went to the Nigerian artist and gallerist Nike Davies-Okundaye, whom Osakwe calls “the queen of adire,” to learn more about the technique, which was slowly vanishing. She visited adire workshops in Osogbo and watched artisans work.
Her first collection, that same year, was inspired by a coming-of-age ceremony called dipo, undertaken by girls of the Krobo ethnic group in Ghana. In the ceremony, girls are sent to the house of a chief priest, where they undress, have their heads shaved, and are given cloths to wear around their waists; strips of raffia are tied around their necks. During the next few days, older women teach them the skills of seduction, housekeeping, and child rearing. The girls wade into the river with sponges and calabashes for a communal bath, and sit on a sacred stone that affirms their virginity. At the culmination of the rite, they dress in bright kente cloth, adorn their bodies with beads, and dance before the community.
Runway images from Maki Oh’s fall 2017 presentation in New York.
Osakwe, beginning her adult life in Lagos, was drawn to the ritual. “I thought it was fitting at the time,” she said. She broke calabashes into pieces, burned them in an oven to various shades of brown to match Nigerian skin tones, and drilled holes in them so that she could sew them onto blouses. “It was exhausting and exciting,” she said. She made gauzy tops with circles painted on them to accentuate the wearers’ breasts, a reference to the bare-chested girls of the rite. On a low-cut silk jumpsuit, she used an adire motif of a shekere, a dried-gourd instrument covered with beads, which conveys a wish for good times.
Osakwe didn’t start out planning to use adire in all her collections. “I just wanted to highlight every Nigerian fabric,” she said. But she realized the power of repetition, and, she said, “I started falling more and more in love with the fabric and everything it stood for.” She also experimented: she made dresses with fringe piping that looked like eyelashes, slim skirts with fringe panels, and blouses with tassels, feathers, and pompoms; in one dress, she sculpted pale-pink fringe into a bas-relief of a woman’s face.
As Osakwe completed her first collection, she wanted customers to engage with the ideas behind it. “I want them to think deeper about why this button, how was it made, how was it dyed, what does this print mean,” she told me. “It’s our history, our culture.” She had her first show at a gallery in the Victoria Island neighborhood. The African fashion magazine Arise sent an editor from London to review the presentation, and the audience included Lagos socialites and friends from her hipster scene. After posing for society-page photos, the crowd shifted its attention to the clothes. Osakwe, rather than sending models down a runway, had them stand still on raised platforms, as confused attendees roamed around them. “People thought they were mannequins,” she recalled. “They would move, and you would see someone jump!” The reception was mixed; some were put off by the sexual explicitness and the eccentric details. Her sister Ada recalled, “People were, like, ‘Huh? Are we supposed to wear that?’ ” Osakwe wasn’t fazed. “Oh, my God, they thought I was crazy,” she said. “But it was like moths to a flame, the Maki Oh women. It was almost a weeding-out process: the women who understood came to buy.”
Osakwe’s typical clients, according to one Nigerian retail expert, are “sophisticated, edgy, very well-travelled” women, who “want something that is super new in terms of interpretation but has a sentimental place in history that they can connect to.” They mostly range in age from their late thirties to their fifties; Osakwe explained that they appreciate the adire, and they have the buying power. She will lower hems and raise necklines to satisfy clients, but has found that the pieces encourage them to take risks.
Most Nigerian women aren’t seeking risk. One day, I visited an airy boutique in Victoria Island called Temple Muse. Outside, women breezed through the streets in stylish but modestly cut traditional clothes, mostly made of ankara, a brightly patterned fabric. Inside, young shoppers wore sundresses, in ankara or in Western prints, or sleek pencil skirts and blazers. When Osakwe started working in Nigeria, there was a very small market for high fashion. “The most successful designers were making your wedding dress or your graduation dress,” she said. Those designers are still the country’s most successful: brands like Mai Atafo and Ejiro Amos Tafiri make relatively affordable wedding attire and modern spins on traditional clothing which appeal to the upwardly mobile.
In Lagos, there is no division between old money and new where taste is concerned. Nearly all wealth is tied to business in oil and gas and other commodities, or to government positions that allow access to funds from these industries. The moneyed classes tend toward conventional clothes; owners of multibillion-naira companies run around town in Ralph Lauren polo shirts and khaki shorts. “The goal is to look ‘normal,’ ” Yegwa Ukpo, of Stranger boutique, said. Another goal is to signal the size of one’s fortune; in Lagos, minimalist attire still conveys the appearance of being broke. “There was a time when a whole bunch of people were wearing those really obnoxious Hermès belts with the big ‘H,’ ” Ukpo said, wincing.
