The Black Prince Naimbana Makes His Way, Once More, To British Shores
I think it’s important to let you know that, while I find fashion interesting, I’m no expert. Like many of you, for most of my life I’ve held strong opinions on what does or doesn’t look good when worn together. However, especially growing up, I generally held very little power over what I wore because my family was severely poor. As a result, I gravitated towards a wardrobe primarily populated by function over form. The uniform that ensued is what I eventually came to call the, “Plaid Dad” which consists of blue jeans accompanied by whatever colour combination plaid button-up shirt was at the top of the pile. It’s only in the last few years that this has started to change.
One day I realised that the tumultuous upbringing I endured isn’t the life I’m living today. I don’t need to buy clothes based purely on how durable they are or how accessibly priced they might be. And so I’m slowly exploring using my wardrobe to express myself and what’s important to me. But, in many ways, I’m still about a decade behind my peers on this front.
And it is THAT context that I’d like you to bear in mind as I tell you about my first ever fashion show.
About a month after interviewing julianknxx and Foday, of Labrum, I was invited to their summer show. It was in collaboration with Converse, Kazvare Made It, and furniture designer Yinka Ilori. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew the show was called, “The Black Prince Naimbana”, but that was all.
Instead of dressing up, I decided to go in my regular clothes to see how the fashion elite would treat a, “normal“. When I arrived early to take photos with the other photographers, the whole “Plaid Dad” thing didn’t go over well. Basically no one believed me when I told them I was supposed to be there. I had to drop every name I knew to make my way in the door! I wasn’t offended though, events like this take an immense amount of planning and security is important.
Once I was in, I realised I’d come in through the dressing room entrance. I carefully weaved my way through a pack of men in various states of dress; each adorned with all manner of unusual facial markings and unique African accessories. Then I walked through a curtained door and found myself in the event space itself.
Rainbow hued furniture filled the white room’s floor. A neon yellow runway shot out from a childlike block throne. Bold black lettering filled two walls. The first proclaimed the show’s title. The second was a quote from Prince Naimbana, “The dehumanisation of others is the foundation of all bigotry.” And there were half a dozen other photographers, already frantically snapping away.
Most of them were more intentionally dressed than myself even if that didn’t mean they’d, “dressed up”. For instance, once photographer had on a pink hat, pink shorts, and a white tee-shirt with pink writing on it. Simple colour coordination took a pretty basic outfit and turned it into a legitimate fashion statement. I filed this away as a future fashion trick to fall back on.
As many of the models started to file out, standing in front of the multi-hued furniture, I quickly got to work taking photos. It didn’t take long for the heat to hit me. It was absolutely sweltering in the space and many of the models were wearing trousers and long overcoats! They were all consummate professionals though because if the heat bothered them, they didn’t show it at all. They just patiently posed for each of us over the course of about 15 minutes.
Then Foday and julianknxx walked in and immediately took charge. They explained exactly what was going to happen, how the models were to move, where the turn point on the runway was, and what the musical accompaniment would be like. It was obvious that Labrum had been living and breathing this show for weeks, if not months, and were determined it would live up to their sky-high expectations.
The models ran through the show twice and then the doors opened for the public to come in. The array of outfits was staggering. There were some people dressed head to toe in one solid monochromatic colour (I noticed Kwaye, in particular, rocking this look). There were others dressed more casually, as if they were coming straight from the office. Shingai was sporting a killer animal pattern dress, and there was one woman wearing the most spectacular outfit I’ve ever seen.
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get a photo but she was wearing these fantastically colourful african robes, a golden hat of sorts, and some very oddly shaped glasses. It doesn’t sound like it would work but when they all came together it was an impressive sight! So far, things had lived up to all the weirdness I’d expected from a proper fashion show, though no one had called anyone else, “Darling!” yet.
The lights flickered to let people know they needed to find their seats before the show started. From out of nowhere there arose a man’s rough voice, singing a song in some language unknown to me. Moments later the first model walked into the room, holding a microphone and continued his singing all down the catwalk and back to his resting place beside the throne.
He was accompanied by two musicians and their performance continued as the rest of the models made their way into the space, up and down the runway, and then onto the furniture at the back of the room.
Then Foday walked out, thanked us all for coming, and everyone burst out in conversation with one another as people surged forward to get photos for social media.
Even though I’d seen the models practice the show twice before this, I was surprised at how quickly it was all over. After my previous interviews with Foday and julianknxx I’d expected more direct storytelling or explanation. That’s not to say it wasn’t spectacular, because it genuinely was. There was so much thought, creativity, and intentionality that went into creating the beautiful show. But I was left with a lot of questions and, aside from directly asking Labrum, I wasn’t sure where to go to for answers.
Now, I should also mention there were a number of printouts on some of the seats. I grabbed one, after the fact, and it went a long way towards connecting some of the dots between the story of The Black Prince Naimbana and the show I’d just witnessed. If you’d like, you can read the text from that printout on Labrum’s blog; It’s well worth a read.
However, as someone brand new to the world of the fashion industry I couldn’t help feeling like there were certain aspects of Labrum’s storytelling mission that didn’t shine through in quite the way I’d expected them to. For instance, if I’d have failed to read that printout I would have walked away from the show with nothing but a name and a quote. And even after reading the material Labrum provided, I knew very little about Prince Naimbana or what his historical significance was. What I was provided with wasn’t so much a story as it was a very brief explanation of setting.
Now I understand that many people won’t want to read through a 5,000 word blog post unpacking every intricate connection between the Prince’s life story and the impact it had on the fashion show. It’s also a very privileged response to expect others to do the hard work of research for me. I get that. After this community welcomed me into its inner sanctum it feels like the ultimate jerk move to criticise their efforts in any way.
But I know how thoroughly Labrum does its research and how well versed they are in the untold stories of West Africa. So I can’t shake the feeling that it would be a small effort on their part to leave us a trail of breadcrumbs to follow. After all, a simple list of further reading materials would likely be easy for their team to create. Yet that list would be invaluable for any of us looking to grow in our understanding of this often misunderstood part of the world, its people, and their invaluable stories.
However, my hope and suspicion is that Labrum is already planning on doing this; That they intend to tease this story out further over time. I imagine my current disappointment is purely a result of overeagerness on my part and that trail of breadcrumbs will make itself evident precisely when they’d always planned it to.