Mention northern Nigeria and the first thing that may spring to mind is Boko Haram. Zainab Ashadu is hoping to change that—by selling designer handbags.
The Nigerian designer is the brains behind the Zashadu brand, whose modern, colorful creations use the ancient art of tanning and leather-dyeing from the north of the country.
“I think people like the story behind the bags,” the 32-year-old says at her bustling workshop in a working-class district of Lagos. “They like the fact that the bag has roots and origins.”
From the cramped premises in Festac, which buzzes with the sound of Singer sewing machines, a team of about half a dozen artisans make between 200 and 300 bags every year.
Ashadu’s parents were from the north, which these days is rarely out of the news because of the Islamist insurgency that has been raging since 2009. But the region has long been known for its high-quality leather, which the designer turns into clutch purses and handbags that sell overseas for between Dh675 and Dh3,595.
The leather comes from the north’s biggest city, Kano, and goatskin from the ancient northwestern city of Sokoto, as well as python skin from snake farms in the region.
Unlike European fashion houses, which import raw leather from Nigeria and then tan and dye it overseas, Ashadu decided to make use of the centuries of know-how passed on through the generations to the artisans in Kano.
“It is very important for me to work in a sustainable way,” she says. “I work with small families of tanners, the animals are traceable, we use vegetable dyes and other environmentally friendly dyes.”
The designer gets her inspiration from hours of hunting for bargains among the maze of stalls at the huge Mushin market in the Lagos suburbs.
“It’s so vibrant … there’s so much leather available and sometimes the sellers have no idea of the quality of what they sell,” says Ashadu. “There’s antelope – that is very soft – there’s goatskin, sheepskin.”
The material she buys is turned into bags by her team, all of whom trained at a specialist school of leatherwork in the northern city of Zaria.
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