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The Nigerian fashion brand ushering in a new era of queer African representation

Emerie Udiahgebi's eponymous label Udiahgebi is pushing boundaries in a country where same-sex sexual activity remains punishable with up to 14 years in prison.

2022-03-29

Words: Elvis Kachi; Images: Udiahgebi

Udiahgebi is an eponymous Nigerian fashion label founded by gender non-conforming person, Emerie Udiahgebi. It is a brand for people to whom femininity is home: femme women, femme men and gender non-conformists.

Udiahgebi’s Fall/22 collection, Animalia, was previously thought to be titled ‘God is a Black woman called Desire’. With every collection, the founder and creative head tries to create a persona that lives in their imagination. “For me, the muse for Animalia was a very civilized, sexy and beautiful person, but with this aura of danger hovering around them, and constantly on the verge of shifting into being a predator,” they tell Attitude.

The brand’s latest showcase premiered on 6 March 2022 and was proudly sponsored by CELL’s - a production company that specialises in fashion branding/consultation, located in a conserved part of Ikoyi in Lagos island. Given Nigeria’s brutal laws criminalising LGBTQ+ citizens, living freely or dressing expressively can be extremely daunting. It’s no wonder fashion designers in Nigeria - the world’s largest Black nation - continue to ignore the sizable market of queer people. Runway shows ignore the presence of openly queer, trans and non-binary people, even as the wider fashion community clamours for greater representation.

The Udiahgebi label is set to change that, and their Fall/22 collection saw courageous queer and non-binary people strut the runway with pride and courage, smiling and posing stylishly for campaign shoots and look books. 

Attitude had the opportunity to catch up with the designer behind the queer Nigerian brand, who shared insights on their eponymous label, how they’re manoeuvring under the country’s strict anti-gay laws, and what their hopes are for the future.

Hello Emerie, it is so good to meet you. Okay, first thing’s first, what are your pronouns?

My pronouns are he/him and they/them. Those are the pronouns I like to go by. Since I came out of the closet, I’ve always been comfortable with discussing my sexuality. I’m a queer Nigerian, and I identify as one.

Before we get to know you as a designer, can you tell us who you are outside of design?

Um, outside of my work and brand, there’s not a lot that I like to do, but I love books and like to read. I have a passion for food; I love to cook. Animals, too. I’ve owned a few, though I’m currently taking a break. I’d like to raise myself first, before raising any other thing. [laughs]

Also, a typical relaxation scene for me would be staying at a beach, lighting a blunt and spinning out new illustrations. It’s an ever-going cycle for me. I’m a strong 420 fan, and every major thing that has happened in my life has happened behind music and a blunt. I’m not ashamed to admit it.

What was growing up like for you, especially as a visibly effeminate person?

Growing up was a very beautiful experience. I had parents who never tried to stifle my creative development. They would always spot what other people considered strange, and instead of reprimanding me, they would always try to see the best in me. 

Although my childhood memories were a bit marred by bullying, what effeminate man here wasn’t bullied? That is why I’m obsessed with nostalgia and try to recreate my childhood memories again by reading books, listening to old songs or merely watching old films.

Interesting. How would you describe the Ugiahgebi brand?

The Udiahgebi brand is a brand that has undergone a lot of changes within the almost two short years since its launch. I started out with a major vision, a much simpler one than I have now. I wanted to create really feminine and sexy clothes that empowered not just the wearer, but those who would behold the wearer at that very moment. I also wanted younger people like me to see older people in my clothes and say ‘now, that’s the space for me. That’s where I belong.’

Growing up, I didn’t think I fit in anywhere. There’s male, there’s female, and there’s what I am - a subtle mix of both genders. I knew there had to be a space for us, to fill that space, that void which every gender non-conforming person is familiar with. 

Tell us about your recent collection, Animalia.

My brand is built solely on providing confidence for women, and that was exactly what I tried to translate with this collection. I’m obsessed with animals that are predators. I love the way they hunt and how they move with this certain kind of confidence, before they lock their teeth in the jugular of their prey. There’s something I find fascinating about it.

The collection was going to touch on that kind of agility, fierceness, lust, jealousy and anger, and sort of refine them when they become overwhelming. We used stretches, delicate laces, and even knit works to execute the collection. I have a love affair with stretch fabrics, and how they can make really good pieces. The collection told my story exactly how I wanted it.

That’s very insightful. How has the journey been for you, producing pieces as a queer person, for queer people in Nigeria?

Honestly, it has been stressful; there’s really no word for it. It’s been really difficult, and maybe it’s because I started out with a larger-than-life-vision. We live in a country that isn’t very progressive, although people are starting to catch up on the conversation of gender and sexuality in select metropolitan cities. But in other lesser areas, nobody wants to have these conversations. The LGBTQ+ community there is very muted. People really just want to be safe, and that’s very understandable.

I wanted to start in such communities, but I had to put a pause on it, relocate to a more progressive city, and gather as much knowledge as needed before returning to my initial plan of infusing the brand in these smaller cities. Although there aren’t a lot of people who want to wear the things I make, maybe due to safety, I’ve come to the conclusion that Udiahgebi isn’t for everyone. My tribe would hear my call, and they would always come running.

What’s the most challenging part of building the brand?

As bluntly as possible, funding. I have to multitask, do several jobs, and take on these projects from my personal pocket. Another major challenge is publicity. Not everyone is willing to publish what we do, considering the conservative nature of the country. I admit that my brand can have a shock effect on some people.

I also think that the Nigerian fashion industry centres very much on connection; and for a young person coming out of virtually nowhere into the scene, it can be very difficult to get my voice heard. It’s a little discouraging. Fashion is all about freshness and newness, but I don’t think the industry here gives me the space to spread and get heard.

That does make a lot of sense. But what are the best parts for you?

The best part is mostly the feedback. I mean, after our fall collection, I received a feedback from one of the models, and it said ‘thank you. This is the first show I got to walk as a non-binary person.’ It gave me a sort of thrill, and it moved me greatly and deeply. I understood what they were talking about. There isn’t a lot of representation for people like us in Nigeria. So, when I get feedback like this from people saying that we have helped them come into their identity and into themselves as femme-representing individuals, it encourages me and pushes aside all the fears I might have.