“Kelechi Odu makes clothes for a very particular kind of cosmopolitan guy and they are here, those guys are here.” – Yegwa Ukpo.
For Kelechi Odu, designing clothes is an opportunity to build a garment around a larger cultural narrative.
The quintessential Kelechi Odu man is any man interested in expressing himself in a different way. The trained architect, who started designing clothes after a realization that people underestimate fashion’s ability to reflect and even transcend cultural expectations, is keen on reimagining normative ideas about gender and culture through his designs.
“Fundamentally, clothing is an expression of culture, it’s a way to identify yourself, but it’s also a way to express yourself in a subtle way,” said the designer.
“What I want to do with my clothes is to provide an alternative option of expressing yourself as a man and letting men take ownership of what that identity means.”
Odu’s most recent collection, which featured low hanging necklines and amorphously shaped silhouettes, was a nod to the roaring twenties and the era’s affinity for loosely shaped women’s garments. Taking inspiration from flappers, Odu sent models down the LFDW runway in looks that echoed the insouciance of the flapper’s loosely styled dresses and challenged the conventional notions of appropriate masculine attire. The collection, titled The Miocene Trap, was also influenced by the era’s and (Nigeria’s) relationship with crude oil.
“I thought about what powered the roaring twenties and it was crude oil. Crude oil produced much of the movement – the cars and all the things that made the twenties fast, furious, and technologically advanced,” said the designer.
“Our oil was formed in the Miocene period and it is often referred to as light and sweet. The trap is what is used for the oil to gather. And I was playing with the word trap because our oil is this natural and beautiful thing but it ended up being a political trap.”
To emphasize this, Odu designs from the collection featured a crude, almost earthlike, hue.
In his 2013 collection, titled Gilded Beast, the designer explored the dichotomy between the Edwardian gentleman, which has often been used as a template for western masculine ideals, and his more primal alter ego. The collection featured shirts with stylized beading to represent masculine body hair and was presented in a boxing ring where Kelechi and fellow models participated in a boxing match while wearing the clothes.
“I do like the idea of things being a little odd,” said Odu.
“I like to challenge the idea of perfection here because we like our men to be dressed up and “perfect” and I think it needs to be challenged because not everyone wants to be that way or needs to be that way.”
When asked about the trajectory of the menswear industry in Nigeria, the designer refuted the assumption that the industry is niche and inferior to the growing womenswear industry. Instead, Odu noted that the menswear industry in Nigeria operates just as earnestly as its womenswear counterpart, the only reason that most people don’t notice is because most of the work goes on in the largely informal sectors of the industry.
“There’s a consistent market for menswear,” emphasized the designer.
He is right. In 2014, the global menswear industry peaked at a reported $440 billion, and in 2019 the industry is expected to contribute $40 billion in the global apparel market, with shirts – a category Odu is particularly known for – coming out as a top performer in the industry. In Nigeria, Odu encourages people to look closely at the exchanges going on between menswear consumers and informal designers before making conclusions about the viability of the industry.
“All these men that are wearing these things that you see around have been tailored by someone. There are mega tailors, there are mega tailors that retail. If you combine the money moving between those hands, you’ll know that the industry is real in a solid way.”
These exchanges might not categorically fall under designer purchases, but they are are the engine of the Nigerian menswear industry. Odu asserts that because of the role of fashion designers as a more visible part of the industry’s ecosystem, they have a responsibility to promote the industry in its entirety and move the industry forward with their ideas.
“As designers, our most important role is that we are incubators and cultural markers because it is us that people see first,” said the designer.
“We are what people see first and we are the incubators of ideas. We are going to have the most revolutionary ideas because we are able to and we have the platform to showcase these ideas more widely.”