Anyone with a cursory interest in Nigerian fashion has heard of the Alexis dress from Melodia_NG. A viral hit that started gaining momentum among women in their late teens and early 20’s mid 2020, the Alexis dress has become a niche symbol, telegraphing for the women who have added it to their wardrobes, their daring and sex appeal. Its rise to become the season’s second it-dress (after Kai Collective’s Gaia print) is a social engineering marvel, exhibiting the power of cultural acceptance, social media and the politics of desirability.
Its success is a phenomenon that hasn’t happened in the Nigerian fashion industry since the early 2010’s and it offers a rare opportunity to contrast between two generations of Nigerian fashion and map how much the industry has grown or regressed.
There has been a lot of chatter around the Alexis print in particular, so but not a lot of context, lets start with a most pertinent question.
“In the worst of circumstances and with fashion’s traditional advertising and marketing structure irreparably damaged by Covid, why did the Alexis go viral, and what does it mean for its parent brand, Melodia_NG?”
YOU GET AN ALEXIS, YOU GET AN ALEXIS, WE ALL GET AN ALEXIS
Design-wise, the Alexis dress makes sense. It incorporates a number of trends that gained prominence in 2020; drawstring ruching, high slits, structured bodices and peekaboo cutouts at a decent price point (N10,000 – N15,000), theoretically appealing to diverse tastes. It also began to gain prominence as the country slowly reopened after months of government enforced social isolation, a cyclical response to forced isolation that research shows triggers hedonistic behaviour and adventurous fashion choices. The now iconic fashions of the roaring 20’s were a direct response to the end of the Spanish Flu of 1918.
The Alexis dress was equal parts conservative and provocative and provided just enough drama to transcend its origins as a fashion curiosity and become pop-culture subtext. On one end, women who buy often share their purchase and signal via their social media that they are part of an informal but fashion savvy tribe who can pull off the dress’s risque design. They rarely speak of the dress’s fit, cut, fabric quality or tailoring. On the other, the Alexis dress has been informally adopted by men as a way to court women, with commentary on Twitter and Instagram almost exclusively about buying the Alexis for women they desire or suggestively alluding to it as increasing a woman’s desirability. This feedback loop of social acceptance and external desirability has worked wonders for the brand, with the conservative estimates suggesting that between 500 – 1000 units of this particular design have been sold and that the brand currently has a wait-list than some suggest is 150 names long.
Unfortunately, this virality has not translated to a stronger brand. A perfect storm in marketing, especially for fashion brands is difficult to achieve and even harder to replicate. Melodia has tried, without much success to promote its jumpsuits by associating them with Feyikemi Abudu, an influential Twitter personality who is open about her preference for jumpsuits, as well as a few other social media virality campaigns that haven’t quite taken off. This is a troubling omen for the Alexis, as attention, especially for high street fashion brands, is fleeting without concrete plans to consolidate, including properly expressed design ethos and an understanding of the niche they occupy in the market. People are buying the Alexis, not Melodia.
The next logical question to answer is if this virality will persist and what Melodia can do to ensure that the success of this design translates into brand recognition and longevity for the brand.
FASHION IS A NEVER-ENDING CYCLE
The last time, a brand attained this level of viral success was before social media really took off in 2010. A young Ejiro Amos Tafiri, then a designer under Folake Coker’s Tiffany Amber, created the first viral made-in-Nigeria designer dress, a structural wrap dress that drew inspiration from traditional Nigerian silhouettes. Such was the success of the wrap that Amos Tafiri would eventually replicate it when she left to start her own eponymous brand. Some say it is her most enduring best seller, still in high demand today. Succinct and structurally superior, the Ejiro Amos Tafiri wrap was visually appealing, incorporating complex design without burdening the client with any technicalities.
Ituen Basi would follow two years later with several successes, including her Oleku series which made the Iro and Buba fashionable again and her much lauded collaboration with visual artist Victor Ehikhamenor for her ‘Ekemini’ collection in 2014. Ekemini was a global success, selling out across several production cycles once Basi debuted it at New York Fashion Week and cementing Eku Edewor’s status as a fashion muse. The fabric and collection was eventually retired into the Ituen Basi archives when it began to distract from subsequent collections.
