Image 1: Versage
Image 2: Lagos, Nigeria
Image 3: Guangzhou, China
Image 4: Kaduna, Nigeria
I call the Nigerian cheap knock-off copied designer street-wear aesthetic Versage because this is how it is often written. No one else calls it that; some people call it Versasse, with a hissed s, or Vers-ah-CH with a hard /ʧ/. The original Versage features the iconic motif of the golden Versace Medusa head, but completely reinvented: blown up or boiled down, twisted into swirling spirals across cheap polyester, shrunk into pointillistic designs on t-shirts, or plastic buttons lining the thick rubber straps of shower shoes.
Versage is not Versace and it isn’t pretending to be Versace. It is nodding to the bling, to something both fancy and fanciful. But it is also just a pattern, one of the myriad loud prints that the creators and purveyors of taste in Lagos play with as they riff on the style. Versage is a distinctly Nigerian creation, and one that is made in ChinAfrika. It alludes to Western styles, American hip-hop or European designers. But the look is then tweaked to fit Nigerian taste: more bombastic, more patterned…just more.
“Nigerians in their own way like to emulate you know? We like to learn. Everywhere we are we just look at what entices our eyes and kind of put it on to try it then we keep wearing it and we’ll kind of think if we can change it this way it can be also nice. Add a little cultural something in it. So we are, how will I say it, we are inquisitive when it comes to fashion, curious. And we are also creative. We steal, we change, we make some changes, and add things to it. “
– Chibuzo, a shoe designer and businessman from Imo state in Eastern Nigeria, currently living in Guangzhou.
“Any person that is into fashion will not lack. Because somebody must put on clothes and people like to dress well, especially Nigerians they like to dress well. If you put on nice clothes it will give you joy. No matter how much you have in your pocket, you may not have anything, but when you dress neat, then you derive joy from keeping yourself neat, wearing clothes. So in Nigeria, in Africa you must wear clothes and anyone who sells clothes must surely take care of himself and family.”
-Daniel, a fashion designer who has lived in China for 15 years.
The Pearl River Delta in Southern China has been called the factory floor of the world. Since 1979 the region has had annual growth rates over 13%, making it the fastest growing region in the fastest growing economy in the world. This growth has been based on manufacturing and production—consumption, ultimately. This is where things are made. Most of the stuff in the world comes from here, especially in fashion. China produces and exports the most garments of anywhere in the world, three times as much as India, the second largest producer.
Guangzhou is a factory city. It is the textile hub of the Pearl River Delta. Forklifts drive down the streets like they are inside a warehouse. There is stuff everywhere. People wander down sidewalks balancing massive bags of clothes on their shoulders, a spare pair of jeans dangling out. Vendors push carts with bags and bales and boxes down the sidewalk. Mint green satchels are stuffed for shipping, they litter plazas and sidewalks, half open, or tied tight.
The Nigerians behind Versage are designers and curators of the aesthetic. The curators walk through wholesale shopping plazas, digging through boutiques, discarding the shirts for the Asian market—too small, too plain—or for the American market—too expensive—to find the clothes that look Nigerian. Trends come and go. Fast fast fast. As the Naira devaluated, their buying power became more and more feeble. In the giant wholesale plazas that feed everywhere in the world, you can see starkly where Nigerian fashion falls in the global hierarchy: the bottom. Anthropologist Gordon Mathews calls the supply chains behind Versage “low-end globalization”. The stuff is fine in the specifically Nigerian sense, but it is also cheap.
Chibuzo sells shoes, wholesale and design. But when he buys shoes he buys Zara on sale. Most of the Nigerian traders don’t consume the wares that they buy and sell. The phone vendors sell second hand phones with replaced parts, smaller memory capacities, old boards. But they use iPhones. Chibuzo, one Sunday, though, had sent his things ahead of him back to Nigeria and needed church shoes, so he stopped to buy some from one of the cheap Chinese wholesalers on his way. They broke six hours later. Livid, he brought them back to the vendor. “What do you expect?” The vendor asked. “You bought cheap shoes.”
