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Nigeria’s young designers embrace genderfluid fashion

In a country where homosexuality is illegal, the fashion industry is upending gender norms to explore identity and queer resilience. 

Before Covid-19 disrupted the fashion industry as we then knew it, a movement was building amongst Nigeria’s young designers. Masculine shapes were swapped for feminine cuts and fabrics. Silk, frills, and fuchsia began to appear in menswear collections, disregarding rigid ideas of gender.

This fluid approach to design is hardly unfamiliar, with Gucci’s Alessandro Michele spearheading a gender non-conforming fashion in both his clothes and his show formats (in February’s Milan fashion week, devoted to womenswear, Michele released a menswear-heavy collection with Adidas).

In a country where LGBTQIA+ rights are almost non-existent, however, Nigeria’s non-binary designs signal a movement of resilience amongst its queer youth.

Fashion has always been used as a vehicle for expression, subversion, and even protest. This new swathe of Nigerian designers are using their clothes to push back on outdated notions of identity and race.

Adebayo Oke-Lawal has been a frontrunner in the Nigerian menswear market since 2011, when he launched his gender-fluid label ‘Orange Culture’.

He told CNN in 2019, just before the pandemic disrupted the industry, that he wanted to change the conversation around masculinity in West Africa. “I found growing up, people were told they needed to be hard. They needed that to be seen as a man.”

Oke-Lawal’s clothes use colour and unique shapes to unknot this rigid image of manhood and gender that remains so embedded in Nigerian culture.

“We can be emotional, we can be vulnerable, and we can express ourselves however we want to without being seen as anything less than African” he said of his collections.

As the pandemic begins to subside, Nigeria’s fluid sartorial culture is only growing. In February of this year, Emerie Udiahgebi debuted their latest clothing collection for their eponymous clothing brand.

The 25-year-old nonbinary designer gathered Nigeria’s fashion royalty on Lagos Island to present a new show featuring slinky silhouettes of lace and leather. The sexy garments subverted normative constructs of gender, paying homage to queer identity and Nigeria’s thriving underground drag community.

But Udiahgebi’s collection was brave beyond its rejection of outdated ideals. The Nigerian government’s archaic laws on sexuality and gender could soon expand to outlaw crossdressing.

Since May this year, the country’s LGBTQIA+ community have been protesting against these efforts, which would result in legislation irrevocably damaging to Nigeria – and West Africa’s – queer population.

The bill would target anyone wearing clothing associated with the opposite sex – threatening fines of up to $1200 or 6 months in prison. But it’s trans and nonbinary Nigerian’s who would be impacted most, with the law fuelling an already hostile environment for LGBTQIA+ people.

“This bill will harm a lot of trans and non-binary persons because it’s especially targeted towards us. […] Transphobic Nigerian’s will also take laws into their own hands and use this bill as a valid excuse to harm us” said Fola Francis, a Nigerian trans woman.

Fashion designers like Udiahgebi and Oke-Lawal are using their art to celebrate an ostracised community. Their clothes are designed for unique bodies, allowing queer individuals to express themselves freely.

Shows like Udiahgebi’s spotlight trans and gender-nonconforming models, creating space for them in an industry built around binaries.

Babatunde Tibe, a non-binary model who walked for Udiahgebi in February, told ‘Them’ “That was my first time walking a show as a non-binary person, and I felt like a god. I felt that power of diversity.”

The resilience of these young designers, who are continuing to push creative (and legal) boundaries, is a testament to Nigeria’s changing tides. After decades of erasure, the country’s queer community is using fashion to control a narrative in desperate need of a re-write.