Lolu Vangei had initially wanted to be a model but, due to their height of 5ft 3in (although they say they'd prefer to think of themself as 5ft 4in), a career in modeling didn't seem possible. So, they decided to make clothes that not only mirrored their fashion sensibilities but also aligned with their identity as a non-binary person.
Now aged 23, Lolu is the creative director and owner of their own brand, Vangei, a genderless fashion label based in Lagos, Nigeria. Homosexuality remains illegal in Nigeria, and violence and intolerance towards the LGBTQ+ community are commonplace. As Vangei is one of very few fashion brands owned by an openly queer Nigerian, Lolu wants to highlight how important it is for there to be companies making clothing for people whose identities don't fit into binaries.
‘At first, I started with African wears – skirts and blouses made from African wax print, but it was never really my thing,’ says Lolu. It was around that time that they began, through the help of social media, to learn more about the boundless possibilities of fashion. As a non-binary person, having to figure out the correct sizing when shopping for gendered clothing was a chore, so it made sense to create a brand deconstructing the very confines of fashion that they experienced first hand – essentially, making clothing anyone can wear.
The label was launched officially in January 2020, when Lolu started to market clothing that they'd made for themself. ‘In no time, my friends began to ask me to make something for them,’ says Lolu. Since these requests started pouring in, the brand's biggest marketing strategy has been referrals. Lolu styles themself and models their own pieces in lookbooks and finds people in the queer community in Nigeria to act as muses for new designs.
Starting a business as an openly queer person isn't easy in a country where LGBTQ+ rights are legally restricted. It can be near impossible to secure funding and difficult to find support from people outside the queer community, many of whom don't want to be publicly associated with the business. ‘I've had to find most of the resources and fund myself,’ says Lolu. Despite that lack of support, Lolu is committed to their mission and putting their own identity at the heart of the brand.
Saying something with what you do
At Vangei, a custom order takes seven to 10 days to process and involves working closely with the client, creating mood boards, sketching potential designs and selecting the material. ‘It genuinely means a lot more to me that my community sees me for who I am and appreciates my work. When you're trying to provide a solution for yourself, you also want to know that solution is benefiting others, because I knew I wasn't the only one facing the trouble of finding the right thing to wear,’ says Lolu. ‘Even though [as queer Nigerians] we don't [always] have a voice to speak for ourselves, I'm able to speak through my clothes.’
Something that Lolu has learned since starting their business is that ‘as an independent queer fashion designer, as much as we want everyone to appreciate our style, it's sometimes not possible. Essentially, not all your products will sell out when they're initially released,’ says Lolu. There's also the issue of people comparing the price of their brand with more established designers while forgetting that Vangei is still a small business.
‘I believe in my goals so much that I'm almost delusional. I advise people to take inspiration and learn from insight. Look at mood boards, check for inspirations everywhere and utilize them. Don't be afraid to reach out to people and bring their notice to your brand,’ Lolu says.
In the not-too-distant future, Lolu hopes that Vangei will be a sought-after brand for editorials and other outlets, while remaining accessible to people who are just looking for something to wear. As Lolu says, ‘I believe in a world where, if you don't know Vangei, you're probably sleeping. Owning Vangei will seem like owning a [luxury tote bag] Birkin. That's where I see Vangei in the near future.’