“In China you can be stingy,” Chibuzo said, “but you will be punished for it.”
Kingsly is a fashion designer, focusing on casual menswear. Every morning he goes to the fabric market and walks through the aisles, fingering the rolls spilling out from the shops. New bales come in every day, raw material for every kind of fashion in the world. Saris and salwar kameez, glittery gowns and suit pants. Kingsly buys loud prints in bold colors. In the factory he scrolls through images on his phone or brings in a sample and explains in broken Chinese and gestures how he wants to adjust it, adding a cuff link or changing the neckline. Many factories are small, family owned affairs, stacked into blocked buildings, or tucked down alleyways. I interviewed Alex, a factory owner, with a translation app. We stood next to each other, speaking sentence by sentence through the phone. He said he has customers from across Africa and the Middle East. He complained that labor in Guangzhou was getting too expensive, so he plans to move his factory soon.
While some Nigerians have spent years in China, becoming residents, investing, building businesses, getting married, some even running their own factories; many others have overstayed their visas and are in the country illegally. They find China more difficult than they expected; the stress lines on their faces show the fatigue of constant precarity. Recently Chinese police have been cracking down on undocumented immigrants. They check passports outside the Tong Tong hotel, a central plaza for African traders, and have been doing domestic raids. Chime was loitering inside a plaza one Sunday evening and I asked him when he would go home. He said normally he would already be there, but he saw someone at his house the day before and he didn’t like how he was looking. He was afraid there would be a raid on his flat, so he just stayed outdoors. The traders have high expectations and a fear of failure. They won’t go home until they “make it.” “It” might be a windfall of cash or established business links they can continue when they get back to Nigeria. It can take years.
If Guangzhou is the factory floor of the world, Kaduna is a graveyard. Directions in this post-industrial Northern city are intertwined with its manufacturing history. Turn right on Textile Road and pass Nigerian Breweries to reach United Nigerian Textile Limited. This is the only textile mill still functioning in the city. “As you see we are trying,” a longtime employee told us. “We’ve been restructuring and restructuring in an effort to stay among the living.”
Nigerian textile production launched in Kaduna in 1956, and the industry at its peak employed hundreds of thousands. Nigeria was the second largest producer in Africa, behind only Egypt. But a mix of structural adjustment policies, neoliberalism, corruption, lack of maintenance, and poor management deteriorated the industry. When cheap Chinese imports flooded the market in the 1990s and early 2000s, Nigerian producers couldn’t compete. “Look out the window,” the UNTL employee said, “all these buildings you see here, as far as the eye reaches, are the finishing department, which has been idle since 2007. I can take you around. There’s nothing there, there’s nothing left.” And so she took us on a tour of nothing. Of empty structures. Of stillness. A tour of remnants. We were looking at bones.
Spaces that have held something and have since gone silent are more haunting when you know the contrast. UNTL is still hanging on by a thread, running at 20 percent capacity. The machines that are functioning whir and hum, vibrating productivity. You can understand why retired, aging and blind employees believe that the industry will revive. It is intoxicating to imagine. But, as Gimba Ndandok, a retired professor of textile manufacturing explained, the textile industry in Nigeria “was never fully indigenous.” At its peak, the machines producing the fabrics were always imported. If they broke down, spare parts had to be special ordered from abroad. So while in integrated industries like in China, the machines producing fabrics were constantly evolving, getting swifter and leaner, in Nigeria the machines were running into the ground. “I normally call them Lord Lugard equipment, who was the administrator during the colonial days,” Ndandok said, laughing. “The equipment are very old.” Furthermore, the factories were almost all owned by foreigners, British, Japanese, Pakistani; UNTL was started by Mr. Cha Chi Ming from Hong Kong and still today is 99% Chinese owned.
The Heinrich Böll Stiftung Nigeria contributed financial support to this research
The names of traders have been changed to protect their identity