Q&A: Nkwo Onwuka’s fashion brand is driven by the philosophy of less

by | May 15, 2020

Nkwo Onwuka’s creative journey started in childhood when her mother, a dressmaker, showed her the way around a sewing machine. “We were never really in front of the television. We read books, went on ‘expeditions’, wrote stories, painted and we were always making things. Toys, dolls’ clothes, puppets, rag dolls, costumes,” says Nkwo. “When I was 15, I started to design clothes and decided that I was going to be a designer. I was not allowed to go to fashion school so I studied psychology and got my degree. But I never gave up on my dreams and here I am today.”

Nkwo is the founder and creative director of the Nigerian artisanal clothing brand NKWO. The environmentally-conscious brand is rooted in ‘the philosophy of less’.  “What is the point in creating more than we can use, if it causes us to live less of a life?” Nkwo asks. We sent her some questions to find out more about her work, brand and approach to sustainability.

When was NKWO conceived?

In 2007 when the trend was all about Afro-Bohemian chic. I relaunched in 2012 as an artisanal brand with the conservation of communities and the environment as a core value.

What is your idea of the perfectly sustainable garment?

For me, that would be a garment that is one part traditional craft skill, one part “no harmful impact on the environment” and one part beautiful and wearable. Sustainability to me is about being mindful of the effect my design processes have on the community and the environment. Many of our artisan communities struggle to make ends meet with many of them being the last in their line of craft. This is a part of our culture and who we are, so there is a need to experiment and explore innovative techniques to preserve traditional craft skills At the same time, we must ensure that we make as little impact on the environment as possible.

Tell us about your Dakala Cloth?

During an experimental session in the NKWO studios, a modern ‘strip weaving’ technique emerged. I discovered I was able to produce a new fabric that looked like handloom woven cloth with a distinctively African feel. It was named DAKALA CLOTH because it began by using leftover pieces of denim and as a nod to the sound of Africa’s long tradition of cloth weaving … ‘Sakala-si sakala-sa Sakala-si sakala-sa…’

Who are your design inspirations and influences?

Africa with its rich history, culture and traditions is my forever inspiration. Our cultural heritage is so diverse and dynamic that I feel the need to harness and tailor these stories towards our continued development as a continent.

What materials do you use?

I use natural materials wherever possible, be it cotton, recycled denim, flax and raffia but I also up-cycle plastic and other man-made objects to show that meaningful and beautiful products can be made from the everyday things people leave behind. All of my materials are sourced locally in Nigeria and sometimes from other countries in Africa.

What has inspired the colours and the patterns in your work?

I tend to use blue and white. They work as a blank canvas with endless possibilities, providing my mind with a quiet space where my creativity can go on the most amazing adventures. I bring back all the wonderful stories and tell them through my collections.

What challenges do you face as a designer?

One of the biggest challenges I face as a designer is staying focused! My ideas come thick and fast and as soon as I am done with one, I want to move on to the next. I have had to train my mind to work vertically so I can take a concept and see the progression as I improve on it each season.

Do you think fashion can eliminate divisions whether it be cultural, racial, ethnic, religious?

I used to think so, but it seems like humanity is so polarised and our divisions are growing ever wider. I love the quote by Robert Alan that goes ‘…cultural differences should not separate us from each other, cultural diversity brings a collective strength that can benefit all of humanity…’  Maybe the fashion industry will start breaking down these divisions as we learn more about each other and work closer together for the common good of the planet.

What are you doing to protect your business against coronavirus?

We are looking at ways to adapt and staying one step ahead by gauging customer’s needs now as well as post-COVID-19. We also have to look at our work practices to make sure that we keep our staff and consumers safe.

Is this the moment that digital fashion shopping, shows, and events take hold?

It seems this is going to be the best/only way for the industry to survive. It means that there will be more direct-to-consumer businesses which will cut down so excesses and practices that are harmful to the environment.

What was the first thing you did to invest in your business?

I bought an industrial sewing machine and enough fabric to make about 20 tops which I sold to friends and at one of the fashion markets in London where I met my first stockist.

If you weren’t a fashion designer, what do you think you would be doing now?

I would most probably be a chef, using very traditional ingredients to create experimental avant garde recipes!


  • NKWO’s pieces are sold in Lagos, Nairobi, in Accra, and soon in Cape Town! They also sell directly to consumers around the globe. To find out more click here.
  • Images: Supplied
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