Supermodel Naomi Campbell has been turning heads since she first started modeling in the 1980s. But for Nigerian fashion designer Chukwuma Ian Audifferen, her appearance at the Arise Fashion Week “30 Under 30” showcase got his attention for another reason.
“Naomi Campbell closed the runway show in my piece and it was sublime,” said Audifferen of the December event, which celebrates young African designers.
The 30-year-old said he was “startled” when he saw the supermodel strutting down the runway in Lagos, Nigeria in the geometric-patterned poncho. “I had no idea that she was going to wear my piece. She just looked like perfection.”
In a hyper-competitive industry, the “surreal” moment is cemented in Audifferen’s mind as one of his career highlights.
“It was one of those moments that made fashion so worthwhile for me,” he said.
From backstage to onstage
Audifferen didn’t always want to be a designer. After high school, he studied microbiology at the University of Lagos – a career he said his father was keen for him to pursue.
But Audifferen’s interests didn’t lie in lab work, and during his studies, he interned for Lagos Fashion Week and Arise Fashion Week, a competition for young designers hosted by Nigerian media group Arise. It gave him a taste of the fashion world – and he was eager for more.
After graduation, Audifferen began making shirts. “(People) bought these items off my back,” he said. “I’d wear a shirt that I had made to an event or somewhere, and they would just want it.”
That’s when he decided to put together a small collection, and in 2014 he founded Tzar Studios. The initial designs were “resplendent and flamboyant” he said, with a variety of bold and clashing prints and colors. Initially focused on menswear and androgynous unisex pieces, in 2018 Audifferen also began working on womenswear.
Now, his designs are more minimalist: “The Tzar Studios ethos is pretty much comfort and functionality,” he said. “I believe that when you’re comfortable in your clothing, it’s a confidence booster.”
That year, he returned to Arise Fashion Week – but this time, as a designer. “I had worked backstage and coordinated the models; fast-forward years later, I’m on the runway showcasing my pieces. I see that as growth,” he said.
After his first appearance on the runway in 2018, Audifferen says his designs started to get more recognition. Featured in magazines including Vogue and Genevieve, his work began attracting the attention of Lagos’s fashion-savvy socialites.
Nigeria’s flourishing fashion industry
Audifferen is now a key player in Nigeria’s flourishing fashion scene, where an increasing number of young designers are taking the spotlight. Of the 30 designers selected for the Covid-compliant Arise Fashion Week in December 2020, 23 were Nigerian, including Audifferen.
Arise Fashion Week is an important event to help elevate these designers and give their work global exposure, Naomi Campbell told CNN.
“I feel that it’s been long going on for too long, that designers on the continent have not gotten a platform in the fashion capitals of the world,” said Campbell. “Fashion is not supposed to discriminate, yet we have excluded this part of the world and other emerging markets.”
Campbell has long been a champion of African designers and creatives, using her star power to bring international attention to events like Arise, and its young designers. Campbell is “excited” by the unique work coming from African designers, which is “stuff that’s not everywhere else.”
“They need to know that they’re recognized and appreciated in the world of creative fashion, like all the other young rising stars in fashion capitals,” Campbell said.
While the 2020 showcase was won by fellow Nigerian designer Kenneth Ize, Audifferen said the event was “amazing” and Campbell wearing his design on the runway – which he has now renamed the “Naomi poncho” – reminded him why he persevered in fashion for the past decade.
“It’s so easy to quit. It’s so easy to say, ‘Oh, I’m done, this is too much,’ because it is overwhelming,” Audifferen said. “But moments like that make it worthwhile. You literally live for moments like that.”