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Onalaja on Reimagining African Heritage and Designing for the Modern Woman


Since 2014, luxury womenswear brand Onalaja has sought to bring traditional African design aesthetics into the contemporary world of fashion. Onalaja is the namesake of Nigerian designer Kanyinsola Onalaja, who founded the label while completing her university studies.

Onalaja began her journey as a fashion design student at the Istituto Marangoni in Milan, Italy, where she studied Fashion design and was awarded best student of the year in 2014 and best fashion collection of the academic year during the 2013 – 2014 semesters. She also studied 3-D pattern cutting at Academia di Costume E Moda in Rome. The skills she acquired from her pattern cutting studies, are reflect in the sculptural nature of the brand's strongest pieces.

While dreaming of building her own brand, Onalaja has worked with esteemed brands such as Christopher Kane and Giles Deacon Couture in their production departments. The inspiration to start her own brand was born out of her admiration for traditional Nigerian art and artisanal craftsmanship that she had been used to seeing as a child in Nigeria.

Onalaja fuses Nigerian heritage with Italian and British design elements. Her mission has been to present a re-imagined representation of Africa, free of the stereotypes often propagated in the West. Onalaja considers her designs to be wearable works of art and tangible manifestations of culture. Each piece is composed of a combination of hand weaving, embroidery, print work, and painting.

Onalaja is particularly interested in fashion and art’s ability to tell stories. In her own designs, she seeks to construct narratives around the themes of culture and femininity. The Onalaja approach is best distilled by the designer’s four central tenets: Craftsmanship, fabric manipulation, intricate experimentation, and heritage 

Kanyinsola Onalaja spoke to The Folklore about her brand, approach to design, and her newest collection, which you can shop here

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Onalaja Zana Trousers

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Who is the Onalaja woman?

The Onalaja woman is a modern woman living a multifaceted life. She exudes sophistication. She draws inspiration from and is well attuned with the arts, culture, and travel. Career wise, she is highly successful and at the top of her field. She likes classic silhouettes, but with a little bit of fun. She treasures craftsmanship. Her style is subtle, but still very expressive. She is a strong representation of freedom, change, and modernity. 

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Onalaja Sika Dress

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One of your central design philosophies has been to re-imagine African heritage for the modern world. How do you go about reconciling African aesthetics with elements of modernity?

My African influence is something I hold really dear. I try to re-interpret the Africa we don’t see. I feel like people create stories, which in turn create people. It's about creating stories that have to do with my heritage. I do this through textures and trying to create tactile experiences. Africa to me is very three dimensional, so I try to represent that through my work. For example, I might see an African Adire pattern and think about how I can create it in a three dimensional way. I try to juxtapose traditional crafts and think of new ways to interpret them, whether it’s the beading, type of fabric, or the process. So for me it’s about incorporating the process with the symbols. Another big theme for me is abstraction as it’s common in a lot of African art, and I try to incorporate that in my prints. Within my work I work with fractals, which means taking a small element and duplicating it over and over. If you look at my clothing you’ll see parts can get repetitive, like the beading. Repetition is a big thing in my work and I you see that often in African culture; you see an emblem that is duplicated multiple times to create a bigger picture. 

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Onalaja Elecktra Embroidered Pants

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How do you combine your Nigerian heritage with your appreciation for Italian aesthetics within the design process?

The Italian aspect definitely comes through the silhouette. I try to keep things clean, but with some sexiness to it, which I believe is the Italian way. The Nigerian heritage comes through with the textures, the embellishments, the 3-D elements the fabric, or the hand painting. 

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One of your previous collections took inspiration from several prominent Nigerian women. How did you set out to represent those women within the collection?

With the women I chose, I looked at several significant moments in their lives. For example, with Nike Davies-Okundaye, I took inspiration from her etching and layering work. I also borrowed from Queen Nefertiti from whom I used regal golds and Egyptian silhouettes in my designs. I take elements from their stories and incorporate it into my designs, whether that be their background, origin country, or as minute as their favorite color. I try to evoke their melanin by using brown, terra-cotta, and burnt orange, because I feel that those are the colors that represent melanated skin tones.   

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Onalaja Naddie Jacquared shirt dress

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Your latest collection is called “Back to Basics.” What made you choose this particular title?

So for me this collection was a little bit different. It wasn’t the usual over the top beading, I just wanted to simplify it and focus on separates that the ladies would have in their wardrobe. Something they could wear to work, but still look a little bit more elegant. I wanted to simplify the process and see how it would turn out . It is a different direction from one I would normally take, but I wanted to show that you can still have textures and embellishments, but have it be more simplified. For example, there is a burnt orange pleated skirt, which can be paired with a tee shirt, but which can also be dressed up with an amazing blouse. It’s about creating versatility, but still fun versatility. It was about stripping all the chaos and the craziness, but being able to wear it with staples you already have.

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What was your design process like for this collection?

Again, It was about thinking about separates; designing each piece individually so it can be matched with anything else in the wearer's wardrobe. 

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What were your primary inspirations for this collection?

Pretty much the same as my previous collections. There still is pleating and beading, but it’s about accenting something that would normally be classified as basic.

Words by Natalie Jarrett