ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN TFW TIMES MAGAZINE
Article Published on: 10TH NOV 2023 | www.thailandfashionweek.org
With a burning passion to promote local and global access to the indigenous craftsmanship in centuries-old traditional handwoven textiles, precisely the Nigerian ‘Aso oke’ cloth, The Woven Market Africa brand was launched by Faika Philips, a Nigerian-born and raised Textile artist and Fashion entrepreneur with a background in Tech. Her background in technology provided her with a strong foundation in problem-solving, data analysis, and innovation. However, her motivation to enter the fashion space, particularly the traditional handwoven textile sector, came from a deep appreciation for craftsmanship, culture, and sustainability.
The initial stages of transitioning from tech to textiles were marked by a steep learning curve. Understanding the intricacies of the fashion industry, including textile production, design, and marketing, was a challenge. However, one of the key motivations behind this shift was a desire to make a positive impact in the area she was more passionate about - Fashion.
In 2020, about three years ago, Faika Philips decided to follow her passion and embark on a mission to build and impact lives through fashion. As a self-taught textile artist and fashion enthusiast, her work has empowered communities in Nigeria by providing decent employment to over 40 artisans, with a predominant focus on women. Collaborating with a team of skilled women artisans, they have collectively woven approximately 4,000 meters of handwoven cloth, granting women the opportunity to support their families and enjoy an improved standard of living. Faika's dedication to creating sustainable economic opportunities through her artistic endeavors underscores her commitment to positive social change within the communities she serves.
Recently, she decided to further expand the business to cover the interior design space with a focus on using natural fibre (cotton yarn) grown here in Nigeria. This is an ongoing project that is gradually gaining momentum among her client base with hopes for future partnerships with the Nigerian Ministry of Trade and Agriculture as she prepares to launch.
FOUNDING STORY AND MISSION OF WOVEN MARKET AFRICA (WMA)
Woven Market Africa is a social enterprise and production space built on the foundation of craftsmanship producing and promoting traditional textiles handwoven by skilled artisans from Nigeria using sustainable practice. TFW times COVER STORY THAILAND The brand was birthed by a strong desire to provide local and global access to these indigenous handwoven textile particularly the ‘Aso oke’ type and showcase the employment-harvesting nature of these textiles.
Over the years, WOVEN MARKET AFRICA (WMA) has supported local and global fashion brands and fashion buyers with beautifully crafted custom handwoven textiles. In doing so, they have created stable and dignified employment opportunities for artisans in several communities in Nigeria, enabling them to enjoy a decent standard of living and support their families.
JOURNEY OF FAIKA PHILIP
Faika Philips' journey as the creative director of Woven Market Africa has been a deeply rewarding and transformative experience. It all began with a mission for promoting and preserving the rich textile traditions of her country and a desire to make a positive impact on both the fashion industry and women in the weaving communities in South-West Nigeria.
In 2019, when Faika Philips' sister had just announced her wedding, Faika was so excited to be the stylist for the family, picking out the colours and what everyone would wear. It was something she was naturally passionate about from a very young age, so she was selected for the task. Faika began sourcing imported fabrics like lace and brocade from retailers, but she wasn't satisfied. She was bored with such fabrics and what was available in the markets. She wanted her sisters and herself to portray a glam look within every detail, texture, complementary colour, and pattern. She wanted them styled in an ensemble that no one would normally expect you to wear, especially as a wedding guest. That was when suddenly Faika heard a voice say to her, "Why not use one of the locally woven fabrics of your home country - 'Aso oke' instead of using imported lace fabric options most people will go for?"
Aso-Oke is the prestigious hand-woven cloth of the Yoruba ethnic group in southwestern Nigeria. It has been around for centuries, growing up, my mum and aunties had boxes filled with them, they would wear them as head wraps and shawls for special occasions and ceremonies such as weddings. Today, these handwoven textile has remained a key choice for most brides and grooms on their big day.
