Resisting Stereotypes

Lagos-based fashion brand Orange Culture is swiftly redefining the role of gender in clothing, with colourful, timeless pieces that defy categorisation.

Established in 2011, Orange Culture (OC) – founded by Adebayo Oke-Lawal – subverts and challenges wider gender expectations, based on the belief that these cultural associations serve no purpose in personal expression. “The idea that a colour or type of clothing affects masculinity made me want to spark new conversations,” Oke-Lawal explains of OC’s ethos – a belief that manifests in thoughtfully rendered garments that strike a teetering balance between traditional male and female codes. Instead, they offer something entirely refreshing. “I think that’s what androgyny does,” he continues, “it questions unhealthy stereotypes.” 

Make no mistake: Oke-Lawal and OC are not riding the cresting wave of genderless fashion that has recently entered into the lexicon of industry buzzwords. For the past few years, there have been multiple trends and movements towards an open-minded and more diverse fashion industry. H&M and Zara launched unisex lines in 2017; Stefano Pilati, former Creative Director of Ermenegildo Zegna and Yves Saint Laurent introduced the Random Identities collection that same year; even Celine Dion is behind a unisex clothing line for children, launched in 2018. But mass market interpretations can be heavy-handed or miss the point entirely, save for a few thoughtful interpretations. Even Vogue US was forced to apologise when a cover story featuring Zayn Malik and Gigi Hadid – a cis heterosexual couple wearing matching men’s suits under the title Gigi Hadid and Zayn Malik Are Part of a New Generation Embracing Gender Fluidity – failed to express the concept in its entirety. When it comes to contemporary menswear, there has, for some part, been much less experimentation with colours, forms, shapes and lines, and indeed, who is wearing it. Through his designs, Oke-Lawal wants to change that – and the motivation to do so goes back much farther than any recent developments in the industry.

“I used to write as a teenager,” Oke-Lawal explains of the brand name and its incurring goals, “I wrote an article called The Orange Boy, which was about being a different type of boy growing up in a society where hyper-masculinity was being celebrated. It was a published article and people wrote to me saying they were inspired to be orange boys and girls and to stand for their individuality. So when I founded the company, I wanted it to be a commemoration of the idea that difference is something to be proud of – I envisaged a welcoming world, rather than ones which ostracises people.”

The androgynous collections the OC team produce each season do their part to expand on this ethos of acceptance. The goal is to dissolve the strands of hyper and toxic masculinity that Oke-Lawal sees in Nigeria. “It has had quite a destructive impact on society,” he notes of the current political climate, where homosexuality is still punishable by law and the pressure to conform to traditional gender roles is still acutely felt, even by the free-thinking creatives that flock to Lagos. “OC, over the past eight years, has driven that conversation and has helped people think about it,” he says. 

Of course, that dialogue has many voices. Oke-Lawal is part of a rising tide of artists that are pointing their energies in the direction of the country’s ingrained prejudice and unbalanced gender divide. Most famously, this is exemplified by renowned writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of We Should All Be Feminists (2014). Adichie’s work pokes holes in the country’s dominant political rhetoric: that boys should be strong and unflinching, whilst women, in turn, subservient. She writes: “We do a great disservice to boys in how we raise them. We stifle the humanity. We define masculinity in a very narrow way. It is a hard, small cage, and we put boys inside it. We teach them to be afraid of fear, of weakness, of vulnerability … to mask their true selves because they have to be, in Nigerian-speak – a hard man.”

In a similar vein, Lagos-based magazine A Nasty Boy tackles the issue by channeling resistance through its editorial. Under the tagline “Examining Queerness in Nigeria,” the publication weaves together the intersections of beauty and trauma along the road to self-acceptance in a more expansive culture. This takes the form of first-person essays, as well as thoughtful photos and films that document growing up within a country that hasn’t always accepted difference. A recent photoessay by Terna Iwar entitled No Place to Call Home recounts growing up in Nigeria as gender fluid: “Boys who dress outside their gender are turned into caricatures in the media. They are taunted for wearing dresses and makeup. Back here, choice is only an idea that a lot of us strive for, and once different from the norm, such a person becomes a victim of a society like ours that does not leave room for others to thrive.” 

The commemoration of these figures, alongside the refusal of the culture Adichie describes – the insistence on strength, on shutting down emotions, on gritting one’s teeth in the face of all pain – is the future Oke-Lawal and OC are working towards. “My brand is dedicated to creating clothes that combat and connect audiences to the beauty of my Nigerian background.” Questioning and, eventually, rewriting the country’s legacy through fashion, OC’s collections are telling a wider story about acceptance and celebrating individuality – provoking new narratives through the lens of clean lines, colourful materials and enigmatic garments.

