From imports to indigenous: My journey embracing Nigerian brands

Dear Reader,

Thank you for embracing my Editor’s Letter. It has inspired me to share my journey of embracing and exploring local Nigerian creativity and Nigerian brands. This journey, I must admit, has been an enlightening, rewarding and transformative experience, one that has deepened my appreciation for my heritage and the boundless potential within it, and I hope this inspires you, too.

A Return to Roots

My journey started in 2016, a milestone year for me. I was in the middle of the worst breakup; I wasn’t sure about a great job I had with a multinational and I missed my family! So I got up and moved back home! I was excited about this and didn’t think through what this would mean for me and the effects of my consumerism. 

I buy Nigerian designers who produce locally because of the exclusivity. I travel a lot and I like the fact that when I’m out of the country, people stop me to ask where I got my outfit from. 

During the move, I procured everything I needed from the UK as I didn’t consider or process the possibility of finding locally produced alternatives because of the belief that the qualities of locally made products are lower quality than imported products. It enhanced my preference for imported goods but alas it wasn’t a sustainable reality. I started running out of things and soon knew I had to adjust my consumption behaviour. A realisation also hit me! If we don’t become better producers, how will our dear nation preserve and showcase its riches? This question activated my exploration journey. 

Fashion as identity: The pride of exclusivity

As a girl, fashion was a major identity for me, and therefore it was my first touch base in exploring local creativity! Growing up in Nigeria, American culture was the ethos for the youth, as most of us emulated styles from music videos and American movies. I transitioned from loving this American culture when I went to the UK for my bachelor’s degree. I was attracted to British/European stylishness because I believed they were more fashionable and had a cleaner approach to style.

Months after I relocated to Nigeria. Images via Tobi Hamilton

However, moving to Nigeria and exploring Nigerian brands offered me a more vibrant cultural experience, especially in this realm of fashion. Nigerian clothing brands showcase a blend of traditional and contemporary styles, reflecting the country’s rich heritage and adding a twist of modern creativity. Brands like Deola Sagoe, Lisa Folawiyo, and Mai Atafo lead the charge of innovative designs incorporating bold patterns, intricate embroidery, and sustainable practices. New entrants like Kowa, Dye Lab, Ekikere, Kilentar and Kadiju blend traditional fabric with modern styles to create a personal fashion statement that honours our roots but keeps you trendy and ensures you stand out. 

Okemena Kezia from Cececa, the founder of an indigenous candle and scent company who is also a good friend of mine, once told me “I buy Nigerian designers who produce locally because of the exclusivity. I travel a lot and I like the fact that when I’m out of the country, people stop me to ask where I got my outfit from. I feel a sense of pride in what we are doing in the country. It’s a major identity for me. Most importantly, I feel seen because the designers are being seen on me”.

I pondered over her words and increasingly appreciated the dynamic fashion scene in cities like Lagos and Abuja, which highlights the fusion of global trends with indigenous textiles, providing a unique sartorial landscape. Exposure to these brands has offered me a deeper appreciation of Nigeria’s artistic ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit, and I genuinely believe fashion, if not already, will become a major export from Nigeria in the coming years. 

Discovering hidden gems

To truly appreciate African creativity, I’d like to know, have you ever been to the Lekki Art Market or Nike Art Gallery? These hidden gems are in Lagos, Nigeria where the skills of artists or artisans are on full display. The first time I went was in 2018. It was a vibrant scene, with stalls brimming with handmade jewellery, leather accessories, intricately woven Ankara, tie & dye fabrics, beautifully carved wooden sculptures, and aromatic spices. The sheer variety and quality of the products on display were astonishing. Each item told a story, reflecting the cultural heritage and artistic ingenuity of its maker, and it made me realise that by purchasing these products, I could support local artisans and contribute to preserving our cultural heritage. 

Image Credit: Left To Right: Tobi Hamilton at Nike Art Gallery – Tobi Hamilton at Lekki Arts & craft

Another thing that stood out and inspired me when I visited was the innovation and transition of these artisans to meet current times, tastes and demands with all the challenges faced to produce locally. The rising cost of goods and limited access to basic amenities et al. are challenges faced by these artisans and entrepreneurs towards production but yet they find a way! Imagine the potential development Africa as a whole or a country like Nigeria could benefit from if we give more vigour to local production, we would undoubtedly increase economic development, create jobs within the local economy, reduce inflation and perhaps have a stronger currency. Hadeeza Maina an interior decorator from Lagos who recently completed the Access Bank private bank branch uses a lot of locally manufactured products in her design solutions for clients and said “Given the wealth of global design expertise within reach, I believe it’s crucial to spotlight our gifted local craft workers, enhancing their craft and providing employment opportunities to bolster our economy holistically.”


A cultural renaissance

Speaking of innovation and ground-breaking shifts, one industry that is taking the bull by the horns is the music industry. There’s a huge resurgence of African music on a global stage and an industry worth emulating to create more exports. You no longer have to hustle to go to the Balogun market or Sabo market in Yaba to buy CDs because recording artists now release their artistry straight to a streaming platform. Just as Nigerian brands are making waves in fashion, the music industry is also setting a new standard.

