Ifeoma Ubby, founder of label Oliveankara, brings the West African fabric to Singapore.
TEXT RACHEL TAN PHOTOGRAPHY FRENCHESCAR LIM ART DIRECTION SHAN
Ankara, also known as African wax prints, is a cotton fabric characterised by its colourful print designs. And like Ifeoma Ubby, it has a mixed cultural background.
First created by the Dutch using a batik-influenced fabricdyeing method, ankara received a lukewarm reception in the Indonesian market, which it was originally meant for. It later found popularity in West Africa, and is now widely used there for everyday as well as special occasions.
Ankara was ever-present in Ubby’s youth, even though she was raised in Italy; her parents are Nigerian, and her mother and grandmother were skilled seamstresses.
“We used ankara for everything – as pillowcases, to cover the sofa, as a robe for after showers, and as a fabric to wrap babies with. My mum also made dresses with it. It was all around the house,” Ubby says.
Ankara moved with her to Singapore when she relocated here as a National Cancer Centre postdoctoral researcher five years ago with her boyfriend (now husband). And the fabric not only performed its usual duties as cushion covers and lampshades, it also became the subject of Ubby’s sideline as the fashion designer of Oliveankara, an online store for ankara-based womenswear and accessories.
When she got married in 2016, she had two ankara dresses made for her weddings in Singapore and Thailand. “For my Registry of Marriages wedding, I designed the dress and got a seamstress to help me create it using an ankara fabric that I loved. For my big wedding in the Phi Phi Islands, I had an amazing dress made by my mum. I told her how I wanted the dress to be – a tube dress, with a long tail, and lots of stones – and it came out really nice. She did an amazing job.
“At that time, I was already thinking about starting Oliveankara, but it was when I actually saw my own designs materialise in the form of my wedding dresses that I decided that, yes, I will do it – let’s try. And I am glad I did.”
To prepare to run her label, Ubby took a five-month sewing course at Fashion Makerspace in Chinatown to learn to make her own samples. “Once I started drawing my designs, I couldn’t stop. I drew so many. But I realised that I needed to learn to make those drawings a reality, so I enrolled in a sewing course. It taught drafting, cutting, and sewing using your own body measurements. I started with the basics, then learnt to create a top, a skirt, and pants.”
In December 2016, three months after her wedding, Ubby placed her first ankara order for her business. All the fabrics are from Nigeria, where Ubby’s cousin helps with sourcing and shipping. In March 2017, she started dressing her friends in her designs, and in June, she officially launched her label. Oliveankara now stocks an ever-expanding selection of products, from jumpsuits and earrings to totes and shoes.
To keep fabric waste to a minimum, Ubby uses up to 97 per cent of the material. “The idea is to go zero waste. Throwing away a lot of fabric that can be used for something else is a no-no for me. So I use whatever is left from making clothes to make headwraps, headbands, bracelets, rings, and earrings.”
She is also helping to empower less-privileged women through Oliveankara. “Singapore gave me this opportunity to build this brand, so I would like to give something back to Asia. Everything is made locally now, but I plan to have them made by women in other parts of Asia next time – women who don’t have jobs, or who face difficulties in finding jobs. I want to teach them a skill – sewing – and give them a job.”
Right now, she is helping women in Rwanda. “I am working with this cooperative in Rwanda that helps widowed women who don’t have income for their families, to send their children to school. The cooperative teaches them to hand-weave baskets, then gets retailers beyond Rwanda to buy the products. I buy the baskets from them and sell them at Oliveankara. On top of that, I give them at least 10 per cent of my profits from the baskets, just to give something more.”
Shop Oliveankara at www.oliveankara.com or follow the brand on Instagram @oliveankara for updates on pop-ups. Price range: from $8 for a bamboo and plastic woven bangle to $15 for an ankara ring; dresses are $260 each.
1 Ankara will feel stiff at first. That’s due to the wax used in the dyeing process. It will soften with wear and repeated washes. Ubby recommends machinewashing her products at no more than 30 deg C.
2 The key difference between batik and ankara: the front and back of batik fabric differ from each other, while both sides of ankara are almost the same.
3 Every ankara print tells a story. The purple one is named Sika Wo Ntaban (which means “money has wings”) or Speedbird, and “encourages people to be careful with money, or else it will fly away 1 like a bird”.