A Selection of Three African Designers Combatting The Hypermasculine African Male Stereotype Through Fashion

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The African male stereotype has been rooted in hypermasculinity for decades. This stereotype is further reinforced by the notion whereby men have to be ‘hard’ in order to be considered masculine. This encompasses them being the bread winners of their households, physically strong and somewhat emotionally unavailable. However, this perception of the African male was never applicable to all men. There have always been outliers who were considered to be ‘feminine’ due to their inability to conform to the African masculine ideal. Men who exist outside of heteronormative standards of male sexual behaviour have been present throughout African history. They exhibit a type of masculinity which transcends the traditional definition of manhood and their existence is valid.

Over the last decade, a few emerging African designers such as Adebayo Oke-Lawal (Orange culture), Mowalola Ogunlesi (MOWALOLA), Papa Oyeyemi (MAXIVIVE) and Lukhanyo Mdingi have created brands that challenge these stereotypes and provide clothing for men whose  identity is not aligned with the hypermasculine African male stereotype. Their designs are androgynous; fluid with wide cuts in the case of Orange culture or sexually charged with low necklines and high hems, in the case of MOWALOLA. The designers listed above are from Nigeria, a largely conservative country in which homosexuality is still illegal. Challenging the heteronormative idea of manhood through gender fluid designs is therefore a way of challenging the status quo for these designers.

The fashion brand MOWALOLA was founded by the Nigerian designer Mowalola Ogunlesi. Mowalola creates clothes for the world she would like to live in and perceives her design as an extension of herself; a way of exteriorising her thoughts and feelings.

The brand’s first collection was dedicated to the expression of the African male’s sexuality and desires. She described it as a celebration of the black African male. 

Ogunlesi’s Central Saint Martins BA collection “Psychedelic” paid homage to Nigerian psychedelic music and the Lagos’ petrolheads with seductive leather garments dappled with paint. Her inspiration for the collection was drawn from the Nigerian 70s and 80s rock scene, the East London party scene and her direct environment. Through her collections, sexuality is explored, redefined and heightened. According to I-D magazine, the words used by Mowalola to describe her A/W19 collection were ‘Sex. More sex. More sexy’. Through her designs, Mowalola gives a voice to black African men whose voices have often been silenced. Dressing is a form of expression and by wearing her designs, some men are making a statement; they do not conform to the hypermasculine idea of manhood.

In the course of the past two years, Mowalola has designed some of the Nike pieces for Nigeria’s World Cup team. She was a stylist for Skepta’s Pure Water video and was featured in Vogue. Her latest collection, centered around the ‘horrific feeling of love’ features bullet shot wounds printed on leather garments amongst its key pieces.

Adebayo Oke-Lawal is the founder and Creative Director of the Lagos-based androgynous label Orange Culture. The brand aims to challenge the stereotypical idea of African masculinity and is amongst the most popular brands to have emerged from the continent in the past decade. When establishing his brand, Oke-Lawal wanted to create something he had not seen before and in line with his lifestyle, maintaining authenticity. He was constantly questioning the expectations from men in African societies and wanted to challenge them. Impact is always at the centre of his creative process and he hoped that through his brand, he could show that men are allowed to be vulnerable and have attributes which would traditionally be considered as ‘feminine’. Making an impact within his community is essential to Oke-Lawal and he states that his brand shows the world what African designers are capable of. According to the designer, this generation of young Africans is incredibly self-aware and liberal. This is what his designs aim to communicate; freedom.

Adebayo faced numerous challenges at the start of his journey due to the nature of his brand. Many boutiques and stores refused to stock his brand and the Nigerian press went as far as calling his designs demonic. Instagram, however, has provided a platform for the young designer as he started receiving international interest. His designs had a an appeal to men who defied the hypermasculine standard on a global scale. Lawal always believed in his vision and kept on working on his craft. This resulted in the label receiving international acclaim. The brand is now stocked in many cities across the globe from New York to London. The designer made his debut at New York Fashion Week in September. His Spring 2020 collection titled ‘Goodbye to Me” further champions the idea of androgyny with the use of silk, neoprene, and organza.

Babatunde ‘Papa’ Oyeyemi founded the Lagos-based androgynous label MAXIVIVE in 2007, at the age of 15. He rejects the idea of gender and race as well as the categorisation of individuals based on these criteria. This is reflected in his designs. 

Papa does not subscribe to society’s definition of what a man should be and therefore creates gender fluid clothing which he believes can be embraced by all humans, regardless of their identity.

The designer has dismissed the Western notion of seasons four years ago, renaming his Spring 2013 collection Harmattan 2013, after the dry season on the West African subcontinent that occurs between November and March. The seasons he goes by are, the dry season, the wet season and Harmattan, in accordance with the West African climate.

His first collection sparked national outrage. However, his daring and barrier breaking designs have led him to receive international acclaim and being featured in numerous global publications such as Vogue.com, Vice and GQ SA. His latest collection titled ‘How to Marry A Billionaire’, was inspired by the documentary ‘Paris is burning’. It paid homage to the New York drag scene and exhibited androgynous designs, featuring men wearing drag-queen inspired makeup and wigs.

MAXIVIVE has grown into a group of fashion brands over the years. The MAXIVIVE group now includes the brands ‘bodun’,  ‘maxivive’ and ‘mxvv’ as well as ‘boyc’, an encyclopedia of young creatives.

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