Each season, fashion weeks around the world show us what it means to tell stories through stunning costume, but in Nigeria, where formal, ceremonial dressing is taken very seriously, that's just another Monday. Every October, Lagos Fashion Week pulls back the curtain on Africa’s thriving creative scene in a country that loves to dress up. “With all the vibrant textures, fabrics, and patterns and textiles that we have in our culture, style becomes something that's very innate, from the beginning for a lot of Africans and definitely for a lot of Nigerians. I think the earliest fit I ever got off was in elementary school,” Alexander-Julian “AJ” Gibbson tells me. It’s this sartorial scene that the Nigerian-American stylist reflects on in his latest shoot, which puts Nigerian designers front and center.
“Yes, I think it's so important to share the knowledge we're seeing in Paris and Milan and London to New York, but we should also acknowledge the places that are inspiring the people that are influencing those runways that we admire.” For the seasoned New York-based stylist, who’s experienced all the major fashion weeks, Lagos Fashion Week holds a very special place. “I love Lagos Fashion Week. It's actually my favorite,” he explains. “The reason I love it is right in line with my philosophy on Nigeria and the continent as a great source of creativity. African creatives really get to thrive here... Back when I was young and dreaming that just seemed so far off.”
If you exist in the fashion world – especially as a Black person – you’ve probably noticed that the fashion establishment isn’t necessarily known for telling or even platforming Black stories. For Gibbson, like many other Black kids, that lack of representation was a big hurdle in getting into the industry in the first place. “I think I didn't feel confident enough to pursue fashion seriously because I just didn't know anybody or didn't see anybody that looked like me in the industry,” he says. “So I didn't feel like it was something real and plausible to happen, especially being Nigerian and being from Houston.”
But Lagos is the other side of the same coin. While it exceeds at tapping talent from across the continent, without systemic support it takes a lot of audaciousness for the creatives to even make it this far. “It’s frustrating. Nigeria has so much talent. An exorbitant amount of talent, just walking around the country, but they receive absolutely no support from the government. Because they’re too busy supporting oil and all the other things that are getting them this fast money, but then not realizing that they could be pushing themselves as a cultural hub,” he says, encapsulating the exasperation of most Africans in the arts. Yet, what Lagos Fashion week has made apparent for Gibbson is that when no one else cares, roses really do grow from the concrete. “I feel like there's this very underdog sense of community amongst everybody who's interested in the creative arts in Nigeria, especially because the country is filled with so many young people.” AJ Gibbson details a community far from the cutthroat fashion industry the West has popularized. Here people support and hold space for each other.
For young Nigerians, last year delineated the extent to which they’re on their own. While the Covid-19 pandemic and country-wide protests against the brutal SARS police force put the fashion calendar on hold, creativity became a crucial part of healing and surviving. And after a year’s hiatus, Lagos Fashion Week returned this October, feeling more vital than ever. For Gibbson’s return to the Nigerian fashion capital he had to capture its tremendous creative energy. This essence unfolds in the photostory, which places local designers, hair stylists, makeup artists, and models under the gaze of renowned Nigerian photographer Stephen Tayo. “The thing I love about Stephen’s work is it just feels very real. It's never something that's this fantasy world that's created. I just thought that his approach was the best setup for showcasing Lagos Fashion Week as an entity, because I wanted to make something that felt very day in the life, not so fluffy and not in crazy studio lighting.”
In a typical Lagosian concrete compound we see elements of mundanity elevated to things of beauty. The production from its ceremonial style cues to traditional sculptural hair-dos, was the result of genuine collaboration between the talents – “no mood boards.” “When you have really talented people who know what they're doing and have their own ideas, it gives them all the free space to create and come up with something really beautiful,” Gibson explains. “We booked our hair stylist [Tosin Idowu] and our makeup artist [Michael Ukponu] and basically just told them ‘Feel free. Do whatever motivates you and do whatever pushes you.’”
For his part, Gibbson did what he does best: uplifting African designers through a “marriage of culture and style.” The styling is where Lagos Fashion Week shines, spotlighting the myriad of designers from different countries applying traditional techniques to modern silhouettes.You can feel it in the woven bags of Bamako-based Awa Meité, the vibrant textiles of Ivorian Elie Kwame’s ensembles, and the straw fringe trimmings adorning Banke Kuku’s pieces, which Gibbson tells me are reminiscent of Igbo dance uniforms.
With the weight of the world's eyes upon them, these designers work outside of the Western fashion mainstream, at times rejecting such antiquated systems altogether. A lot of the clothes feel like haute couture, but what is high fashion in a place where everyone dresses to the nines? “A lot of the things that we would consider regular clothes in Nigeria, if another brand did that in London or in Paris, it would be haute couture,” Gibson agrees. “Every time I go to Nigeria I'm always the underdressed person there because Nigerians… ‘Boy, I am tired of wearing outfits but you guys don't stop!’” In the Western tradition, haute couture is qualified by being constructed entirely by hand from start to finish. But in Africa, this criterium extends beyond the runway. Tailor culture is prevalent from custom-made everyday attire to the extravagant aso-ebi (color-coordinated traditional attire) worn to Nigeria’s world-famous weddings. “Those tailors spend a good amount of time making these clothings and mastering these techniques. And so it's the same concept behind haute couture, where the couturiers are spending time hand-dyeing, hand-sewing, or putting in these specific details. And I think that same kind of craftsmanship goes into African clothing. So it's something that's never far off from ready to wear designs.”
Here, the fashion scene is just an acknowledgment of what is already a huge pillar for the culture. But while drawing on heritage is critical, AJ Gibbson is also wary of treading too close to notions of tradition. “The fact that LGBTQ lifestyles are actually illegal here and the underlying homophobia is very present in how conservative society is. But then also based on our traditions, some of the things that people in the West would see as, ‘oh, this is blurring gender norms, this guy's wearing a wrap skirt.’ Those are actually a part of our traditions. That's nothing new to us.” He continues, “Fashion gives us an opportunity to tie back to the things that we've known for centuries and then hopefully follow the Afrofuturist way of bringing them into the new age.”
As Lagos quickly becomes Africa’s epicenter of fashion, Gibson’s work speaks to how young African’s can gain awareness and power through fashion. In this photo shoot with Stephen Tayo and some of Africa’s most incredible designers, Lagos Fashion Week serves as the backdrop for this unique state of individualism, momentarily free from the traditional gaze of both the Nigerian public and government. This is the world AJ Gibbson wistfully imagines and hopes for. “We're going to get there, but it's going to take us some time.”