Marching to her own Afrobeat

Buki Akib's luxurious fashion accessories capture the pulsating rhythms of her West African heritage.

From the Series

If Fela Kuti lived in the 21st century and needed the services of his own personal stylist, Buki Akib would fit the bill. The textile and accessories designer was born in Lagos, studied fashion design in London and lives in Accra, Ghana. There she creates lavishly embellished, offbeat fashion that melds her West African heritage with a contemporary outlook that crosses borders.

Her work has garnered an international following. She participated in “Trading Styles & Global Streets” at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt, where she spent a residency designing a collection from their ethnographic anthology. She has shown her work at the Capsule trade show and at edgy Manhattan gallery DRAFTspace in New York, was part of an Urban Outfitters ‘Bazzarr Pop’ store in Los Angeles and took part in Arise Fashion Week 2012 in Lagos.

Transplanted in London, her recent collection of bags was a runaway hit at the cult concept store Darkroom, where they sold out within one day. Called the Wives collection, it was inspired by Kuti’s 27 wives and combined handwoven Yoruba textiles with leatherwork accents tooled by artisans in South Western Nigeria. Details such as sensuous fringing and playful multi-coloured pompoms are a nod to the lustrous world inside the legendary Nigerian showman’s nightclub Shrine.

Kuti’s wives were largely shunned by a society who viewed them as disreputable. Akib revisited their place in history, courting controversy by recasting them as figures of unashamed femininity, interpreting their beauty and sexuality as a form of empowerment.

It’s not the first time her work has invoked Kuti’s extravagant style.

Her graduate collection at Central Saint Martins, where she specialised in knitwear, captured the pulsating rhythms and heady days of the 1970s Lagos and Pan-African music scene over which he reigned. A former actress, it’s not surprising that an air of theatrics pervades her work.

The way Fela’s music spoke to me with such authority and excitement is the way I wanted my collection to speak to people, she says.

Her novel applications of ornate, seductive patterns, rich textures and intense colour shot through with shiny lurex marked the development of a style that was as bold, flambouyant, energetic and unapologetic as the singer himself. And, as an indicator of how fashion and music constantly collide, the collection could not have been more timely given the renewed interest in Afro-beat by a new generation of musicians.

The success of her FELA collection led to the launch of Akib’s eponymous menswear label in 2010, which she has since transitioned into an art-inspired accessories label exploring recurring themes of music, visual art, culture and social commentary.

Akib also draws inspiration from Lagos and London, the cities she has called home – at once similar in their creativity and cultural vibrancy, but offering rich contrasts of chaos versus order, colour versus minimalism.

Her sophisticated designs have garnered attention for the way they transcend classical techniques and textile crafts and approach contemporary functional art.

“I called my label an ‘art’ label because I create textiles that suit any aspect of art,” she says.

Yes, I am a menswear designer but I am so much more than that… I am a storyteller who explores the different mediums in art.

"Menswear gave me a platform to introduce myself as an artist.”

Introduced to knitting during her studies, Akib was reacquainted with traditional weaving methods during trips back to Nigeria. She primarily works with cottons, silks and linens, and texture plays a key role in her work through techniques such as wrapping different yarns to achieve distinct three-dimensional patterns.

She works with highly skilled weavers in Lagos but her production is handled by a small team in Accra (where her late mother was born), whom she considers family. Akib has set up a social enterprise and with government support is seeking to open a local factory that will help reignite the local textile industry and keep traditional artistry alive.

Her observations of a rapidly evolving modern Africa were encapsulated in her 2012 collection, Homecoming. Centred on the character of a well-travelled young man from Lagos returning home to reclaim the city and his identity, the collection tapped into the growing trend of young returnees. In it she explored the tensions between rigid military style and the rebellious African Punk aesthetic, the known and unknown.

Storytelling is at the heart of Akib’s brand, portraying the role her heritage plays within her creative process. She looks to West African customs, culture and spirituality, drawing a direct line to the past – whether to her childhood growing up in the hustle and bustle of Lagos or to the Yoruba ancestral dynasty that inspired the Sons of Odudwa collection of gentlemen’s bags.

Africa at large is her playground. She enjoys discovering its traditions and heritage – what she refers to as “the golden wonders of the African continent”. She says: “Travelling around the continent is like an open book, one is constantly learning.”

Tapiwa Matsinde is a British/Zimbabwean designer, creative consultant and writer in London. She has worked as a graphic designer and a brand guardian in corporate communications for leading international organisations, and writes about contemporary African design and style for her blog Atelier Fifty-Five. She is working on a book profiling designers and makers working on the continent and beyond.

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