The Quest for Cool in Nigeria Leads to the Princess of African Fashion

Some of Deola Sagoe's creationsThe NextWomen Africa Theme. 

Guest post by Anouk Pappers, brand anthropologist and Co-Founder CoolBrands.

More than 10 years ago I started my quest, the quest for cool. Based on the assumption that there is ‘a need to know and a need to be known’, I travel the world in search for stories worth sharing.

Two years ago, I decided that it was time to look into Africa as well. I came in contact with Clara Chinwe Okoro, a Nigerian businesswoman who had founded BrandWorld Media.

We agreed that I would visit Lagos and that she would introduce me to the ‘movers and shakers’, the people who make a difference and take the country forward.

One of the more impressive things I experienced in Nigeria, is that there are a lot of interesting people with a vision, the description I use to express the kind of stories I am looking for. But you don’t know them until you really start exploring the country, meeting people and sharing ideas with them. Some of the Nigerian brands I encountered, are looking to grow internationally in the coming years, most of them are focusing on the domestic market, which makes sense with 150 million inhabitants. The people however, either being brand owners or entrepreneurs, have a more outward vision, they are looking to conquer the world.

The energy, the opportunities and the clear ambition of the people I met, is what I loved most about my stays in Nigeria. 

We published several stories at aroundtheworldin80brands.com, but I would like to share a short story of my first meeting with Deola Sagoe, the princess of African Fashion. She is one of the most interesting and visionary people I met during my stay in Lagos, a very strong and powerful woman with a very clear vision. 

It is early afternoon when I touch down at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport Lagos. As I walk out of the arrivals hall I am immediately engulfed in a wave of hot, humid air. I take off my jacket and before I even start looking where to go, a smartly dressed man walks up to me.

“Welcome to Nigeria!” he says with a smile. “My name is Fauzi, I’m the fellow you’ve been chatting with via email. This way... the car is waiting.” I am immediately struck by his perfect British accent.

Our chauffeur-driven car heads towards the city and we soon hit dense traffic. As we inch forward in the Lagos rush hour, Fauzi briefs me in preparation for our meeting with Nigerian fashion designer Deola Sagoe. “Deola started working in fashion over 20 years ago when she joined her mother’s label as a junior designer,” he says. “Her style really comes from her culturally diverse education.

She picked up different ideas and cultural trends from around the world, but Nigeria remains her greatest inspiration – different textures, colours, cultures, people, the whole vibe!”

Meanwhile our driver has managed to extricate us from the traffic jam and turned onto the 12-kilometre Third Mainland Bridge. “We’re going straight to Deola’s atelier on Victoria Island,” Fauzi says as we speed across Lagos Lagoon. “She’ll meet us there.”

Surrounded by Lagos Lagoon to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the south, Victoria Island is an upmarket area of Lagos with brand-new high-rise office buildings, modern hotels, fancy shops and residences.

“So how successful is Deola’s brand today?” I ask.

“It’s a respect thing really... The more people know the brand, the more there is this kind of instant recognition of status,” Fauzi says. “Deola Sagoe today is essentially three elements: first of all, the haute-couture label, which has been known for sometime locally and internationally. Then there is the DEO label, the prêt-à-porter line, and there’s DS, which is a further diffusion and serialisation of brand merchandise. 2011 alone has seen a major growth in customers globally. It’s great when you get a customer enquiry from Japan or New York; they are always so intrigued by the philosophy behind the brand. I mean, they appreciate the ‘differentness’ of what Deola is doing, but they can’t explain how totally connected they feel. I think it’s like the feeling you get when you read your favourite author, and the words on the page shock you because it feels like it’s written from your own mind...”

“How do you see her wider role as an influencer of African fashion though?” I ask.

“She has given 21st-century African fashion design a tremendous boost – her work is the clearest expression of the complexities of the African identity imaginable.

Through her designs, Deola is spreading African culture, even influencing the image of Nigeria.”

Our car stops in front of a sleek two-storey building with white pillars tapering off to pointed ends at their tops, evoking the idea of giant, upright, elephant tusks – an unmistakable African look and feel. “This is it!” Fauzi says as we get out of the car. “Get ready to meet the princess of African fashion.” 

Deola Sagoe, 'Princess of African Fashion'As I weave my way between the mannequins, admiring each design and touching the delicate fabrics, Deola enters the atelier. “Welcome!” she says with a warm smile. She is wearing a simple but stylish dress and exudes a sense of understated sophistication. As she talks, I sense that beneath her confident and outspoken personality, there is also great warmth and openness – a desire to listen and learn from others which, I suspect, forms one of the core strengths of her design work.

Deola shows me some pieces from the new collection and explains the creative process – how she chooses, or creates, the various fabrics, what determines the cut and what inspires the careful detailing on all her designs.

“I’m intrigued by the mix of cultural references in your work,” I say. “Where do you pick them up and how do you blend them together?”

“I think it has to do with how I was educated. I was fortunate enough to be educated on three continents and naturally you absorb the different cultures and ideas along the way. Things come together in my subconscious and this shapes my design style. In Europe, I was inspired by the tradition of luxury brands, in the United States I came in contact with modern trends and contemporary, while in Asia you have the ethos of simplicity and spirituality.”

“And Africa?” I ask.

“Africa is my main source of inspiration. Africa is the soul of the world, isn’t it? It is the cradle of mankind.

If you go back in time to the roots of European tradition, you’ll find Africa; at the beginning of American modernity lies Africa; at the source of Asian spirituality is Africa – and this all comes together in my designs.”

Since 2002, Anouk Pappers has been on a global storytelling expedition, interviewing people with a vision and brands with a purpose all around the world, as a Brand Anthropologist. Because of the shift of economic power to the Next World, she started to focus on these parts of the world a few years ago. Who are the movers and shakers in the Next World and what are their stories? Based on the assumption that there is 'A Need to Know and a Need to Be Known', Anouk connects people and brands by stories.  She write stories, place them in the context of other stories of people and brands and shares them with opinion leaders worldwide. For more info, see CoolBrands and aroundtheworldin80brands.com.

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