Vivacious Nigerian linguist, Ogochukwu Akabogu founded one of the more familiar brands on the contemporary fashion scene in Lagos, Lines by Chaab, where she is the creative director. It is a product of her obsession for languages and art, which she translates into the common universal language of fashion. Lines by Chaab blurs historical and geographical boundaries, uniting people and telling their stories through her colourful, hand-painted designs, intricate beadwork, textures, embroidery and unique patterns. According to Akabogu “Each garment is created to enhance the lines and curves of the female body, to boost a woman’s confidence, whatever shape or size she comes in.” Also known as the “Fashion Storyteller”, she “aims to unite the world through the powerful language of fashion.”
“When I close my eyes, I see a box, or a square, and my brain processes it and places the edges. I see anything I look at as lines.”
In these words, fashion designer Ogochukwu Akabogu describes her obsession for lines. Her interest in fashion began as a child when she would take her clothings apart and sew them back again, despite her mother’s objections. This interest was sustained through secondary school, even though her mother was successful in persuading her to choose agricultural science over her preferred clothing and textile. The initial resistance Akabogu faced, presents the familiar scenario of most Nigerian parents preferring their children to study ‘more professional disciplines’ like medicine, engineering and law as against the less fancied creative arts like music, fine art and theatre art that presumably don’t guarantee a stable income. Akabogu was born to a lawyer father, who spent the major part of his career as a guidance counselor at the Federal Government College, Enugu, and a linguist mother, who lectures at the University of Nigeria (Nsukka campus). Ironically, Akabogu’s interest in language was first sparked by her mother’s success as a teacher. She recalls that while a pupil at the University of Nigeria Primary School (Enugu campus), she would wait for her mother to close from work. Interestingly, her mother’s office was located in the library, University of Nigeria Secondary School (Enugu campus), and so young Akabogu would read voraciously to pass the time.
In 2003, Akabogu gained admission to study foreign languages, with a major in French at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. She would often times sew her “pretty” tops with a needle and thread, which her friends admired. She recalls a difficult period in her life after she graduated with a second class upper in 2007, where nothing seemed to work well for her. With her sister Chioma’s support, she fully embraced fashion design and undertook some informal training.
“After my university days, I completed my National Youth Service between 2008 and 2009 and tried to make a career as a translator, working at a foreign diplomatic mission. In all, I worked at 4 different places in Abuja but wasn’t fulfilled. Nothing worked for me and at a time, I had to relocate to Lagos in 2011. My sister who knew about my passion for fashion design asked me to return to it. I still had my sketchbooks from secondary school with dresses that I sketched. I first objected but later gave it a try and went for some informal training under a local tailor. I’m basically self-taught with online Youtube videos and the many books I would ask my mother to buy for me when returning from her regular conferences in the United States and Canada. I’m still striving towards perfection, and thus constantly reading and honing my skills.’’
She likens her older sister Chioma to a guardian angel because she insisted, when their mum was initially not disposed to her becoming a “tailor”. She recalls Chioma was supportive, gave her first sewing machine and was her first client, even when she felt she wasn’t fully sure she would become a fashion designer. Akabogu explains that the letters ‘ch’ in Chaab are derived from Chioma, in acknowledgement of her important role in her career and life. She adds that the double ‘a’ and ‘b’ are derived from her surname, Akabogu. She also remembers her father provided emotional support while her mother and three older brothers, supported her financially. However today, her mother remains her number one fan.
Ogochukwu Akabogu remembers that when she started out, she couldn’t afford professional models and so modeled her own clothes. A close friend based in London helped take photographs, which she would display on social media platforms. He would be instrumental in Akabogu’s participation in the Nigeria Next Top Designer Competition.
“I soon participated in the Nigeria Next Top Designer competition– a reality show in Nigeria and won! Subsequently, I went for the Music Meets Runway Rising Icon competition (2014), and won that too, and so I was sent to intern for four months with Indian-American designer Bibhu Mohapatra, famous for designing clothes for Michelle Obama. It was a lovely experience and I got better at my craft.”
Ogochukwu Akabogu also speaks about her long-time passion for creativity and love of language, which inspires her work as a fashion designer, through which she sees each fabric as a piece of research into language and culture.
“I had always wanted to go back to some form of art; it is part of my background, having also won prizes at intercollegiate competitions. I was trying to fuse my art with fashion, because I love languages in fashion. I soon met a group of artists and everything fell in place. Each month, I improved as I did my research and underground work on languages – symbols I translated into fashion. I want to own the designs and the fabrics. For me, it’s a piece of research into languages and cultures.”
Akabogu also reveals how her designs embellished with symbols have overcome language barriers, enabling her to communicate with people of different languages. “It worries me when I meet people I want to speak to, but can’t because there is a language barrier. However, some just look at what I am wearing and smile, while others would come close to touch the fabric. For me, the communication gap is broken; it ceases to exist because of what I’m wearing.” Akabogu is inspired by almost everything, though visual art, with its colours, lines and shapes, as well as languages, cultural histories and music, strike deeper chords for her.
Asked what her design philosophy is and what distinguishes her work from other fashion brands in Nigeria, Akabogu had this to say:
“Nigerian fashion designers have come a long way and I respect them, but what I do is translate symbols, languages and art. For me, it is not just fashion or about a beautiful dress. So much work goes into it; I pay a lot of attention to the details. In most cases, I work on fabric with 3-D paints. I am obsessed with 3-D, lines and beadwork. It’s not that other designers don’t do the same, but my intention is to bridge the communication gap. I can speak several languages and wish I could speak more. I am learning a couple more and will always keep learning as part of my process. However, it saddens me when a dress is beautiful but there is no depth to it. I like people to stop at my pieces, think and look at them like works of art. I want people to reflect on what an artist is trying to say. It is not just fashion, it is art. Just by looking at a fabric, I can appreciate the work that goes into it – the colour combinations, patterns and shapes. I can also recognise the symbols.
A piece of cloth is not just to cover our nakedness, but it is art, and about learning more of other cultures, peoples and continents. So looking at my work gives you extra knowledge, even if you don’t buy, at least you learn.”
So who is the Lines by Chaab woman? Akabogu is elaborate in her response: “She is a classic woman in the sense that she is not crazy about trends; a woman who has depth. She is confident in her own skin and appreciates the arts. She is a beautiful and an elegant woman who sees herself for who she is and knows what comes with the term ‘woman’.”