West African Couture, Made to Order in Brooklyn

David Igbekele at his Brooklyn studio, Tayme Couture. (Photo by Priscilla Alabi for Voices of NY)

On a snowy Saturday afternoon, David Igbekele welcomed heavily bundled customers to his studio storefront. Inconspicuously tucked under a New York City transit overpass in Brooklyn, the small storefront of Tayme Couture delighted one passerby who stopped to take a photo of the display window. It featured three mannequins, each wearing custom-made outfits designed from cotton materials commonly known to West Africans as Ankara.

Nigeria – located just north of the equator – with a climate very much unlike that of the Northeast U.S., has two seasons: rainy and dry. According to climate data, the average annual temperature in its capital city of Abuja is 78 degrees Fahrenheit.

Such a climate lends itself to light, airy and breathable clothing. In a climate like New York City’s, the clothing worn in West Africa would be appropriate only for balmy weather. Nevertheless, Nigerian-Americans as well as other West African-Americans here persist in wearing their traditional outfits even when the temperature plunges.

The window at Tayme Couture. (Photo by Priscilla Alabi for Voices of NY)

Igbekele, often called “Tayme” by his customers – a nickname based on his middle name, Temidire – made the transatlantic journey from Nigeria to Brooklyn in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and an interest in music. He never envisioned that eight years later, at age 35, he would be designing clothes instead of construction projects.

“It was my father who did tailoring back home. I never really paid attention because I could have never thought it would make me a living in America,” said Igbekele. “There is snow outside, but I have a shop here for the whole year.”

His customers, most of them West African, bring their material to him, he sketches a design with them, takes their measurements and gives them a date to come pick up their custom outfits. This practice is common in Nigeria where most people have a personal tailor.

Pre-made or Western clothes are often too expensive for the average Nigerian, so they opt to buy several yards of fabric and commission a tailor to sew outfits for them. Across the ocean, Igbekele charges, on average, $80 for men’s designs, and $120 for women’s designs  – which is more than eight to 12 times the amount in naira people pay tailors in Nigeria.

Some customers, like Joké Ogunnowo, bargain. “I would never pay this much money in Nigeria,” she said to Igbekele who nodded and later said the refrain was very familiar.

“They are always thinking of how much it would cost back home,” said Igbekele. “But they don’t put to consideration that I have a store and I have bills to pay,” he said as he shook his head. Tayme Couture is at 722 Livonia Ave. in East New York.

“I have probably spent close to $30,000 on traditional clothing if I calculate it,” said Mustafa Buraimoh, a regular customer at Tayme Couture. He moved to the U.S. in 1990 from Nigeria and admits to having an obsession with the culture of his homeland.

David Igbekele sketching at his studio. (Photo by Priscilla Alabi for Voices of NY)

“We wear it [the outfit] for both winter and summer,” said Buraimoh, who also owns a restaurant that serves traditional Nigerian food in Brooklyn.

Buraimoh and his wife used to send their fabrics home to be sewn when they first arrived in the U.S. But, he said, “we rarely got them back the way we wanted them, if we got them back at all.”

He explained that he and his wife have many occasions to attend. Like many Nigerians, Buraimoh said they are known for their partying habits. “We like to do things that make us happy, so we celebrate with people all over the U.S. and pay for the Aso-Ebi,” he said.

The Aso-Ebi or Aso-Egbé is a specific pattern or design of fabric designated by a celebrant for a ceremony or event. It serves as a uniform for the close friends and family of the celebrant. Igbekele estimates that about 70 percent of his commissions stem from Aso-Ebi requests.

Joké Ogunnowo’s outfit commission was for a wedding in Dallas, Texas. Although she has “about two and a half closets full” of traditional attire, she paid $350 to buy the Aso-Ebi fabric selected by the bride’s mother for all the wedding attendees. “When my children get married,” she said, “all these people have to come and celebrate with me as well. Even if we have to wear thermal-wear under it, we do it to sow good will.”

By the same token, Buraimoh commissioned an Agbada and Sokoto set (a three-piece men’s outfit consisting of a large free-flowing outer robe, undershirt or awotélè and trousers. He laughed heartily when he described how low he wanted his Agbada to swing: “So low, it should sweep the snow clean.”

An African woman walks down a snowy street in her traditional outfit.
(Photo by Priscilli Alabi for Voices of NY)

Igbekele’s father, Isaac Igbekele, a recent arrival to the U.S., said the Agbada and Sokoto are becoming a staple of the past in men’s fashion back in Nigeria. “The Nigerians here are the only ones wearing this style. Their nostalgia is preserving the culture,” he said.

However, there are those who patronize Tayme Couture precisely because they want to belong when they go home. Bola Adigun, a customer who has lived in the U.S. since the 1970s said she would feel completely out of place with the in-vogue style when she goes home to visit were she not to make her purchases from Igbekele.

“They already know that I am not one of them, but if I go home and wear the same things I used to wear when I first came here, they will think I am from another planet,” said Adigun, who has been a customer of Tayme’s for more than five years.

For Buraimoh and others, Tayme Couture is well worth the price. “We must promote our culture and let people know where we are from,” Buraimoh said.

Priscilla Alabi is a 2017 graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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  1. Pingback: Today's Links: Historic Home To Be Demolished, Nigerian Fashion in East New York and More - BKLYNER

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