Niyi Okuboyejo’s Menswear Line Brings Ancient Nigerian Art Into Modern American Fashion
Niyi Okuboyejo is worried one of his twin boys will get ahold of his scissors; a bookcase is all that separates his living room from the studio of his menswear brand, Post-Imperial. Silk scarves, bolts of fabric, pens and pads, and (yes) scissors festoon this corner of the Harlem apartment. As we sit together, dub music burbling in the background, Okuboyejo leafs through one of his textile books and reflects on the differences between Post-Imperial and typical Nigerian menswear.
"Nigerians, we like to dress well, but the way I dress is much more relaxed," he says. Okuboyejo's pants are roomy enough to let him sit cross-legged on his couch, illustrating the point. "Most Nigerians like to dress British. You know, sturdy suits, really padded, and to me, it makes no sense," he says, wiping imaginary sweat from his brow. He explains that by noon in Lagos, he's the last of his friends still wearing a jacket, because his is made of unlined cotton. "I guess it's part of the colonial mentality that we still have — we all want to dress like our colonial masters."
Post-Imperial is a far cry from that heavy, buttoned-up style, and in only four years, Okuboyejo has managed to mesmerize fashion cognoscenti like Yasuto Kamoshita and Scott Schuman while earning accolades in magazines like GQ and Vogue Italia. Complex included Post-Imperial among major labels like Public School and Hood by Air in its list of "9 Brands Who Are Breaking All the Rules."
The colors and patterns of Okuboyejo's clothes seem to pop and fizz amid a fashion scene that otherwise reads like a sea of black. An indigo square might explode from his breast pocket; he might throw on an orange tie, its zigzag design practically vibrating against your retinas. Today, Okuboyejo is wearing a pair of tapered, flowing trousers with wide stripes and a breezy indigo-dyed jacket. It's all made using adire, an ancient dyeing practice among the Yoruba people of southern Nigeria, where Okuboyejo's family is from. Okuboyejo describes the look this way: "Chaos, in the form of a repp tie."
Okuboyejo began his design practice with an interest in "making super avant-garde stuff," he says, in the mode of Rick Owens or Helmut Lang. But he didn't want his work to be encountered only in museums or white-cube boutiques. Nor did he want — given the industry's long history of ghettoizing the designers on its margins — for his work to become another high-fashion fetish. For decades the styles of indigenous cultures have cycled into and out of vogue, like the bead material in Yves Saint Laurent's 1967 "African Look" line (praised for its "primitive beauty") or the 2015 Dsquared2 show, dubbed "DSquaw," which brazenly ripped off Inuit culture.
Unwilling to be typecast, Okuboyejo came up with a strategy: Start with accessories, often the one adventurous element in a conservative man's wardrobe, and build a following from there. That tack is beginning to pay off: By keeping things small, humble enough to cram into an uptown flat, Okuboyejo has managed to maintain the integrity of his brand while keeping total creative control. Now he's about to begin filling orders for his first season of men's ready-to-wear: United Arrows, No Man Walks Alone, and UNIS are stocking pieces from the spring line and ordering for fall.
Post-Imperial's approach to menswear is informed by tradition, but the brand is also eager to subvert it. With the release of his new line, Okuboyejo is intent on setting himself apart from a men's fashion scene obsessed with the past. "Everybody was dressing like woodsmen, and I was like, 'Why are we doing it?' " he says. "I do not like using nostalgia to bait people into dreaming. It's reductive. I think we should be making things for ourselves, now."
When Okuboyejo was fourteen, he and his family moved from Lagos to the U.S., where they settled in Houston. While studying marketing at the University of Houston, Okuboyejo met his future wife, Dami, who remembers an early flair for fashion. "We called him Omo Britiko, which means 'british boy [sic],' " she wrote on her blog, DaNi. "[He] had on a bow tie, his pants were bonfo (high-waters), and he even wore office shoes to school.... I personally thought he was on some other ish."
A few years after graduation, by then married to Dami, he decided to pursue fashion in earnest. Initially intending to design women's ready-to-wear, Okuboyejo enrolled in an associate's program at the Parsons School of Design, going on to work at Oscar de la Renta before starting Post-Imperial in 2012. Now, in addition to being the chief designer, Okuboyejo handles every other aspect of the business — "sales guy, production guy, everything," he says. "On my business card, it just says 'President.' "
The rich colors and unusual striations that have made Post-Imperial so popular are the result of that adire process, developed over centuries as a way to communicate history and to mark ceremony, recombinant patchworks that reach back through time. (Okuboyejo first learned about adire from his grandmother when he was a child. Now 33, he has plans to dye clothes for his young sons using the same technique.)
To create the intricate patterns for which adire is famous, dyers use chicken quills to draw on large sheets of cotton fabric coated with a layer of cassava paste. The cassava blocks the fabric from taking up the indigo, while the exposed grooves soak it in. Other techniques involve tying beans or seeds into the fabric, which create coin-size circles and pindot effects, or using metal stencils to create sharply defined geometric designs.
Adire patterns are typically arrayed in a grid; Okuboyejo realized he could fashion pocket squares by mixing and matching different squares throughout the quiltwork. The tradition provides the structure; Okuboyejo provides the craft. "Aesthetics is number one," Okuboyejo explains. "It has to grab your eye first, and then my story comes in after."
Adire production was at its height during Nigeria's colonial days. British mills made fabric cheap, and the two cultures intersected in complicated ways. In an odd twist, one of the most popular adire designs of all time is an indigo coronation pattern specially made to celebrate 25 years of King George V and Queen Mary's rule. But the tradition is withering. Only a few masters still practice the technique, which has been largely supplanted by cheaper dye methods like Dutch wax. Okuboyejo had to return to Lagos to find dyers who could help him scale up his operation. Those he met were initially suspicious: They couldn't understand why he wanted to alter traditional motifs or use unconventional color palettes and materials. It took some convincing, but the dyers eventually agreed to help Okuboyejo remix Yoruba culture for a contemporary global clientele.
"There is definitely a lot of New York in Niyi's line," explains Yegwa Ukpo, founder of Stranger Lagos, a boutique and gallery in Africa's most populous city. "The pocket squares, ties, and jackets are very in line with a strain of African-American dandyism, and this is a very different thing from Nigerian dandies." That cross-pollination is precisely the point, believes Okuboyejo, who strives not just to export Nigerian style, but also to reimagine Western sartorial traditions in a Nigerian context.
"His work is obviously African," says Walé Oyéjidé, creative director of Ikiré Jones, a West African–inflected menswear brand based in the U.S. Like Okuboyejo, Oyéjidé grew up in Nigeria. "[For those] who don't have the benefit of my background, the origin may not be so obvious, even if the inherent beauty of it is. That, to me, is part of the magic."
At his apartment, Okuboyejo tells me he is not trying to adhere to any notion of cultural purity and believes to do so would be a mistake. Instead of reaching only customers in Lagos, he wants Post-Imperial to appeal to men in London, too. "There's this idea that whatever's from the diaspora [is for the diaspora]," he says. " 'Oh, that's cool; that's for them. He's a black designer — he doesn't design for me.' " Okuboyejo is hoping to change that attitude. "I want us to get to that point where [adire] becomes part of the lexicon," he says. "I want us to be able to contribute."
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