Dr. Liza Egbogah, a Toronto-based manual osteopath, fell in love with the flair of Nigerian dressing before she started wearing it herself. “I loved looking through my mom’s old pictures because everyone was wearing traditional wax print dresses,” she remembers. “I’d ask my mother how I could get those kinds of pieces and she’d say, ‘I never thought you’d be interested in Nigerian clothes.’”
This might be due in part to Egbogah’s international upbringing; she was born in Calgary and lived in both Libya and Malaysia while growing up. But she recalls that during visits to her ancestral home — her parents were born in the same Nigerian village — she was mesmerized by what women in the markets were wearing.
It was when she was in Malaysia that she developed a love of batik — the centuries-old print work typically made with wax that also appears in the traditional dress of African nations. Attending an international school where uniforms were mandatory, Egbogah nurtured her interest in the creative potential of batik during art class, eventually making a small “collection of T-shirts and scrunchies.”
As a teenager, she moved back to Calgary and found herself “wanting to fit in”; her style throughout that formative time consisted mostly of hoodies and pieces from early adopters of the athleisure aesthetic, such as Triple Five Soul and Baby Phat.
Her sartorial appetites changed when she was in the early 20s — when her parents returned to live in their home country and her mother began bringing vibrantly printed Nigerian looks back to her family when she visited Canada. “That was a turning point for me,” says Egbogah. She started travelling to Nigeria more frequently, and a deep interest in the culture and style of the region took root.
Whether they be items given to her by her mom or the custom-made pieces Egbogah acquired for special events, the spectrum of craft techniques —opulent patterns, textures and embellishments abound in Nigerian fashion — is now stored in a specific closet space in her home.
“I can’t say that I have a favourite — I have favourites,” she says with a laugh while mentally cycling through her collected wares, including purchases
from designers like Emmy Kasbit and JZO. The front-runners include pink-hued floral pieces crafted for her wedding festivities and an ornately detailed top, skirt and matching headpiece she had made for her father’s funeral.
Personalization is the cornerstone of Nigerian style; everyone who attends any social event is expected to arrive in an outfit that has never been worn by the wearer before. “You’re only supposed to wear them out once,” says Egbogah about occasionwear. “Afterwards, you give it to somebody else to wear or it’s given to a tailor to be reworked for more day-to-day wear.” Letting go of such significant couture-level wardrobe items nagged at Egbogah, which is another reason why she cultivates a personal collection. When she travels to Nigeria now, one of her favourite things to source is hand-painted clothing. “They’ll start with plain cotton and then paint each one by hand,” she says of these artisanal items. “I consider that wearable art. Instead of focusing on buying paintings to hang, I’m interested in wearing paintings.”
In fact, Egbogah is so avid about preserving the creativity of Nigerian makers and designers that last year she attended Lagos Fashion Week (for only three days — it was all her busy schedule would allow). It was her first time at the event, and she returned to Toronto ready to start investing in the pieces she had seen. “It opened my eyes to so many contemporary Nigerian designers, and now I make an effort to collect their pieces and support them,” she says. This endeavour hasn’t been easy, though. Before she discovered Western-based African-focused e-commerce sites such as Ditto Africa, she wasn’t able to buy pieces from Nigeria due to monetary restrictions put in place by the Canadian government.
Thankfully, Egbogah has also been able to satiate her passion for Nigerian style from within Canada and has become a close friend of and collaborator with Precious Threads by Abiola designer Abiola Akinsiku. Akinsiku’s dynamic printed collections and the important story behind her brand deeply resonate with Egbogah, who owns over a dozen Precious Threads by Abiola pieces. “She’s a survivor of domestic violence,” she notes of Akinsiku, “and proceeds from sales go to help support other women who are victims of violence.”
When she reflects on the connection she has with Akinsiku — who created a three-piece capsule collection along with shoe embellishments for Egbogah’s orthopedic footwear brand, Dr. Liza — she highlights an inclination that is pervasive, but rarely spoken about openly, in creative professions. “I don’t know if it’s because of the work I do with fixing people, but for some reason I’m always drawn to pain,” says Egbogah. “I find that so much beauty comes out of other people’s pain.”
She also feels she has a kinship with the talent she crosses paths with on the TIFF circuit, where she has a yearly charity event in addition to a studio set up to give medical attention to the stars. Egbogah says she’s genuinely interested in the “joy and beauty” that come from the trauma and sadness that many creatives grapple with.
In much the same way as she strives to turn suffering into something good through her occupation, Egbogah chooses to focus on how she can amplify Nigerian creatives through growing her collection and, of course, wearing it. “It’s my pleasure, and I feel a sense of purpose when I get to put Nigeria in a positive light,” she says. “One of the reasons I’m so active in promoting Nigerian fashion is that the country gets so much negative publicity. But when you look at the beautiful fashion and music and art — things that move people… You can’t have a negative impression of Nigeria if you love all the wonderful local arts. And there’s a joy in celebrating heritage. That’s my blood; that’s my people. They’re doing great things, and I want to share that with everyone.”