Before Amaka Osakwe can design a single piece of clothing, she tells herself a story. She might spend hours imagining the life of a woman rushing to catch a bus after a long day. She’ll give her a name and paint a picture of her family, her friends, her boyfriend.
This was, in fact, the inspiration for Osakwe’s Fall 2017 collection, which she showed earlier this month at New York Fashion Week. The 30-year-old designer from Nigeria thought about the yellow danfo bus that peppers the urban landscapes of her country, packed to the gills with people trying to get to the market, office, or mall. As she was designing, Osakwe added more and more layers into her tale of a woman leaving work late at night for a rendezvous with her lover, then slowly riding back to the office the next day. This kind of detailed narrative drives Osakwe’s creative energy. “It’s really the only way I know how to design,” she said during a recent interview.
Osakwe’s esthetic blends traditional elements from her Nigerian culture with modern Western silhouettes, and her label, Maki Oh, has gained an impressive following in the U.S. and the U.K. since it debuted in 2010. Her star-studded client roster includes Michelle Obama, Lupita Nyong’o, Solange, and Issa Rae.
I sat down with her the morning after she showed her collection to discuss her creative process and her ascent into the global fashion scene.
Fast Company: What are these danfo buses?
Amaka Osakwe: They’re government buses, full of too many people. People just jump on and hang on the sides. There’s all this art and graffiti on them, and sayings people have scribbled on the side.
In my collection, I included one saying, “No condition is permanent,” hand-stitched into the clothing. Everyone in Nigeria believes that if you are poor today, this is not permanent. Tomorrow, you’ll be a millionaire. Everyone is so hopeful.
What made you decide to become a designer?
I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do from the time I was 16 or 17, in Lagos, where I had spent my entire life. It’s not normal to be a designer in Nigeria: You have to be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer or a banker, because those are the safe professions. It was hard to convince everyone that I wanted to go to fashion school.
I really liked Japanese designers, and I still do—Rei Kawakubo and Issey Miyake. I like how they’ve taken their culture and turned it around, made it relevant. I also like couture designers, like Chanel, because I like working with my hands. I like anything that has to do with craft, or any sort of expertise.
I went to fashion school in Bournemouth, in England, and I encourage all Nigerians interested in becoming designers to go to fashion school. As a painter, you can always pick up a brush and paint. But if you’re told what color relations are or how paint dries, you have a better grasp of the craft. That makes a good starting point for you to flourish.
How did you convince your family that you weren’t going to be a lawyer?
My mom helped me handle telling my dad. We literally came up with a little presentation to show him. From the beginning, he said he was fine with it, but internally, we all knew he was freaking out. Everyone around me, all my aunties and uncles, people at church, would come to me and say, “You’re driving your father crazy. Why are you going to fashion school?”
They were ultimately so encouraging. And it was so wonderful to take them to the White House years later. My publicist and I were invited to the White House for an event. We each got a plus one, so we brought my mom and dad along with us. Now, my father tells everyone that they should send their children to fashion school. I’m the favorite child right now. He tells every Tom, Dick, and Harry, “Do you know that my daughter took me to the White House? Michelle Obama wears her clothing.”
You’re famous for using traditional Nigerian fabric-painting in your work, blending it with modern aesthetics. What made you combine the two?
To me, it’s not about modern contrasting with the traditional. They go hand in hand. It’s about making sure the traditions in my culture don’t die. Take, for instance, adire, the dying process that I use that involves putting wax on the fabric then dipping it in indigo. The craft is dying out because it’s so time-consuming and expensive. People were looking for the quickest way to make money. So there are just a few people left who are sitting down to make these fabrics the old way.
Most of the fabric that people think is African–the colorful stuff–is made in China or the Netherlands. I feel my work is about educating people about our culture and celebrating our beauty. I have used a traditional motif that is hundreds of years old that has been passed down from generation to generation. They don’t change much and each motif has a meaning behind it. Clothing used to be worn as a form of communication. Cloth would allow you to make an actual statement, like, “I’m happy that you’re here,” or “I’m sorry about what I did to you earlier.” Some people can still understand what each motif means.
Because of the success of the brand, younger designers are catching on to this, and using adire. I’m so happy everyone is joining the party. We’re giving more people work. When I first started, there was only one woman in the village I was working in, doing adire, but there are more now.
You like to tell elaborate stories when you’re designing. For this new collection, you imagined a woman going on a date. Can you tell us more about her?
A woman is taking a danfo bus to see her lover. But she’s going very late at night and because she’s lower middle class, so she can’t just go in an Uber or a taxi. She has to take three different buses to get to his house.
Nigeria is a conservative place, so she has to be very secretive. In the collection, she’s all covered up on the way there, in lots of denim and long sleeves. Then I think about the transformation when she gets to his house and she gets into different types of nightwear and lingerie. At 5 a.m., she has to get back to school or to work. She’s not lying in. She can’t even afford to lie in. I think about the shower process. I designed one outfit that looked like a bath robe.
I need to tell these elaborate stories with characters. I can’t just look at someone and design a shirt or a dress. I just don’t know how to design on the surface, or just for aesthetics. I believe that everything has to have a meaning. Life is too confusing on its own. We need to find meaning in what it is that we do. For me, the meaning always comes in very detailed stories.
How do you come up with these elaborate tales?
Day-to-day Nigeria. One of my seamstresses is always itching to leave work because she has a boyfriend. She has to take three different buses, going through potholes, just so she can get to him. The next morning she’s back and work, bright and early. She and I talk.
Why do you think that so many prominent black American women have taken to your clothing?
I think because my clothes are a celebration of beauty. They’re not focused on the political fight. We certainly haven’t gone after women of color in particular. They have just gravitated towards the brand and I think it’s because they’re looking for something to wear that reflects part of who they are but isn’t combative.
I want to dress the world, but I also want to dress Nigeria. Nigerian women understand the clothing without having to do any research. Just looking at it, they understand what the patterns mean.