Faika Philips began sourcing in the markets and found modern and, permit her to say, upgraded versions of what she knew Aso Oke to be. This was where the learning process for her began. She would visit and sit with the retailers every other day to learn the patterns, colors, and weaving structure of each design. As she continued in learning, she noticed many gaps. Aso oke wasn't readily available in the colors she imagined, and most retailers weren't ready to go through the hassle and weren't patient enough to work with you to customize to your colors; they wanted to sell what they already had available. The quality of the fabric was also a challenge, probably because the retailers didn't have access to skilled local artisan weavers.
Additionally, Nigeria has a growing list of exceptionally talented and celebrated fashion designers and buyers. Nevertheless, a considerable number of them encountered restrictions in expanding their creative horizons because they did not have proper access to these quality indigenous cloth and many expressed a desire for a secure and reliable platform where they could place orders for tailor-made fabric designs, produced on a per-time basis, to meet their specific needs.
That was when the first mission for Woven Market Africa was created. As they continue to grow, the mission and vision for the brand expands. They have been led through many paths that have greatly impacted them and the fashion industry, which they didn't initially conceive in the earlier stages when they launched.
TRENDING FALL SEASON FABRICS
Building a brand centered around sustainability was a core principle because it was evident that these centuries-old fabrics already embodied the real essence of ethical fashion before the global need arose. It has been a beautiful thing to see that the craftsmanship keeps transcending generations and we will keep playing our part in preserving it.
In the initial steps, Faika Philips faced numerous challenges. She conducted extensive research to understand the intricacies of traditional weaving techniques and the cultural significance of these textiles. Faika also sought out skilled artisans who had inherited these age-old crafts, forming partnerships and collaborations that would be mutually beneficial.
Building relationships with local artisans was another significant challenge. These skilled craftsmen and women had a deep connection to their traditional techniques, and gaining their trust and collaboration required patience and respect for their expertise. Yet, these collaborations have evolved to form the essence and core of the brand.
Expanding their reach in the fashion industry presented its own set of challenges as well. Despite these challenges, the journey has been immensely rewarding for the brand. It has provided a platform for local artisans to showcase their talents and earn a fair income, thereby contributing to poverty alleviation and economic development in the regions where they operate.
Aso Oke is a traditional Nigerian fabric known for its rich cultural significance and exquisite craftsmanship. The name "Aso Oke" translates to "top cloth" or "cloth of high status," signifying its importance in Nigerian culture, particularly among the Yoruba people. This handwoven textile is a symbol of prestige, heritage, and tradition.
Aso Oke is primarily crafted from locally sourced cotton, silk, or synthetically produced yarns. The weaving process involves meticulous attention to detail, with skilled artisans using traditional wooden looms to create intricate patterns and designs. These patterns are often inspired by various elements of Yoruba culture, including nature, proverbs, and historical events, making each piece of Aso Oke a unique work of art.
The fabric is commonly used in Nigeria for special occasions and ceremonies, such as weddings, festivals, and traditional celebrations. It holds immense cultural and social significance, representing the wearer's status, family background, and even their mood or message for the occasion. Aso Oke is often made into garments like wrappers, gowns, and headgear, providing a vibrant and elegant touch to traditional Nigerian attire.
In recent years, Aso Oke has gained recognition and popularity not only within Nigeria but also on the global fashion stage, with designers incorporating its beauty and history into contemporary clothing and accessories. This textile continues to be a source of cultural pride and a connection to Nigeria's rich heritage.
THE FIRST STEP IN MAKING
Woven Market Africa’s weaving process begins with the selection of raw materials for the type of Aso Oke to be woven. For natural fibre - cotton, we spin the cotton fibre into threads using a spinning wheel and then wound onto bobbins. Prior to weaving if required, the threads are hand dyed into desired colours using synthetic or natural dyes.