A critical difference between then and now is how collections attain virality. While cultural gatekeepers and fashion media lauded Amos Tafiri and Ituen Basi based on a laundry list of battle tested design expectations, a democratized social media community comprising influencers and niche communities champion Alexis because of how it intersects with a complex and ever mutating matrix of pop culture references. The results couldn’t be any more different.
VIRALITY IS NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR INTELLIGENT DESIGN
Something that should worry any designer is the inability of its biggest champions to articulate clearly why they like a particular design, or its parent brand. There is nothing that distinguishes the Alexis as a Melodia original. There is no easily discernible logic to its fabric offerings, no peculiar design choices that other fast fashion/high street brands cannot replicate, no unique print or trademark that elevates the product for the consumer and communicates its value.
Brands like Lisa Folawiyo, Maki Oh and Clan have an explicit profile of the women they want to dress and create a corresponding design language which their clients understand and align with, a language that is explicitly expressed in their design and storytelling. This language is what distinguishes each brand and allows them weather trends. Melodia on the other hand, is an avatar for many Nigerian mid-level fashion brands who straddle the line between being a high street design brand courting a discerning middle class clientele, and a fast fashion brand seeking to capitalize on transient contemporary trends.
This dissonance is why the Alexis dress bears very little resemblance to Melodia’s previous collections and operates as a standalone piece, with no storytelling connections that the parent brand can leverage on as the piece gains virality. Dissonance is also responsible for a problem consistent with most of Nigeria’s ‘high street’ designers, a poor understanding of tailoring and pattern cutting. Without artificial editing and suggestive photography in the crowdsourced photos of the viral Alexis, there is little to hide the distressed seams and distract from the ill-fitting bodices and skirting.
For brands who mass produce designs, or deal with a lot of demand, it is vital that pattern cutting be included in the brand’s design process. Complex design incorporates many disciplines, including architecture, textile composition, human anatomy and kinesiology, all of which pattern cutters incorporate into their work. Often slight alterations to the component parts of a design by a pattern enhance affects drape, movement and fit without significantly altering the base design. The needs of women in the XL category and beyond are different, requiring invisible design alterations introduced to the patterns to include support for bustlines, waist and thigh when a best selling design is replicated in larger sizes. Without a pattern cutter, a design that is flattering on a sample size will be ill-fitting on a different silhouette or body size.
The very traits that have made the Alexis design successful also expose the technical deficiencies of Melodia’s design team. There are glaring, almost inexcusable variations between early and later versions of the Alexis dress, fabric choices are arbitrary and design elements are included and dropped with no reason. Each time the Alexis is reissued to serve a new batch of customers, the design team at Melodia gets a chance to iterate their design, improve their construction, remove fabric options that clearly do not work and offer an updated, more valuable product to their customers. Instead, customers get a diluted, inferior version of the design, rushed through production and made with whatever fabrics the label can get its hands on.
NEVER TOO LATE TO GET IT RIGHT
Social media virality is validating but ultimately unsustainable, especially when it does nothing to propagate the brand’s story. The cultural context that is currently driving the popularity of the Alexis is local and will not survive international buyer markets, the same markets with the funding to help Melodia scale on the Alexis and its other designs.
In spite of its missteps, the Alexis dress still presents an invaluable opportunity for Melodia to reintroduce itself to the Nigerian market and scale. While this wave of virality persists, Melodia must sort out the kinks in its process. A pattern cutting team and a quality control team must be introduced to improve the design process and monitor the product, culling defective pieces and fixing the existing design flaws in the prototype. It would also be beneficial for the brand to consider investing in trademarks that complement the Alexis design, including a signature fabric, embellishment or logo that is trademark protected.
The Nigerian apparel industry suffers from many setbacks, including a rent seeking government that seeks to frustrate fabric and equipment imports, allegedly to protect a fledgling local industry that doesn’t exist. These hindrances to scaling locally means that Melodia must look outwards to meet its demand and scale while maintaining global standards. Supplemented with intentional storytelling that outlines and simplifies the design philosophy behind the parent brand and connects it to the Alexis, Melodia might ride this perfect storm into true brand success.