Head to toe with Tunde Owolabi

Traditional Nigerian fabrics weave a modern tale         

(Image: the artist) 

The more Tunde Owolabi, a Nigerian designer and photographer, discovered about Nigerian fabric, Aso Oke, the more his curiosity piqued. So much so, he soon translated the traditional headgear into shoes fit for the future. 

What led you to the discovery of Aso Oke fabric?
Aso Oke kind of found me. I was doing a research for different kinds of headgear and most of the images that I found were of Yoruba women in Aso Oke. The patterns, colours and the history pulled me in.

So, I travelled to the community where it is said to have started. I still have a relationship with the people of the community, and Good Taste is the first to know that I will be documenting different families from that community and its environs around the southwestern part of Nigeria.

How is Aso Oke made? 
The process of making Aso Oke isn't as complex as it used to be in the past. Then, the women picked cotton from the farm, and spun it. After that, it was dyed into the different colours. Back then they had just three main types of Aso Oke, which is a kind of benchmark for the other types, they are: 

Sanyan: khaki brown with light cream stripe that runs across the middle. For the Yorubas this the king of Aso Oke.
Alari: crimson red colour, which sometimes has an ivory white or black stripe running across it.
Etu: predominantly blue, it’s said to be very expensive too, and the dying process is tedious. Etu can also have other colours like red and white.

After the cotton has been processed and spun by the women and children, the men then prepare their looms ready for weaving. In the past, it could take a day to weave just a metre of fabric, but now more can be done because they no longer have to process their own cotton. They can buy cotton from the markets to weave, but they still have to prepare it to suit their loom. 

Can you share the importance of Aso Oke?
The history of Yoruba culture cannot be complete without the tale of Aso Oke. It’s very important to have for ceremonies, such as, weddings, coronation, funerals and so on. It’s a must have for every household. The men wear “sokoto” trousers, and an "agbada", which is like a robe. The women, wear the blouse "buba", as well as a wrapper "Iro" a "Gele", which is the head-tie and a shawl "Ipele".

Can you please explain the design process that led you to re-invent the traditional fabric into shoes? 
Because of its weight, and the hot weather, it doesn’t suit everyday wear. Seeing that, I started to think of other possibilities. The fabric is tough and durable, and there are so many patterns that can be woven, and the use of colour is endless.

I thought, how can I make it for everyone? Shoes were the answer, especially sneakers. The sneaker culture is huge and can be worn by everyone irrespective of his or her age.

Aside from the fabrics, what are other highlights of Nigeria for you?
The culture, the people and their never-give-up attitude and the food.

How did you get into design and do you have any advice for students trying to break into the market?
I studied graphic design. Being a very visual person, all things beautiful attract my attention. Nature is my biggest inspiration, and art and design have always been my way of representing what I see. I initially wanted to be a doctor due to parental pressure, but while growing up, I knew at some point that it wasn't my calling. 

My advice to students is to be honest with themselves in whatever path they have chosen. Success doesn't come overnight but with passion, hard work and dedication to whatever they have chosen to do, they will surely excel. No man is an island, we all need to study, and learn from the best and the worst. A teacher once told me he attended a painting class so he could teach himself never to paint like the person teaching him. 

What do you get up to in your spare time?
I love to cook, if I am too busy, I like to play tennis. I enjoy watching documentaries, football and animated movies.

What's your signature dish?
I’ve been told my grilled fish is tasty. Maybe you can try it someday.

What's next?
I’m currently working out how we can invest in the weavers and their children from the shoe proceeds to make sure that the tradition is kept.

See more of Tunde Owolabi's work at www.tundeowolabistudios.com