Lagos to Los Angeles: Treasure Hunting in Balogun Market

The Market

“You definitely wouldn’t want to put on your best outfit to go on a buying trip there,” Natiq advises about traveling to Balogun Market in Lagos, at the heart of Nigeria’s bustling shopping district. “Also, you need to wear your most comfortable, beat-up pair of shoes. And if you were planning on taking a shower that day, you might as well save it for afterwards, otherwise you’ll just end up needing to take two!”

Balogun Market is always hot, dusty, noisy and completely packed with people. Crowds of buyers, sellers, workers, messengers, and gawkers mingle and collide. Exasperated taxi bus drivers lean on their horns, struggling to weave through the crush. The cajoling, argumentative tone of bargaining is upon everyone’s lips. Buyers will bargain to the very last kobo for what is so prized here: the mind-blowingly colorful, intricately patterned, brilliantly designed bolts of Ankara fabric.

Historic Nigerian Fashion

Ankara wax-resist fabric originated in the late 1800’s, offered by Dutch traders throughout Indonesia as a less costly, machine-made alternative to traditional, labor-intensive batik materials. While this new Dutch invention failed to catch on with Indonesians, textile-savvy women in West Africa were immediately intrigued. West African demand for brighter colors, tighter patterns, and geometric complexity spawned a unique market, pushing manufacturers to cater to African tastes and usages. The emerging patterns might reflect significant historical events or illustrate local proverbs or symbolize wealth, love, and good fortune. While European cloth makers simply identified these patterns by series number, the most popular designs took on their own poignant or politically relevant names as they circulated among West African traders and distributors. Prints like “Don’t Get Married Empty Handed”, “Kofi Anan’s Brain”, “Love Bomb”, and “Michele Obama’s Bag”, each took on their own special meaning, signaling some inference by the wearer.  For example, the popular print “You fly, I fly” bears the motif of a bird cage, with two escaping birds on the wing. Newlywed brides frequently choose this cloth for their dress to send playful but pointed message to their husbands about marital fidelity.

A Colorful Conundrum

To Natiq, a self-taught clothing designer and Nigerian immigrant in Los Angeles, the overwhelming array of Balogun market represents a puzzle, to be pieced together with care. “I’m using a completely different way of thinking when I’m doing this, so it takes me out of myself, and lets me live in the part of my brain that’s all about experiencing color and pattern and texture. Going through the market, I’m really absorbed in picturing what the different color combinations and designs are showing me they want to be; a tunic, a jacket, a pair of pants, or maybe a totally wild pair of shorts for summer?”   Natiq will also occasionally ‘adopt’ a fabric that he doesn’t find appealing at first glance. “You have to wonder, what was the designer thinking, choosing those color combinations, or that really crazy motif?  Then, probably because I’m standing there just staring at it, the fabric will start working on me!  It’s like setting me a challenge; what could I possibly make out of this that would change all the things that look so outrageous into a design advantage instead?” Many of Natiq’s favorite projects started with this kind of redemptive challenge.

Balogun Market’s selection changes constantly. Vendors bring in new fabrics and drop the old when they are out of favor. Natiq likes to catch fresh designs before they become popular enough that cheaper copies flood the market. When accenting certain colors, he enjoys shaking up traditional with embellishments like embroidery or metal studding. “For instance, a lot of designers in my country trim black with gold, but I prefer to pair black with silver instead. It’s unexpected, and it makes my design stand out more.  If I can find a way of making the observer think twice about what they’re seeing, then I’m happy.”

Thriving Far From Home

During Natiq’s time in the United States, he has enlisted his sister’s help in visiting his beloved market. “She takes me with her via her phone! We use the phone camera as my eye, so I’m also always telling her to slow it down, or to back up because I missed something the first time, or I’ll send her into the far corners of the shop because something high up on a shelf looks interesting to me. With the eight-hour time difference between us, we can be bargaining for fabric, or looking over our purchases at some really strange hours!” A constant collaborator, Natiq’s sister share’s his love for textile design and fashion. “My sister designs for women, and I design menswear, but we love exchanging ideas, and I really value her artistic strengths and opinions.”

Envisioning, designing, and wearing his own creations made from fabrics that reflect and celebrate his West African culture is deeply satisfying to Natiq. “It is a way of presenting myself to the world through all these choices I’ve made. This is not someone else’s idea of what looks good, this is my own expression!  It also feels really good when the people I meet now in Los Angeles notice these colors and patterns I‘ve selected and how I’ve shaped them into something unique. I feel seen in a very positive way.”

Natiq’s long-term vision is to launch a website introducing the vibrancy and beauty of Ankara cloth to his wider Los Angeles community. “I want to call it African Fashion Palace! I’m so proud of my culture and Africans enjoy seeing others celebrating its beauty. If people feel shy at first about wearing African prints as complete outfits, then why couldn’t there also be Ankara cushions, backpacks, wrap belts, cosmetic bags, or eyeglass cases, so they could try a first taste?  I have a friend who says she is always scrambling to find her phone because the inside of her purse is so dark.  I’m thinking about making her some really bright zippered Ankara pouches to organize what she’s carrying, and make it easier for her to find what she needs.  She’s really excited about that idea, and who knows? Once she has a little of the Ankara energy in her life, I’ll bet she’s going to want some more!”