Nigeria’s Orange Culture is Challenging Masculine Stereotypes

Under the Radar is Highsnobiety’s weekly celebration of upcoming talent. Each week, we’re spotlighting an emerging brand that’s bringing something new to the worlds of streetwear and fashion. 

Self-taught designer Adebayo Oke-Lawal started Orange Culture in his hometown of Lagos, Nigeria in 2011. The origins of his brand started when he was 17 years old, following an essay published online. Titled An Orange Boy, the essay mused on feelings of otherness, acceptance, and vulnerability in Nigeria’s patriarchal culture, and triggered an overwhelming response from people who, like Oke-Lawal, felt like outsiders.

Now, Orange Culture has gone beyond the usual remit of a fashion label, harnessing the power of individuality as a strength (and a design cue) to challenge some of the more unyielding gender stereotypes found in Oke-Lawal’s home country.

Wearable, androgynous menswear is the brand’s calling card, offering a shift from traditional Nigerian socio-cultural customs and expectations. A few years after its launch, the label has expanded considerably, striking a chord with outliers, misfits, and rebels everywhere. In recognition of this, Orange Culture made the shortlist for the LVMH Prize in 2014, as well as being the first Nigerian brand to show at London Fashion Week Men’s.

“People like their brands and their clothes to have a story,” says Oke-Lawal. This is true. In today’s media-fashion-hybrid landscape, a strong narrative is considered essential to lift your brand above the competition, but it has to feel authentic. “Fashion can be used to push important messages and to create conversations,” he continues. “People want clothes that speak about culture, combat political backwardness, and pass on emotions. This allows me as a fashion designer to truly be an artist and to use art to fight, push for love, and to ward off ridiculous stereotypes.”

In spite of Oke-Lawal’s good intentions, Orange Culture’s message wasn’t well-received in Nigeria at first. His first collection was met with less-than-favorable reaction locally. In fact, Oke-Lawal was told he would “perish in hell” for creating such “demonic” clothing. “The backlash was insane and I got quite a lot of hateful messages about trying to change men,” he says.

A look through Orange Culture’s SS18 collection highlights the ways it embraces unconventional styles (for menswear, at least), such as sheer fabrics, satin shirts, and rope-tied pants. What’s especially interesting is how Orange Culture uses traditional Nigerian colors and patterns to subvert the confines of gender.

As Oke-Lawal tells us, people have always liked wearing bright, extravagant colors, but it is his daring cuts, crops, and nuanced designs that tip traditional Nigerian aesthetics into statement pieces to challenge the status quo. A key aspect of Orange Culture’s design ethos is dismantling the codes and conventions of prescribed masculinity, or what Oke-Lawal refers to as “hypermasculinity.”

“What hypermasculinity does is it puts men in boxes of emotional unintelligence,” he says. “It teaches men to believe that vulnerability is weakness and it affects the way men relate with other men — fathers with sons, brothers et al. It even affects men with women because they feel they need to create the impression of hardness, so they close themselves off. It’s a lesson not just for Nigerian men, but for men in general — vulnerability is strength and not weakness.”

Along with Orange Culture, which manufactures all its products locally via ethically sourced local fabric-makers, Nigerian contributions to fashion and music in the last few years cannot be overstated. Afrobeat star Wizkid have been co-opted by Drake on the track “One Dance,” radical fashion publication A Nasty Boy continues to dismantle and question current narratives, Skepta was made a chief in his father’s hometown, and a host of Nigerian streetwear labels are putting Lagos on the fashion map. And at the forefront of everything is an Orange boy.

Orange Culture is stocked in OXOSI, Stranger Lagos, online store VERSE20 and will be opening a pop-up in London later this year.

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