“When I was younger, I was forced to wear clothes considered feminine to church. At university, my faculty had a strict dress code for women. I always felt out of place in those clothes, and I hated the discomfort that came with wearing them.”
These are the words of Tim, a legal practitioner and writer. Tim like many gender-nonconforming and fashion bending Nigerians has at some point in their lives been forced to fit into the stereotypical fashion demands of the Nigerian culture.
Fashion has for a long time been used as a way to make a statement; be it political, societal, personal or anything in between. It transcends the desire to wear clothes, (un)cover one’s nakedness, to becoming a tool for expression. In the queer fashion scene, the translation of oneself with the use of fabric, colours and materials cannot be downplayed. Outfits have been used to take powerful stands and invoke more than just a sense of style.
In Nigeria where there are still homophobic laws and practices, constrained cultures and traditions which clearly and unequally distinguish the expectations of a man or a woman, queer Nigerians turn to fashion to channel their energy and express themselves as they see fit. But this doesn’t go without some form of repercussion, no thanks to the rigid stereotypical expectations of the dress sense required from a man or a woman. (Young) Nigerians regardless of their sexual orientation are first of all profiled and discriminated against for their nonconforming style and chosen expression.
Alexandra, a non-binary creative shares that their style and presentation on Instagram was used to out them to their parents. “It’s been a series of back and forth since then because I can no longer go to extended family gatherings and I have anxiety about meeting my friends’ parents in case they expect me to present in ways that “pass.”
Temitope The Ingenious, a stylist, fashion, and lifestyle influencer, who refers to his style as androgynous, says he uses fashion to express himself as a queer Nigerian in many ways by blurring the lines between gender and fashion.
It is perhaps, this need to not have gender-specific clothes that birthed the brand Vangei by Lolu, a Lagos-based gender-nonconforming androgynous fashion designer. Vangei is derived from Lolu-Van- Gei, Lolu-is Gay(Gei). Lolu’s interest in fashion started from an early age and the influence of their mom who had a boutique. From giving opinions on fashion, Lolu who thought they were either going to be a poet or an author, attended a couple of fashion schools in Nigeria and South Africa.
In 2017, Lolu started out with brands like Adorable, Indifrekeh and HOB Culture which focus on mainstream, African and traditional wear. Everything changed in 2019 when a friend sparked the idea that they could create androgynous clothes. Going into its second year, Vangei has been received well but also raised some eyebrows.
“As a queer person, having the boldness to start something like Vangei, and having to explain to people and see the reaction on their faces when you tell them the name of your brand, is funny. Most people outside Twitter who see what the brand represents start giving me the cold shoulder.” Lolu explains. Admittedly, Lolu credits Twitter for helping with their growth, even though they thought it was going to be hard to find people outside the queer community that would be interested in their designs.
Queer Nigerians who support Vangei like Alexandra say that what appeals to them most is the intentionality and care that goes into the design of the clothing. Not to mention the conversation had before creating a custom-made outfit. According to them, “What I love most is how Vangei is not about appealing to the male gaze but rather, gives priority to the consumer no matter who they are.”
This is what the brand intends to do in the future, “my brand aims to provide for people that are already marginalized”, says Lolu. “It is hard going to a store and just picking up something. I have to go to the men’s section and pick small sizes, a lot of needless stress”, they lament.
For queer persons who use fashion as an extension of self, like Temitope The Ingenious who uses fashion to raise his self-esteem, dominate, and be more expressive, to designate fashion to gender is outdated. We must shift from the status quo of what we think fashion should be and embrace diversity and authentication. Vangei is already doing that while looking forward to creating timeless pieces, giving life to people’s ideas, and dominating the runway.