How Nigerian-British Designer Irene Agbontaen Is Helping To Put Nigeria On The Fashion Map
Beyoncé and Jourdan Dunn are fans of her label TTYA London
BY KENYA HUNT
From Nigeria’s buzzy fashion calendar which attracted Naomi Campbell, A-list influencers and a slew of senior ranking international fashion editors to Christian Dior’s cruise collection celebrating craftsmanship throughout the diaspora, 2019 has been a stellar year for African fashion. Nowhere is this more apparent than the continent’s fashion capital, Lagos, which has become ground zero for a wave of new talent making names for themselves globally.
Among them, Irene Agbontaen, creative director of the women’s wear line TTYA, who sits at the cross-section of Lagos’ creative renaissance happening on the continent and in London.
As the fashion industry gears up for another round of ready-to-wear shows, spanning the capital and satellite cities and concluding in Lagos, Irene opens up about why the continent deserves a bigger spot on the fashion map.
You’re London-based with a high-profile British and American fans including Beyoncé and Jourdan Dunn, but chose to debut your line at Lagos Fashion Week. What about Lagos makes it the right backdrop for your work?
I was super excited to show at Lagos fashion week as both my parents are Nigerian. The collection represented my Nigerian heritage mixed with my Western upbringing.
You also shot your most recent campaign using an all-female production team. How did you find the models and contributors?
The almighty power of Instagram! I was in Lagos for two weeks in the run-up to fashion week. I ended up working with 6-foot tall twins, Edith and Edna, and we shot them in a local bus garage. All the locals were so interested in what we were doing that by the end of the day we had about 100 people just watching us shoot. We also connected with the amazing women who work in the dying pits and used traditional Nigerian dying techniques on Nike Air Force 1s for the show.
What was your inspiration for the collection?
The whole collection is a celebration of representation and empowerment. I called the collection 'Corruption Tour,’ empowering all women to walk into a space and scatter the place, feel confident and proud of their heritage. I designed two bespoke Ankara prints traditionally used for celebrations, to represent the local artisans in and around Lagos. The Ankara fabric has been cut to a classic silhouette that gives it a modern city girl twist while also utilising unique indigo dying techniques that originate in Northern Nigeria.
There is an incredible wave of fashion talent coming out of Lagos right now – as well as British talent with connections to Lagos. Why do you think we’re seeing this renaissance now?
With the global fashion eye focused on Africa, I would say it has encouraged many of us first-generation Nigerians to travel back. For me when the opportunity came it just made sense. I had been going home more regularly and connecting with creatives on the ground. Brands such as Tokyo James, Mowalola, Orange Culture and creatives such as Stephen Tayo all inspire me. Our culture is LOUD in every aspect. Bold colours, amazing print clashes, anything goes.
How do you use your platform to shine a light on Lagos?
Nigeria had a negative stigma attached to it - mainly because a majority of what was communicated was poverty. I first started going home more regularly four years ago, after I was invited on a trip by Grace Ladoja MBE and Skepta. Nigeria has changed so much. I try to use my platform to show a different narrative. We have a thriving nightlife and music scene with artists such as Wizkid & Burner Boy amazing art galleries and a huge fashion community.
It’s an incredibly tough and competitive climate for emerging fashion labels. How do you make it work?
Since I started the brand back in 2013, the mantra has always been to back the excluded girl. Inclusivity is something we have championed from the very beginning. Our main challenge has been coming up with creative ways to push our product without it getting lost in this new inclusivity trend fast fashion has jumped on. We have managed to do this by being true to our USP, listening to our customer needs and targeting stockists that share our ideals and customer base.