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.”
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.”
Twenty minutes later 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.”
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.”