Spirit of the Dance: hand-loomed aso oke cloth and Malawian carved masks

Commonwealth Fashion Council

Explore the exchange story of designer NKWO from Nigeria and artisan Joel Suya from Malawi and find out how they created their look for The Commonwealth Fashion Exchange, 2018.

"We started to put the look together in layers, just like the Nyau dancers costumes that inspired the piece…lots of fringing, wool, glass, beads, wood…all Spirit of the Dance…”
Nkwo Onwuka
The Exchange: Nigeria x Malawi
For The Commonwealth Fashion Exchange 2018, designer NKWO exchanged with Avec Amour in making a look titled the ‘Spirit of the Dance’, celebrating their Nigerian and Malawian heritage. The look was unveiled at Buckingham Palace on February 19, 2018, and later moved to the Australian High Commission, London, where it was open to the to the public in the run up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit, April 2018.

'Spirit of the Dance'

Nigeria: Designer NKWO
Such is the power of Nkwo Onwuka that she sits at the forefront of the emergence of a new African fabric called Dakala Cloth, developed in the Nkwo studios as a means of textile waste reduction. Stemming from a childhood obsession with dolls and sewing and with a plan to make traditional African hand crafted textiles relevant to a new generation of fashionistas, Nkwo Onwuka launched her artisanal brand NKWO in 2012. The idea was not just to be ‘fashionable’ for its own sake but also for the benefits it would bring to her own country by working with small scale manufacturers and producers, enabling the growth of sustainable businesses. 

Nkwo has a lot to say about Africa, both through her clothes and the media and her energy is derived from a desire to explore and experiment with innovative techniques as a way of preserving traditional craft skills.

Celebration of African culture

Nkwo’s first African print collection was sold on ASOS, and she now focuses on producing collections using modern interpretations of weaving, beading, hand-dyeing and embroidery that celebrate the richness and diversity of African culture.

Malawi: Artisan Joel Suya
Joel Suya is a Malawian wood carver, who hand carved exquisite traditional masks for this collaboration. Joel’s wood carving journey began when he joined his brother selling wood carvings, later teaching himself to sand and polish, and eventually being guided by an established craftsman who taught him to chisel, file and carve. From difficult beginnings selling his crafts through others, Joel is now growing his own independent business.

Introduced by Avec Amour

Angela Fuka Mpando of Avec Amour is a connector of like-minded souls. She works with craftspeople throughout Malawi, both designers and artisans, bringing them to the attention of international retailers and consumers. Her belief in her country’s rich heritage is matched only by her desire to bring economic empowerment to her homeland.

'Spirit of the Dance'

Illustration of the look

'Wool crumble'

"We got selected for the Wool Edit by Woolmark International, one of the sponsors of Fashion Exchange. It proved to be a bit of a challenge at first and it took a while to figure out how to incorporate wool into the look. Eventually it was hand spun into a ‘wool crumble’ which was then stitched onto the piece by hand."

Nkwo Onwuka

Choosing the fabric

"The fabric we choose to use for our piece is also-one (ah-SHAW-okay), a hand loomed cloth, woven by the Yoruba people of western and southwestern Nigeria. Aso Oke was traditionally woven with locally grown cotton or anapphe wild silk but nowadays, the cotton and silk are often replaced by rayon and metallic lurex."

Nkwo Onwuka

"We stayed true to tradition and used a classic aso-oke called Sanyan - woven from the beige silk from the cocoons of the Anaphe moth - for the main body of our piece. We also used gold lurex and white cotton versions for some of the fringed accents.”

Nkwo Onwuka

Zero waste

The zero waste front panel of the piece is in keeping with our sustainability project where for the past year we have been researching and developing innovative techniques for incorporating sustainable practices into our clothing production, with particular reference to waste reduction."

Nkwo Onwuka

Aso Oke

The look was made from Aso Oke, a hand-loomed cloth woven by a group of women based in Kogi state in central Nigeria, according to a traditional craft of the Yoruba people.

Wood carving
Wood carver Joel Suya produced 12 miniature masks that have been sewn into the dress and tiny upcycled mirrored embellishments are scattered over the skirt.

"One of the traditional crafts of Malawi is wood carving, especially masks and we decided to work with a wood carver to produce mini masks that we would use to embellish our piece. Finding an artisan to partner with for the project was really a struggle, but well worth the wait. We finally made contact with a Malawian social enterprise called Avec Amour, who liaised with the woodcarver and in less than a week, our 12 mini masks were done.”

Nkwo Onwuka

Final look on display at Buckingham Palace, 19 February 2018

Final look on display at the Australian High Commission, London, 22 February 2018

Credits: Story

This content has been specifically curated for the Google Arts & Culture platform on behalf of the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange exhibition that launched on the 19th of February at Buckingham Palace in partnership with Swarovski, The Woolmark Company and MATCHESFASHION.COM.

The project, created and managed by Eco-Age, with the support of The Commonwealth Fashion Council and The British Fashion Council.

More information about the images is available by clicking on them.
Read more about the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange at http://eco-age.com/commonwealth-fashion-exchange/

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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