The Power of Cloth and Why We Should Care | EDGE Talks to Abiola Onabule

In an age of socioeconomic inequalities, climate crisis, and a pandemic, characterized by accelerated technological advances and new working models, design plays a crucial role in supporting the ways we care for ourselves, each other and the planet.  Managing resources equitably and sustainably is vital for ecological resilience.

The Design Museum, United Kingdom, Designers in Residence program is a platform supporting emerging designers, from any discipline, with time and space away from their regular environment to reflect, research, and consider new ways of developing their practice.  This year’s Residence program theme is Care.  The 2020 group of designers are charged with the mission to explore alternative tools and production systems that look to improve specific social and environment challenges.

Abiola Onabule, one of the four designers appointed to the Residency, is a London-based fashion designer creating clothing inspired by elements of her own Nigerian cultural heritage.  Born in London, raised right outside of London, Abiola’s early interest in fashion was the act of creating.  Surrounded by dressmakers and fabric dyers on both sides of her family, she says creativity was always around her, “my mum could sew, there were always examples of people creating and fixing things in the house, so, it was always around me. And I think my initial interest was more in the act of doing, of creating, rather than an interest in ‘fashion’ necessarily”.  But early on, as a toddler, she thinks fashion magazines may have had an impact, “I would look through fashion magazines, pretending I could read the articles.  And I do remember, my mum had this Cecil Beaton book, that I looked through religiously.  I think what I loved was the glamour and amazing silhouettes of these older fashion images and I loved the act of making, but I don’t think I connected the two as an actual job, until I was a teenager.”  Fast forward to where she is today, with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Westminster and Master’s degree from Central Saint Martins, Abiola is attaining the unimaginable. She is experiencing creative possibilities from many directions, particularly at a time of a re-imagined fashion ecosystem.

The Design Museum’s Care theme was very appealing to Abiola. “I was craving a sense of care, in an industry that is not known for its care.”  Her thoughts on ‘care’ makes us look through a lens that identifies and elevates each unique culture for its own independent value to fashion.  She says, “I think all cultures should have the chance, the right to define themselves, in the world’s eyes, and in their neighbors’ eyes. I think cultural exchange is a rich part of every country’s heritage. Culture is rarely created in a hermetic seal but I think it is important for a culture to be able to define itself and represent itself.”

What she hopes to gain from this experience is to further advance her vision for a sustainable design practice. Going against the fast fashion system, Abiola believes in “building a slow fashion practice rooted in ideas of conversation, collaboration of practice, sustainable practices and a coalescing of often muted voices, particularly those of women of the African diaspora”.

Our conversation explores the influences of her Yoruba Nigerian heritage in her design methodology and use of Adire and Aso Oke textiles.  Most of us may not think of having a relationship with fashion, but Abiola describes the role of cloth as having it’s own distinct storytelling, identity, and importance in a person’s life.  She says that cloth that is created for special occasions is stored and cared for to be brought out and talked about, “conjuring up memories of the cloth’s original outing”.

My interest in textiles such as Adire and Aso Oke comes from a fascination in how a textile can become the through-line of people’s lives, their personal histories, economic change and growth, political and cultural shifts.

Abiola Onabule Photo 5 - Photos by Jessica Eliza RossRPH:  The ‘Care’ theme is very relevant to today’s endangered ecosystem.  Abiola, for your residency, what will be your research and investigative tasks in accomplishing your design residence objective? 

AO:  For my residency, I hope to investigate how the exchange of craft and skills can become part of the act of care and conversation, through an exploration into the past, present and future stories of Nigerian women living in the UK.  

My particular areas of interest, going into this residency, lie with the art of Indigo tie-and-dye/resist techniques within Nigerian Adire cloth, as well as the skill of Aso Oke (top cloth) weaving. 

My interest in textiles such as Adire and Aso Oke comes from a fascination in how a textile can become the through-line of people’s lives, their personal histories, economic change and growth, political and cultural shifts. It has led me to consider how these textiles can play a part in the present and future of diasporic communities, not as legacy textile, but instead as material for the present; and to consider how this system can be set up as a more caring one, from start to finish.

Is the end goal of your residency a new body of work that will be exhibited?

Yes, the end goal is a museum publication and a showcase, that will exhibit a new body of work as well as other representations of the explorations during this residency.

Abiola Onabule Photo 4 - Photos by Jessica Eliza RossIt’s important for you to celebrate and preserve your Nigerian heritage.  What does this mean and what specifically is celebratory of your heritage?  Tell us the story.

For me, it’s important to celebrate my Nigerian heritage, simply because it is a part of who I am, and it influences how I see the world, and how I translate that into my work, along with so many other cultural  influences in my life. When I began designing and studying, it wasn’t even a conscious thing, I would just notice the influence of my Nigerian culture, in how I chose to combine colors in a dress, or in the textures that I was drawn to.  I lead my exploration now, with a similar stream-of-conscious approach, following what interests me, and there is always something I can learn, from my family and cultural Yoruba heritage.  

I don’t know if I feel it’s my place to ‘preserve Nigerian heritage’ or if I’m even qualified to do that.  I think what I can do is to help add to the canon of Nigerian heritage, and continue to explore and learn of the stories of my own Nigerian heritage and to hold conversations around these stories with others.