For Osakwe, it seems crucial that her clothes express the specificity of being a woman of her culture and class. “You can’t tell me to just create a shirt for the sake of creating a shirt,” she said. In early collections, she made fringe out of asooke, a Yoruba hand-loomed cloth, and did a sporty take on aso ebi, a fabric that families wear in matching ensembles at ceremonial events. Osakwe’s clothes don’t immediately identify her as Nigerian, though, partly because she rejects the aesthetics that Westerners associate with African fashion: bright colors, loud prints, flamboyant styling. When foreign designers want to evoke Africa, they almost exclusively use prints inspired by ankara. But ankara isn’t originally African: the Dutch produced it in the nineteenth century as a cheap imitation of Indonesian batik, meant for the colonial market. Lisa Folawiyo, of the Lagos-based fashion label Jewel by Lisa, has built her line on ankara, and told me that Nigerian designers had “staked a claim on it.” Osakwe agrees that ankara can be beautiful, but also blames it for the decline of homegrown methods like adire. “It didn’t originate here, and it’s hard to celebrate it as ours when we have our own indigenous fabrics,” she told me one afternoon in her studio. “We’re letting our techniques die for something forced on us?” To Osakwe, there was a disturbing colonial aspect to companies like Vlisco, which is based in the Netherlands, reaping profits from fabrics marketed only to African customers. “This is Africa,” she went on, grabbing one of her blouses. “That is not Africa, and most people don’t even know.”
In Lagos, many women use skin-lightening cream, hewing to white-dominated international beauty norms. Osakwe’s blouses and dresses in the tones of black skin seem like a deliberate response. “I live in Nigeria, surrounded mostly by other black Africans, but I’m not oblivious to what is happening in the world,” she said. In a moment of exasperation, she added, “Is it O.K. for us to exist? Just because we’ve woken up and taken breath, we’re constantly being bombarded with messages about how we’re not good enough. The only conclusion is to let that go and shine your light. I just believe there’s so much beauty in being black.”
Some of Osakwe’s recent pieces had eyes appliquéd on them, a comment on women processing sexism and racism. In Lagos, feminist statements of this kind are still far from the mainstream, but Osakwe seems happy to provoke. Talking to reporters about a collection whose adire prints evoked constellations and splatters, she said, “It could be a paint splatter—or it could be a splatter of blood from murdering men.” After reading a scholarly argument that the term “virgin” once referred to a woman who had moved out of her father’s house and taken lovers, Osakwe created a thorn motif, to signify the Virgin Mary, and a vulva motif, which she printed on long shorts. The karuwai, courtesans of northern Nigeria, who freely took lovers and husbands, inspired a black-and-blood-red dress of English embroidery.
A later collection explored the ways that various women in Lagos—a university student with a sugar daddy, a successful executive—seduce men. For research, Osakwe interviewed prostitutes about pricing and which physical assets they emphasized. “The conversations were fun,” she said. “They were, like, ‘So, do you want to squeeze my boobs?’ No, darling! But I’m, like, ‘How much would that cost?’ ” Inspired by the interviews, she created prim button-up blouses with peekaboo slits on the chest.
Osakwe’s contemporaries talk among themselves about hookups and sex toys, and dress suggestively. “Women are more brash and up front about getting it on, and not expecting anything in return,” she said. “There’s a phrase, ‘Do you have anything for me tonight?’ That’s code for ‘Can I come over?’ ” One of her adire motifs is thick circles, signifying the letter “O,” which represents an orgasm. “Women are finding their voices; not many women are faking orgasms anymore,” she said. “From conversations with my friends, everyone is trying to get theirs. I see beauty in that.”
Osakwe’s collection earlier this year was inspired by what she described as a “middle-class Nigerian girl going on a booty call.” In Lagos, that girl usually travels by the yellow danfo buses that career through the streets, and has practical problems to consider, like what to wear on the ride to her date and how to get to her job or school early the next morning. “What is seduction to her? It’s not a pretty journey,” Osakwe said. “How does that middle-class girl get it on? Because sex is so taboo, but we know we’re all fucking like rabbits.” The answer, Osakwe reasoned, is clothing that is erotic but protective—not a short skirt and heels but a long, strapless red dress, evoking the traditional wrapper, that can easily be dropped in the act of seduction. Though she hesitates to tell Nigerian buyers that she draws inspiration from sex workers, clients see her clothes as an illicit escape: a chance to feel more exciting, less restrained.
