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“No pretentious shit, just us,” Jimmy Ayeni laughs when he talks about Modus Vivendii, the Tumblr blog-turned-brand he and his childhood friend Ola Badiru started 10 years ago. Latin for “the way of living,” it was a space to document their lives and perspective on culture, style and fashion from their homegrown label. “The blog was about everything we liked,” Badiru adds. “But it also led us to dig into our roots and showcase the things that influenced us and what Nigeria really means to us.”
Badiru takes it back to the beginning. “We were actually born and raised in London and moved to Nigeria at one point in our lives. So it’s like we’re from both places — and the reality of it all.” Ayeni and Badiru met in Lagos after their families had moved back from England at the start of secondary school. They connected over their common need to be different, rebelling against Nigerian pressures to be “super traditional” and become a lawyer or doctor. “We didn’t know what we wanted to do at the time,” Ayeni remembers. “But we recognized in each other we wanted to do other shit.”
“At that age, we were really interested in style,“ Badiru adds. “We wanted to look different, wear out-of-the-box stuff. We made custom shirts, put our name on stuff, bedazzled stuff.” For a year eight art assignment, Ayeni had the idea to make his school uniform polo into a soccer jersey by screen printing the back in the style of a Nigerian church announcement with his name and a number. It was a hit with his classmates — not so much with the teachers. “I got in hella trouble,” Ayeni laughs. Soon 40 other kids at school wanted the same. Those polos are lost to history, yet the practice would set up what would become Vivendii, the brand.
Instead of finishing secondary school in Lagos, they went back to England to do their A levels. They were sent to separate boarding schools, but would meet up any time they could in London. In the city, they continued their hustle: making T-shirts and hosting club nights. Pooling money with friends to secure a venue, they’d earn back their investment and then some by charging cover. “We were 16, 17, so we used fake Nigerian licenses that said we were 20 to get in and book,” says Ayeni. They would do anything they could do to find people on the same wavelength. “Hip-hop was bubbling up in America, but in England it wasn’t really like that. People were still big on the band shit, Kings of Leon, Abercrombie and Fitch,” remembers Ayeni. “Streetwear hadn’t even had anything near a moment. We were just trying to meet people who would recognize a Damien Hirst or listen to a 2007 Kanye freestyle or an old Lil Wayne mixtape and be like, ‘Oh, yo, this is sick.’”
When Big Sean came on tour to London in August 2011, only half a year after they started the blog, no one at the clubs knew who he was. Shocked, they stepped in: “What? Yo, we’ll take care of him. We’ll do everything; we’ll style him. Big Sean needs to know that when we styled him for his show in London, we were 18,” Ayeni laughs. “We’re giving Big Sean drip. He wore our new T-shirt that we just dropped. He had these [Junya] Watanabe jeans on. It was a whole new vibe.” That experience got them styling other artists, but it was a meeting just before Christmas 2011 that really pushed the collective into fashion.
The late Franca Sozzani and Roberto Cavalli were in Lagos on a talent scouting trip and met with the guys. Impressed with what they had achieved at such a young age and at what they were trying to build between Lagos and London, the Italian industry-heavyweights encouraged them to focus on their brand.
Building a brand in Nigeria, however, isn’t an easy task. “There’s poor infrastructure in Nigeria,” Badiru explains. “We don’t have electricity 24/7. This creates a very hard environment for young people to thrive. The government are a corrupt institution. They’re stealing from the future of the country and stifling the youth.” Seventy percent of Nigeria’s 200 million population is under the age of 30, with the median age of 18. And by 2050, Nigeria is projected by the UN to be the third-most populous country. As the government tries and fails to implement programs to engage youth now, so much talent is going untapped.
“Youth aren’t pushed to learn creativity, which is at the heart of everything,” Badiru continues. “We need everybody to be creative to create a better country. From so much pain, Nigerians have been able to rise above and bring so much beauty and vibrancy into the world — but imagine being supported by a government that values you. That would go into the world tenfold. Forever, we’re going to be screaming to the hilltops that young people in Africa, in Nigeria, need to be protected and valued.”
As unofficial ambassadors for young Nigerians, Vivendii wants to use its platform to create dialogue, to send a message to those kids who grew up like they did. “When people buy our clothes, we want people to think it’s fire, but that it should mean something as well,” Ayeni says. Political critique is particularly pertinent following the #EndSARS protests to end police brutality and extortion in the collective’s homeland, where violent attacks across the country by government’s security forces left more than 51 civilians dead on just one day last October.
Slogans like “ENJOY YOUR LIFE,” “YOUTH HAS NO AGE,” and “THESE ARE MY CHURCH CLOTHES” on T-shirts and sweaters told older generations a new youth is coming. For a society where 99.5 percent of the population identify as either Muslim or Christian, religion is so woven into the fabric of everyday life in Nigeria. With the expectation to attend church in your ironed suit, hands clasped in prayer, the collective want these types of phrases to incite a revolution questioning the status quo. “How does me wearing a T-shirt change my relationship with God?” Ayeni asks. Or how about their tongue-in-cheek mercurial cross logo that adorns more than half their collection?
That irreverence for convention is what makes Vivendii’s streetwear feel so exciting. Their clothes take us back to 2002, when as a kid you’d sneak onto your parents’ computer to mess around making digital graffiti in Paint or collage WordArt, or peeking onto the Internet — before deleting the browsing history, of course. Through Vivendii’s garments, the early-aughts MTV aesthetics the guys were raised on are copy-pasted, highlighted, and put on bold in a warped techno fantasy.
Adhering to the seasonal fashion calendar, however, wasn’t a route the brand owners could initially take. “We were so young and so much stuff was happening, we never had the time to breathe and look at where we were at and going,” Ayeni says of their year-and-a-half hiatus from the fashion world. “We work on our own terms now.” That means releasing drops when it makes sense. Vivendii’s a constantly evolving idea, and like any multi-hyphenate creative entity, focusing on one pursuit at a time doesn’t suit their ethos.
“Growing up, we used to play around with rap,” Badiru remembers. “Jimmy made a couple of records we’d play on road trips. We rinsed those records.” Ayeni slyly continues, “Low key, I did make some music back in the day, but it was of the need for a creative expression, of wanting to get my ideas out in a different way. We’d been making fashion T-shirts, but sometimes there wasn’t enough space for me to say what I wanted.”
Naturally, they began releasing mixtapes and DJing as Vivendii Sound. “We wanted to get to a level where we could control everything,” Ayeni says. And by working with and supporting Afro-beats and Alté musicians in Lagos, they now show the world what’s happening there. “We want to bring people what’s going on in the underground Nigerian music scene and take it back to the ’80s to show that we’re about some other shit with Steve Monite and Cheryl Lynn.”
Things have been full throttle since stepping back into the fashion world at the end of last year. Vivendii was stocked at Browns, the London-based retailer, through a partnership with Homecoming, the Lagosian cultural festival created to amplify West African talent. The brand also won a £20,000 grant from the Metallic Fund, which allowed them to redo their website and produce additional, previously sold-out products. More product means more people can get their hands on them, an important feat for a brand that believes fashion should no longer be about exclusivity.
“A new kind of species of human being is being born, and the traditional mindset of division is going to soon be eradicated,” Badiru says. “The kids are all plugged in. We’re all multicultural. We all came from one place, so we’re all connected.”
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