IN-DEPTH: THE FABRIC
Could you describe the types of fabrics you commonly use in your work? Are there any unique or signature fabrics you prefer?
Woven Market Africa produces an indigenous artisanal traditional textile of the south western region of Nigeria called Aso oke, which means ‘Top Cloth’. There are many types and styles of Aso oke , however, as a brand we have strived over the years to expand its versatility, blending tradition with contemporary aesthetics by creating modern innovative designs and colour blends that appeal to the ever changing fashion trends. The most popular fabric we produce is the duotone Aso oke fabric woven with lurex metallic threads. It is a visually striking variation of the traditional Aso oke textile that incorporates two contrasting colours into its weaving pattern. It is appreciated for its modern appeal while maintaining its cultural significance and skillful craftsmanship. It is a popular choice for weddings, ceremonial outfits and contemporary clothing and accessories.
More recently, We started to explore and incorporate more sustainable and eco-friendly materials in our designs such as the use of natural fibres - locally grown cotton and organic dyes to further reduce the impact we have on the environment directly or indirectly. This forms the bases for our new collection of fashion accessories and home textile goods launching in a few weeks.
Fabric Sources -
Where do you source your fabrics? Do you have any preferred suppliers or regions you rely on?
We do not source the Aso oke fabrics itself, we make them. We have a team of local artisans here in western region of Nigeria who hand weave the fabrics locally. Fabric buyers source from us for their various fashion projects. Our raw materials such as threads are sourced from local suppliers and local farmers.
Fabric Characteristics -
What are the key characteristics of the fabrics you use? This could include texture, color range, durability, and any special features.
The major characteristic of the Aso oke fabric we produce is its handwoven texture, vibrant colour/patterns and longevity. It is slightly coarse as a result of its weaving process. Specifically, the cotton Aso oke fabric we produce has a longer life span when properly maintained as opposed to the other types of fabrics we produce such as the duotone metallic 'lurex' fabric. The cotton Aso oke fabric can be passed down through generations which is a major attribute of sustainability.
Fabric-Making Process -
Could you elaborate on your fabric-making process? What are the key steps involved, and are there any distinctive techniques or treatments you employ?
Our weaving process begins with selection of raw materials for the type of Aso Oke to be woven. For natural fibre - cotton, we spin the cotton fibre into threads using a spinning wheel and then wound onto bobbins. Prior to weaving and if required, the threads are hand dyed into desired colours using synthetic or natural dyes. The weaver then begins warping the loom, a process where the threads are set on a loom frame and arranged to the desired fabric width. The weft threads are then passed through the warp threads using a shuttle or stick while carefully beating down the weft threads after each passing. One of the distinctive approaches we employ to give a smoother and even fabric is maintaining a consistent and thorough beat as we weave. This ensures the weft is closely packed together. When making a more complex design, we manipulate the warp threads until we achieve the desired design. Once the weaving is complete, the fabric is made to pass through our post weaving treatment where the fabric is gently washed or cleaned to remove any stains or loose threads. The fabric then undergoes a final quality control check to ensure it meets the desired standard.
CHALLENGES FACED IN THE MAKING OF ASO OKE
In the fabric-making process, what are some of the common difficulties or challenges you encounter? How do you overcome them?
Ensuring consistent quality in each Aso Oke piece can be challenging because the fabrics are woven by hand, therefore errors are bound to happen sometimes. To overcome this, we implement strict quality control measures at every stage of the production, from material preparation to weaving and finishing. Another challenge we face is in the area of design complexities. Creating and replicating complex designs can be challenging. However, we have been able to overcome this by developing more pattern templates and effectively documenting designs as we go. We also use technology to assist weavers understand colour and pattern placements so that they can achieve a better precision.
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW OF FAIKA PHILIP WITH TFW TIMES
Q: What inspired WMA to focus on sustainable fashion and handwoven textiles in Nigeria?
