All over the world, people have used fashion to push a narrative and now, the Nigerian fashion industry is experiencing its very own debate on gender fluidity.
As our fashion industry constantly evolves, we are witnessing the idea of 'menswear' which is being boldly challenged by a generation of new designers and creatives intent on blurring boundaries and refusing to be constructed by societal norms.
For decades, women have embraced gender fluidity with relative ease by wearing clothes that are seen as traditionally ‘masculine’. The foray into gender fluid dressing for men, however, is more complex and generally, more stigmatised, especially in the context of traditional African culture.
In a typical Nigerian cultural setting a boy isn't allowed to wear makeup, or allowed to wear his hair a particular way or dress in a feminine manner. There are certain roles and behaviors assigned to each gender from birth that we grow up with and internalise. Any deviation from that behaviour elicits heavy criticism and sparks outrage.
Orange Culture is a brand that has been pushing that narrative steadily for the last few years. Creative Director, Adebayo Oke-Lawal, a style icon in his own right, has built Orange Culture into a beacon of light for the modern Nigerian man who refuses to be constrained by societal expectations of what men should wear, do and be.
According to Adebayo, “The ‘Orange Culture man’ is definitely adventurous and his lifestyle is creative, not necessarily because of his job but because he has a lifestyle that is constantly tapping into creativity.
And when he is buying clothes he likes clothes that tell a story. I would say an Orange culture man is emotional because he wants to feel rather than just wear a garment. He wants to feel and hear what the garment is about. He is open-minded and a forward thinker. I would sum him up as a modern day African man.
Androgyny is really just about fluidity and the idea that pieces can be passed between men and women. It is about easy conversion. It’s a good business strategy as you’re easily covering a wider market.
For us we are really concerned with the softness that I have already talked about that in African culture is a trait only afforded to women. We are telling people that actually that vulnerability exists in a man as well and that does not take anything away from his manhood.
If we say a woman was taken from a man’s rib, we also then must accept that her femininity also exists in him and that should be celebrated. He should be allowed to tap into these emotions that we have deemed feminine without his masculinity being called into question. That’s the sort of androgyny we like to explore. We are pulling from the ‘feminine’ softness and putting into masculinity.”
When it comes to freedom of expression, women undoubtedly have the caveat on that especially in the African culture. Be it through our ever changing hair or ability to wear what we like (African values on modesty notwithstanding).
To be a man is far more rigid.
However, the younger generation are taking it upon themselves to break down all that past generations have upheld about male and female identities. They are ready to challenge and break down those barriers and refuse to be bound to one idea of masculinity.
There is a conversation that allows for a man to experience all sorts of emotions. It is also allowing men to explore fashion in a different way and enter realms that have traditionally been female. And now everyone wants to wear everything.
That divisive line that used to be so black and defined is becoming grey. People are no longer afraid to express their most authentic selves and in doing so, have created an atmosphere that delimits expression.
The fashion industry is responding to this rallying call. It is offering people a way to express and escape and feel.
Gender fluidity takes center stage in Nigerian publication ‘A Nasty Boy' founded by the inimitable and fiercely brave Richard Akuson. Through the publication, Akuson has challenged the limiting gender norms that Nigerians abide by and has done so through provocative imagery and unapologetic rhetoric. In a country where homosexuality is punishable by 14 years in prison, the defiance of the publication is admirable.
In giving a voice to the voiceless and supporting the LGBTQ community in Nigeria, the publication is giving a much-needed middle finger to the extreme and outdated laws surrounding the LGBTQ community.
In pushing the idea of gender-fluidity, Richard is cleverly opening the doors to the conversation of alternative lifestyles, giving the LGBTQ a safe space, a platform with which to express themselves without explicitly 'promoting' homosexuality.
The entire publication subconsciously encourages its audience to read between the lines.
The Observers writes, "A Nasty Boy’s fashion shoots regularly picture male models in make-up and womenswear, and female models in men’s clothing. One photo story shows a bare-chested man made up with shiny lip gloss and glitter frosting his cheekbones, staring defiantly at the camera; another features two men posing on a beach, oozing sex appeal in sequinned dresses and form-fitting cigarette trousers. The images are glossy and rebellious, and even more so in a country like Nigeria, a strongly religious society where androgyny and cross-dressing are often associated with homosexuality, which is a crime in Nigeria."
In an interview with The Observers, Richard Akuson is adamant that the magazine is not a “gay magazine” specifically but he created it to champion youth culture in the country and find young, new talent with a message to send.
“A lot of the models we work with are excited to explore the themes that we are interested in. We worked with one model for whom it was like escapism. It was exciting: he got to be a different person. Often models are very interested in sartorial experimentation – they might be heterosexual but sartorially curious about gender queerness and dressing in clothes that are typically girly.
I wouldn’t say that the people we work with are gay or part of an LGBTQ community. The definition of masculinity and femininity is very exclusive and very singular in the sense that there’s never room for people who don’t fit, or people who stand out. I have always believed that fashion could be used as a medium to do so much more.
Gender fluidity is not criminalised in the country like homosexuality is. Men are able to cross-dress for the purpose of entertainment. But it is stigmatised because it is associated with your sexuality. It’s controversial in a hostile country like this. Celebrities like Denrele and Bobrisky have been very controversial, but lots of followers love them for what they do, and attitudes towards gender are evolving.
People are beginning to be more open to the idea that people can be gender-fluid. I have seen a lot of Nigerian men wearing shoes or apparel that is typically meant for the female gender. And they’re not thinking about it in that way, but they just want to wear what they want. So, the landscape around how people see these alternative lifestyles is changing, even in such a religious country that is intolerant of LGBTQ people.”
According to writer and activist, Munachim Amah, 'Our concept of gender and sexuality are simply outdated. There is so much we have to unlearn and relearn about the diverse and valid experiences we all experience within gender and sexuality.'
Until then, the many who don’t fit into the ‘accepted’ concepts of gender and sexuality often sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the people in their lives and society.
As Nigerians continue along their journey to enlightenment and understanding of alternative lifestyles, we will continue to use the medium of fashion to break down the barriers that not only limit our creativity and freedom of expression but that continuously prevent people from living their own truths.