Nseobong Okon-Ekong and Vanessa Obioha describe the creative elements which make Fashion Art Fusion an enticing item on Nigeria’s calendar

He walked away from law practice several years ago. And he has not looked back. Somehow, Austin Aimankhu who is steadily growing an excellent reputation for the men fashion brand, Luzol, does not miss the wig and gown trade which he turned his back on. This conviction is particularly stronger when he runs into his course mates at the University of Benin who are full of admiration for what he is doing now. At such times, he reassures himself again that he did the right thing by refusing to wear the wig and the gown and instead choosing to sew the wig, the gown and everything in-between.

Learning the rudimentary of the trade from the famed designer, KeseJabari, he demonstrated greater commitment by deepening his knowledge through a course of study at the Yaba College of Technology School of Design. He would add further verve to business acumen by learning what it takes to become an entrepreneur at the Lagos Business School. His initial modest dream would have just as well ensured some degree of success for him, but having passed through these institutions, he thirsted for an uncommon realm of glory that galvanized his simple ambition into a compelling desire that produces fresh impetus each day.

While it may be good for other designers to have a fashion show, Aimankhu is driven to stage a display beyond the ordinary. This is how the idea of bringing together runway fashion, visual art, performance poetry and music rolled into one delightsome serving which he branded, FashionArtFusion. Its third season which pandered towards the objective of the present administration in promoting patronage of locally made goods was held last weekend at the Oriental Hotel in Lagos. This was not just another ‘Made-in-Nigeria’ mantra, outlining the myriad of opportunities that abound. Again, it showed that Nigeria is blessed with natural resources and that the skewered perception that locally produced goods are inferior is misplaced.

The road to the Fashion Art Fusion event which climaxed recently started last May when Austin Aimankhu and Grace Gekpe, Director, Department of Entertainment and Creative Services of the Ministry of Information and Culture, jointly announced a collaboration and a ‘Wear Nigeria’ campaign. At a meeting with journalists, there was a resounding clamour to promote Nigerian fabrics.

Gekpe emphasised the relevance of the partnership in promoting the Nigerian textile industry. She said, “There are many indigenous fabrics in Nigeria that are not exposed, that’s why we partnered Luzol (Aimankhu’sfashion label) to showcase them. We will carry out a pilot research on Abia, AkwaIbom, Benue, Ogun and Kwara. We want to use this platform to empower them and also make a statement to the private sector to encourage them as well. I believe this is one of the ways to diversify the economy.”

That was in May. The ball was rolled into motion. The initial plan was to have a three-day event that will feature an exhibition and a fashion show. Locally made fabrics will be on display for guests to feed their eyes on, as well as buy. But as the recession bit harder, the possibility of sticking to that plan became very arduous. Sponsors were not forth coming. Anywhere Aimankhu turned, he seemed to run into a brickwall. Postponing the show was an option he toyed with a couple of times but dropped. Undeterred by the economy shakeout, he pushed on. At the last minute, he was able to solidify a relationship with the Lagos State Government and Fayrouz, a premium natural drink from the stable of Nigerian Breweries Plc.

These latter day partners saved the show from imminent disaster. From an initial three-day plan that would have featured a seminar, workshop exhibition and runway show, the event was collapsed into one day. The exhibition was scheduled to hold before the fashion show. By 2:00pm, guests had started to arrive, although not in large numbers like the previous year. Nonetheless, the anticipation at the Ballroom of the Oriental Hotels, Victoria Island, Lagos – the same venue as last year – was high.

After last year’s impressive show, there were expectations that Aimankhu would raise the ante this year with a spectacular show. They were not entirely disappointed. On the face of it, many would remember the bold entertainment content from last year featuring the elegant all – female troupe, Adunni and Nefertiti, the wonderful percussionist, Samson Iroko,
Up and down, the guests milled around the secluded venue. A last-minute sponsor, Fayrouz from Nigeria Breweries, had set up a mini-bar where guests could grab a chilled drink from the lovely hostesses. Right opposite it was the red carpet. Expectedly, many elegantly dressed guests, posed for the eager lens of the paparazzis.

The girls at the ticketing stand were not having a good day. They wore a forlorn look like they were in a confused state. Once in a while, Aimankhu could be seen urging them to do their job well.

In a way, it was a good thing that Luzol retained the venue as some guests at the hotel picked interest in the show and bought tickets.
Lining up the hallway were the exhibitors who accurately portrayed the vision of the show. There were hand-made beaded jewellery on display, locally-made clothes, shoes and other accessories on display. Textile weavers, a major attraction which many hoped to see were absent.
While guests waited in the hallway for the show to kick off, a guitarist named Tony serenaded them with his strings and vocals. He did a cover of Ed Sheeran’s ‘Give me Love’ and another song. He would later open the show.

Meanwhile, inside the hall, rehearsals were still underway: The Malilli cultural group rehearsed their dance, the Down Syndrome models practiced their runway steps, while the models and fashion designers applied final touch to the pieces.

To drive home the essence of the show, the runway had a backdrop of African prints surrounding a huge screen that displayed the designers of the night. More of these could be seen in the attire of the Fayrouz hostesses. They wore pants made from African print with a branded top fashioned with African print details on the sleeves.

