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Against the backdrop of rising anti-LGBTQ sentiment, these Nigerian fashion labels feel forced to show in private

<i>Udiahgebi via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Independent brand Udiahgebi like to play with gender stereotyping and androgyny in its collections.
Udiahgebi via CNN Newsource
Independent brand Udiahgebi like to play with gender stereotyping and androgyny in its collections.

By Bolaji Akinwande, CNN

Lagos (CNN) — Since its inception in 2011, Lagos Fashion Week has been a twice-yearly highlight of the African fashion calendar, a multi-day showcase attracting the continent’s top design houses, big name sponsors, as well as an international audience.

In a deeply religious and conservative Nigeria, where LGBTQ people suffer extremely high levels of homophobia, intolerance, and even violence, Lagos Fashion Week quickly established itself as an inclusive space for marginalized communities and unconventional brands to be seen and heard.

For more than a decade, Nigerian label Orange Culture has staged catwalk shows featuring male models in skirts, makeup, or wearing ribbons down the runway as a way of provoking conversations about how fashion can be used to break down gender norms. Maxivive — which describes itself as “a Lagos-based fashion organization founded… on ideas of nonconformity and the subversion of norms” — has also made waves showcasing graphic, gender-bending pieces addressing issues around sexuality and identity over consecutive seasons.

Over the past few years however, members of the LGBTQ community in Nigeria say Lagos Fashion Week’s inclusive stance has come under pressure amidst a growing culture of hostility towards non-binary and gay people in the country.

In 2014, despite widespread international condemnation, Nigeria — Africa’s most populous nation — adopted the SSMPA law (Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act) which bans gay marriage, same-sex relationships and membership of gay rights groups with punishments including a prison term of up to 14 years for those convicted. Gay rights activists say these sentiments are filtering down into what was one of Nigeria’s most open-minded industries: Fashion.

Kayode Timileyin is the founder of Queercity Media and Production, one of the leading non- governmental queer organizations in Nigeria as well as being the festival manager for Lagos Pride, a week-long celebration in June to commemorate Pride month in Nigeria. “There is a history of anti-queerness when it comes to fashion week in Nigeria,” he told CNN.

Activists point to the city’s Spring-Summer 2022 showcase, featuring the late Fola Francis — the first-ever transgender person to be cast by labels to model on the city’s catwalk.  Francis tragically drowned in December 2023.

While her debut was hailed as a watershed moment in both African fashion and for the queer community at large (she walked twice, for labels Cute-Saint and Fruché), it also sparked controversy. At the time, Francis said she faced a public backlash from some sections of Nigerian society and pointed out that despite her boundary-breaking appearances, no images of her were posted on Lagos Fashion Week’s social media accounts. In an interview with digital LGBTQ magazine Xtra shortly after the event in November 2022, Francis said “I heard the Lagos Fashion Week’s team decided not to post any of my pictures from the runway or include (them) in any press releases. Why am I not surprised?” (The magazine said they approached Lagos Fashion Week at the time, who did not respond to their requests for comment.)

After casting non-binary models to walk on its catwalk during the Spring-Summer 2023 shows, subversive fashion house Maxivive had its show cancelled by organizers just days before it was meant to go ahead. While brand founder Papa Oyeyemi told CNN he would prefer not to talk about the cancellation, discussion within the industry centered around the presentation having been deemed “too gay” by organizers.

“For the presentation to get cancelled at the last minute was very disheartening,” one non-binary model booked to walk for Maxivive told CNN (they wished to remain anonymous for their safety). “Queer people exist in Nigeria and fashion is meant to be expressive, not restrictive.”

Tosin Ogundadegbe, a Lagos-based fashion stylist known as “The Style Infidel” on social media said that the fashion industry in Nigeria still has a long way to go when it comes to inclusivity. “The traditional fashion schedule suffers from (a lack of) inclusivity on the runway — we only see representation of marginalized communities at private shows.”

Finding the freedom to be who you are

Indeed, amid what’s perceived as a growing pressure for organizers to adhere to anti-gay laws and increasingly divisive politics around gender, sexuality and inclusivity in Nigeria, an increasing number of fashion labels have chosen to show “off-schedule” via “underground” private presentations where they feel they can be more free to embody the ethos of their brands, rather than in the glare of Lagos Fashion Week.

From labels such as Tzar Studios, a “visually provocative contemporary menswear brand… inspired by the ethos of the metrosexual man,” to ready-to-wear brand Weiz Dhurm Franklyn, these clandestine, “invite only” shows are curated by designers who keep locations discreet and hand-pick trusted journalists, influencers, celebrities and fashion industry figures to sit in the audience.

Udiahgebi, a fashion brand known for its androgynous pieces, has successfully hosted private shows in this way. The house cast five non-binary models to walk in its first-ever runway show in 2022 to a positive reception, brand creative director Chiemerie Udiahgebi Ugwoke told CNN.

“The feedback after my show was alarmingly good,” they wrote over email. “I was not expecting positive reviews from the attendees because… I took gender-neutral clothes (featuring see-through fabrics, animal prints and cut-outs) and played with them in a way I felt was more likely to attract negative reviews considering the society we live in.”

Aso Nigeria, another androgynous and inclusive fashion label, cast Fola Francis in both its private runway show in December 2022 and a fashion advertising campaign released in February 2024. Brand founder Aanuoluwa Ajide-Daniels told CNN that including a trans woman was “essential to the idea of the brand, and something that will be seen throughout the lifespan of Aso.”

“I see fashion as art, it is meant to start a conversation and also provoke thought,” said Kayode Timileyin. “However, over the years, (Lagos) Fashion Week continues to hush down and limit these conversations.” While championing an inclusive future for the artists and fashion designers of Africa cannot solely be done behind closed doors; for now, many designers believe it is the only — and an essential — way to be able to freely express who they are.

Lagos Fashion Week did not respond to CNN’s repeated requests for comment.

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