It’s 1998, the House of Deola Sagoe is a decade into the fashion business and on the brink of global stardom after a showstopping collection at M-Net’s Face of Africa. Yet, Ms. Deola Ade-Ojo isn’t dwelling on the accolades but thinking of ways to elevate industry practices on the continent. That same year, the legendary designer began to hatch her masterplan to reinvent the western Nigerian fabric, aso-oke, to rival global luxury counterparts and make the traditionally hard texture more wearable. A vision that broke ground twenty years later, it’s now the ultimate status symbol for brides in high society both home and abroad. Naming the fabric Komole–meaning to dance– Ms. Ade-Ojo delivered an ode to the celebratory nature of her culture and reverence for the art of dressing up.
How did she pull it off? For starters, the designer has never been one to shy away from a challenge. Famously known to have eschewed a career in finance at the behest of her father, business magnate Chief Michael Ade-Ojo– the budding designer joined her mother’s fashion business with a plan to expand the label’s offerings. Slowly building her brand from its 1989 launch, her design ethos has consistently prioritized intricate patterns, masterful details, and an exploration of fabrics native to her Nigerian heritage. Early collections saw her juxtapose indigenous textiles like aso-oke and adire with lace, chantilly, taffeta, and silk–pushing our fabric to the fore in ways never seen before at the time. This turned into an ongoing experiment as the years went on, manipulating the woven fabric to discover new possibilities. Media innovator and founder of the continent’s largest fashion directory, Wadami Amolegbe cites “Deola has always been consistent with innovation. Since the launch of HauteFashionAfrica.com in 2006–which she was a major inspiration for its kick-off–it’s been growth after growth, setting very high standards with her use of technology to infuse modernity into the core of our traditional aso-oke fabric without compromising its authenticity.”
Fast forward to 2012 and the first Komole Collection presented at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week South Africa, the first results of her design experiment were revealed. The upscale occasion wear was crafted with combinations of laser-cut lace and her perfected komole fabric, an innovative weave of aso-oke “shot-through” silk. At the time, the South African commercial response wasn’t as rapturous as expected and the subsequent Nigerian launch in 2013 yielded similar reactions. This of course didn’t stop the designer as she’d always been ahead of the curve. Her famous couture showing as the first black woman to show at Alta Roma in 2004 took years to catch on. After going back to the drawing board, Deola decided to gauge the New York reaction to her Komole techniques by hosting a solo show where she broke new ground for being the first Nigerian to do so. Going with fully western styling and Japanese motifs, the Komole series was revamped to widespread acclaim. Still, the commercial bough hadn’t been broken.
Rewriting the Komole brand codes in 2016, Deola Sagoe made a pivot into the luxury bridal market, highlighting the technique and manufacturing process in advertising for the Komole Kandids Series 2. At the time, the Nigerian bridal market was just going through a boom spurred by the advent of technology via blogs and social media. A rising millennial generation had begun tapping into a previously overlooked industry and contributing to the Nigerian economy in the process, with numerous couples spending upwards of $2 million per wedding as of 2014. While makeup artists, hairstylists, and event planners had begun creating exclusive experiences on the level of their global luxury counterparts– the scene was missing a key component: garments that evoked the same level of opulence. Not just white wedding dresses in the basic sense, but a homegrown feel that no Parisian or Middle Eastern designer could ever truly replicate.
This is where Ms. Ade-Ojo struck gold. Not only was this a genius idea, but it was also totally in sync with the original 1998 idea of having textiles to rival imported luxury fabric. Komole was not only made to exist in parallel but ultimately to usurp the European styles we had long held dear. Following the launch of the Teintes De Bijoux collection in 2018, everyone wanted in on the Komole. With the price range starting from N1.5 million, you’d think consumers would be turned off, but Nigerians have an affinity for being best in show– especially at weddings. A celebratory culture–known for shelling out thousands of dollars in times past for imported fabrics–now has textiles that not only evoke the best parts of foreign lace counterparts but trump them with designs specifically tailored to African sizing. Deola prides herself in being a “design cosmetic surgeon” creating hourglass shapes through virtuoso artistry. Colors, weaves, and motifs are unique to each bride, staying true to the methods of haute couture. The price points also work because of the painstaking process it takes to develop the fabric. Just like Chanel’s iconic couture tweed looks, a huge chunk of the design is done by hand and the local artisans who have truly mastered the innovative art form are a limited few and a direct result of the unregulated nature of the country’s textiles sector.
While the pandemic hit the wedding market hard for a large part of 2020, forcing families to forgo large gatherings, the Komole never stopped being a ceremonial centerpiece for each bride. With our collective attention fixated on our screens, an online resurgence in the Komole’s popularity commenced, creating a longing for “outside and owambes”. Wadami Amolegbe quips “The pandemic really allowed us to look inward, appreciate our own culture, craft, and heritage. I’d like us to continue to create for us first. That’s one of the things that’s so amazing about the Komole. It is not created for an external market. This is being created for us. For our lifestyle. If the international market finds it appealing, then that’s great too.”
David Nwachukwu is a writer, designer, and communications consultant. On the days when he isn’t perfecting his self-described “game-changing” tofu recipes or heckling Normani some music, he’s most likely writing about fashion and culture.
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