Starting one hour behind schedule, Dr. Mcfoy who hosted last year’s gig welcomed the audience. Apparently, Mcfoy has mastered the skills of a compere. He lacked the fluidity of a host and sometimes showed himself as one who depended on loud applause for recognition. Much of his humour were dry and exaggerated. However, he was able to carry the audience along. At least, he was far better than his co-host, Black Satin, who spent most of the night giggling and strutting the runway in her black sequined dress.

Keeping to established tradition, designers on the Fashion Art Fusion platform were a melange of known and unknown designers. Setting the mood for the runway was Mo Baney, an Arts graduate. She introduced a wardrobe of colourful Afrocentric fabrics. Her strength relied on the fact that she played with bows, stripes and prints in her dresses which embodied the confident African woman. For the male, she infused different cultural styles to exude that male charm.

A standing rule for the night implied that all clothes were to be made from local fabrics. Aimankhu had earlier pointed out in his opening speech that the show was to celebrate the Nigeria textile industry. He made a lot of allusion to how the Ghanaian fabric, Kente, has captivated the world and concluded that Nigerian fabrics held the same promise. His opinion was re-echoed in the address by the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who was represented by Louis Eriomale.

“Many have wondered at what happened to our textile and garment factories which offered employment to hundreds of thousands of Nigerians. The good news is that this government is putting in place policies that will resuscitate these industries by protecting them to optimum efficiency. The ‘Wear Nigeria’ campaign which is an integral part of the Fashion Art Fusion will be given a life of its own. We need to sustain it to become a movement. Imagine what will happen if all employees of government start to ‘Wear Nigeria’, first on certain days of the week, until they become more and more acquainted with it and can comfortably and proudly ‘Wear Nigeria’ all week.”

Not surprisingly, Aso-oke, Gbariye, Adire, tie&dye, from South-west and the rich white and black A’nger material from Tiv-speaking part of Benue State as well as its counterpart, Idoma’s red and black had a field day on the runway. It was a celebration of Nigerian fabrics expertly presented in contemporary designs. Due to limited time, Aimankhu couldn’t spread his tentacles to showcase fabrics from other parts of the country. He however promised to give these less exploited Nigerian fabrics deserved attention at the maiden edition of his fashion show in Abuja next year.

This thumb of rule of working strictly with Nigerian fabrics proved somehow difficult for some of the designers, particularly for Ejiro Amos Tafiri whose pieces last year was highly applauded. Not too long ago, at both the Nigerian Fashion and Design Week and the GT Bank Fashion Weekend, Tafiri’s designs were a big hit. But last Sunday, she failed to wow her audience. Fashioning only seven pieces, she played it safe with off-shoulder details and large sleeves in African print. Perhaps, her only audacious step was designing a dress from two different African prints.

Her counterpart, Ayo Van Elmar, still maintained her edgy and sophisticated look. With her signature ring-studded leather gloves and shoes, she experimented with lace, ankara and damask. She embodied her male models with edgy designs from lace and African print. Her ladies wore multi-coloured prints that ooze elegance, eccentric ball gowns enhanced by lace and frills.

Turning on her funky side, she played with cut-out patterns on blazers and sporty hoods.
Luzol in his unique signature displayed a wardrobe filled with beautiful designs for the confident man. Using black as his dominant colour, he scored great points with both types of the Benue A’nger fabric. He designed them to be worn as long neck scarves and used them as details on the sleeve and neck of his pieces. He also showcased his collection which emphasised images of musical instruments and played with African print as well.

House of Gogo also returned this year with a more edgy look with Aso-oke, print and lace. Other designers of the night were Sorby Fashion, NnennaNwizu and Jokky Collections. Each of them played with the local fabric and designs that reek of elegance and sophistication.
Known for his love of the arts and culture, Aimankhu ensured that audience members were thrilled with electrifying performance from the National Troupe of Nigeria. They performed the Iba dance – a medley of songs – characterised by fire, smoke, trance-like movements and incantations. The Malilli group also entertained the audience with their happy feet.

Since his first edition, Aimankhu has made it a tradition to give proceeds of his fashion show to a charity. This year, the children of the Down Syndrome Foundation were the beneficiary. Often derided and isolated because of their challenges, the Fashion Art Fusion platform upturned the applecart of shame and gave these special children some moments of fame in the spotlight. Under the glittering chandeliers, they strut the runway, striking poses like professional models.

For that few minutes, they forgot their limitations and swirled, made peace sign, blew a kiss at the audience and swept them off their feet with a little dance from one of the children. Moved by their expressions, the guests gave a loud ovation to all the children and much admiration to Muyiwa Majekodunmi, the man who took these children under his wing.
But that was not the only event that got the audience on their feet. Last year, the audience enjoyed the spoken word performer, Ivori, and his winning line of the night ‘My mind is going loco’.

This year, it was Donna the Poet. She performed a satirical piece titled ‘What do You Wear?’ Her facial expression, tone, rhythm and lyrics were exceptionally peerless. She addressed the different perception and lifestyle of the average Nigerian woman, taking her time to dwell on each character trait – from the fake accent to the ‘runs-girl’ who believes her body is her capital. Donna’s performance evoked a thunderous applause from the audience. Her message was directed at the centre of the Nigerian conscience. With her guided missiles, she challenged the prevailing norms and values in a society that is gradually losing its sanity. Aptly aligned with the theme of the fashion show, Donna, sought to spark that patriotic pride that would drive us to ‘Wear Nigeria’.