We are meeting Nigerian fashion designer Deola Sagoe in her atelier-store on Victoria Island in Lagos. Fauzi, who is in charge of communication, leads us into the airy open-plan atelier where mannequins are dotted through the space to display the brand’s latest designs.
On our way from the airport Fauzi told us that Deola embarked on her fashion career more than 20 years ago. He also said that all she wants to do is create beautiful things – and now we see what he means: each piece is like a work of art, carefully crafted and exquisitely finished. Deola is known for combining a variety of fabrics – cotton, silk, velvet and lace – and incorporating subtle details into her designs.
As Anouk weaves her way between the mannequins, admiring each design and touching the delicate fabrics, Deola enters the atelier. “Welcome!” she says with a warm smile. She is wearing a simple but stylish dress and exudes a sense of understated sophistication. As she talks, I sense that beneath her confident and outspoken personality, there is also great warmth and openness – a desire to listen and learn from others which probably forms one of the strengths of her design work.
Deola show us some pieces from the new collection and explains the creative process – how she chooses the various fabrics, what determines the cut and what inspires the careful detailing on all her designs.
“I’m intrigued by the mix of cultural references in your work,” says Anouk. “Where do you pick them up and how do you blend them together?”
“I was educated on three continents and absorbed different cultures and ideas along the way. Somehow everything came together in my subconscious and this shaped my design style. In Europe, I was inspired by the tradition of luxury brands, in the United States I came in contact with trends and modernity, while in Asia I found simplicity and spirituality.”
“And Africa?” I ask.
“Africa is my main source of inspiration. Africa is the soul of the world; it is the cradle of mankind. If you go back in time to the roots of European tradition, you’ll find Africa; at the beginning of American modernity lies Africa, at the source of Asian spirituality is Africa – and this all comes together in my designs.”
“Look at this design for example,” she says as she walks over to a fitted brown jacket on display in the middle of the room. “You see the shoulders? They are inspired by 19th-century European military uniforms. The simplicity is Asian, but the materials are unmistakably African.” Indeed, the design combines clean lines with innovative material use and subtle detailing to produce a uniquely rich style.
“It’s beautiful,” says Anouk. “I understand the concept of bringing different cultures together and fusing them into a collection, but what message do you want to convey?”
Deola smiles. “I travelled the world and was struck by the huge diversity in cultures and mentalities. I don’t want us to lose this; I don’t want the world to become a uniform entity. On the contrary: I want to celebrate the differences. It is very important for us to be confronted with difference, to get out of our comfort zone. This is what I try to do with my designs: to confront people with other cultures. Different shapes, different fabrics – but always with the underlying conviction that we’re all linked by the African Soul. Africa is where it all started, it continues to live on within us.”
As she says this a Bob Marley tune starts playing in my head and I softly sing along. “One Love, One Heart…” Deola looks up at me: “What did you say?”
“No, nothing,” I mumble self-consciously. “Your story reminded me of a Bob Marley tune, sorry about that.”
“That’s a great association!” Deola replies eagerly. “I was at the Caribbean Fashion Week in Jamaica a few years ago, and I felt the same connection! That’s the African Soul you feel around the world. That’s my inspiration!”
Deola’s eyes light up. “There is more though: there is Africa in my designs, but also in my fabrics. I use African Aso Oke fabric. It is a hand-loomed cloth woven by the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria; it is usually woven by men and I often use it in combination with Asian silk.”
In addition to your job as a fashion designer, you are a mother of three. But I also heard that you have taken on an ambassadorship?” I ask.
“That’s right,” she says with a little smile. “I took on the role of Ambassador of the African Soul: I want to promote Africa in general and Nigeria in particular because I feel we need an image boost. What Fela Kuti did with music and Wole Soyinka with poetry, I want to achieve with fashion. Those men are a great example to me.”
“Wow,” I say. “You’re not setting yourself an easy task.”
“I’m not looking for easy,” Deola replies. “Easy won’t change the world. Already becoming an haute couture fashion designer in Africa wasn’t the easiest career choice… but I want to raise the bar a little bit higher still, to add purpose to my design work and to my life. Women who buy my designs can be proud of the clothes they are wearing, but also of their role as ambassadors of the African Soul.”
© 2012 CoolBrands – Around the World in 80 Brands
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