Model scouting in Nigerian universities.
We dare to dream: Two italian fashion designers in the heart of Africa.
In Lagos, Nigeria's largest town, two Italian women, Caterina and Francesca, are using fashion to inspire and educate the youth. Here's their story.
It was 2007 when Caterina Bortolussi arrived in the west-african country for a three months stay as the employee of a British investment bank.
During her trip she travelled across Nigeria, visiting a large number of companies and got a good insight on the country's economy.
Curious and brave, Caterina wouldn't stay confined in hotels and company's compounds during weekends, but went out and visited, fascinated by the place.
What she saw was a divided country: Wealthy companies on one side, millions of people struggling on the other.
"The moment I arrived in Nigeria I felt it's energy" says Bortolussi. "It's a troubled country, but it is also a place where many people have talent and women are strong. I loved them. Loved their colorful clothes, loved their determination. They inspired me."
Fashion was a childhood dream for Caterina but it was Nigeria that pushed her to pursue it.
Once back in London she quit her job and went to fashion school with one idea in her mind: to produce glamorous clothes with African fabrics, and to help Nigerian women improve their skills and start small businesses.
Francesca Rosset, Caterina's lifelong friend, at the time was working in an advertising agency. When she heard about her plan she was easily convinced to jump on board. She too was looking for something more in life. In the past she had worked for NGOs in South America.
The humanitarian experience stayed in her heart and she wanted to get back to it.
Nine years and many adventures after, their brand, Kinabuti is a reality in the vibrant fashion world of Nigeria.
Their Philosophy is to use fashion to propagate change by giving the youth from underdeveloped communities the opportunity to learn skills through vocational trainings.
The two form a well matched team:
Caterina is the stylist with a vision. A quick mind, fast moving. It's not easy to keep her pace.
Francesca is the manager. Her mind focused on numbers, contracts, keeping things together.
Between them "Zion the lion", a 15 inches pechinese dog that follows them through the concrete jungles of Nigeria. Like the parrot on the shoulder of a Pirat, their perfect companion.
In five years of activity Kinabuti started several social projects. Pitching big corporations they rose money to form models, tailors, photographers and filmmakers form the poor areas of the cities of Port Hartcourt, Uyo and Lagos.
"We do fashion" says Francesca "and that's where we start from when conceive our social projects.
As fashion designers we hire tailors, models and photographers. We found that the offer of people with professional skills in Nigeria was limited so we thought we could form them ourselves.
We focus mainly on tailoring. First of all because it is a way for us to form our staff. Secondarily you must consider that tailoring here is very common job. Many people wear traditional hand made clothes and every neighborhood has many tailors. Giving them professional skills, teaching them how to produce in series, we give them a very tangible way to grow their business and earn more money. This way the whole community they live in will be affected. At least a little bit"
Currently former Prada designer Floriana Betti, from Parson's Design School in NY is running an eight week intensive course. Free tuition, by a world class teacher. A great opportunity for the women who partecipate to the course.
Other classes include the traditional crafts of Nigeria, Batik and Tie Diying.
Alumns all come from Lagos most unprivileged communities.
"Recently we have been working in Makoko, and Orile" Says Francesca.
"Makoko is an incredible place, a community on the water, made of stilt houses. It is visually impressive, you could say beautiful, but it's health conditions and child mortality rates do not allow us to use this word.
Orile is another community where we found a reliable local organization that helps us organize skill acquisition courses. There we run photography and filmmaking courses".
At the beginning of each project the alumns partecipate in a "Sanitation" which means picking up rubbish from the streets. We hope this activity helps them realize that change must start from them. Not throwing rubbish in the street is the first step to living in a cleaner place."
Their newest and biggest project is a model scouting through Nigerian universities called Dare2Dream.
Selected models are taken to Lagos where they go through a "Boot camp", two weeks of training with activities from early in the morning 'till ten at night, classes in modeling, fitness, dancing, presenting, and masterclasses held by successful Nigerian women.
"To make this more fun and more interesting for our sponsors and for the media there's a competition going on." continues Francesca "We have selections, a final event and a winner. The whole thing is filmed and becomes a tv reality show, aired by Africa Magic Network and published on the web by the Pulse/Ringier group. The Winner becomes the face of our main sponsor and gets a contract with Few Models Agency. But the point is not about winning. It's all about opening their eyes, to rise awareness of who they are and what they can do."
Their motto is "We don't stop" and they sure live by it.
When I left Caterina and Francesca after running up and down Nigeria's universities for a month, I was tired, looking forward to some rest in the cooler temperatures and the quieter traffic of boring Europe; they were already running meetings, planning activities for the year to come, praying God to give them strenght and working like the Devil to make things happen. So, if one day you are in Lagos, and maybe passing with your car by one of it's many slums you happen to see a woman with blond hair, wearing leopard-skin leggins and heavy duty rubber gloves, leading a team of thirty people in a junk picking adventure; if you see a model posing among thugs in the meanest of ghettos, or a gentle European lady negotiating ankara fabrics in Africa's largest, loudest and most dangerous market, don't think you're crazy: it might be them, the Kinabuti girls, young, inspired, hard working, visionary entreprenuers, who dream and fight for a better world. And...why not? A more glamorous one.