When Blessing Chionye Azolibe arrived in Australia in 2009, she started fashion label Trendy B as a way to maintain her connection with Nigerian culture.
What started out as a side project has grown into a full-time career and celebration of the diverse cultures that call Western Sydney home.
Trendy B’s first designs were predominantly made with Ankara fabrics, which are traditional African fabrics made of cotton and featuring vibrant patterns.
“Ankara and lace were what I was accustomed to at the beginning. My clients were all Nigerians and they loved those traditional designs,” Azolibe said.
In 2011, Azolibe hosted her first fashion festival to “bring the Nigerian community together” in her new homeland.
“I wanted to reach out to the people of my community and hosted the festival as an avenue for common ground among us,” she said.
A growing clientele
Trendy B’s clientele quickly expanded beyond the Nigerian diaspora in Australia.
“Spouses of Nigerian people in Australia also want to embrace and feel their partners’ culture and dress traditionally like Nigerian grooms or brides,” Azolibe said.
“There are fashion lovers that just naturally love the flamboyant prints on Ankara fabrics and don’t even know that they’re African fabrics.
“Some customers are fascinated with what they see from luxury fashion houses on TV, because Ankara or Ankara-inspired prints are now present at some of the world’s most prestigious fashion runways such as Paris or London.”
The Penrith-based designer said many of her non-African customers were afraid of cultural appropriation when they first tried on Ankara clothing.
“People stay in their safe zone, wearing only their cultural pieces because they are worried about how they will be perceived if they wear other people’s cultural clothes,” she said.
“I encourage all of my customers to be boujee, dress up and try what is considered extravagant fashion in cultures other than that which you are accustomed to.”
Azolibe hopes more African designs will be showcased at Australia’s top fashion events, such as the Australia Fashion Week.
“When people see their culture represented in a centre stage it of course gives them a sense of belonging to the country where they live in,” she said.
Designs a reflection of society
Azolibe said working with customers from diverse backgrounds in Western Sydney had “broadened” her mind.
“Western Sydney is where you find the most diverse pool of customers and that is very important to my style of designing, so naturally it provides a huge market for my unconventional designs,” Azolibe said.
“I like to explore across cultures and be inspired by several cultures and traditions in creating my pieces.
Trendy B now offers custom-made pieces that are “unique to each individual” customer.
“We are so blessed in Australia not to have to travel to Nigeria, India or the Philippines to experience their fashion because we have it right here at our doorstep,” she said.
“I aim to appeal cross-culturally with my designs by including elements of their cultures in my designs.
“Hence, no two designs are ever the same.”
Designing for different cultures
Featured in fashion magazines such as Vietnamese Elle and Harper’s Bazaar, Marky Dong’s designs are popular popular among Vietnamese celebrities such as Nguyen Huong Giang and fashion idol Lily Maymac.
The designer has chosen to launch his brand Marky Atelier in Western Sydney’s Cabramatta instead of in his native Vietnam, which boasts a $6.5 billion fashion market.
Mr Dong says success in the Western Sydney market will present him with opportunities he would not otherwise have in his native country.
“While it is more challenging to design for people of different cultures than simply just Vietnamese fashionistas, success can be a reward that elevates a Vietnamese label to the next level,” he said.
“Like the diverse spread of cultures, Western Sydney-siders have diverse wants and needs when it comes to the styles that suit them.”
Fashion as a frontier to challenge stereotypes
Dong said he wanted to challenge Vietnamese stereotypes and reshape perspectives on Cabramatta.
“The Vietnamese community is well-known for its bakeries and restaurants, but not yet its fashion,” he said.
The Cabramatta local said it is a “privilege” and “unique experience” to be a Vietnamese fashion designer in Australia.
“Cabramatta was once infamous for gang violence and drug abuse, but has now become a hub for cultural activity, cuisine enjoyment and traditional festivals,” he said.
“I have lived here since 2004, and my life and fashion work are deeply rooted in this beautiful area.