Is Aso Oke textile from the local ecosystem – locally grown fiber, woven, and produced?  

Aso Oke is a cloth that originally would have been almost fully of the local ecosystem i.e.  grown/woven/produced with some additional silks sourced from trans-saharan trade. There were local cottons and silks that were woven to make the Aso Oke of yesteryear. The production of fibers has fallen away over the years, although I believe there are now quite a few companies/individuals working hard to restore the production of locally grown fibers in Nigeria. But the weaving of the cloth is still done in Nigeria.

Abiola Onabule Photo 1 - Photos by Jessica Eliza RossHow does the role of cloth and clothing to the West African community play into identity culture?  

I couldn’t speak on behalf of all West Africans, or even all Nigerians, but for Yoruba Nigerians (which is my father’s people), cloth is still a very conscious part of the culture. Everyone is a degree of separation away from a weaver, a seamstress, a tailor, an embroider. The industry is made up, in large part, of small  businesses. The print designs on cloth still have symbolic meaning for many people. A cloth such as Aso Oke is worn for very specific momentous occasions in life, such as weddings, with each side of the family wearing specific colors, so it’s clear if you are with the groom’s side or the brides. In my experience, because these cloths are commissioned and woven for very specific occasions, after they are used, they are often then kept and stored in a caring manner, folded and preserved, to be brought out and talked over, conjuring up memories of the cloth’s original outing. It’s this link between cloth and memory, cloth and sentiment, cloth as a link back to a time in someone’s life, that really inspires me, and encourages me. I think it’s so important to not forget the importance of a material, in a person’s life.

Your example of ‘caring’ – linking cloth and memory, cloth and sentiment, cloth and conversation is the power of fashion that is often overlooked in our cultural landscape and purpose of fashion.  Thank you for pointing that out.

What are your thoughts on the preservation of historical traditions and its importance on the present and future?

I think we should preserve treasures of cloth and artisanal crafts but I also think these skills shouldn’t just become the preserve of the past. Something I have noticed and admired about many of the textiles of Yoruba people, is the history of adaptability to the current, without forgetting the ancient roots. The textiles seem to have constantly evolved with the times. I think the most important thing is to remember our history, to continue to learn from our past and to then add to the knowledge, instead of starting from scratch.

Well said.

Abiola Onabule Photo 2 - Photos by Jessica Eliza RossSustainable fashion has to start somewhere and local economies can be strive to be circular, keeping the fashion system local.  Communities can develop their own circular loop and prosper quite well.  What are your thoughts on local communities ecologically producing and distributing independently, protecting people and the planets’ interests? 

I think having a ‘local economy’ creates a system that demands more accountability. If you are responsible for a system on your back doorstep, that system then requires you answer to the local environment, the local people. If you know who’s involved, if you can name the farmers, the makers, the producers, the builders, etc. how can you not value the other’s efforts more, because you understand what went into the production of the final item.

I agree with you, it demands the system to be accountable and, I would add, local people become stakeholders.  

Who knows what systems will develop in reaction to all the current environmental, political, economic, health issues. I hope an element of it might be a rebuilding of local ecosystems for textile production and clothing manufacture. I hope the system of fashion production will become a more caring one, a more creative one, that is less capitalistic, less colonial in its nature.

Abiola Onabule Photo 3 - Photos by Jessica Eliza RossWhat are your plans after the residency?  What do you hope to do with your design practice? 

With everything going in the world at the moment, I’m not even sure how the fashion industry is going to shift in the next couple of years! My hope is simply to design clothes with integrity; to create caring, joyful experiences, whether it’s with those I collaborate with, those I design for or the environments I interact with.

Congratulations, Abiola, on your Designers in Residence appointment at the Design Museum, and, mostly, to your thoughtful approach to a more caring and conscious design discipline.  I wish you continued success.

Design Museum’s showcase will take place in March 2021.

Images: Abiola Onabule’s Central Saint Martins’ MA collection.

About the collection, in her words:

This collection focused on abstraction of the female form through a variety of freehand cutting techniques, cutting on curves, on the bias, and draping. Inspiration was found through Nigerian, Yoruba fertility statues and how these interpreted the female form, exaggerating and minimizing different areas of the body in cartoonish proportions. The cut of the clothes gave sole support for all structure and silhouette.  The use of striped Yoruba Aso Oke fabrics alongside the curved cutting, used direction and mitering of  the stripe to illustrate how the clothes curved and hung round the body. I had the Nigerian fabrics (Aso Oke) woven in my family’s ancestral home of Ijebu-Ode, by local weavers, with custom colorways and  designs as well as additional supplementary second-hand Aso Oke from my grandmother, aunts, family  and friends. 

Some pieces of the collection were designed to emphasize aspects of the female form, that are usually minimized for a more ‘flattering’ shape. This meant exaggerating the hips, the upper arms, lengthening  the bust area, distorting the body, all in crisp, starched cottons sourced in Lagos, Nigeria. The aesthetic of many of the pieces in this collection mimics the movement and draping of a Gele (a Nigerian wrapped headdress).

Photos by Jessica Eliza Ross

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Rhonda P. Hill

Founder, Publishing Editor