The radical traditions of Nigeria’s Maki Oh.
“It’s sad that we allow cultures to die,” Maki Oh designer Amaka Osakwe says. “What the world thinks is African print is [actually] from Holland.” But the topsy-turvy reality that so many of the fabrics thought to be traditional African prints are actually produced by centuries-old textile companies in Europe doesn’t dispirit her so much as inspire her. The Lagos-based designer chooses to use truly homegrown African textile traditions herself, reinventing them in modern ways so that her clothing line is as much a celebration and a retrospective as it is a fashion house. “It’s my only way of keeping my heritage alive, by making it relevant,” she says. The textures of Osakwe’s collections use tediously detailed, age-old methods, like hand-stitched calabash pieces or a beautiful motif called the “Sun-bebe” that’s hand-painted by the queen of the local Ogidi village.
But it’s never just about tradition: Maki Oh explores what it means to know your past, but is just as interested in what it means to be a contemporary woman at ease with her body and sexuality. For her debut collection, Osakwe painted swirls that circled and accentuated a woman’s breasts, a reference to the ceremonial nudity of a coming-of-age Dipo ritual from rural Ghana and a winking nod to the notion that what might be considered improper in some places is beautiful and natural in others. For her spring collection, prim blouses that button to the neck have peek-a-boo slits on the chest and dresses made for curvy women have hip-accentuating strips of velvet. “A mature woman can wear underwear in public and not be seen as a sex object.” Dignity and respect are the traditions that Osakwe hopes will last.
Photographed in Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigeria. Styling by Mobolaji Dawodu, model Temi Dollface.