Afro Nation returns to the Algarve - The Portugal News
Afro Nation – Image via Pinterest

This accessibility of music and its transmission globally through technology has also influenced worldwide interest, respect, collaborations and the export of the resource –  culture! Music has made Africa cool and given attention to products (tangible & intangible) made in Nigeria. The fashion girlies who produce in Nigeria like Dye Lab, Onalaja, Rendoll, Desiree Iyama are now selling out their US & UK pop-ups, beaded bag brands like Mairachamp have 46% of their audience in the USA while the Duchess of Sussex recently wore Orire brand, a locally produced fashion brand to an event. Live performances of contemporary artists like Burna Boy, Wizkid, and Tiwa Savage now sell out the O2, Staples Centre in the US and football stadiums in England. The universal appeal and innovation of music have created increased attention to Africa and Nigeria, therefore positioning culture & lifestyle products as a trade and revenue-generating industry alongside Oil & Gas (chuckles happily) 

Have you logged into Netflix lately or Amazon Prime recently? Have you noticed the body of work of locally Nigerian-produced movies available? I’m chuffed! In the spirit of exploring, I watch as many locally produced movies as possible. I recently watched Breath of Life and the cinematography, fashion, and locations used in the movie amazed me. The movie industry is another point of contact for me in this self-discovery.

Besides helping me handle my Nigerian parents and Nigerian community, especially when my western influence tries to override things I genuinely don’t understand, these movies and shows have been a source of enjoyment for me. The storytelling enables me to find a deeper connection to Nigeria, giving me a sense of belonging and a renewed sense of pride in things I almost forgot following on from my western influence. For instance, the movie The Wedding Party literally echoed everything I experienced during wedding planning, including dealing with family members. It was exciting to engage with such innovative production of the Nigerian wedding culture and appreciate that my lifestyle needs now get met through other Nigerians having the tenacity to ideate, develop, create and innovate.

The ongoing journey of embracing local

Lately, I have a lot of friends in the West who come to Lagos or other parts of Nigeria for holiday and end up extending their tickets or asking questions about what it takes for them to move back home. I realise the little influences of fashion, film, music, food, etc have evoked a sense of curiosity, belonging and exploration within the diaspora. It is igniting a lot of people on a rediscovery of their roots, their identity, and the boundless creativity inherent in our culture similar to what happened to me and still happening, might I add. As others are, I am learning the importance of preserving and celebrating our heritage while also encouraging innovation and contemporary expression with aim to create a cyclical economy too. 

L-R Tobi Hamilton at Nike Art Gallery, Dye pits in Kano State, and weaving centres in Ibadan. Image credit L-R Tobi Hamilton and Getty Image

As excited as I am by this journey so far, I also worry about the future of local production. While it has increased, it hasn’t been smooth and we are still a low producing country. Most entrepreneurs, producers and manufacturers face such weighty challenges, unlike their Western counterparts. Funding and financial literacy aren’t readily available to a lot of the skilled artisans, especially in the more remote parts of Nigeria where production takes place like Jos, Minna, Benin, Oshogbo, Ebonyi, Awka, Kano, Ilorin, etc. There are so many logistical challenges to get goods from point to point, which leaves manufacturers with expensive goods because they have explored expensive options or, in some cases, the option to not try at all. Other factors like shortage of skilled labour with outdated educational systems, bureaucratic red tape, inadequate infrastructure, and unreliable electricity supply also hamper efficient manufacturing and distribution processes and make it difficult for production to meet the demands of a competitive modern economy. 

Tobi Hamilton styling her Dye Lab pants. Image credit: Tobi Hamilton

With all these challenges, I maintain my conviction to buy locally because of a newfound desire to be part of history. I imagine a time in decades to come where we look back at some things we did produce, procure and showcase and beam with pride as we see its influence in the generations coming. Do you ever read any history books or follow history websites and look at pictures of fashion from the 60s or 80s? my goodness, they are so iconic! My mum now beams saying nkan ti awa man wo laye ati jo ni eleyi (Yoruba language translated to English – these are the things we wore back then) anytime I wear a Dye Lab bou bou and mules from shop Etanyobe or Winston leather, she chuckles because 10 years ago, I’d never have thought this would be my beloved style or choice of clothes.

Tattoo 9ja code 234 and wearing Winston Leather. Image credit: Tobi Hamilton

Wrapping up this story, I now buy 85% of the things I need in Lagos. I always try my best to see if there’s a brand that’s Nigerian/ Black owned as an alternative to the Western products I was used to and I would encourage everyone to follow suit. An item or two locally produced would be a good start and will be interesting to hear from you how this shapes your consumption from now on.

Write to me and let me know how you get on. For me, this journey is ongoing, as there is always more to learn and explore. However, with each step, I am reminded of the rich tapestry of Nigerian creativity that continues to inspire and shape my artistic expressions and personal identity. 


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