Though design may have always been an end goal, Oke-Lawal’s upbringing chartered a varied course before founding the label. “I loved watching my mum and sisters dress up,” he recounts of his childhood in Lagos, “I’d sketch on everything in school. The times when I felt happiest was when I was expressing myself through fashion.” His career then started as a peripatetic intern, trying his hand at producing concerts and shows, volunteering for a number of designers until finding his footing through magazines. Following one particularly inspiring placement, Oke-Lawal became the fashion editor at WOW, a local lifestyle and entertainment publication. He went on to hold the position for two years, a timeframe in which he honed his skills of visual storytelling, gaining knowledge about the industry just as he had begun – through the printed page.

By 2011, Oke-Lawal had saved up enough money to launch his own company. The first collection was shown on the runway of Lagos Fashion Week that year in a presentation he states as “highly controversial.” Despite the pushback from conservative detractors, the designer marched forward with clothes that unapologetically celebrated the fluidity of gender through bold, expressive garments. And the rest, so far, is history: OC has approached each season with an unconventional and widely imaginative mindset. The resulting lines resist classification. Collared shirts, for example, are cut long, falling on the border between a dress and traditional men’s shirting. Trousers are laced up in the front like corsets, creating a body-hugging look only shielded by a long tucked in shirt. Waists are cinched with long kimono-style ribbons; frills ring necklines and hems. Where traditional men’s tailoring favours sleek and flat cuts worn close to the body, OC puffs up with joyous volumes, like on a cap-sleeved top with a mock-neck collar from the Spring/Summer 2018 collection, which also features delicately tailored crop tops and pussy-bow shirts.

Materials, too, sit outside the typical remit of menswear. Glossy-finished pyjama-style suiting glistens in sunlight; sheer overcoats are layered over boldly printed skirts and tops; iridescent crepe fabrics highlight an expert mix of texture and colour. The collection in the featured images comprises loosely woven crochet jumpers and skirts, ostensibly modest cover-ups that allow slivers of skin to peek through. Velvet is heavily used, a fabric that channels glamour for any of its wearers through its addictive sheen.

OC also plumbs deeply from a rich history of textile production. Oke-Lawal works in the brightly coloured woven fabrics typical to Nigeria. Each season he returns to these elements as a key part of the company’s identity. He states: “I work with both Aso Oke and Adire.” Aso Oke, which hails from the Yoruba culture in the west, is a hand loomed cloth that typically features tinted patterns; Adire, originally from the south-western region, is an indigo-based material that utilises tie-dying techniques. Using traditional textiles not only adds bold aesthetic elements that connect OC to a sense of heritage, but supports the local manufacturing industry, an integral part of the process. “We have communities that focus on building these fabrics from scratch.” 

So how does the company sow old and new together? How does it combine tradition and innovation; conformity and change? “I produce in Lagos specifically because I want to be a part of empowering the industry here and providing employment for people within our society. It’s important to contribute to the economy,” Oke-Lawal states. Training programmes are also provided for tailors and seamstresses that work for the company, built on the idea that progression should be ingrained within every cog of the machine. In doing so, the brand shines brightly as a deeply human, intuitive and ethical initiative. “Lagos is a part of who I am and the culture that has influenced my brand. It is important for me to contribute back to the growth of my industry.” Though many of the stereotypes are yet to be usurped – OC is a connective strand between the past, present and future: an aspirational voice looking towards creating real change from the ground up, from the land outwards.

It doesn’t stop there; OC has made waves beyond Nigeria. The collections are journeying far and wide as a representation of new perspectives and pioneering practices. Though Oke-Lawal still shows each season at Lagos Fashion & Design Week, the international recognition has been vast: shortlisted for the LVMH prize; showing at London Fashion Week; stops at Pitti Uomo in Florence; nomination for the Woolmark Prize; the first Nigerian brand to be stocked in Selfridges; inclusion in Forbes 30 under 30 list. Despite the accolades and continued growth of the clothing line abroad, however, Oke-Lawal still perceives OC as a movement. “[We are] pushing for a space where diversity can be celebrated,” he concludes, “with open-mindedness even in reference to the way men think and connect with each other. It’s a movement to think outside the box about emotion.”

Laura May Todd