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An Inside Look at How Lagos Fashion Week Is Pushing the Industry Forward

Stylist Joan Reidy shares her first-hand experience styling and creative directing at the nascent fashion capital.
Looks from Fruche's Spring 2019 runway show at Lagos Fashion Week in October 2018. Photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images

Looks from Fruche's Spring 2019 runway show at Lagos Fashion Week in October 2018. Photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images

"Lagos is the world."

These are the words my taxi driver said to me on my way to the airport for my flight back to Brooklyn. "Everything is here — the best, the worst — all in one place. Anything you can find in the world, you can find right here."

The sentiment rang true for me. Lagos, Nigeria is a mega-city, one of extremes: the wealth, the poverty, the creativity, the hustle. Lagos is loud, hot and crowed — there's no getting around any of that — but it is also a place bursting with talent, creativity and entrepreneurship. It is overwhelming, chaotic and unapologetic in all of its good and bad elements. 

As a New Yorker who loves big cities and big projects, being invited to Lagos Fashion Week to work on the collections to edit, style and oversee all fittings was a dream come true. I started to become aware of the fierce street style in Lagos when I stumbled upon a few Instagram accounts and blogs a few years ago. But until I was there to breathe it, smell it and taste it, I had no idea how all-encompassing style and fashion are in Lagos. It is real, and it is their hustle.

Lagos Fashion Week, first founded in 2011, is a platform where designers are interested in growing both creatively and economically. I was engaged in so many incredible conversations with the designers, all of them in different stages of their careers, who wanted to discuss how to shift the fashion show platform to be less about entertainment and more about promoting and building the industry at large. We spoke on everything from traditional fabrics — which some designers have woven themselves for their collections — and how that allows local artisans to continue their craft, to the challenges of working with limited resources and infrastructure. 

Online sales have been an incredible opportunity for designers, but they all spoke about a need to be able to expand their sales, as well as the need for larger production opportunities to build their businesses forward. The Diaspora has been returning to Lagos as creatives and business people recognize the opportunity for growth, as well as the explosion of talent in Lagos. I am so excited to see Lagos five years out from now; it is a cultural hotspot waiting to burst, and I believe the Diaspora will lead the way.

Backstage at Lagos Fashion Week is similar to fashion shows I have styled during New York Fashion Week, except it is as if the entire fashion week is happening all at once. It's like any fashion show backstage, just scaled up, with 60-plus models and anywhere from 16 to 20 designer collections a day. When a show ends at NYFW, the model runs to the next show at another location; in Lagos, they just run back to their rack for the next collection, which means there are models constantly running back and forth to change into the next designer's look. Backstage is more of everything: More clothes, more designers, more hair and makeup people, more photographers, more VIPs, more chaos, more laughs and definitely more dancing — way more dancing.

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I want to stress the range of designers and collections. It's a Pan-African platform, so there are talents from Nigeria, Dakar, South Africa, Ivory Coast and Ghana, to name a few. As there is range in the variety of countries participating, the range in the collections is vast. From sustainable collections like NKWO, to new designers like Demure by Deneke, to more established and internationally known collections like Maki Oh, Mai Atafo or Lisa Folawiyo, the collections range from minimalist to streetwear to formal eveningwear. Lagos Fashion Week is a true representation of the multi-faceted and varied continent.

As a stylist and fashion consultant, being part of this project really ties into my personal philosophy: "Style and Context." Fashion is never just about the garment. It is about capturing a moment; it is a representation of many people's hard work and creative choices. It is about who is wearing it, where they are wearing it and how they made the choice to wear that garment. It can also be a representation of an emotional choice, a feeling, a story. The fashion industry is so many things: a global business, a fantasy, a reflection of culture at large, people's livelihood. It's impossible for me not to think about these factors when styling a runway show, consulting for clients' fashion lines or even choosing fabrics for a costume. It all informs my creative process.

Being invited to work with Lagos Fashion Week — all 54 designers, 60-plus models and the 1,205 looks we put on the runway — was mind-blowing and an honor. To lend a hand in these massive projects was eye-opening, and at the same time confirms my belief in the future of the industry. Sustainability, diversity and social responsibility, when hand-in-hand with creativity, is powerful and the way forward; seeing all of these issues being addressed at Lagos Fashion Week is so incredibly affirming. To be able to add my creative process, my eye and structure to the platform, has been a DNA changing experience for me. 

Whatever projects I have worked on, I have been about pushing diversity in my castings and in choosing what designers I work with. I live in Brooklyn, and my life is filled with people of different races, religions and identities. My work has always reflected that. It is literally how I see the world. There have been different types of industry growth in terms of diversity, be it in the casting process in terms of race or gender, or even what we consider beautiful; there's also been growth in terms of designers, be it women or non-white men, leading major fashion houses. 

But this needs to be the norm, not a trend. I want to see more diversity and not just on the creative side, but the business side, as well: the CEOs, the CFOs, the head merchants. To prevent diversity from being a trend or backsliding from where we are now, there needs to be diversity in the board rooms, as well as the studios. It's an ongoing project and discussion we have to have. What we think of as diversity will also shift and change as the culture shifts, but keeping these discussions around diversity at the forefront is what keeps our industry from becoming stagnant.

The designers and local production teams I worked with in Lagos gave me their trust to work with them, but in the end, they gave me so much more: a belief in the future of this industry I love, a belief that the industry is becoming more diverse, socially aware and economically powerful each year.

Joan Reidy is a stylist based in Brooklyn.

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