Vibrant. Complex. Versatile. These are some of the words that come to mind when we think of Ankara, one of Africa’s most popular fabrics. With Dutch and Indonesian roots, the fabric has come a long way from its reception in West Africa in the 1880s to invade global fashion during the last years.
Several things led to this invasion; a rebound of textile industries in Africa, affordability and availability of fabric, innovative designers and stylists and social media. Social media has democratized fashion and, in that sense, opened up a world of opportunity in a world it has made smaller. Fashion designer, stylist and founder of All things in AnkaraNicolette Orji, known as Nikki Billie Jean, knows something about it.
When Nicolette launched @allthingsankara on Instagram in August 2012, she had no idea it would lead to her working with one of America’s biggest stars seven years later. She just wanted to fill a void. There weren’t enough platforms showcasing African print fashion at the time, so she created what turned out to be a multi-faceted Ankara print fashion and entertainment brand, consisting of a online publication, shop and marketplace.
The platform has a considerable following on Instagram; it’s no surprise he caught the eye of American rapper Cardi B’s fashion team. Africa in Nigeria and Ghana. This message led to other collaborations and creative opportunities for Nicolette.
In this interview, Nicolette talks about 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?
During my sophomore year in college, I became vice president and events coordinator for the African Students Association of Penn State Altoona (ASA), for the 2010-2011 school year. The Penn State Altoona ASA hosts an annual event called Taste of Africa towards the end of the school year and had the pleasure of being the fashion show coordinator. I enjoyed putting on the show and working with formal wear/Ankara couture.
After the fashion show, I realized that I wanted to work more with Ankara prints. I started doing a lot of research online to learn more about the print fashion culture in Ankara. I also follow the Ankara print inspired pages on Tumblr to stay on top of trends.
During my senior year in college, I went to my Ankara print fashion page on Tumblr and realized the page had disappeared. I looked for similar pages on Tumblr and Instagram but none were up to scratch. Once I noticed that there were not enough posts dedicated to Ankara print fashion, I started All Things Ankara on Instagram on August 9, 2012.
How is working in fashion different today compared to when you started?
10 years ago when I started working in the fashion industry, the Ankara print was just beginning to gain popularity around the world. One had to visit an online blog to keep up to date with the latest news and trends. There weren’t many publications dedicated to print and fashion. Few brands were selling ready-to-wear Ankara print clothes. 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’s niche pages on social media platforms are a great place to catch up on the latest trends. So many brands sell ready-to-wear Ankara print clothing to meet demand.
What is special about the fashion ecosystem in Nigeria and Africa that cannot be found anywhere else?
Making Ankara print clothing in Africa is cheap and fast. Africans tend to create more detailed Ankara print looks and cheap labor plays an important role in this. This benefits the Ankara print ecosystem globally, as ready-to-wear brands can manufacture in Africa and sell Ankara print garments to customers at a lower cost.
Technology is redefining businesses and industries; how does she redefine fashion?
Technology makes fashion a virtual experience. He plays a role in product launch, marketing and sales. Technology has helped create awareness around movements such as #BuyBlack and #EndSARS. Technology has forced brands to get creative in promoting their products. Social media 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 your collaboration with rap artist Cardi B. What did you learn from this experience?
It was a pleasure and an honor to work with Cardi B and her team of stylists. Jennifer Udechukwu, Cardi B’s styling assistant, contacted me on Instagram in December 2019. She messaged my page saying she needed clothes for the rapper’s trip to Nigeria and Ghana. It was on such short notice, but I did it. Cardi B wore an orange dress with Ankara printed piping details from a designer selling at All Things Ankara Market.
Almost a year later, in November 2020, Jennifer contacted me again to tell me that she needed Ankara print fabrics and accessories for a show Cardi B was doing with Facebook – ‘Cardi Tries Ballet’. Kollin Carter and one of his assistants Reva Bhatt selected a fabric from All Things Ankara Shop and gold earrings from All Things Ankara market. Cardi B wears the same fabric in the show I designed the Nikki Billie Jean Shop’s Ankaranista costume in 2017.
The main thing I took away from working with Cardi B and her style team is that there is power in language and it is good to have people around you who speak positively about your mark. When Cardi B started gaining popularity in 2017, my creative director Troy Massa kept saying 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 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 fashion director, I 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 had a big influence on my style. She’s the reason I love suits, and I only wear and work with Ankara prints. Janelle mainly wears black and white as a uniform to pay homage to her working-class family. I wear Ankara prints to honor my African culture. I haven’t seen Monáe in many outfits printed in Ankara. I would love to make her a black and white Ankara print.
What is the most valuable thing you have learned in your field that: a) you wish you had known sooner? b) would you like to pass on to budding designers?
One of the most valuable things I wish I had known earlier would be the importance of having a strong team. Like me, many entrepreneurs wear many hats. Having a team is key to spreading the workload and building a strong 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 this product with influencers and niche social media pages. I applied it to the All Things Ankara face mask that I released at the start of the pandemic in 2020, and it’s my highest-grossing product.