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The artist and the fashion designer: How two African creatives teamed up to effect change

Beneath the Nicola Bertucci frescoes and gilt Rococo cornicing of the 17th-century Palazzo Visconti Di Modrone in Milan, a six-foot fiberglass character stands among piles of white and mustard granite stones.

If the mix seems incongruous, then consider the objective achieved. The character forms part of an installation by Lagos-based artist Yusuff Aina, commissioned by designer Iniye Tokyo James for his Fall-Winter 2024 fashion show “Expansion,” held in the space on Saturday. In partnering on the project, the pair sought to challenge the traditional stereotype about the styles of art and fashion that come from their native Nigeria.

“The people who have (already) been celebrated and the voices acknowledged have been fantastic, but there is another set of individuals proposing a different conversation (about) what it means to be from this part of the world,” James told CNN Style from Lagos a week before the show. “That is where Yusuf (and I) aligned and that has been exciting for us because there’s so much more that we want to do together.”

James has made it his mission to incorporate African skills and techniques into his work in ways that innovate on tradition. - Antonio Calanni/AP
James has made it his mission to incorporate African skills and techniques into his work in ways that innovate on tradition. - Antonio Calanni/AP

It was on a similar trip to Lagos from London — where James, 36, lives — that he first saw Aina’s work, on display at the city’s leading art center Art Twenty One. After going to see the exhibition — and being told off for trying to touch the sculptures on display — James reached out to open a dialogue about future collaboration.

“His work has a whimsical vibe to it, it is fun, but at the same time serious,” said James of Aina. “It’s not playing on the stereotypical nuances that are peddled out there that make people expect an African mask or (traditional) art forms. His work could be at the Metropolitan (Museum) or Art Basel.”

Tokyo James and Yusuff Aina. The creative collaborators say they have "so much more (they) want to do together." - Benjamin Vitti
Tokyo James and Yusuff Aina. The creative collaborators say they have "so much more (they) want to do together." - Benjamin Vitti

For his first collaboration with a fashion designer, 27-year-old Aina created a new iteration of his character called “The Eniyan,” a recurring motif in his work “meaning human being, or person or individuals, somebody or anybody and nobody”, he told CNN Style over Zoom, before he travelled to Italy for the event.

Riffing off the “Expansion” show theme, Aina called his work “Domain Expansion,” wanting it to reflect the evolving phases of life and hoping that it challenges people to look beyond familiar surroundings.

“This goes beyond just coming from Africa or Nigeria, it goes far and wide around the world to all races and different kinds of identity, whether you’re White, Black, short, tall, queer and so on. The main purpose of this collaboration is to allow stories to reach everyone,” he said. “I don’t like boundaries, borders, separation, seclusion, segmentation or creating a box for people to just navigate around. This show focuses on the idea of how much we really need to spread our branches.”

The inventive collection also featured this golden face adornment. - Antonio Calanni/AP
The inventive collection also featured this golden face adornment. - Antonio Calanni/AP

Aina’s distinctive style is informed by his own history of growing up in Lagos. “The kind of art I saw was mostly what you see by the roadside, portraits of the Lagos governor or president or celebrities hanging on the streets,” he said. “But then I got into comic books — there was a (soccer) comic book called “Super Strikers” which was a major influence to me and helped me practice drawing. I watched anime as well to get influence from other creators and see how far my imagination could go.”

Since he started his fashion brand in 2015, James — who was nominated for the LVMH Prize which rewards young designers “for their talent and outstanding creativity” — has made it his mission to incorporate African skills and techniques into his work in ways that innovate on tradition. For his Fall-Winter 2024 show, he used intricate weaving techniques across his famed outerwear and the tailoring that took two months to master (“it was one of the hardest things to do!”) and added elaborate beading to selvedge denim.

"His work has a whimsical vibe to it, it is fun, but at the same time serious,” said James of Aina. - Antonio Calanni/AP
"His work has a whimsical vibe to it, it is fun, but at the same time serious,” said James of Aina. - Antonio Calanni/AP

These techniques were joined by advertising motifs — “like the ones we grew up with in Nigeria” — reworked into T-shirts and prints, “expanding the narrative and seeing things in a new way,” said James backstage after the show.

Ultimately, he said, this collaboration was “about finding ways that celebrate individuality — and the things that unite and join us rather divide us”.

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