Business has been booming for Nigerian fashion designer Banke Kuku of late due to reasons threefold. Firstly, lockdown forced her to take her Lagos boutique online to keep her bottom line steady; consequently, she pivoted to making protective face masks which, like her vibrant printed loungewear, are flying off the virtual shelves; plus, her clients are taking their post-Covid-19 social looks very seriously.
“Nigerian people have a real zest for life,” Kuku tells British Vogue, speaking over Zoom from Lagos. “They love celebration! Fashion! Entertainment!” The fashion industry is growing rapidly in Nigeria’s largest city, and has finally taken its long-overdue place on the global stage, thanks to fashion weeks such as Arise. “Coronavirus has taught us the importance of working together as a fashion community,” she explains. “It’s the first time Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa have communicated in this way. Before, we were lazy, but now we’re recognising the importance of having structure and being visible by going online.”
For Kuku’s last day of school, her mother, a lawyer who also frequently wore Valentino suits to work, altered one of her Moschino twin sets for her daughter to wear. From there, Kuku went on to complete a foundation course in fine art at Central Saint Martins, followed by a Fashion and Textiles Degree at Chelsea College of Art and Design. Her career path as a “textile artist” was set, and she began to experiment with digital prints that told the stories of Africa. “Textiles are my canvas,” Kuku says of her process. “I work digitally, so there’s no limitations on colours, tones and prints. Unlike weaving, it’s quick to turn my artwork around.”
This efficiency underlines everything Kuku does. When lockdown measures loomed, she photographed every single product in her store. Four days later, she had a glossy website selling her vibrant silk wares. Her edit of 10 printed masks is proving popular, in part, due to the brand’s charitable policy. For every mask sold, Banke Kuku donates one to the Neighbourhood Link charity helping Lagos residents in need. “People are purposefully buying more because they know this,” a delighted Kuku says.
One of her signature prints, the Delta, is also striking a chord with customers. Inspired by the oil spills in the Niger-Delta region of Nigeria, the pattern shows sunlight reflecting on oil in water. “The toxic chemicals caused fish to be poisoned and cassava crops to die,” she says sadly. “The silk series brings beauty out of this. It’s my mission to tell these stories. People feel proud wearing pieces with real cultural value.”
Aside from the striking motifs, Kuku’s USP is her fabrication. The 100 per cent silk satin is sourced by an agent in London, before the garments are manufactured in Lagos. “We cater to women of all different sizes who normally avoid silk because it shows off their lumps and bumps,” she says. Feedback is overwhelmingly positive about her parrot, leaf and tie-dye printed pyjamas, robes and kimonos, which Nigerian artist Tiwa Savage has worn. “I make clothes that put a smile on people’s faces,” she says. The boost Savage’s 11.4 million followers gave Banke Kuku also reinforced the designer’s decision to go online.
The importance of black spending power carries emotional weight for Kuku. “When I visit the UK, I still find it hard to find Afro hair products and make-up for black skin,” she says, recalling a time in a West End pharmacy when she was told to go to shops in “darker areas” of London. “The market is not reflective of black spending.” Kuku feels encouraged by the new wave of cultural awareness surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. She cites the 15 per cent pledge – which encourages brands to commit to buying 15 per cent of their products from black-owned businesses going forward – as an “amazing step” in the right direction. “By giving more space to black-owned brands, retailers [such as Sephora which has signed up], will see there is more than 15 per cent out [customer appetite] there.”
Kuku believes that the health and social crises of 2020 have been “catastrophic”, but that there have been positive outcomes. “We’ve had global conversations, where the industry has voiced frustrations around mass consumption, and people have listened,” she says of fashion’s awakening around sustainability. “In Nigeria, there are so many people in need and yet there’s so much waste. It’s crazy that clothes get discarded at the end of the season.” Like Sephora, she praises Gucci, which has committed to a seasonless model, for making meaningful changes to its business. “It has been time to reassess what’s good for the customer, too” she muses. “They should be able to walk into a store in December and buy a winter coat, not spring/summer collections.” Still, at Bankekuku.com, there are sunny prints on offer all year round.
Culled from vogue.co.uk