LAGOS, Nigeria - A model struts the runway wearing a flowing newspaper print gown in this African megacity where international high-end fashion buyers are looking beyond the country's bleak headlines to uncover the next new thing.
There have been steady efforts to turn Lagos, a city with a fearsome reputation, into a fashion destination. They reached new heights at the MTN Lagos Fashion & Design Week that ran from Oct. 24 to 27 and drew European high-fashion brands such as the United Kingdom's Selfridges & Co. and Munich-based MyTheresa.com to Nigeria for the first time.
Ituen Basi's newspaper inspired Spring/Summer 2013 collection was among 39 collections spotlighted at the city's latest major fashion week. The Nigerian's collection evoked fun and glamour through its use of print and colour — characteristics which have come to define the vibrant local fashion scene.
With local brands seeking wider platforms and international retailers hungry for novelty, designers and buyers see opportunities for collaboration.
"There's something about the fresh, the unknown, the possibility of seeing a new brand springing forth into the limelight. ... These are becoming interesting to people outside Nigeria," said Omoyemi Akerele, the fashion week's founder and creative director.
An encouraging response to African-inspired designs by top Western labels gives buyers confidence that designs straight from the continent will also sell.
"Over the past few seasons, there's been a strong trend for print," said Bruno Barba, the brand public relations manager at Selfridges. "If you look at the collection of Burberry inspired by Africa last year; there was also Vivienne Westwood, Paul Smith. ... They've made that inspiration quite mainstream now. So, for us, it was interesting to take that trend and take it from its roots in Africa."
Online retailer MyTheresa.com, which ships top designers' clothes including Miu Miu, Givenchy, Lanvin and Isabel Meron to clients in 120 different countries, is also looking for products in Nigeria that will sell well. The company hopes that will set it apart from the competition in a fast-paced industry.
"For me, Nigeria represents a fun individualism," the company's buying director Justin O'Shea said. He also said that MyTheresa.com was looking to work closely with designers and adapt products for their clientele if needed.
Previously, several Nigerian designers have helped put the West African nation on the global fashion map.
Deola Sagoe has gained recognition from U.S. Vogue editor Andre Leon Talley and Oprah Winfrey. London-based Duro Olowu is considered one of Michelle Obama's favourite designers. Maki Oh has dressed American singer Solange Knowles and Hollywood actress Leelee Sobieski from her Lagos workshop. Jewel By Lisa, who has also dressed celebrities, designed limited edition BlackBerry mobile phone skins and jeweled cases for Canadian manufacturer Research In Motion Ltd.
While looking to Nigeria could bring much-needed novelty to clothes targeted to Western audiences, it could also endear a Nigerian clientele. Though the majority of the nation lives on less than $2 a day, the nation's wealthy elite — including upstart business owners, oil industry executives and corrupt politicians — have a growing appetite for top-shelf brands. Luxury goods stores are increasingly opening in a country where seemingly gratuitous displays of wealth are the norm.
"Nigerians are part of our Top 10 highest-spending foreign customers," Barba said. "It felt right for us to try and find a response that would appeal to them, excite them and be over and above what they already buy, almost as a recognition that they're an important part of our consumer base."
Lagos Fashion & Design Week: www.lagosfashionanddesignweek.com