David Ebube Nwachukwu
In the fast-paced world of fashion retail, where fads come and go, one phenomenon has been demonstrated to have an unmatched influence on customers and their shopping habits: the “it dress.” For a brand operating outside of haute couture, having a singular piece resonate with consumers helps cement its status as a bonafide commercial player. The components of a dress that dominates the zeitgeist are simple: individuality, accessibility, and a pattern that cuts across different taste levels.
In 2023, no dress has commanded the attention of fashion girls across the world more than Onalaja’s Zusi dress– a slinky, form-flattering, work of art that singularly represents all the best parts of Creative Director Kanyinsola Onalaja’s work over the years. When her first collection came down the runway at Lagos Fashion Week in 2016, the most arresting thing was her approach to womenswear. Her garments are a synthesis of the many parts of female identity: in part classically feminine and sensual, but ultimately rooted in quality craftsmanship learned while studying design at Istituto Marangoni in London. Much like the rest of her designs, the Zusi’s unique aesthetic reinvents elements of African culture through meticulously crafted appliqués and embellishments atop delicately woven textures.
To see continued, even more significant, success almost a decade into the business, is still a humbling experience for the designer. She says “Truthfully, embarking on this journey has been a lesson in faith, humility, and resilience because the fashion industry is constantly changing, and the demand is changing with it all the time.” Her winning formula for this bestselling piece did not come to fruition overnight. The Zusi dress was initially launched back in 2020, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic with a slightly different look and feel from how it is now. Speaking about this evolution, she says, “I’ve had time to see the differences between when I first launched the Zusi and now. It has this enduring elegance that kind of shines even through the most difficult times, and it’s transformed into a timeless piece.”
Musing about the power of its divine timing, she continues, “In 2020, we weren’t necessarily ready for it back when the world was still locked down, but now everyone’s getting back into the swing of things and celebrating themselves in every way.” Understandably, the Zusi fits right into the collective push for a return to normalcy after a period of global turmoil, as the dress “…epitomizes triumph and adaptability.” It also highlights a very common thread linking some of the world’s biggest industries, particularly fashion– with West Africa’s garment sector estimated to be worth $31 billion and growing.
Making The Zusi
The design itself is consistent with the brand’s ethos, as Onalaja has been firmly anchored in celebrating heritage while embracing modern techniques both in concept and execution. Precious beads and hand-crafted textiles are an integral part of Nigerian, and even West African culture at large, telling stories passed down through generations. These embellishments help her in narrating unique concepts each season. “Incorporating all these elements and materials and textures and three-dimensional elements helps Onalaja pay homage to these traditions and craftsmanship that define our cultural identity while also embracing the diversity of a more globalized world.
For fans of Onalaja’s high-concept, wearable art pieces, the Zusi was a welcome surprise, as the brand’s collections are typically crafted with the precision of a couturier, dreaming up delicate confections for the discerning consumer. She acknowledges the “importance of connecting with a wider audience and making it commercial. It was about making [Onalaja] more accessible to people and still celebrating those key elements that we are known for.” The foundations of the Zusi were an exploration of color and intricate beadwork. Beyond knowing she wanted to create something with signature embellishments, Onalaja was very particular about designing a piece that would be accessible and wearable to women across the world. Size inclusivity in today’s fashion climate can often feel like a buzzword and PR gimmick, with broad size ranges still an anomaly in the luxury retail clothing market. The Zusi was a deliberate attempt to change that. “It is crafted to honor every woman of every size, shape, age, and personality. It takes on a chameleon-like shape, where it embraces every woman’s form perfectly” she notes.
Unpacking the design process, the intricate coral beadwork native to the designer’s Bini heritage laid the foundation for Zusi’s creation. Building on that foundation, the coral color palette from the beads, as well as the diverse coral textures found in nature informed the patterns of the print. The designer asked herself multiple questions about the significance of coral in itself: “How is coral represented in nature?” as well as “What are the other aspects of coral typically unnoticed?” Following this deep dive, the final print pattern pays homage to the intricate formations and the complex structures of coral reefs, while the beading mimics the clustered style, organic shapes, and arrangements that make up the aquatic floor’s ecosystem. The resulting effect is a shimmering celebratory number not far off from the colorful glow seen when sunlight reaches the reefs.
Onalaja points out how the placement of the stunning clustered beadwork does not follow a particular pattern, making each dress purchased a unique one-off for consumers. Opting for a slow luxury fashion approach, the production process is a masterclass in ethical manufacturing, eliminating textile waste through organic beading as well as a strictly pre-order operations process. “For me, the goal was to incorporate abstract shapes, factual patterns and just evoke a sense of wonder and depth within each piece. No two Zusi dresses are the same.”
Relaunching the Zusi
In naming the dress, the designer waded through various African names and was instantly drawn to Zusi. Unbeknownst to her until the relaunch, the name Zusi was actually an abbreviation of a Bini name, Omozusi, which translates to a child who brings honour and fame to the family. Another product of the piece’s divine timing, the name ties into the symbolism of the coral beads while representing the global acclaim the dress has received in the years since.
Despite the wins, there were a few challenges during the conception of the Zusi dress. Dealing with supply chains and local artisans in the middle of COVID were two significant concerns. “We were able to persevere and really adapt to the circumstances by leveraging technology, engaging in virtual collaborations with artisans as well as utilizing other digital resources to finish production”, she remarks.“That’s why I will always say, the Zusi, just for me, really was a symbol of resilience and beauty.”
The relaunch was a massive success, thanks in part to the ‘piece de resistance’ nature of the design as well as the power of building and nurturing her online community of consumers. “I think as our community continues to expand and the dress evolves in design, it kind of allows the customer to play a customization role in the design process.” This continuous process of customer feedback has resulted in a collaborative approach between Onalaja and the wearer, to take the design several notches further. The power of word-of-mouth referral from a highly satisfied community has been a key part of the marketing success of the Zusi dress thus far, championing the dress as a must-have for every woman’s special day.
“It’s a dress for everyone, and getting to see different women wear it with such pride and confidence means we’ve achieved the original intention of the piece”.
David Ebube Nwachukwu is a writer, strategic communications professional, and social innovator passionate about the development of West Africa’s fashion economy and policies for ethical garment ecosystems. He is also the Vice Curator of the Abuja Global Shapers Community, an initiative of the World Economic Forum.