I Went To Nigeria with South Africa's Favourite Designer

Daniël Geldenhuys reports back on his trip to Lagos with Chu Sawannapha

Lagos with Chu Sawannapha

By Daniël Geldenhuys

It's hard to believe Chu Suwannapha works alone. His Chulaap runway presentations are the antithesis of compromise: full looks including original footwear (and often headpieces) meticulously styled through layering, rolling, tucking, and accessorising. That level of detail is rarely seen on a South African runway, making it easy to assume the fashion director-turned-designer has a small army of assistants at his disposal. Not so, he tells me over the phone, but he's off to Lagos, Nigeria, to showcase his latest collection, and he'd like an assistant. I promptly call the doctor to book my yellow fever vaccination.

My experience at fashion shows is 95% front row and 5% backstage as a reporter. I'm fully aware of the frantic pressure that is backstage dressing, and though that's not my aspiration in life, I'm always open to new challenges. I figured, what better introduction to runway styling than with one of the country's best design talents? If anyone can create a sense of organisation in the backstage chaos, it's Chu. Plus we'd be working in Lagos, home to some of the continent's most exciting design talent and representing Mzansi alongside Orapeleng Modutle and David Tlale.

Lagos with Chu Sawannapha

Twelve looks, including footwear and Pichulik accessories, filled a modest three suitcases. Chu, Orapeleng and David had been invited by Spice TV (DStv channel 190) to showcase their collections alongside Nigerian designers at their Spice Honors lifestyle awards show: picture the Golden Globes, but with awards that span from Best Female Lead in a Movie to Luxury Wedding Company of the Year. We flew with Elle's fashion director Dimeji Alara, who received Fashion Brand Stylist of the Year. Thank goodness we stayed in a hotel attached to the show venue: Lagos traffic is far worse than anything I've seen back home. The roads are bumpy and unmarked, traffic lights are scarce and commuting is a problem.

Time seemed to slow down in Lagos. A task I'd expect to take ten minutes easily consumed an hour. The awards show (a live broadcast) was scheduled to start at 18:00 – the time stamp on the pictures I took of the Chulaap show (the second design act of the evening) say 23:54. Having showcased at Arise Fashion Week in Lagos earlier this year, Chu expected as much, and we planned accordingly. We had the day before and the day of the show to prepare, filling our schedules with simple errands.

Our main pre-show objective was headgear for the models. Chu went back and forth between the idea of wrapping leaves around the models' faces and giving them floppy straw hats to be tied over their heads with ribbon. After the morning's casting and fitting, we hit the road in search of leaves and jumped into an Uber with Nuel Ephraim, a fashion assistant from the Lagos team who needed to pick up some hangers at the market. We thought to use the opportunity to go fabric shopping. The Uber driver weaved expertly through the frantic swarm of cars, tuk-tuks, and people. I'm usually a nervous passenger, but I found myself sedated by the high temperature and overwhelming humidity. Driving through Lagos felt like being in a post-apocalyptic video game. Every high-rise was an unfinished building site, while other buildings seemed on the brink of dilapidation. The hazy sky and dusty streets felt cinematic. Once we rolled into the hive that is the clothing market, I half expected Daniel Craig's Bond or Angelia Jolie's Lara Croft to emerge from the crowd.

Lagos with Chu Sawannapha

Chu has this in common with Victoria Beckham: both look very serious in photos, belying their real life playful personalities. "No one under 13, please," Chu joked to the line-up of clearly grownup models at the casting, none of whom got the joke as all of them were caught up in an eager focus to get the green light for the show. Chu serves his comedy dry, creating a suspended moment of tension as the recipient of the joke considers the possibility that he's being serious. Then he breaks the tension with a knowing laugh that leaves nothing to question. Beyond the humour is a man who takes his interactions with others very seriously, measuring loyalty on a scale of respect and honesty. He lives a modern life by a set of values that seem, sadly, old-fashioned in a contemporary world.

The hanger mission was successful, the fabric mission abandoned in the name of time management, and the leaves mission a fail. A pit stop at a nursery built along the side of a road did not yield sufficient foliage, and nobody could confirm the existence of a florist. Upon our return to the hotel it was decided: hats are the way to go. The ever-resourceful Chu had a stylist friend in Lagos who sourced the hats for him, saving us another Uber ride, but presenting the need to exchange money to pay for the headgear. Hotel reception referred us to the bureau de change on the premises, an "art shop" that read to me as a small workshop for wooden figurines and other trinkets. The men who exchanged our money were charismatic, bargaining the exchange rate and asking us about our heritage. I stood smiling as Chu gracefully engaged in the social dance, negotiating a good price for his Rand and using his sense of humour to engage. It was the first time his jokes seemed to truly resonate.

The day of the show we cancelled a morning fabric shopping trip for fear we'd get stuck in traffic. We spent our time prepping the clothes backstage, waiting for the rehearsal that was constantly being postponed due to the fact that the stage was still being built. Our best stalling tactic was drinks with David Tlale. He and Chu go way back: David used to dress Chu in his own printed menswear creations when Chu attended fashion week as a fashion director. The designers clearly enjoy each other's company, joking back and forth about the old days and today's business challenges.

Lagos with Chu Sawannapha

Finally, show time was upon us. The backstage dressers and myself wrangled the models into their looks before sending them to Chu who would tweak the finer details of the outfit to his liking. Wide fisherman trousers were layered over jumpsuits, piles of Pichulik necklaces stacked on knitted vests, and his sunset yellow-to-purple gradient coat belted at the waist with a scarf in the same print. A double sunset. It's only natural to have a moment of panic when the producer says "it's time" and there's still a model or two to finish up, but overall the backstage experience was as controlled as I'd hoped it would be. The show was a success. 

Our packing done, we wound down with Orapeleng and his brand's Fashion Creative, Kabelo Mothapo, over glasses of anything with ice by the pool. The embodiment of glam in black sequin pyjamas, Gucci loafers and anything else serving monochrome opulence, I was impressed and refreshed by how down to earth and business savvy the pair are. The next day we began our journey from the hotel to the airport via the fabric store Vlisco, home of high-quality African print fabrics. How could Chu not visit? On the way home our plane refuelled in Livingstone, Zambia. After subsequent take-off, the pilot made a quick detour, circling Victoria Falls. There, in the grand chasm that consumes the endless rush of river overflow was a rainbow, so vivid it drew gasps from my fellow fliers and reminded me of a certain sunset coat that had walked down the runway the day before. 

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