NKWO | Transforming the Fashion Economy


The weekend of May 18th, artisanal brand NKWO officially released their transformables collection – an initiative to promote circularity in the fashion industry and help to shape consumer mentalities. Here, we talk with the brands’ lovely founder and creative director, Nkwo Onwuka, about how this initiative went down, sustainability in the industry, and future visions for a less wasteful, more inclusive fashion future.

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NKWO, a Nigerian artisanal brand, is more than a hub of beautifully designed, creatively paneled articles of clothing and shoes. The brand – which takes pride in its bold Nigerien inspired textiles and patterns – also doubles as a sustainable network, dedicated to the conservation of natural resources, with environmental wellbeing as the label’s core priority.


Over the last decade, NKWO has been a channel for sustainable advocacy and change. Closely partnered with local artisans across the African continent, designs are sustainably produced through hand crafted methods, like hand dyeing, weaving, beading, and embroidery. The brand is also responsible for a series of sustainable initiatives, most recently revealing a “Transformables” capsule, where people can send in their old jeans or cotton shirts to be repurposed and reborn, spun into an evocative new garment. 


Here, we talked with the creative director of the NKWO Design Studio, Ms. Nkwo Onwuka herself, about her brand, visions for a sustainable future, upcoming Transformables drop, and so much more.


What was the inspiration behind NKWO's launch? Was sustainability always a forefront thought?


The brand’s been going for quite a while. I started it way back in 2007, back then it was still very hand-crafted and artisanal, but it wasn’t intentional. In 2012, it became intentionally about preserving our culture, working with artisans, being cleaner. So that is sort of where the inspiration came from.


I lived in the UK at the time, so every time I would come back to Nigeria or anywhere in Africa, I would always go to the craft market. What I found was a lot of the artisans were actually maybe the last in their line of craft or there weren't very many people doing the activities anymore. There was also the fact that we have inadequate waste management systems – so we have a lot of small scale ateliers, independent designers, tailors, and there’s loads and loads of fabric waste everywhere. 


Somehow, I just thought about bridging the gap between the two. If we use waste as a resource we could keep our traditional craft skills alive – like weaving, and other hand-craft feels. That’s sort of how this new version of the brand came about. Really just making sure we preserve our culture, but at the same time we deal with this problem of waste that we have.


On your instagram page, I read a beautiful caption about the utility and importance of indigenous fabrics in Africa -- that they all tell a personal story. I love this notion of fabrics as holding this degree of depth -- I think if everyone could look at fabrics this way, it would do the industry a lot of good. Can you talk more about how your heritage and culture influences your work? Creative process?


There is a sort of funny story. I grew up in England, and came back to Nigeria when I was ten. But, before I came back, everything I knew about Africa was wildlife, swinging in the trees, that kind of thing. So when we came back to Nigeria, I was so shocked that we actually lived in a house and we didn’t live in a mud hut. I remember my younger brother and I running everywhere looking for wild animals and we couldn’t find any. I was like, this is terrible – because I am African, my parents are African and yet I’m still seeing Africa as the sort of “wild place.” 


So I just felt like it was really important to tell our story how it really is, not from a colonial kind of way of reasoning where the story is not even true. In all my collections, I always try to find the positive stories of Africa to tell through my work. For me, one of those really positive stories is how we grow cotton. It goes from nothing – from a seed – it turns into this amazing thing that we’re wearing. I just felt that it was really important to tell that story through my clothes, whether it’s through the weaving, or the beading, or the embroidery, the things that we do with our hands. We are not this place where there is nothing; there is so much here. We have a wealth of everything, it is just that nobody sees it, or that story isn’t told. It was important for me to keep that culture, keep that heritage, keep all of it, and tell it through my collection. Fashion is a way to reach a huge amount of people.


Can you tell us about some of your past sustainability initiatives that you are most proud of or which you believe were most successful?


I’ve got two. The first one is the Dakala cloth. This was the start of me using our waste as a resource to keep our skills alive. I was getting ready for fashion week and the fabrics that I wanted I couldn’t get. I saw all of these scraps of things in the house and thought “what can I do with it?” So I started to strip and sew back the denim in a particular way and, when I’d done it, from a distance, it kind of looked like woven fabric. I thought that this was something new that we could do to deal with the problem of waste that we have. It sort of morphed into something that has gone beyond just stripping and stitching. We strip and we braid and we turn it into panels. Those panels are joined together to make clothes. The third step was we started actually weaving it on the traditional loom. So the textile craftsmanship that we traditionally have, I just kind of moved it on into the future. These skills live in every generation and they don’t die. If in this generation our problem is waste, then we need to find out how to use those skills to deal with waste. Inventing Dakala cloth was one of my most exciting initiatives I’ve done.


