In our latest interview, Denim Dudes talks with London-based menswear designer, Daniel Olatunji of Monad London to discuss the rich cultural history of African indigo textiles and why challenging tired African stereotypes is so important in his work.

Monad London Photograph by Daniel Obasi

Indigo is one of the most beautiful natural dyes in existence. Utilized for centuries due to it’s bold color and ease of transfer onto cotton, it’s been used for generations, and has found it’s way into countless cultures and garments all throughout modern history.

Japan’s indigo culture might be the most globally recognised, but the tradition and art of indigo dyeing has a history as vivid as the colour itself. From the the ancient civilisations in the Golden Triangle to the Indians and the prehistoric tribes in the Americas, each of these regions and their cultures have developed their own unique methods of coaxing out the dye, and distinct ways of using it. West Africa, both along the coastal regions and further inland, is one corner of the world that is literally soaked in indigo history.

No one knows exactly when indigo arrived in Africa, but beginning around the fourteenth century, Africans began creating a large repertoire of refined traditions in the 600-year-old dye pits of Kano in northern Nigeria. Just like Africa’s famed mud cloths, known as ‘bogolan’, many of Africa’s indigo techniques are intended to hold back, or resist, the dye in certain areas to create designs. Nearly all of these, which include various ways of manipulating the fabric before it is dyed, such as tying it, knotting it, folding it, stitching it, rolling it or applying a gluey substance to it, are used in the great variety of African traditions. In West Africa, in areas such as Ghana, Mali, The Gambia and Nigeria in particular, batik and stitched resist techniques have evolved into a genuine textile art form.

Monad London Collarless Lates Jacket and Litt Work Pant made in 100% Nigerian cotton handwoven by Fulani tribesmen and hand dyed at the ancient Kofar Mata dye pits. Photograph by Daniel Obasi

And just like the continents dye culture, Africa’s tradition for weaving goes way back. The unique appearance of the indigo dyed textiles are characterised by stripwoven cloths, woven from indigo-dyed cotton thread and decorated with white cotton detailing. Stripweaving refers to a technique where strips of fabric are sewn together – selvedge to selvedge. These sumptuous and densely patterned stripweaves are both worn and used for home decoration – such as the signature blankets and throws you can regularly find vintage markets and specialist textile stores. But while these traditional fabrics have been treasured by collectors and textile enthusiasts for years, they’ve seldom impacted Western fashion to the same effect of Japanese shibori or katazome techniques. The truth is that Japanese only started about 300 years, whereas the technique of indigo dyeing has been practiced across West Africa for over 600 years.

100% Nigerian cotton handwoven by Fulani tribesmen

If you’ve been keeping a close eye on the London menswear scene, then you might’ve come across a group of London-based designers who are radically transforming the perception around African fashion. Known as the 419 Collective, the trio of brands take their name from the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code dealing with fraud. Applying the scammer’s ethos of cunning, creativity, and craftiness to the space of fashion design, the three men who make up the collective, Olubiyi Thomas, Monad London by Daniel Olatunji and Foday Dumbaya of Labrum London, work to dispel stereotype-hazed visions of Africa’s fashion heritage, highlighting the diversity and quality of African fabrics beyond postcard-perfect wax prints.

The collective made their London Collections Men’s debut during the A/W 19 schedule in January, with each designer presenting their own unique contemporary vision of African style. The fabrics used within the designers’ collections are crafted by artisans from across the African continent. But at the same time, they are distinctly ‘un-African’, a far cry from the wax prints implicitly expected by a stereotype-fuelled Western fashion audience. The silhouettes of their collections, which often have more in common with Yohji Yamamoto than with dashikis, contribute to what amounts to ‘fashion fraud’, an indiscernible forgery of high fashion that liberates African diaspora fashion from the toxic limitations of what we think it can be.

We sat down with one third of the trio, Daniel Olatunji of Monad London to hear more on Africa’s rich indigo culture, the challenges of working with old traditions and how the 419 Collective is changing perceptions around African fashion.

London-based 419 Collective comprises three separate brands: Olubiyi Thomas’s eponymous label(right), Daniel Olatunji’s Monad London (centre), and Foday Dumbuya’s Labrum London (left). Photography by Nataal

What is the concept of Monad?

Monad makes meticulously imperfect, tailored garments. Meticulous because they are made by hand, often down to the very fibre. For the same reason every Monad piece is individual. It’s a celebration of craft and process.

Monad London Photograph by Daniel Obasi

Can you tell me about the process of Monad’s creations?

Everything starts with the cloth. Sourcing is a huge part of my process and every fabric is sourced either from an antique dealer or the weaver who made it by hand. How the cloth has been made and what it was made for then inform the piece that it will become. When I start thinking of silhouette I often deconstruct vintage tailored garments and old workwear pieces, mixing these together with new forms to create something familiar but original.

