Nigerian fashion designer Banke Kuku is paving the way for African fashion

Designer Diaries: meet Banke Lawson, the Lagos designer reclaiming the narrative of African fashion

In our monthly series, Designer Diaries, digital fashion writer Naomi May chats to the faces behind some of fashion’s buzziest brands to pick their brains on the future of fashion and what an average day looks like for them.   

In case you needed any more proof of Africa’s flourishing fashion scene, one need only take a mere glance at the industry for proof of its prevalence.

Not only is an exhibition on the continent’s eclectic style set to be one of the Victoria & Albert museum’s leading shows next summer, but several of Africa’s breakout stars have also been awarded many of fashion’s most coveted awards in recent years, most notably South African designer Thebe Magugu, who won the LVMH prize in 2019.  

Another style czar that’s ascending through the ranks is Nigerian Banke Lawson, whose namesake label Banke Kuku she founded in 2011 after returning to Lagos following a childhood spent in London.  

Nigerian fashion designer Banke Kuku is paving the way for African fashion
A portrait of Banke Kuku.

It was precisely the fusion of western fashion that inspired her to marry her inherited love of African patterns with a healthy helping of British sensibility. The result is Banke Kuku, a label that binds wearable wares – think co-ordinated two-pieces – with outre embellishments, including lashings of primary-coloured feathers. With material sourced from Italy and pieces manufactured in Lagos, Lawson’s brand is one that’s not only celebrating its founder’s heritage, but is also succeeding at carving a community of artisans on home soil.

“I believe that people are starting to see the range of talent coming out of the African fashion arena,” Lawson tells Stylist. “And, most importantly, African designers are sharing stories from the continent through design in very sophisticated ways.” 

We caught up with Lawson to chat all things Banke Kuku and what the future holds for Lagos’ buzziest brand.

What does an average day look like for you?

There is no such thing as an average day for me and that’s why I love what I do. In fact, there are hardly enough hours in the day for me – 7pm always comes around too quickly. I try to spend most of my weekday afternoons in my factory in Lagos, working closely with local artisans to ensure that each piece is delivered to highest standard. I also love to stop by my store in Ikoyi to catch up with my team and to maintain personal relationships with my customers, which is an integral part of the brand. 

Do you have any daily rituals that get your creative juices flowing?

I love to go for long walks in the morning, which gives me time to meditate, speak to God and visualise what I’m trying to create. I consider myself a spiritual person so that time to myself in the morning is super important. I also love to look through design and fashion magazines for inspiration, which reminds me of my days studying at Chelsea College of Art when I would immerse myself in all things design. 

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Nigerian fashion designer Banke Kuku is paving the way for African fashion
Banke Kuku

What was your journey into fashion?

My career in fashion has always been inevitable, mostly because I’m my happiest when I’m being creative. After studying textile design in the UK, I began my career as a designer, consulting for different brands, both in Africa and internationally. I worked in the industry for 12 years before launching my eponymous label in 2017 and would say it’s the best decision I’ve made to date. 

Did you have any fears about starting your own brand?

Not at all. It started very organically. While working with other brands, I worked on Banke Kuku on the side. At that time, it was more of a lifestyle brand. I sold lifestyle items such as cushions and scarves. The fashion arm of the business started with pyjamas because I wanted to create a product that would complement my lifestyle pieces, so elevated loungewear was the obvious direction to take.

Let’s say you’re prepping for a new piece – what’s the first step on your journey of designing it?

I have to be in the right headspace to design a new piece. I believe that I create the best designs when I am mentally at peace. I always start with creating the textile prints and let the rest follow. 

Where do you turn for inspiration?

I take inspiration from things that give me peace and joy, such as animals and nature. My most recent collection is inspired by 1970s Nigeria. While that time came with its struggles, it was also a very exciting time for fashion, music and the arts.

What are some misconceptions about African fashion that you would like to change?

In the past few years, African fashion has gained great recognition globally and is beginning to have a strong foot in a lot of commercial retail channels. I believe that people are starting to see the range of talent coming out of the African fashion arena and most importantly African designers are sharing stories from the continent through design in very sophisticated ways. We are finally sharing our own narrative, rather than having it told for us, which is a major step forward.

In terms of misconceptions, there are some who see African fashion as just one style of fashion. The reality is that African fashion incorporates so many different techniques and styles, and we have an abundance of talent coming out from the continent. 

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Nigerian fashion designer Banke Kuku is paving the way for African fashion
Banke Kuku

What are some of the key changes that you’ve seen happen in the Lagos fashion scene?

The Lagos fashion industry is constantly growing and evolving. This is something that the world is starting to take notice of and interest in. Designers are beginning to collaborate in different, exciting ways, and global brands are also discovering new ways to support emerging talent. I am really looking forward to seeing what the future holds for Nigerian creatives in the fashion space.

If you could go back in time and give your younger self a piece of advice – what would it be?

Be patient. Good things take time.

What does the future for Banke Kuku hold?

We want to continue to develop our products and have more global accessibility. It was an honour to showcase our spring/summer 2022 collection at Lagos Fashion Week; the platform opened so many doors for us. We have a pop-up at Soho House in White City in December, which I am looking forward to; our last pop-up there was a sell out so I can’t wait to see people’s reaction to the new collection. We are also being stocked on Moda Operandi for the first time ever, which is a huge step forward for the brand. 

We will also be at Dubai Expo 2020 with Arise Fashion Week to showcase the new collection and some bespoke pieces for the Middle Eastern market, which will be our first time in the region so that is super exciting. 

Overall, I hope the brand continues to grow, and that we can continue to discover new ways to be sustainable and support local communities in Africa. I also want us to continue to collaborate and make unique connections with customers, creatives and brands from all over the world. 

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Images: courtesy of Banke Kuku.