Nigerian luxury handbags making a mark overseas

Mention northern Nigeria and the first thing that may spring to mind is Boko Haram. Zainab Ashadu is hoping to change that – by selling designer handbags. The Nigerian designer is the brains behind the Zashadu brand, whose modern, colourful creations use the ancient art of tanning and leather-dyeing from the country’s north. From the cramped premises in Festac, which buzzes with the sound of Singer sewing machines, a team of about half a dozen artisans make between 200 and 300 bags every year. Nigeria’s north has long been known for its high-quality leather, which the designer turns into clutch purses and handbags that sell overseas for up to US$980. The leather comes from the north’s biggest city, Kano, goatskin from the ancient northwestern city of Sokoto as well as python skin from snake farms in the region.

I think people like the story behind the bags. They like the fact that the bag has roots and origins.

Zainab Ashadu, 32, owner of Zashadu

Unlike European fashion houses, which import raw leather from Nigeria and then tan and dye it overseas, Ashadu decided to make use of the centuries of know-how of artisans in Kano. The designer gets her inspiration from hours of hunting for bargains in the maze of stalls in the huge Mushin market, in the Lagos suburbs. The market sells Nigerian leather off-cuts and rejects, particularly from Italian fashion houses. From there, the material is turned into bags by her team, all of whom have been trained at a specialist school of leatherwork in the northern city of Zaria. In the last year, the brand, which is marketed online abroad, has established a presence in boutiques in London, Miami, Dublin, Johannesburg and most recently in Paris.