Nigeria's first fashion designer: Shade Thomas-Fahm

"The concept of designing is an art. You can learn how to sketch, but you must have the feeling." – Shade Thomas-Fahm, 2022

Originally moving to England in 1953 to train as a nurse, Shade Thomas-Fahm changed path and studied fashion at St Martin's School of Art (now Central Saint Martins) in London. She returned home to Lagos in 1960, the year of Nigeria's independence, and quickly established her own boutique – Maison Shade.

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The independence years gave rise to a strategic professionalisation of fashion industries. New nation-states recognised fashion's power to solidify and project strong, independent, and crucially modern identities to the world, and certain governments – recognising the economic potential of the fashion and textile industries – introduced policies to encourage them to flourish. Fashion became fundamental to the decolonisation of minds – many turned to clothes to express their newfound freedoms, wearing local fabrics, a tailored three-piece suit, or something in between.

Championing Nigerian fabrics and silhouettes, Thomas-Fahm designed for the cosmopolitan, working woman. Her boutique swiftly became the go-to place for stylish people in Lagos and she counted diplomats and royalty among her regular customers. Often using aṣọ-òkè, àdìrẹ, akwete and okene in her designs, she often re-imagined traditional Nigerian styles for the modern woman, creating a pre-tied gèlè (headwrap) to make getting dressed easier, and added a zipper to the ìró (wrapper). Originally a wrapped garment, the new style of ìró allowed cosmopolitan women to move around with ease.

Woman admiring her hair in front of a mirror
Max Factor Cosmetics Shoot, 1957, London, England. © Shade Thomas-Fahm

The cultural renaissance and economic investment of the independence years created a buzz. In some areas the fashion industry blossomed, with clients based across countries, the continent and world. Similar changes were happening in Europe, and designers in Africa, Europe and beyond embraced international exchange, seeking inspiration and learning new skills through travel and migration.

“I was always putting one style up against the other style. For instance, I would look at the European skirt and then I would put it up against, in my mind, the Yoruba ìró... Both clothe a woman's lower half, and in similar ways, but with distinct differences. Both styles had something to learn from the other.”

Shade Thomas-Fahm, 2021

Alongside her bespoke, made-to-measure pieces, Shade Thomas-Fahm had several popular ready-to­-wear lines stocked at her boutiques and by other retailers, including Kingsway Stores in Lagos. She regularly travelled abroad to attract international buyers, including in December 1972, when she went to New York and held a series of promotional Christmas events.

Illustrated advertisement for Shade's fashion collections 1971, featuring a woman leaning on her knee
Shade's Boutique advertising, illustratred by Kemmer, 1971, Lagos, Nigeria. © Shade Thomas-Fahm
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© Shade Thomas-Fahm