Shade Thomas-Fahm transformed Nigerian fashion

Zoom done little to diminish the glamorous personality of Victoria Folashade “Shade” Thomas-Fahm. The 88-year-old fashion designer looks regal in a velvet frozen (a finely knotted headband) and a matching dress in the emerald of her country’s rainforests. In Yoruba, one of Nigeria’s main languages, Folashade loosely translates to “to be honored with a crown”. The name suits Ms Thomas-Fahm well: she is hailed as Nigeria’s first modern fashion designer and credited with formalizing the country’s garment industry in the early 1960s.

In short, Ms. Thomas-Fahm is considered a fashion queen. Today, his ruling influence is celebrated in ‘Africa Fashion’, a landmark exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) that explores style on the continent.

Like many Nigerians of her generation, Ms Thomas-Fahm’s early years and cultural tastes were shaped by her time in Britain, the colonial “mother country”. She left Lagos for London in 1953 aged 19, intending to become a nurse. Instead, her interest in clothing was piqued on Edgware Road and she enrolled at St Martin’s School of Art (now Central Saint Martins) to pursue a career in fashion.

Thus began a life defined by a series of firsts. She became the first Nigerian woman to earn a professional qualification in fashion design when she graduated in 1959. Returning to Lagos, she founded a ready-to-wear line using Nigerian textiles, an innovative and unique approach. Spotting the economic potential of the Nigerian fashion industry, she opened one of the first garment factories in Lagos, run according to the efficient production techniques she had observed in London. “We wanted to make an impression, to apply what we had learned abroad,” explains Ms. Thomas-Fahm. There, more than 40 factory workers sewed, dyed and embroidered garments which were then sold in Maison Shade – later Shade’s Boutique – the first high-end store in Nigeria to sell locally made ready-made fashion. .

Prior to this, shoppers purchased Western imports from department stores or tailored clothing. (To this day, many Nigerians still turn to a tailor for a new outfit, unlike in the West where bespoke garments are often prohibitively expensive.) “We [Nigerians] are blessed with textiles and a great sense of style,” says Lisa Folawiyo, a Nigerian designer whose sparkly outfits also feature at the V&A. “Fashion was seen as a cultural thing. She [Mrs Thomas-Fahm] helped it become an industry.

Ms Thomas-Fahm had returned from London to Lagos in 1960, the year Nigeria and 16 other African countries declared independence. The liberationist zeal sweeping the continent also permeated her designs: she was one of many African designers to embrace the heritage fabric as a means of asserting national identity. One of Mrs. Thomas-Fahm’s pieces on display at the V&A – a long robe resplendent in gold – is made from okene, a textile woven by the Ebira people in central Nigeria. The designer opted for fabrics that the ethnic groups of Nigeria weave by hand, such as aso-oke, adire and akwete. Her clothes reflected the complexity and diversity of Nigerian craftsmanship (pictured below). It also boosted the local economy. “We had so many people out of work, and the only thing I could do was promote Nigerian fabric,” she says.

These new interpretations of traditional textiles and silhouettes found an echo in the newly independent country; her fans included Wole Soyinka, Africa’s first Nobel laureate in literature, Hannah Awolowo, the first lady of the former Western Region of Nigeria, and Princess Elizabeth de Toro, a pioneering role model, government minister and first female lawyer from Uganda. The designer tweaked the women’s styles to match their growing autonomy. She added zippers to the irontraditional wrap skirts and pre-tied pioneer frozen. Working women “could be both elegant and practical,” says Christine Checinska, the exhibition’s curator. Ms. Thomas-Fahm sums it up succinctly: “If you want to do business, you can’t tie and untie all day.”

In the early 2000s, Ms Thomas-Fahm bowed to competition from the global fashion industry and closed her last boutique in Lagos. By then, the designer says, upper-class Nigerians had turned to Western tailoring, depriving local brands of customers. But as ‘Africa Fashion’, the exhibition in London, highlights, his ideas live on in the work of contemporary designers in the region. “The fact that [Mrs Thomas-Fahm] successfully working with local textiles has shown us that it is possible… it is fashionable and it is wearable,” says Ms Folawiyo, who relies on Nigerian artisans to embellish her garments with crystals and sequins (pictured below).

An exhibition in Lagos dedicated to the legacy of Mrs. Thomas-Fahm is in preparation. For the occasion, Mrs. Folawiyo reinvents one of the signature looks of the octogenarian: a skirt suit scalloped with sparkling pearls. More than half a century after her first appearance, Ms. Thomas-Fahm’s brilliance still shines.

“Africa Fashion” continues at the V&A Museum, London, until April 16, 2023

James C. Tibbs