Fashion: Changing Society, Challenging Lives


Fashion can change society by asking questions, starting a discussion and leading to changed attitudes.

I am sitting with Nigerian fashion designer Adebayo Oke-Lawal at the large design conference Design Indaba in Cape Town.

He has just given a passionate speech about daring to be himself and not letting society decide how you should look.

“I was raised with stereotypes,  oppressed by stereotypes and inspired by stereotypes.

Who decided that girls should wear pink and men blue? You should represent yourself and society should keep their fingers away”, says Adebayo.

Adebayo collection
Photo by: Carin Tegner

Don’t Look Under My Skirt

He’s just finished his ninth collection titled Don´t Look Under My Skirt, inspired by the notion that society should not bother with what clothes you wear. The clothes have strong colours and are clearly androgynous.

Today, Adebayo is one of Africa’s strongest voices in fashion and has appeared in all major magazines worldwide including the Huffington Post, the New York Times, CNN, BET, MTV, Vanity Fair, ELLE, Marie Claire, L’Officiel, Style. com and The Guardian.

In 2015 he was chosen as part of an exclusive group of 29 fashion designers selected by LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey). A regular at London Fashion Week, Adebayo has rubbed shoulders with the greats including Karl Lagerfeld, Nicolas Ghesquière, Marc Jacobs, Riccardo Tisci and Delphine Arnault.

“Karl Lagerfeld is one of my greatest inspirations. His conviction in standing by his notion of fashion is important and it’s something that has inspired me tremendously. He was never afraid to take new roads and even though his style is different to mine, he has given me so much,” says Adebayo.

Adebayo collection
Photo by: Carin Tegner

The Orange Way

But the road to international fame has not been easy. He grew up in a very traditional family, attended a boy’s school and was bullied for his softness.  Adebayo took an interest in fashion from an early age in a very masculine environment.

“There is something I call toxic masculinity. They expect us men to talk loudest, never cry or hug and stand for the hard. It is something we should discuss every day and question,” he says.

During the bullying at school, he wrote an essay called Orange Way, to describe how he did not feel at home in the macho world. His teacher thought the essay was so good and important it should be published. And it started a movement in Nigeria.

After the publication, many people heard about it and told about similar experiences of bullying, abuse and the feeling you must be the right person to be the one you want to be.

“For me, the colour orange became a symbol of individuality. It may represent a unique man who does not have to accept forced masculinity,” he says.

Adebayo collection
Photo by: Carin Tegner

Showing Emotions

He worked in a bank after school but never lost sight of his fashion dreams. He spent all his spare time with fashion designers and models to get to know the business. The goal was clear; he had to work with fashion.

At the age of 20, Adebayo started his Orange Culture label to a cold reception from critics.

“I cried and cried. And consider if I would put everything down and go back to work at the bank. But in the waterfall of negative reviews and angry emails, there was one person who expressed his appreciation at how my clothes had changed his thoughts. It was enough for me,  I continued.

“And, I do not want to brag, but today my clothes are in all the important magazines around the world, they have nominated me for many great prizes. All because I listened to that one voice that thought I was doing the right thing”, he says.

In his home country, much has happened since the first collection. Other designers have followed in his footsteps and the question of what is – or should be – masculine is being discussed vividly.

“My brand and my clothes are about showing emotions and it has not been easy in my home country,” he says.

Adebayo collection
Photo by: Carin Tegner

A Clear African Style

Over the whole African continent, there has been a minor revolution in recent years.

Young designers, fashion designers, musicians, artists, filmmakers have stepped into the world with a clear African style.

“Fashion is visual and touches people directly. I want to tell you about another Africa than what they show in Western media.

“The West wants to keep the image of the starving child, the diseases and the poverty.

With my fashion I want to show so much exciting and revolutionary is happening, breaking that picture. It is time we are proud and shows how the real Africa looks”.

His latest collection is a colourful mix of Nigerian inspired silhouettes, printed fabrics, and modern urban streetwear.

Once shy and withdrawn Adebayo Oke-Lawal is a fixed star with great influence over what we can discuss in society.

He teaches young designers what to think about, works with musicians and filmmakers, travels around the world, shows his clothes and talks about his visions.

“When I started Orange Culture the goal was to create a movement and it feels like I’ve done that,” he says.

Adebayo adds that he will continue talking about toxic masculinity even though the winds are blowing elsewhere.

“A poisonous masculinity can change only by paying attention to it. What is male or female, are there any differences? Just talking about it, I think can lead to change,” he concludes.

Words by Urban Nilmander  




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