After work one evening, Osakwe changed into a Maki Oh sky-blue crêpe blouse and black linen pants for the night’s event: an art-auction party being held in a car showroom in Victoria Island. Outside the studio, she climbed into a car with two friends, an architect and a photographer. She maintains a tiny social circle, made up mostly of “repats,” Nigerians who have lived abroad and then returned; going to the party was a rare attempt at public outreach. Osakwe seems to have little gift for marketing or networking. Although her family’s status allows her access to people who can afford her designs, it also removes the incentive to do work that she finds unpleasant. Her inaccessibility can hinder relationships with buyers. Sherri McMullen, the owner of the Oakland-based McMullen boutique, one of the few international shops that carry her work, said that it took several months of “stalking” on Instagram to connect with her.
The showroom was a vast space, with glass walls, tables of liquor, and a d.j. booth. Nigerians and expatriates wandered around, looking occasionally at the art and mostly at one another: an attractive but conventionally attired crowd, enlivened by a few turbans and daringly cut dresses. Osakwe roamed the showroom. “Hello! Nice to see you!” she repeated, automatically, as she encountered acquaintances. Near a semicircle of couches, she ran into a woman in a brown floral dress, who said she did fashion-business consulting. “What’s this?” she asked, examining Osakwe’s handbag. It was black leather, stained with white paint from art work she had recently shown at an art fair in Lagos; she liked its messy haphazardness. Osakwe sheepishly pulled it to her side and explained.
“It’s very chic,” the woman said, a little too brightly.
A few minutes later, Osakwe ran into Kessiana Edewor-Thorley, who works in public relations; her mother is an interior designer and her late stepfather was a prominent lawyer. She was wearing a Maki Oh sheer indigo blouse with white Alexander Wang wide-leg pants. As she and Osakwe posed for a photo, she dangled her Valentino purse conspicuously. “You look really beautiful,” Osakwe gushed.
“I also have the Maki dress in the same print that Lupita Nyong’o wore,” Edewor-Thorley told me. “I haven’t managed to wear it yet. I’m waiting for a good moment because, in Lagos, when you’ve worn it once, that’s it.”
Osakwe’s most recent Lagos show was at the luxury boutique Alara, which sells high-end clothing and accessories by African and foreign designers. The building, a sleek cube with a bright-red screen across the entry that suggests block printing, was designed by the Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, who also designed the National Museum of African American History & Culture, in Washington, D.C. Alara’s owner, Reni Folawiyo, a former lawyer, projects a studied worldliness: she did her schooling in Nigeria, but has a pronounced British accent. Folawiyo is a friend of Osakwe’s, and an enthusiastic supporter, within practical limits. “We want to stock local designers, but we also want them to grow in a way that they can sit with Valentino,” she told me. “We will not stock local designers just for the sake of stocking them.”
Fashion designers in Nigeria face entrenched difficulties. In Kenya and South Africa, mass production is common. “The way fashion has grown here has been different,” Folawiyo said. “When people have parties to go to, they go to their tailors. Everybody has a tailor, just like they have a makeup artist.” Well-to-do Nigerians are reluctant to pay for local designs, believing that their own tailors could make something similar.
Nigeria lacks textile factories, and doesn’t make zippers and buttons, so designers have to hope that they can find them in the market. Osakwe travels often to Europe, Asia, and Dubai looking for materials. “You go to a store like Barneys and they’re expecting you to be priced lower than Dries Van Noten,” Ukpo, of Stranger boutique, said. “But you can’t be priced lower than Dries, because you’re paying for a lot of importation.”
Osakwe works under unpredictable conditions: infrequent electricity, an unreliable supply of raw materials, and a lack of skilled labor. In that setting, she said, “it’s hard to strive for perfection.” And, in recent months, a national economic crisis, mismanaged by President Muhammadu Buhari, has caused the naira to fall drastically against the dollar. “My counterparts abroad just cannot fathom this existence, yet the finished product has to compete with them,” she said.