A. As I became increasingly aware of the ethical issues within the fashion industry. I recognised that Nigeria's centuries-old rich textile heritage and the way it is produced fits almost perfectly in today’ need for sustainable fashion alternatives. I was also inspired by the opportunity to empower local artisans, 90% of whom are women.
Q: Can you elaborate on how WMA's business model empowers women in rural areas of Nigeria?
A. The participation of women in weaving forms a strong basis for women empowerment and employment generation in a country where women are often overlooked. Since 90% of our weavers are women, we recognised early on that empowering these women can have a profound impact on their economic and social well-being. This is why we are ever committed to the social enterprise model where we ensure that the women artisans receive fair wages and work in safe conditions. The profits made are invested back into the artisan communities. Just recently we made the decision to invest a percentage of the profit we make into their children’s education thereby breaking the cycle of poverty and illiteracy in such communities.
Q: What sustainable practices does WMA employ in the production of its textiles?
A. First, it is paramount to know that creating and enabling sustainable fashion is a journey, it is not a one-size fit. For some, it is a gradual process of transitioning fully. You have to identify changes you can make in your personal life and fashion brand to become a step closer to achieving these goals.
For us at Woven Market Africa, aside from the Social Enterprise model mentioned earlier, We are committed to the impact we make on the environment as well. Our fabrics are produced by hand using only traditional looms that require ZERO energy consumption i.e. ZERO CO2 emissions which in turn has ZERO negative impact on the environment. Note that there are many other types of traditional looms used in the textile industry that contribute to CO2 emissions. We also utilize energy-efficient equipment and practices where applicable, reducing the environmental footprint.
Secondly, we operate a Made-to-Order production model where no fabrics are stocked, we produce what is required at a time. This means we only weave the fabric when the customer’s order has been placed. This approach reduces waste as only what is ordered is produced. Choosing this model instill an appreciation for the time and effort that goes into weaving every yard of the fabric and a good reminder that things of value do take time.
Additionally, we have a range of handwoven fabric types we can produce, however, we operate a Service Based business model where we weave the exact fabric type, colour, and texture you want in the best timeline possible.
Think of it as a custom order. We get a sense of what our customers want at a time thus avoiding the waste that accompanies mass production. This allows the people who buy from us to appreciate the craft of the artisans. When you appreciate the work of an artisan, it encourages more productivity and passion.
Q: Could you describe the design philosophy and aesthetic of WMA's collections?
A. As a brand we have strived over the years to expand its versatility, blending tradition with contemporary aesthetics by creating modern innovative designs and colour blends that appeal to the ever-changing fashion trends. The most popular fabric we produce is the duotone Aso oke fabric woven with lurex metallic threads. It is a visually striking variation of the traditional Aso oke textile that incorporates two contrasting colours into its weaving pattern. It is appreciated for its modern appeal while maintaining its cultural significance and skilful craftsmanship. It is a popular choice for weddings, ceremonial outfits and contemporary clothing and accessories.
More recently, We started to explore and incorporate more sustainable and eco-friendly materials in our designs such as the use of natural fibres - locally grown cotton and organic dyes to further reduce the impact we have on the environment directly or indirectly. This forms the basis for our new collection of fashion accessories and home textile goods launching in a few weeks.
Q: How does WMA ensure the quality and authenticity of the handwoven textiles used in its products?
A. Ensuring consistent quality in our traditional fabrics is crucial to us. Although challenging, To overcome this we carefully select artisans with a strong background in traditional hand-weaving techniques.
We implement strict quality control measures at every stage of the production, from design to material preparation, to weaving and finishing. Creating and replicating complex designs can be challenging. However, we have been able to overcome this by developing more pattern templates and effectively documenting designs as we go. We also use technology to assist weavers in understanding colour and pattern placements so that they can achieve better precision. We also encourage feedback from customers and artisans. This feedback loop helps identify and address any quality or authenticity issues promptly.
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