Vibrant. Intricate. Versatile. These are some of the words that come to mind when thinking about Ankara, one of Africa’s most popular fabrics. With roots in Dutch and Indonesia, the fabric has come a long way from gaining reception in West Africa in the 1880s to invading global fashion in recent years.
Several things led to this invasion; a rebound of textile industries in Africa, affordability and availability of the fabric, innovative designers and stylists, and social media. Social media has democratized fashion and, in that sense, opened a world of opportunities in a world it made smaller. Fashion designer, stylist, and Founder of All Things Ankara, Nicolette Orji, popularly known as Nikki Billie Jean, knows a thing or two about this.
When Nicolette launched @allthingsankara on Instagram in August 2012, she had no idea it would lead her to work with one of America’s biggest stars seven years down the line. She only wanted to fill a gap. There were not enough platforms highlighting African print fashion back then, so she created what has turned out to be a multifaceted Ankara print fashion and entertainment brand, consisting of an online publication, shop, and marketplace.
The platform has a considerable following on Instagram; it’s no surprise it caught the attention of American rapper Cardi B’s fashion team. In December 2019, the rapper’s team contacted Nicolette on Instagram to get clothes for her mini West African tour in Nigeria and Ghana. That message has led to further collaborations and creative opportunities for Nicolette.
In this interview, Nicolette discusses how technology is redefining fashion, her collaboration with Cardi B, and all things Ankara.
When did you first realize you wanted to pursue a career in fashion?
In my sophomore year in college, I became the Vice President and event coordinator of Penn State Altoona’s African Student Association (ASA), for the 2010-2011 school year. Penn State Altoona’s ASA holds an annual event called Taste of Africa towards the end of the school year and I had the pleasure of being the fashion show coordinator. I enjoyed putting the show together and working with formal/couture Ankara print clothing.
After the fashion show, I realized I wanted to work more with Ankara prints. I started doing a lot of research online to learn more about the Ankara print fashion culture. I also followed Ankara print inspired pages on Tumblr to stay up on the trends.
During my senior year in college, I went to my go-to Ankara print fashion page on Tumblr and realized the page was gone. I looked for similar pages on Tumblr and Instagram but none was up to par. Once I noticed there weren’t enough publications dedicated to Ankara print fashion, I launched All Things Ankara on Instagram on August 9th, 2012.
How is working in fashion different today than from when you started?
10 years ago when I started working in the fashion industry, Ankara print was just beginning to gain popularity globally. One had to visit an online blog to catch up on the latest news and trends. There weren’t many publications dedicated to the print and fashion. Not many brands sold ready-to-wear Ankara print clothing. Only a few well-known celebrities like Beyonce, Solange and Rihanna were spotted in Ankara print outfits back then.
Things have changed now; Ankara print fashion is widely adopted. Many celebrities wear Ankara print outfits. Ankara print clothing is becoming a staple in many people’s closets. Ankara niche pages on social media platforms are a great place to stay current on the latest trends. So many brands sell ready-to-wear Ankara print clothing to keep up with the demand.
What is peculiar to Nigeria and Africa’s fashion ecosystem that one will find nowhere else?
Manufacturing Ankara print clothing in Africa is inexpensive and quick. Africans tend to create more detailed Ankara print looks and cheap labour plays a big part in this. This benefits the Ankara print ecosystem globally because ready-to-wear brands can manufacture in Africa and sell Ankara print clothing to customers at a lower cost.
Technology is redefining businesses and industries; how is it redefining fashion?
Technology is making fashion a virtual experience. It plays a role in product launch, marketing, and sales. Technology has helped to create awareness around movements such as #BuyBlack and #EndSARS. Technology has forced brands to be creative in promoting their products. Social media has introduced many people to Ankara print clothing brands. The Ankara print fashion industry has grown in popularity due to advancements in technology and social media.
Tell us about working with rap artist Cardi B. What did you take away from that experience?
It’s been a pleasure and honour working with Cardi B and her styling team. Jennifer Udechukwu, Cardi B’s assistant stylist, contacted me on Instagram in December 2019. She sent a message to my page saying she needed clothes for the rapper’s trip to Nigeria and Ghana. It was on such short notice, but I made it happen. Cardi B wore an orange gown with Ankara print piping detail from a designer selling on the All Things Ankara Marketplace.
Almost a year later, in November 2020, Jennifer contacted me again to say she needed Ankara print fabrics and accessories for a show Cardi B was doing with Facebook – ‘Cardi Tries Ballet’. Kollin Carter and one of her assistants Reva Bhatt selected a fabric from the All Things Ankara Shop and gold earrings from the All Things Ankara Marketplace. Cardi B wears the same fabric in the show that I designed the Ankaranista Suit from the Nikki Billie Jean Shop in 2017.
The main thing I took away from working with Cardi B and her styling team is that there is power in the tongue and it’s good to have people around you that speak positively into your brand. When Cardi B started gaining popularity in 2017 my creative director Troy Massa kept saying that I was going to work with her. Two years later, it happened.
What other celebrities have you worked with? Who is your ideal celebrity client?
As a fashion designer, I have worked with Jidenna, Yemi Alade, and DJ Tunez. As a fashion stylist, I have worked with Gizelle Bryant, Nadia Buari, Spice, Izzy Odigie, Mame Adjei, and Sky Landish. As a fashion director, I have worked with Cynthia Bailey, Ronke Raji, and Kollin Carter.
My dream celebrity client would be Janelle Monáe. I would love to design for Monae because she dresses with purpose. Monae has had a big influence on my style. She is the reason I love suits, and only wear and work with Ankara prints. Janelle mainly wears black and white as her uniform to pay homage to her working-class family. I wear Ankara prints to honour my African culture. I have not seen Monáe in many Ankara print outfits. I would love to make her a black and white Ankara print.
What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned in your field that: a) you wish you knew earlier? b) you’d love to pass on to aspiring designers?
One of the most valuable things I wish I knew earlier would be the importance of having a solid team. Like me, many entrepreneurs wear many hats. Having a team is essential for spreading the workload and building a solid brand.
Some valuable lessons I’ve learned that I’d like to pass on to designers – have faith, patience, consistency, and be professional.
If you are going to create a product:
1. Create a product that solves a problem
2. Sell your product at an affordable price and
3. Advertise that product with influencers and niche social media pages. I applied this to the All Things Ankara face mask I released at the onset of the pandemic in 2020, and it has been my most profitable product.