BAMENDA, CAMEROON – Cameroonian designer Anrette Ngafor Akinyele was in her final year of studying fashion design in the United Kingdom when inspiration struck her. For a final project at the University of Salford, she decided to redesign “toghu,” a traditional Cameroonian garment, for modern women, she says.
Traditionally, royalty in the Northwest – both men and women – wore colorful and intricately embroidered toghu, says Akinyele, who is from the region. With time, commoners adopted the garment and wore it on formal occasions.
Although beautiful, the traditional toghu did not suit her, she says while visiting the region’s capital, Bamenda. So she cut back on heavy cloth and embraced bright colors to modernize the gown.
Across the Atlantic Ocean in the United States, Kibonen Nfi, a Cameroonian designer living in New York City, saw photos of Akinyele’s modern toghu on Facebook, Akinyele says. The two connected and decided to launch a fashion label that reflected their heritage: KiRette Couture, or KC.
“Not long after this idea was hatched,” Akinyele says, “I was on a plane to New York to meet Kibonen, and KC was born.”
The label’s toghu-inspired gowns for women first appeared in the United Kingdom in 2009. Soon, their designs appeared on the catwalk at shows in Nigeria and Cameroon.
“KC ushered in a movement, so to speak,” Akinyele says. “We introduced trendy, sexy and comfortable toghu designs that can suit everyone for every event. Starting KiRette Couture was our way of saying we are proud of our cultural heritage and also to translate the richness of this culture into a design that transcends age and traditional palaces.”
Although countless tailors and designers live and work in Cameroon, the country has little presence on the international fashion scene, Akinyele says. Consumers gravitate toward Western labels and designs.
“On the international scene, there are people who know about Nigeria, for instance, from their clothing and art displayed and marketed on the international scene,” she says. “Cameroonian designers and Cameroonians themselves want to make a statement too of who they are, how unique their culture is.”
Toghu-inspired designs make that statement for them, she says. She and Nfi sparked the modern toghu movement, and they are well-known locally for revamping the traditional garment for women as well as marketing it internationally.
Beyond runways, athletes representing Cameroon at the 2012 Olympic Games wore the garments during the opening ceremonies, says Caroline Ngelo Fombosoh, chief of creative industries at the Northwest regional delegation of the Ministry of Culture.
Historically, only royalty and nobility in Cameroon’s Northwest region wore the cumbersome robes, which are typically black with brightly colored embroidery, Akinyele and Fombosoh say. In particular, the traditional rulers of the Bafut, Babungo and Nkwen villages in and around Bamenda, wore toghu, which represents the cultural wealth of the region, Fombosoh says.
Fombosoh is also a designer and coordinator at New Vision Cultural Designers, a group in Bamenda that promotes the culture of the Northwest region by designing traditional attire. The group started designing toghu in 2013.
“Early this year,” she says, “our organization did a research to ascertain the fashion needs of the people of the Northwest, and we discovered that many people love and admire the toghu design and other traditional designs.”
But consumers disliked the gown’s weightiness, she says.
“The big toghu designs don’t match their daily needs and lifestyles,” she says. “We are innovating to meet these needs.”
Victory Ayafor Bassang, a communication officer at the regional delegation of the Ministry of Communication, now wears modern toghu to functions, she says.
“Before, the toghu designs were very big and not suitable for nontraditional events,” she says. “But now, I can wear toghu designed with less, which is comfortable for me and suitable even for work or casual walks. As a woman, toghu makes one look dignified and confident.”
When she wears toghu, she shows her pride in her cultural patrimony, she says.
Consumers now request toghu for everyday wear, says Janet Nfor, a designer in Bamenda who has made toghu for more than a decade. But until two or three years ago, her main clients were older customers who wore the gowns only to traditional festivals and feasts at the end of each year.
“Today, there is a change in the trend of toghu business,” she says. “We have business year-round. People are no longer getting toghu only for traditional feasts and palace events. They demand toghu for everyday use.”
Girls even want sexier versions of toghu and ask for sleeveless or short designs in colors other than black, she says. Nfor has even made toghu for children and Westerners.
Traditionally, each generation passes on the elaborate art of producing toghu to the next generation, she says. More Cameroonian girls now want to learn how to craft modern toghu, and she is currently training four girls in the art.
Akinyele, who helped to introduce toghu to the international fashion scene, is already on to her next project. The designer, who currently lives in London, England, left KiRette Couture in 2012 to launch a solo label, Liiber London. Nfi has launched her own project as well.
Akinyele does not limit her new collections to toghu or even to Cameroonian designs, she says. But she does continue to share Cameroon’s culture with the world through fashion.
“Producing toghu-inspired pieces is a business opportunity for me,” she says, “and it is also an expression of our rich cultural heritage. It also tells the world who we are and where we come from.”