The age of the ‘active muse’ is over; its time for Nigerian stylists to get serious

stylist

At the 2017 and 2018 Lagos Fashion Week (LFWNG) showcases, commissioned stylists were conspicuously absent. Their absence was obvious because LFWNG is arguably the biggest platform for fashion creatives to make a statement about their work, and the official start of the Nigerian fashion calendar.  At fittings, most designers brought their own personal or professional stylists to talk through how they wanted their models dressed and individual pieces paired. The designers who didn’t bring their own stylists relied upon the discerning eye of Joan Reidy, the house stylist and showrunner who is part of the New York team flown in to run a call of show for LFWNG’s shows for the last two years. Many of the stylists who came with the designers for fittings ironically had all worked with LFWNG in an official capacity in the past, and I suspect were not invited for subsequent seasons because they hadn’t proved themselves an invaluable part of the backstage production process.

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In this regard, LFWNG is actually a late adopter. The GTB Fashion Weekend has always used a ‘head stylist’ who is in charge of styling and fitting all the designers who showcase at their events, and a singular vision determined by the showrunner is largely executed. This is the same for Africa Fashion Week Nigeria and the Lagos Bridal Fashion Week, the two other major showcase events in the country.

While there are no official statements explaining why independent stylists aren’t invited to work on the shows, a few hypotheses are readily available. For one, styling largely revolves around the art of image producing; providing the unique items that pull together a look. For as long as these fashion weeks have been run, they have had to purchase in bulk, shoes and other accessories needed for the shows. This is traditionally a stylist’s purview and their unwillingness or inability to take on the financial burden of either buying or loaning accessories needed to distinguish individual designer collections makes them redundant to designers and the showcases.

Another way in which Nigerian stylists face redundancy is in the amount of influence they wield in castings. Traditionally, fashion castings are done by the creative director of the label showing a collection and the stylist they have hired execute their vision. This is to ensure that both parties can choose girls that match the designer’s vision and the stylist’s plan to execute that vision. Choosing models mean working as a liaison between agencies and labels and working out the details of model sizing and accessorizing, an intersection that grants stylists a lot of influence over modeling careers.

Here, models for fashion events are chosen via a major blind casting, and the selected models are split into pools with a view to largely match the showcase’s idea of diversity/specificity, not the designer or the stylist. Designers work with a pre-assigned pool of models and have to fit their collection ideas to accommodate those models. Sans superficial suggestions, stylists have little to no influence on how the eventual show works.

This is not to say that the fashion weeks that operate in Nigeria are working to undermine stylists. Designers here are self-funded and simply do not have a budget for hiring exclusive models or any of the fanfare that is the norm in established fashion markets. Fashion Weeks operate as non-profit organizations, funding the showcases through grants and sponsorships and working to provide every designer with the same set of resources and opportunities to introduce their work to prospective fashion buyers and industry press. Because of how these fashion weeks are forced to operate, they are quick to find and eliminate redundancies, and stylists remain the weakest link in the show cycle.

If a part of the machine is faulty, progress stagnates at all levels. In October 2017, Lisa Folawiyo debuted a collection that celebrated Igbo cultural dress, specifically the Isi-Agu. A Nigerian mass-market designer Stvn Wayne had dressed a number of influencers in his own iteration of Isi-Agu released a month before for that year’s showcase, a coincidence that should have suggested that Igbo cultural markers would become a major trend. When the trend eventually exploded, gaining mass market appeal via cheap printed t-shirts, Stvn Wayne and Lisa Folawiyo’s direct or indirect influence on how the trend gained mass appeal was lost due to poor documentation. This is one of the rare instances where you see a direct connection between Nigerian designers and a viral trend specific to our culture and industry, and how the dearth of objective stylists meant neither designer got to capitalize on or profit off their originality.

In the age of social media, it is no longer enough to have a body of work, there must also be documented evidence that as a stylist you have access; not just to designers but also to showrunners at Fashion Weeks and production crews at entertainment events. As with every other creative enterprise, stylists must create a vibrant personal brand and nurture it consistently, to get the kind of work that matters. So stylists here, rather than banding together and creating value, find other ways to participate, albeit passively, during these Fashion Weeks. Strategic selfies and Instagram stories help project a narrative that they are somehow involved in the show’s proceedings. They go to great lengths to push this narrative because they desire visibility.