In order to make clothes appeal to Nigerian customers, she first had to garner approval abroad. “It’s sad to say, there was a huge importance on getting international recognition,” she said. “Because of colonialism, Nigerians have always seen what comes from the West as better.” In 2012, Arise named her Designer of the Year, and she took part in a group show that the magazine presented at New York Fashion Week. Osakwe began to meet more buyers in New York. “I was carrying my collection on my back and going to show people,” she recalled. The response was generally positive, but “people were quite confused by what to do with something that is so largely influenced by Africa. The ones who were willing to take a risk did.” In Manhattan, the boutiques Totokaelo and Maryam Nassir Zadeh began stocking her clothes, as did the Los Angeles stores TenOverSix and Beautiful Dreamers. Stylists requested her clothes for photo shoots and events. Michelle Obama wore a Maki Oh adire blouse on a visit to Johannesburg, and then invited Osakwe to a celebration of design at the White House. “I remember when she wore it, my cousin said, ‘Is Michelle Obama wearing Maki Oh?’ ” Osakwe told me. “I was screaming and dancing for about fifteen minutes.” In 2014, she was named a finalist for the LVMH Prize, the most prestigious award for young designers. Her business in Nigeria grew. “When you wear Maki Oh, people look at you with a certain eye,” Bidemi Zakariyau, Osakwe’s frequent client, said. “It’s status.”
This February, during New York Fashion Week, Osakwe presented her new collection in a long, narrow space in the meatpacking district. The show was sponsored by Oxosi, an online retailer, founded by Nigerian-Americans, that sells clothes by high-end African designers; Maki Oh is one of its flagship brands. A Yoruba band played raucous music in one corner. The models, all black, walked a runway in front of a backdrop painted banana yellow, with two black stripes: a reference to the danfo bus ubiquitous in Nigeria.
Osakwe stood with her U.S. public-relations representative, Amanda Carter. She was still figuring out how to translate the idea behind her collection into a New York-friendly sound bite.
“What’s the name of the bus again?” Carter asked.
“Danfo,” Osakwe said.
But the reviews were encouraging. “Her latest outing reaffirmed her position as one of the most interesting young designers from anywhere, full stop,” Maya Singer wrote in Vogue. Sales in Nigeria increased, and some stores in South Africa expressed interest; Osakwe told me that she planned to acquire a sales partner based in the United States. Thus far, though, her business is not making a profit. Her indifferent salesmanship is an obstacle. “You have to have either the business acumen or the instinct to hire the right person to do that, and ninety-nine out of a hundred designers don’t have the right instinct,” Lauren Sherman, a writer and editor at the Business of Fashion, said. In order to attract American buyers to expensive, unfamiliar designs, Osakwe has to hold trunk shows and establish personal relationships with customers; she has to communicate the story behind the clothes.
“She feels very strongly about the narrative she’s trying to put forward, and wants her work to speak for itself,” her friend Omotayo said. Osakwe’s insistence on representing life as it is for women in Nigeria gives her clothes resonance in Lagos, but it can be difficult to translate. In New York, the meanings of adire motifs often went unnoticed unless Osakwe defined them. Ukpo, of Stranger boutique, told me he fears that adire will become “diluted,” much like ankara. The risk, he said, is that “you just become an ‘African’ brand, interchangeable with other ‘African’ brands.”
American fashion is experiencing a turn toward modesty; the kind of sexual daring that seems revolutionary in Lagos could seem passé in New York. Osakwe’s success in the U.S. may depend, as much of fashion does now, on celebrity endorsement. Before Beyoncé’s last tour, her stylist reached out to Osakwe to commission two pieces, sending a reference from her previous collection, a nude top with tiers of tulle and the eye appliqués. “There was such a short time to do it—a few days—but it was exciting,” Osakwe said. Beyoncé has not yet worn the pieces. “Throughout the tour, I was just looking,” Osakwe said. Wistfully, she added, “I have her skin-color swatch.” However, Solange has been wearing her clothes, as has the writer and actress Issa Rae. Lady Gaga wears one of her blouses in a forthcoming remake of “A Star Is Born.”
This September, Osakwe returned to New York for Fashion Week. At a fitting in SoHo, two days before the show, a stylist and several models waited for her, checking their phones with growing impatience. She arrived half an hour late, dressed in ripped jeans and a white T-shirt; her flight had arrived that morning. “We literally only showered just now,” she said, as her assistant, Bolaji Animashaun, hauled a suitcase containing her new collection onto a table.
Osakwe had told me last spring, “I’m constantly going on about exporting my culture, but then there have to be things that people also want to wear.” Now she pulled out piles of garments, with playful details like ruffles and adire prints of moons and stars: whimsical clothes for anxious times. The collection was inspired by her childhood in Lagos, she said: “It’s about running away from the realities of everything, from Buhari to Trump.”
“It’s about sales, sales, sales,” Animashaun said.
Osakwe fretted around the models with a measuring tape. “Sometimes you have an emotional attachment to pieces of clothing—it’s not just vanity. I want people to feel both,” she said. “I want people to understand where it comes from, in the sense of the stories and the processes—and that it’s African.”