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Austin Aimankhu: Im deeply interested in Nigerian culture

Published by The Nation on Sun, 17 Mar 2019

Avant garde fashion designer and founder of Luzol, Austin Aimankhu, believes in promoting Nigerian culture through clothes. He is also the founder of FashionArtFusion, FAF, an annual exhibition of contemporary Nigerian fashion. JOE AGBRO JR. met him and he talked about his journey to fashion, his passion for Nigerian fabrics and how the industry is changing.BOHEMIAN, arty, and raw. Those words are likely to run across your mind upon meeting Austin Aimankhu. With his trademark afro hairstyle, rebellious beards, with sprinklings of grey, his arty side is at once visible. And his fashion style, conservative, as he describes it, is nonetheless catchy. This is not unexpected because he is one of Nigerias top fashion designers.Though Aimankhu studied law at the University of Benin, his love was in the arts, he says, as we settle down at Freedom Park, an arts hub on Broad Street, Lagos. Many people must have thought he was crazy for dumping law for fashion but his heart was not in drafting legal documents, advocating or the boring life of an attorney.I never practiced law because law wasnt really my thing, he said. According to him, his parents thought the arts wasnt worth pursuing.I read law to prove a point to my parents that my love for the arts, for acting and all. You know, the impression those days was that if youre in the arts, youre not bright or something. But for me, somewhere along the line, my interest for law waned and I discovered fashion.Upon finishing his studies, Aimankhu took to fashion, working as a manager for his friend, Kesse Jabari, a renowned Nigerian fashion designer in the 80s and 90sFor me, having a degree is just to be able to find your way around things, he said.You dont have to necessarily practice what you read. An education just makes you to be able to hold your own anywhere you find yourself.When Jabari relocated to the US, Aimankhu felt it was time to set up his own shop. And LUZOL was birthed in 2003.I even bought machines from Kesse Jabari.Fast forward 16 years, he has become a household name in Nigerias couture space, carving a niche for himself by infusing art into fashion.Ive always liked clothes, Ive always liked to do things with clothes, Ive always liked to see when I put something together, how it would look on people.In 2015, Aimankhu started an annual fashion exhibition, FashionArtFusion, marrying fashion and arts to promote Wear Nigeria. He also mandated all the designers on the runway to fuse local fabrics into their designs.I have deep interest for the Nigerian culture, so it drives me in these things I do, he said.Im interested in Nigerian dance, Nigerian art, everything Nigerian culture. Its a tough call because you have to fund all these things yourself, you have to gradually get people to believe in it because were so westernised in our ways and thinking. Its amazing that the white people appreciate what I do more.And with several exhibitions staged already, Aimankhu has come to dig more into Nigerian fabrics. In 2016, he partnered with the federal ministry of information and culture to promote Wear Nigeria, targeted at promoting Nigerian fashion.I realised that (in) Nigeria, we have textile, we have fabrics, we have tie dye, he said.Ghana is known for Kente and Kente is known all over the world. Kente has gone into print. Its on weave. Its on print. Yeah, we have Aso Oke. Who really knows Aso Oke' If youre not in the southwest, you wont know Aso Oke' If you go to Kogi State, you will see fabrics that would blow your mind. If you go to the middle belt, you will see fabrics. If you go to where I come from, Esan, Ogbu weave, Akwete, Akwocha, all of them in the east. Nobody knows them; only the indigenes that are in that environment. Those of them that were born in Lagos, they dont even know that they have this fabric.Advocating the use of local fabrics for the Wear Nigeria initiative, Aimankhu said, if we must showcase our fashion, we must showcase it with our textile. Fashion is a complete package. It has to do with the sewing, the fabric, the creativity, the adornment that comes with it, the costumes, everything. So, if we must showcase it, showcase it with what you have. Fashion is our culture. If we must take our designs outside, lets take our designs with our fabrics.He said it was one of the initiatives aim to empower the local producers of these textiles because its going into extinction gradually. The young ones dont want to learn their fathers trade any more. They come to the cities and do other menial jobs. So, you find out that, if you see the weavers, they are mainly old people. The art is going.He also said that African fabrics are very colourful and even European fashion is tilting towards them. But, some time ago, Aimankhu was noticeable on the Lagos arts circuit for always wearing whites.I wore white for nearly four years, he said.It was a way of branding. I got into it. I loved it and I stayed there. And when I felt I should move out of it, I moved. In as much as I love my whites, it was tough not wearing because it was already part of me but also for the reason of what I do.People were reading meanings to the white. I wasnt interested. I heard comments that I always wear whites. There must be something attached to it and because of my presence in the culture space and my work is also cultural, very African, people were attributing meanings to it.But two years ago, Aimankhu said he became more liberal with his colours after an encounter with the Ooni of Ife, Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi Ojaja II, as part of promoting the Wear Nigeria campaign. Hence, in walking the talk, nowadays, Aimankhu has embraced fusing indigenous fabrics in his own clothes.A lot of my designs, I have to wear them. So, everything I wear, youll see a touch of different thigs Nigerian.In December 2018, Aimankhu launched a ready-to-wear line, Lzee, for males and females.And though Aimankhu still works more with western fabrics for his expatriate clients, he says, I try to fuse because it could be too heavy to just say, everything Nigerian. Theyre coming to like it but its a lot of work to get them to really get these things on, he admitted, saying that more Nigerians are now proud to wear Nigeria so long as its tailored properly, as long as the fit is there.I know that in those days when we started fashion, the average Nigerian man would just have one buba and sokoto for owambe.But he believes he is yet to kick off his fashion.Ive not even started doing fashion, said Aimankhu who is also into food, owning a Chinese restaurant.Ive not scratched the surface of fashion. And fashion is not about noise. We need to get corporate organisations to key into this. Its a huge business.While Aimankhu identifies the challenge of fabrics, lack of funding and dearth of knowledge as challenges to the local growth of fashion business, he is not deterred.You need investors, you need funds. And we have a problem of knowledge here. People think you just start sewing for customers. No. like I advise young people, its very important for you to train as a fashion designer. It helps you. Get the training, get the skills, you have to understand it.To get a solid foothold in the industry in his early years, Aimankhu said he produced more of uniforms and sewing for organisations in addition to couture. But he sees a future beyond that. And he advocates for the country a fashion hub to get fashion designers largely out of couture.A fashion designer does not necessarily need to have tailors. You cant afford it abroad. If we have a fashion hub or have fashion hubs, you just create your designs. If you create your designs, you just take it to these people, they do the sample of what you have. And you take it to the manufacturer and they produce for you.Couture is what we do here. And the money is not in doing couture. The money is in doing mass. It is in having your clothes in different shops and having them sold online, even export them because now that African textiles is getting known. Thats my passion.
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