This Boundary-Pushing Menswear Label Is Shaking Up Gender Norms in Nigeria

A few hours before presenting at Lagos Fashion and Design Week last month, Papa Oyeyemi was stopped by a street style photographer. Dressed in a red slogan T-shirt with a fanny pack strapped to his back, the designer could have easily been mistaken for one of the carefree hipster kids milling around outside of the tents on […]
Photo: Kadara Enyeasi

A few hours before presenting at Lagos Fashion and Design Week last month, Papa Oyeyemi was stopped by a street style photographer. Dressed in a red slogan T-shirt with a fanny pack strapped to his back, the designer could have easily been mistaken for one of the carefree hipster kids milling around outside of the tents on Victoria Island. His deeply furrowed brow and faraway expression, however, belonged to a man with bigger things on his mind. “I always get so anxious before a show,” he said, shifting nervously from foot to foot. “I just wonder, ‘What will people make of my clothes?’ ”

His label Maxivive has a reputation for polarizing the Nigerian fashion community, pushing an idea of minimalism and androgyny that turns traditional menswear tropes upside down and inside out. One item in his new collection—a pair of tailored gray slacks-cum-chaps—ignited a firestorm of negative feedback on Twitter, with hundreds of commenters voicing their outrage at his subversive take on the 9-to-5 dress code. “It made me happy that there was one person who actually noticed the functional aspect of the look,” said Oyeyemi without the slightest hint of irony. “There’s actually a clip in the back that’s designed to hold a button-down in place when a man sits down.”

Maxivive
Photo: Courtesy of Maxivive

Practical or not, his clothes are certainly compelling conversation starters. Beyond the flamboyant showpieces in the lineup—sequin trousers, thigh-high sock boots, and sheer drawstring pants decorated with floral embellishments and images of the Virgin Mary, for example—there was suiting reworked in ways both subtle and ingenious. One blazer in his new collection appeared to be layered up like a set of Russian dolls; another came cinched at the waist with a neatly knotted tie. As a psychology major, the designer has a habit of embedding subliminal messages in his collections, and many of the looks were trimmed with his twisted affirmations, including one that read: “I did not wake up like this, this is how I look now.”

“The debate around gender fluidity is just beginning to open up in Nigeria,” said Oyeyemi. “I wanted to explore that with this new collection, but I didn’t want to come off as cliché. It’s not about putting a man in a woman’s wardrobe.” His version of the boundary-breaking aesthetic is arguably more nuanced. Though the opening look—an asymmetrical gray suit with a midi-length skirt—might have read feminine in a Western context, the reference was rooted in traditional Nigerian menswear, namely the baggy trousers worn under the wide-sleeved robe known as an agbada in Yoruba. “I try where I can to break new ground,” he said. “You have to be a disruptor to encourage growth, mess up the structure of things a bit.”

Maxivive
Photo: Courtesy of Maxivive

Having founded his label 10 year ago at the tender age of 15, Oyeyemi has been shaking up the West African fashion system for quite some time now. He scrapped the Western notion of seasons four years ago, renaming his Spring 2013 collection Harmattan 2013, after the dry season on the West African subcontinent that occurs between November and March. Fall 2013 then became known as Wet 2013 to align with the region’s rainy months. Lagos fashion insiders scoffed at the idea at first, but eventually many followed suit. And though his collections often receive mixed reviews at home, he’s gained international recognition, showing at South Africa’s Menswear Week earlier this year with an upcoming exhibit at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam in the near future. “People tell me I should move my business to Paris, but I’m happy working out of my studio in Lagos,” he said. “I might be ahead of my time right now, but I can see that there’s a shifting happening. People will catch up in time.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *