The design elegance of Amaka Osakwe
American President Trump’s thoughts on the African continent notwithstanding (averted gaze), Nigerian designer Amaka Osakwe has managed to create an organic, thoroughly West African fashion mini-empire that is respected as much abroad as it is at home.
Take that, Donald.
Osakwe is the hottest designer to come out of Nigeria in quite a while, and the timing couldn’t be better. Fashion forward notables like Michelle Obama, Lupita Nyong’o, Kerry Washington, Solange Knowles, Lee Lee Sobieski, and Arden Wohl have all worn Maki Oh.
The BoF 500, which deems itself "the definitive professional index of the people shaping the $2.4 trillion fashion industry,” named Amaka Osakwe to their list. And the accolades and laurels keep accumulating for the Nigerian designer. Osakwe’s collection, Maki Oh, is a playful (frills, ruffles) mix of traditional African style suffused with unexpected themes, like childhood, Sisyphus and even Almadovar’s Talk to Her.
The ideas that animate Maki Oh collections are limited only by the imagination of Osakwe. Ghana’s Dipo rites- of-passage ceremony was the inspiration for Maki Oh’s Autumn/Winter 2010 collection, her debut. “The collection abounds with ancient adire motifs from the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria, showcasing proverbs that have been handed down unchanged for generations,” is how LadyBrillemag.com described the launch. “These seemingly ubiquitous motifs,” they continue, “which once upon a time would have resonated with every Yoruba man and woman, render ‘Everything in Proportion’ a veritable mélange of secret conversations.”
Ms. Osakwe is driven, even though she was born in one of the most conservative countries on the Continent. "I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do from the time I was 16 or 17, in Lagos, where I had spent my entire life,” she told Fast Company. “It’s not normal to be a designer in Nigeria: You have to be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer or a banker, because those are the safe professions.” And yet she has never renounced her home country.
Despite the unexpected whimsy of themes, always the grand subject of Maki Oh’s esthetic is Nigeria. Osakwe often has Nigerian bands playing at her fashion shows. The models are all black. There are the subtle nods to the colors of Lagos in the Fall 2017 collection, and brisk Spring 2016 collection courtesies to the karuwai courtesans of northern Nigeria. Further, Osake’s rise also parallels a resurgence of traditional African textiles. Osake utilizes centuries old Adirè (which her mother also used), sometimes with Yoruba text hand stitched into the clothing.
MAKI OH AW 2017
Osakwe’s career changed dramatically when First Lady Michelle Obama wore a chiffon blouse from Maki Oh’s spring/summer 2013 line at an event at the Sci-Bono Discovery Center in Johannesburg. “I remember when she wore it, my cousin said, ‘Is Michelle Obama wearing Maki Oh?’” Osakwe told The New Yorker. “I was screaming and dancing for about fifteen minutes.” She was then invited to the White House. The following year she was shortlisted for the prestigious LVMH prize, the gold standard fashion design competition open to up-and-comers from every country who have produced at least two collections and are under 40.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Maki Oh recently premiered its Fall 2017 collection at New York Fashion Week. It follows the story of a woman as she journeys through Lagos to see a lover. The Maki Oh’s Fall 17 collection is described by Native as "peak Maki.” The theme, of course, is sex. Native goes on, describing "sheer shift dresses suggest the art of seduction, a post-coital haze is crystallized in duo-tone terry bathrobes, and bright pink short suit suggest the hasty post-sex dash for home." The proverbial walk of shame? “I’ve never seen a walk of shame in Lagos,” Osakwe told Vogue.com, “because at 6:00 a.m., she’s showered, which is the inspiration for the towel fabric. Then she’s back out and she comes straight to work like nothing ever happened.”
After Michelle Obama, social media has been the second most important component to Osakwe’s success. Maki Oh’s Instagram – with over 37,000 followers – connected her to McMullen boutique, her most prominent connection to the United States, launching her retail arm in the West. "It seemed legit from the start. It just seemed like this person REALLY wants to get in touch' she told Forbes.
Africa is no longer just an inspirational source to the world’s designers. In the last decade, Africa has come into its own as a fountainhead of fashion, and Maki Oh is leading the way. “It’s about running away from the realities of everything, from Buhari to Trump,” she told The New Yorker. For her work in reviving traditional African textile art processes, the Nigerian stories she tells on the runway and for her intricately constructed pieces embraced by the jet set, we celebrate the design elegance of Amaka Osakwe.