“For me, sustainability means creating meaningful change in every point of your value chain”
Discussing the joys of Dakala cloth and transforming waste into beauty with Nkwo Onwuka
Nkwo Onwuka is addressing textile waste in Nigeria with Dakala cloth, which turns old clothes into a luxuriously woven textile that she uses to create her clever, unisex designs. This inventive material was shortlisted for the Design Museum’s Beazley Designs of the Year 2020 award and since then, she’s become an honouree of The Conscious Fashion Campaign, won in the Emerging Designer category at the CNMI Sustainable Fashion Awards in Milan and collaborated with Levi’s and Vitra at Dutch Design Week. Meanwhile her pieces continue to tour the world with the V&A’s Africa Fashion exhibition. These accolades are the fruits of the Abuja-based designer’s long-standing commitment to mindful design since launching Nkwo in 2007. She tells Assemblage about her community-driven approach to circular fashion.
How would you frame the problem of fast fashion in West Africa?
We don’t have any of the big chains but it arrives as second-hand rubbish at the markets. It has impacted our culture by ruining our textile industry and by forcing us to wear clothing we don’t identify with. But there’s an economy built up around it so if we ban it, what happens to all of the market traders? Plus, it’s a way for people like me to find a resource. We go there, pick it, use it, transform it and sell it.
How do you define sustainability?
For me, sustainability means creating meaningful change in every point of your value chain. It’s not enough to say, ‘Oh it’s handcrafted’. Are you supporting weavers or sourcing natural dyes or using your profits to help those around you? Nkwo has evolved into a mindful brand – it’s about taking everybody along with me.
Can you give an example of this approach in action?
I work with a group of women from an IDP camp in Abuja. I trained them for six weeks and ended up opening a centre where I employ all of them. It’s a safe space where they can work, laugh and bring their children, and when they go back to the camp they are superstars because they have a job.
What has been the evolution of Dakala cloth?
I started thinking about how I could prevent off-cuts, dead stock fabrics and old clothes from ending up in landfill by using them as a raw material. Through experimentation, I developed a technique of stripping, braiding and sewing together textile waste to form a new fabric that has the look and feel of our traditional woven fabrics. From there, we’ve developed a loom-spun version that launches in 2024 and we’ve done a Dakala cloth print for Wilding footwear. Next, we hope to develop it for an industrial-sized loom, which would be revolutionary.
Your new project ‘Transformables’ is also revolutionary.
Tell us more. We have a capsule collection of 20 items made from upcycled denim jeans and cotton shirts. The customer chooses the item they want, we tell them how many existing garments from their wardrobe they need to give us and we refashion them into the fresh look. And ‘In Our Hearts’ is a bespoke service creating something special out of agbadas and wrappers from people’s parents who have passed on. The goal is to become the leaders in re-use.
How do you reflect on the brand’s successes?
When I moved back from the UK to Nigeria in 2015, I had one sewing machine in the corner of the livingroom. Now I have 22 staff and we’ve achieved so much. I’m quietly building Nkwo to get to a position that proves you can be a kind brand and still make money.
You’re part of a swell of ethical fashion mavericks in Nigeria. Are you hopeful that you can have a global impact?
We already are. When I started this sustainable journey, no one even knew what that meant. Now the rest of the world is looking at us to see what we do. We’re creating amazing things from what we have around us. Africans tend to be quite communal so it comes naturally for us and together, we’re making a difference. Community has to be the fuel that fires what we do.