The number 419 refers to the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code dealing with fraud, as well as its associated charges and penalties. It also refers to a collective of three London-based designers, Olubiyi Thomas, Foday Dumbuya and Daniel Olatunji, who find common ground in an innately African craftsmanship and craftiness – the very same as used by the collective’s namesake fraudsters to create perfect illusions of success. Marginalised, often maligned, the fraudster is forced to rely on their creative ingenuity – and an eye for detail – to forge alternative modes of thriving. This is just what the 419 designers do through their respective brands: Olubiyi Thomas, Labrum London, and Monad London.
Working to undermine toxic stereotypes of Africa, the collective invites the fashion public into seeing the continent as a place where so much had already been done before the arrival of the first white colonisers. 419 breaks the ready-made mould of African diaspora fashion; the one in which a proud, plural history is reduced to a pageant of smiling ladies in Dutch wax print wraps. And it’s through textiles that they manage to do so, skillfully subverting the implicitly racist expectations of what their work should be.
Take the cotton used in Monad London’s collections: hand- woven by Fulani artisans, practitioners of a centuries-old craft, the material’s production is limited to the man-hours the weavers have to hand. The cloth is then taken to the Kofar Mata dye pits, first founded about a millennium ago in Kano, the capital of Nigeria’s North, and first found by colonisers about 400 years later. There, they are coloured in a range of hues, among them an indigo that even the Japanese would mistake for their own.
Two of fashion’s eminent black voices, art director Olu Odukoya and stylist Ibrahim Kamara, translated the 419 ethos into images that exude the same sense of cunning and craft. Just as with 419’s fabrics, the two creatives spun a narrative – shot in London and with a Lamborghini in full-focus – that presents a spitting image of Western luxury. But the garments in their story don’t actually exist, forged for the sake of producing an impression, never to actually be bought. Ultimately, they demonstrate that anyone can make it to the top of the game – you just have to take rulemaking into your own hands.