Monad London Behrens DB Blazer and Tapered Pant constructed in London studio using 100% Nigerian cotton. Photograph by Daniel Obasi

What regions and indigo specialists do you work with in Africa?

I work with artisans at the ancient Kofar Mata dye pits in Kano, in the north of Nigeria. What’s so unique about the weaving and indigo dyeing in Africa compared to other indigo cultures around the world? The Kofar Mata dye pits have been around for over 500 years – the sign over the gate says 1498 but the artisans claim the pits had been going long before the signs were put up! They’ve passed the skill on from father to son for hundreds of years. The cotton that I used was farmed and picked by hand and then woven by hand on small hand-made, unmechanised looms in the rural villages just outside Kano city. It’s amazing to think that kings (or Emirs as they are known in northern Nigeria) were wearing this exact same fabric in the Middle Ages, made by the very same technique and process. There is something magical in that. And because the process is done by hand from start to finish the fabric is full of these irregularities that are so beautiful. Also, the entire process is natural as it existed long before most chemicals were introduced into fabric production.

At Kofar Mata Dye Pits in Kano, in the north of Nigeria, the sign says 1498 but local artisans say their ancestors were dyeing indigo naturally at the pits long before the sign was made

What are some of the challenges you face while working with these artisans?

Because it’s hand-farmed, spun and woven there is a lot of coordination involved in the process. And I’m dealing with a rural village that is pretty hard to reach – they don’t speak English and I don’t speak their language Hausa, so I rely on the head of Kofar Mata dye pits to help. Also they are not used to dealing with strict deadlines or working to a fashion schedule. And there are also serious issues with quality control, supply and consistency. More than once I’ve been sent orders that are different to what I asked for. Trying to explain just how much of a challenge that is to buyers and stockists is difficult.

A short video directed by Daniel Obasi documenting the indigo dye process at Kofar Mata dye pits. All of the ingredients are local to the region of Nigeria. Each pit holds the indigo solution for a year, the sediment is then dug out and recycled to make potash for the next solution

What do customers love most about Monad London?

I think they appreciate our interesting use of fabrics and the intricate details in every piece. Also the fact that it’s made by hand and in limited quantities.

A short video directed by Daniel Obasi documenting the weaving process of Monad London’s fabrics. Fulani tribesmen in the north of Nigeria grow, spin and weave cotton using the same techniques passed down through the generations

You recently showed at LCM in London for the first time. How was that experience?

I showed as part of a collective, 419 – a group of designers, all of us with origins in Africa who are trying to subvert all the usual terrible stereotypes about what it means to be African. There was a great buzz around the collective which was really amazing to see. I didn’t want to do a fashion show per se because Monad is not a fashion label. I wanted people to be able to see the clothes in detail, to get a chance to examine the fabrication and the craft, rather than be taken in by a “look”. So I chose to do an exhibition instead. That collection was heavily inspired by the surplus fabrics that had been found in a disused factory. So I showed the pieces alongside a kind of museum of repurposed artefacts.

Monad London Dalton Pieces Shirt in traditional handwoven Fulani blanket cloth. Woven by hand using a 5” strip-weave horizontal loom. Photograph by Daniel Obasi

Where does your inspiration come from for your collections?

Anywhere and everywhere. Firstly, from the fabrics themselves and those who make them. The blues collection was heavily inspired by my trip back to Nigeria. It was the first time I’d been in 20 years, since I was a child. A lot of the shapes are inspired by traditional dress in Nigeria but not those that are typical or cliche. They’re mixed with influences from my British upbringing too and my training as a tailor. Another collection was inspired by a book I was reading about shepherds in northern England and another by a sci-fi podcast I’ve been listening to. Those references may not be as literal as the Nigerian ones but they’re there! What are some of the standout pieces we can expect from the collection? A blazer and trouser made from hand-woven Donegal tweed, which is woven by Eddie Doherty who has been weaving on handloom in the north of Ireland for over 60 years. A pinstripe suit made from surplus British wool that I mentioned above. The details of the fabric are warped giving it a really interesting texture. I also had the chance to rework a staple classic Converse using off-cuts from previous collections and old pairs of Converses.

Monad London Collarless Lates Jacket and Litt Work Pant made in 100% Nigerian cotton handwoven by Fulani tribesmen and hand dyed at the ancient Kofar Mata dye pits. Photograph by Daniel Obasi

Where does Monad go from here?

At the moment I’m trying to expand my team so that we can manage higher levels of production and enable me to spend more time sourcing more interesting textiles. I’m also setting up a made to measure/bespoke service and more one off projects via the website, and thinking of how to expand that outside of the UK.