The second one would be my Transform project. So I have a group of women from an IDP (Internally Displaced Person) camp. We have an insurgency in the northeast of our country, and these women have been driven away from their ancestral homes and they are just in camps. What tends to happen is a lot of charities will go into the camps and teach the women how to do things, but then don’t give them a root to market. So what’s the point?


I went in hoping to get two or three women who would train and come and work with us in the office. But ten women signed up and they stayed. After the six weeks training, I couldn’t just leave them. So I found a space and I employed them. We started off with ten, now we have 15. We’ve taught them how to weave with waste, how to do cushions, all sorts of things with waste. And our biggest project was last year, we had a collaboration with a shoe brand in Germany. We made natural fiber trimming on the shoes. The women made enough for 5,000 pairs of shoes. So this money comes in and it keeps the project going and it helps the women support their families. With time, we’re trying to get all of them out of the camps so they can come back into society like everybody else.


I recently read about the Transformables initiative your team is in the midst of launching -- such a fun and creative way to tackle industry waste. Can you tell us more about the transformables initiative? How, exactly, will it work? What do you hope to achieve through this capsule?


Let me just tell you, we launched it this weekend and it was brilliant. We had mountains of jeans that people brought in, we were very pleased that it worked.


The Transformables is a system of what I call refirst retail. We have this problem of waste where people wear clothes and throw them away and landfills are getting full. But then, you also hear people saying “Stop buying, don’t buy anything.” You can’t stop people from buying – it’s not possible. And if people do stop buying, then there’s this whole gap, people lose jobs, all kinds of things would be lost. So I just thought, why don’t we bring back our old clothes and buy a collection by choosing what you want and having your old clothes turned into that thing. I did a capsule collection of about 20 items – jackets, skirts, bags, stuffed toys – to encourage people to bring their old things and choose from that and get something new made.


This whole system tells you information like how many pairs of jeans you will need to bring. It’s just kind of a different way of shopping. Instead of coming and picking, you have to bring something in and choose what you want and what you bring will be turned into that item of clothing. 


It feeds into the whole idea of circularity, and closing the loop. I feel that it’s something that could be done, an idea that could really actually expand. Just for example, you know how in Africa, in the Global South, a lot of unwanted clothing from the Global North is being dumped here. So, what if, there was this system where all of the countries could work together. If things from the Global North come to us, we have factories, manufacturers, and all of that which we can use to sort these clothes and make them into new things. Then we could send them back. That way, it’s not really causing a problem for us, and people who shop can keep shopping; people who need jobs can get jobs. It’s very idealistic, but it is something that really could work. 


That’s really what it’s all about. Transformables is a pilot scheme and I am trying to see if it can be expanded and worked on everywhere.


How do you make sure your sustainable practice stays relevant in an ever-changing retail environment?


Well, you see the world is not completely moving towards sustainability. And because I am one of the pioneers in Nigeria, it’s sort of like virgin territory – nobody’s been there. So if you’re ahead, you can sort of come up with schemes and ideas and other people follow because they don’t have anywhere else to go. Because it’s really a new space, I am already in a place that is constantly changing. 


I feel like I stay relevant because I am ahead, like Stella McCartney. Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood, actually inspired me. I used to read about this thing about how they were trying to do good for the planet, for people, and they were ahead of everyone else. You can sort of own that space. People start looking up to you to see what you’re doing next, where this is going. I think that is how I stay relevant in this. Together with the fact that I make sure everything I do is accessible. It’s not frightening, and it’s not capital intensive. It’s easy for people to understand and to buy into the idea.


What are you excited about? In the industry? Your brand?


What I am really excited about is my Transformables, because the response was great. I was shocked. People were bringing in their jeans and they were so excited. I am really trying to pivot to a total model of reuse, where everything that we make and sell is something that has existed before; it’s not brand new fabric. So this gives me hope. And it also shows that we can drive consumer behavior, if you do it in a way that they feel a part of it. 


The fashion industry, I don’t find exciting. They tend to say things, but don’t actually do it. Remember during the pandemic, everyone was like “Oh my God, I’m not going to do collections anymore?” But now, they’re all back to the same thing. And there are like 60 looks in a show, 100 looks in a show. What for? I feel like the fashion industry is wishy-washy, they say what they don’t mean. I don’t pay them much attention. I just get on and do what I do


All Images:

+ Words:
Tori Palone
Luxiders Magazine