You may not know it but many Louis Vuitton and Burberry bags are made from Nigerian goat skin. Ayodeji Rotinwa reports from Lagos on a burgeoning trade
Zainab Ashadu is putting Nigerian leather on the map. Literally. When we meet in her atelier in Lagos, Ashadu has just taken delivery of goat skins imprinted with a world atlas. Excited, she points out Nigeria to me.
She intends to use the leather to make a clutch bag that will sit on boutique shelves in London, Geneva, Dublin, Paris and Johannesburg, where her design brand, Zashadu, is stocked, and in Lagos, where she has a loyal following and a flagship store.
Ashadu is not only the creative director of Zashadu, a sustainable luxury label that creates handmade leather pieces that retail for a minimum of £180, but is also one of the leading figures in Nigeria’s leather design scene. It’s currently witnessing an explosive renaissance.
Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was seen carrying a Zashadu purse when she attended the Vanity Fair Oscars party this year, while British leather designer Bill Amberg was recently invited to Lagos to teach masterclasses on leather production to harness the industry’s burgeoning growth.
“Made-in-Nigeria goods are taking on a new shine,” says Femi Olayebi, founder of the Lagos Leather Fair and the designer of an eponymous handbag label. “In the past few years a surge of designers has conscientiously made grand efforts to offer beautifully made goods.” Now everyone wants a piece.
Fela Kuti, Nigeria’s most famous musician and political dissident, called the desire of many Nigerians to own European goods “Colo-mentality”: a legacy of colonial control where the colonised were made to believe all things West were better than whatever was produced locally.
It wasn’t common knowledge that the leather used by global luxury design houses such as Burberry and Louis Vuitton came from Nigeria. Skins of goats reared in Sokoto, north-west Nigeria, for instance, are among the most “revered in the world”, according to Ashadu, known for their strength, suppleness and easy-to-remove hairs. Sokoto State is in the dry Sahel region of Nigeria, surrounded by sandy savannah and isolated hills and near the border with Niger.
Inside a Zashadu store
These skins are produced in northern Nigerian tanneries that have stood for centuries, and the artisans working in them passed their knowledge down through the generations.
Today the tanneries are not as prolific as they could be — the reasons for the decline vary from obsolete production processes to ill-thought-out government interventions, which led to the industry being entirely export-focused. Thus, most tanneries are structured only to sell in bulk quantities — the kind only billion-dollar design firms can afford while local designers cannot.
But against all odds, resilient local leather designers have emerged, creating products catering to a foreign market as well as a domestic one.
The art of leather
Shem Ezeamaka is the creative director of Shem Paronelli, an artisanal line of shoes for men and women. We meet at his home, where a floor-to-ceiling arrangement of boxed shoes dominates the living room.
Ezeamaka, a believer in the Zen philosophy of Wabi-sabi, challenges convention, drawing inspiration from architecture to create experimental designs made with leather sourced from Ghana, Ethiopia and a local market in Lagos. Where shanks should be covered, he exposes them. One of his latest designs — a pair of sandals — has no seams at all, with the leather entirely moulded. His shoes, which he calls “hooves” because of their strength, are constructed 100 per cent by hand.
Determined to scale the problem of sourcing leather locally when she started her business, Ashadu took a 15-hour road trip from Lagos to Kano to find the right material. She now sources leather from the small, informal markets that feed off the larger tanneries and also works with a snake and crocodile farm to retrieve exotic skins.
“If I’m only going to make one bag from a particular skin, then there’s only one,” Ashadu says. “I’ve noticed that the clients love that, because they want to feel that exclusivity.”
Ashadu, though trained at the London College of Fashion, uses local techniques and works with local artisans trained by leather masters from northern Nigeria.
She’d trained using surgical Stanley knives but now uses local tools and works with artisans who go through leather “like butter” and know how to patch skins “like magic”.
“These artisans have been doing it before Westerners. It is we [Nigerians] who have the skins and we imparted the knowledge through trade.” It seems the world is finally ready for Nigerian leather and Nigerian designers.
“It will create a fresh tale of something beautiful coming out of us as a people,” says Femi Olayebi. “You may not expect that to come out from Africa.”