This might explain why we have a rash of Instagram stylists, versed in the art of the moody, grainy filtered collage and savvy about showing off their personal style as a substitute for an actual cohesive body of work. It may also explain why our already pre-established stylists are ruining their bona fides to chase clout.

If there are so few avenues for legitimate industry recognition, why is the saturation of this niche happening and why does it wield less influence the more it grows?

Styling (unlike other aspects of the fashion and beauty industry) in Nigeria is a largely informal vocation. Creatives drift into styling after their own personal fashion choices generate public interest. There are no official markers to distinguish a good stylist from a mediocre one other than audience feedback and the opinion of their creative peers. The barrier to entry is non-existent (you only need access to clothes and confidence) and there are few industry gatekeepers to call erring stylists to order. A prime example of how this can play out is the ‘House of Maliq’ online magazine and its long-standing trend of debuting questionable covers with sub-par styling work. It is common knowledge that the stylists the magazine use deliver poor work, but because the magazine has no real incentives to become commercially viable, there is no sense of urgency to fix its styling problems.  

Virality also skewers the politics of styling today. New entrants into the field understand that good styling might or might not draw attention but a bad look will always make headlines. Actresses like Susan Peters and stylists like Toyin Lawani have turned bad styling into an art form, generating days of conversation post celebrity events off a single look. But bad styling is not a phenomenon exclusive to Nigerian fashion. Every other week, we cycle through a scandal where a major brand makes styling decisions that target a minority or stir racial, mental health or feminist controversy. Visibility has been weaponized and stylists manipulate our need to weigh in on public discourse to ‘center’ their work and keep themselves in the public eye.

All of this would be forgivable if these men and women didn’t create a ripple effect that extends beyond their immediate creative circles. Used within appropriate contexts, the work of a stylist demystifies a designer’s creative process and makes a collection accessible to its audience. It takes the designer’s high-end designs and provides a conduit for them to become part of a much larger conversation. Stylists should also be to discern what pieces from a designer’s collection will find buying audiences and help designers find commercially viable ways to translate conceptual ideas into ready to wear iterations without losing any signature detailing or design quirks. Ezinne Chinkata is a contemporary example of how this can work in Nigeria, her retail brand Zinkata combines her personal style, a comprehensive understanding of the brands she represents and curatorial eye to foster a viable brand and business.

Many of our popular stylists today are at best ‘active muses’; able only to inspire designers to create pieces that complement the stylist’s personal brand and aesthetic. At worst, they are celebrities who make their name by pulling clothes from designers for their own personal use and blanketing their actions as styling. It is not uncommon for fashion consumers to see a look book by an in-demand Nigerian stylist, recognize the stylist’s signature style and not be able to tell you the designer whose work the look book is supposed to highlight. It is also common to see stylists use clothing pulled for clients for their own personal photoshoots, and expect the designer to be thrilled that the stylist, has centered him/herself using a design label’s work.

The reality is this, there is no Nigerian stylist who has become such an integral part of our fashion iconography that their input cannot be ignored or undercut. There is no one with such a stellar body of work that designers, showrunners and media organizations looking to dabble in fashion feel compelled to defer to them in matters of fashion. Some might look at this as an indictment on stylists, but I see it as an opportunity. There is a vacuum to fill. 

Nigeria desperately needs stylists. Real ones. Many design labels are unable to reach mass audiences because there are no stylists up to the challenge of deconstructing their design ideas into easily digestible iterations that the average Nigerian can aspire to. There are too few Nigerian stylists with the necessary influence to help designers curate their collection ideas and show only the most cohesive, commercially viable and boundary-pushing pieces. There are too few Nigerian stylists whose work commands such authority, they are able to influence trends and push important conversations.

The age of the ‘active muse’ is over. We have to make it so; the stakes are too high otherwise.

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