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Fashion functions protest within the Nigerian Alte movement
@dunsinwright via Instagram

How fashion acts as protest within the Nigerian alté movement

A new, politically-engaged generation are pushing the boundaries of style and using fashion to challenge the country’s conservative establishment

It’s often easy to tell where a young Nigerian’s social or political allegiances lie just by looking at the clothes they choose to wear. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume that someone is a feminist or champion of body positivity if you see them wearing an ArtxJuju shirt boldy printed with the words “Member, Feminist Coven”. More ubiquitous items, like an ankle chains, openly-displayed tattoos, or a radical dye-job also point to someone who supports equal rights for women and the LGBTQ+ community.

Those wearing looks such as these point to a bold individual, given that to publicly identify as a feminist in Nigeria is to be singled out as a member of an antagonistic social movement that continues to grow – despite cultural and institutional disapproval, and sometimes even violence.

While members of Nigeria's alté movement don't necessarily wear their affiliations plastered across their chest, the style is easy to spot if you know where to look. It's also linked by the same strand of freedom that underpins the place of fashion within the Nigerian feminist movement. This is the ethos that sits at the heart of the alté movement; a collective that has become a vital part of Nigeria’s youth culture since 2014. 

Coined from the word alternative, the alté movement is a concept that thrives on people existing – through various creative outlets and even within their own existences – outside of what is considered conventional or socially acceptable. In music, it is a specific kind of genre that experiments with sound and meshes existing music styles to birth an entirely new form. Think artists and groups such as Santi, Odunsi, DRB Lasgidi.

However, in fashion, it’s primarily about defiance and expressing style without any rules, except for the ones laid down by oneself. This is an especially interesting concept given that one of the methods the Nigerian establishment uses to enforce conservative values is through subtly dictating how a young person should dress – anything outside of that can attract trouble ranging from criminal profiling to a limited rate of social access. Alté fashion celebrates an individualistic approach to style rather than the communal expectations of it.

“Fashion within the ‘alté’ movement has really taken up a life of its own. It transcends our borders, culture, and even time. I see people increasingly unafraid to express their most authentic selves through the clothes they wear,” consultant and creative director Dunsin Wright tells Dazed. “People are having more fun with it now and not taking it too seriously – which I  believe is a prerequisite to discovering your truest style.” 

“I ask myself, what would I wear If I was a Nollywood bad boy ruling my school’s campus in the year 2000 and then I get dressed” – Bryan Ibeh

One could argue that fashion within Nigeria’s alté movement is a combination of all things that define alternative fashion, and they would be right. The fashion sense within the alté community is gothic but also derives its influences from Y2K fashion. It’s pairing a loose-fitting Ankara shirt with a knitted ski mask. It’s grunge but with an intensely Nigerian twist. But, for some Nigerians, it’s hard to define or compartmentalise.

Stylist Shalewa Badiru also supports the idea that alté fashion is impossible to fit into specific boxes. “I don’t think alte fashion can be categorised. Fashion is an extension of self and a universal language that connects people all over the world. I believe that there are people in the world that are more intentional when it comes to how they dress so if that is the definition of alté I understand.” 

Although members of the alté community tend to source clothing from different means and try to be sustainably conscious by wearing old clothes in new ways, brands like WAFFLESNCREAM, Severe Nature, and the newly-launched provocative brand Pith are at the heart of the community. “We embrace the alternative aesthetics and hope to inspire more young creatives to think differently in their separate fields of creativity – not restricted by singular perceived ideals of the concept,” says Ojeman Cosmas, co-founder of the latter.

“I would say my style is a lot of things. It’d be hard to find the words to really pin it down and describe it accurately,” creative director and filmmaker Bryan Ibeh explains. “I definitely like to keep it sexy but playful and innovative. I sometimes imagine myself as a video game avatar and so I just throw on stuff that I think looks cool and creates a unique character.” He adds that his inspiration comes from vintage Nigerian movies made in the 90s and early 2000s. “I ask myself, what would I wear If I was a Nollywood bad boy ruling my school’s campus in the year 2000 and then I get dressed.” 

Starting out as a fringe movement, alté fashion, or several iterations of it, are now how a large number of young Nigerians decide to express their style. It is editorial make-up and colorful hair. It is theatrical hairstyles and tops that barely conceal. It is (really high) heeled boots, and expressive hats and belts, even fur. It is nail polish on the fingers of boys and those who identify as male –  the list goes on. 

It makes sense that the movement is becoming more mainstream, as young Nigerians are beginning to embrace the possibility of freedom. In the last four years, the country’s youth have committed to movements and protests that are helping to destabilise harmful laws and unjust government practices. The End Sars movement, for instance, which took place in October 2020, was a pivotal moment that saw young Nigerians protesting not just against police brutality, but for the freedom to express themselves through their sense of fashion without being profiled as criminals. 

“I draw a lot of confidence from my style. When I dress up in the way I want to, that’s when I have the most fun and when I feel like myself the most and I think that’s what freedom through style is” – Dunsin Wright

“Freedom to me is being in control of your own choices,” Badiru says. “It’s important in this climate because of the restrictions we face all over the world and in our own homes. From the End Sars movement to Twitter being banned in Nigeria, freedom of expression is a valuable currency. The fact that we get the opportunity every morning to tell a story or make a statement through the way we dress will always be important. The LGBTQ+ community risks their lives every day to express themselves. This is a testament to the importance of freedom.”

Wright also believes that alté fashion allows for freedom, but argues that the current social-cultural hindrances in Nigeria make expressing that freedom rather hard sometimes. “Our country is still not always so accepting of things or people that are different, so you find that the word (freedom) is sometimes used as derogatory, turning every creative into a monolith so it’s easier for them to understand, so, for people looking at it from a mainstream perspective, it probably doesn’t mean freedom just yet,” she explains.

Positively, it looks like young Nigerians will persist. Ibeh speaks for himself and others just like him, concluding: “I draw a lot of confidence from my style. When I dress up in the way I want to, that’s when I have the most fun and when I feel like myself the most and I think that’s what freedom through style is.”