'Clothes as beautiful inside as they are outside'

A model adorned in kudu horns and large red, white and black pom-poms around his chest, wrists and ankles over colourful cloth took to the ramp to launch Bunmi Koko’s Autumn/Winter collection at Africa Fashion Week on July 1. The occasion: to celebrate female empowerment and domination.

Masquerades, also called mmanwu or mmuo (masked spirits) are a common cultural practice in south-eastern Nigeria, reserved for Igbo men.

We head to Africa Fashion Week 2010 and chat to Nigerian fashion label Bunmi Koko as they launch their Autumn/Winter collection. Creative Director Bunmi Olaye and partner Francis Udom’s unique clothing line celebrates female empowerment and domination.
Through the help of the masquer, invisible spirits are made physically tangible so as to entertain, commend achievers, reprimand evil-doers or grace a festival.

Bunmi Olaye, the creative director of Bunmi Koko, said she was told about the ekpe [leopard] masquerade from Calabar, south-east of Nigeria, by her partner Francis Udom, but because of the sacredness of the ritual they were unable to use it.

“It’s from a men’s only cult and we are not actually allowed to bring that out of Nigeria, so we used something similar, which is a bit more playful, called the Horn Masquerade,” Olaye told the Mail & Guardian after the show at the Sandton Convention Centre.

“But it’s the same concept with the collection. The pom-poms and the beads are all part of the interpretation, with the staffs held by the models representing power.”

Olaye’s partnership with Udom—who comes from an engineering background—has resulted in the pair producing angular, innovative designs. Their union has also led to the creation of what they term “longitudinal caissons”: a new method of creating tubular silhouettes in fabric.

The Matriarchy
“The masquerade used to govern people in Nigeria so we wanted to use that to show power. That’s why the collection is called the matriarchy. It’s all about female empowerment and we linked that to Mary Slessor, who was a Scottish missionary who went to Nigeria during the Victorian times.”

Slessor became a missionary in Calabar, an area where no European had apparently set foot before. She lived with the people of the area and learned their languages, adopting children and later becoming the first female magistrate in the British Empire.

This explains the collection’s Victorian silhouettes, where power dressing is taken to a new level with the help of elaborate shoulders, fabric reminiscent of leopard skin and oversized pom-poms, made from rayon raffia to create drama. The models also wore black and gold feathered masks obscuring their faces to emulate the masquerades.

Olaye spent most of her childhood in Ibadan in Nigeria but moved to the United Kingdom at the age of 14 to study. She holds a national diploma in art and design and a design and marketing Degree from the University of East London.

She has made clothes for former Spice Girl Mel B, with the singer recently wearing a silk cocktail blouse and wool skirt from Bunmi Koko’s 2010 Geisha Reform Collection at the 2010 Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards.

Olaye has worked with couture designers Allison Rodger and the late Alexander McQueen and has worked for fashion labels Prada and Louis Vuitton.

Beautiful inside as they are outside
Olaye and Udom’s union inspired them to start Bunmi Koko, using Bunmi’s name, which means “God gave me” and his nickname for her—Koko—meaning “my other half”.

Udom says his background in management and engineering, working for major oil and gas companies in Scotland, gives Bunmi Koko “very good management skills as every member of our staff are very valued”. This, he said, motivates them to do a lot of work.

“We research everything and are very below the surface. We have a very long-term plan in the business, in not only fashion but in illustrations.”

“We look into every detail. Like the number of threads. Our garments are as beautiful inside as they are outside.”

The partners have big plans for Bunmi Koko and intend extending the brand.

“Bunmi Koko is going to be a lifestyle brand. At the moment we are just concentrating on women’s wear. However in the future we will evolve into menswear and beauty products because we want to be one of the biggest designers,” Udom told the M&G.

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