Amma Ogan: Lupita Nyong’o, Who Designed Your Nigerian-Style Head Tie?

The head wrap was brilliant blue. It mirrored the applique on the long yellow bodice of the strapless gown and was echoed in the shoes and handbag.

Lupita Nyong’o wore the outfit this past week at the Toronto premiere of her film Queen of Katwe. Fashion critics called it “flawless.”

The designer of the dress is fashion queen Carolina Herrera, born in Venezuela and now living in America. But the head tie is pure Nigerian. That got Nigerians buzzing. And they weren’t necessarily buzzing in admiration.

Before we get to that matter, let’s consider the history of the Nigerian head tie.

In Nigeria a head tie is called a gele — that’s the word used by the Yoruba, one of the country’s many ethnic groups. But the wearing of head wraps is traditional for all Nigerians and indeed for most African cultures. An artfully folded gele is part of everyday wear and de rigueur for special occasions like weddings.

You can use any kind of fabric to wrap a gele, and handwoven cloth has long been used. Today’s towering and intricate styles work are best executed with a thin crisp rectangle of cloth imported from Switzerland. Its paperlike consistency is ideal for folding, wrapping and layering.

There are many ways to tie a gele. In 1960, geles were tied to mimic the architecture of Nigeria’s first skyscraper. When the National Theatre was built with a peaked roof to mimic a general’s cap, Nigerian fashionistas folded and twisted their geles to echo the design.

I learned to tie my geles from watching my mother, but these days you can hire a professional to do the job. It’s a big business, especially for weddings.

Tying isn’t the only option. Some gele experts will create the style on a base and stitch it down, so you put it on like a hat.

If you’re curious about technique, you can call up 859,000 how-to tie gele videos on YouTube. That’s a testimony to the intercontinental and international reach of Nigerian fashion, spurred by a growing entertainment industry and a renaissance in art and culture on the continent.

Go to a Nigerian wedding in one of the world’s megacities on any given Saturday and you will find friends of the bride styled just like Lupita Nyong’o was in Toronto: an ankle-length dress topped with a gele, all in identical fabrics. Family, friends and old schoolmates signify their relationship to the celebrant by wearing aso-ebi — a Yoruba word that means family cloth. They all buy the same fabric and make an outfit, in the style of their choice. Even men will sometimes make a cap in the fabric.

That Nigerian love of fashion has fueled a booming business.

Ibifagha Cookey, a Lagos-based financial analyst, estimates that custom-made apparel from self-employed tailors generates $8.2 billion annually out of the clothing industry’s $19 billion in sales. That’s right, the majority of Nigerians get their clothes custom-made. So this is an industry that is not fettered to any seasonal dictates. Color reigns, embellishment is supreme and bold unusual combinations, like the yellow and blue of Lupita Nyong’o’s outfit, are standard. And when, like Nyong’o, the outfit is beautifully coordinated, Nigerians will say you’re “dressed to match.”

Read More: npr.com

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