meet the designer dressing sydney's african communities
Behind the scenes at Blessing's Trendy B Fashion Festival.
photography louise wheelan.
Blessing Chionye Azolibe is a sweetly-named young Nigerian designer living in Blacktown, a distinctively multicultural suburb 30km west of central Sydney. Moving there in 2009 with her family after finishing high school in Africa, Blessing was drawn to her sewing machine as an outlet for her creativity and naturally developed a reputation as an intuitive and creative clothier in her new neighbourhood. In a community more accustomed to tailor-made outfits than to buying off-the-rack, Blessing's skills are in demand, especially at parties, where it's not uncommon for her to dress multiple guests. Basically, if you're in the vicinity, you're more than likely going to see people wearing Blessing's creations, which typically incorporate traditional colourful fabrics and shapes in flattering, contemporary pieces.
As Blessing's reputation has spread via the word of mouth of satisfied customers, her love of fashion and design has bloomed. Keen to take it further, she recently organised a fashion show for the community, making all the outfits worn by the models and dressing many people in the audience also. In total she made over 50 outfits for the event, each of them custom-fit to the wearer, an ambitious feat that she executed with relative ease. With award-winning documentary photographer Louise Wheelan on hand to capture the event, we spoke to Blessings about her parade and the importance of clothes as a connection to culture.
Can you tell us how you came to be a sought-after designer and tailor in your neighbourhood.
I actually started designing clothes in Nigeria. I did an internship in 2006 and have just always had a flare for sewing. Basically, in Nigeria no one buys their clothes, instead we go to the tailor to make our dresses but I am never satisfied. I would always pull the clothes apart and start stitching them up again. When we came to Australia I'd sew in the garage, making dresses, and people liked them and would ask me to make clothes for them too. It really just spread from there. I started with the Sudanese community and then expanded to the Nigerian community, which helped me break into the Liberian community as well. It's actually a bit difficult to break into other communities, they have to trust you first.
Can you tell us about the fashion parade you held recently.
Actually I had my first fashion show in 2011, really to see how it would go. I had this dream but had no idea how I was going to achieve it - I had only been in Australia for two years. I just knew I needed to do this. So, I recruited some of my friends and showed some of my designs and people loved it. I did another show in 2015 then the one this year. This year I wanted to make the clothes with a futuristic theme, kind of robotic designs like Lady Gaga might wear. I couldn't really get the kind of material I wanted to work with though so had to tone down the really wild ideas in my head a little.
I can see the futuristic elements but there is a lot that seems traditional about the designs too.
I've really been noticing that a lot of celebrities are dressing in the African prints and designs recently - at fashion week we're seeing tribal prints - the African dress is becoming really popular. But the funny thing is, a lot of young Africans feel embarrassed to wear the African costume. They think that people will look at them strangely at school or work. I'm saying we need to be proud of what we wear. The fact that celebrities are embracing it is good in a way, it will make it ok for young people to endorse the African material and more likely to stand up and say this is where I come from and what I represent. That's where my dream came from, I'm taking it into the future. I'm trying to mix up the African and Western styles so that everyone might think it's something they could wear.
That's a positive way to look at it.
Well on the other hand, a lot of people don't know how beautiful our fabrics and designs are. Often people will just take bits and pieces from the culture - I do get offended at how we are misrepresented sometimes. People need to see more, we are very under-represented.
It's really great that you're bringing that tradition into your work. Do your designs appeal to different ages?
I make designs that are quite exposing, I'm not too conservative in that sense but I do have limitations so the clothes appeal to people of different ages. My mum will tell me about fabrics she would wear when she was young and I'm still using them in my clothes so it's nice to be able to continue those traditions too.
Your models were amazing, where did they come from?
Only one or two were professional models, others were just friends of friends. I wanted a particular look and didn't want anyone overly skinny. I picked a mixture of very slim and some big, curvy plus sized models too.
The whole event just seemed like a great celebration of your clothes and culture. Where can people get your designs?
I have a shop in Rooty Hill but right now I'm studying so only have time to take orders. Once I'm finished my course though I want to think about showing at fashion week around the world. That would be my dream.
Photography Louise Wheelan