How Reni Folawiyo Bridged The Gap Between Africa and Global Design with Alára

Alára at The Brooklyn Musuem | Image courtesy of Fola PR

Alára, a Yoruba word meaning ‘wondrous performer, somebody who thrills endlessly,’ stands proudly on Victoria Island in Lagos, Nigeria, distinguished by its strikingly scarlet exterior. Beyond its primary role as a retail concept store, Alára also serves as an artist incubator, restaurant, and cultural destination for the continent, captivating visitors with its fusion of fashion, food, art, and architecture. Reni Folawiyo, Alára’s visionary founder, spent two decades as a lawyer, yet early exposure to the art scene, thanks to her mother’s teaching role at Yaba College of Technology, planted the seeds of her artistic and fashionable passion. Driven by the desire to elevate and educate, Folawiyo reflects on her initial start, “I felt that we had got to a stage where people felt that anything African was either too crafty, just not interesting enough, or not designed in the way that we kind of understood the rest of the world to create design.” She continued on the distinction of African design’s speciality and the importance of understanding that, “African design did not necessarily have to follow the Western idea of design in terms of creating things that were highly made from having advanced technological skills.” She emphasizes that African designers should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their Western counterparts and elevate of their own unique craftspeople, “Africans needed to see these pieces beside globally respected designs,” Folawiyo emphasizes. “When Alára was established, it showcased African and top international designers. The dynamic I wanted to create, especially for Africans, was don’t look at your own creations as not good enough to be beside the best in the world.” In essence, Alára embodies Folawiyo’s vision of bridging the gap between African and global design excellence and made bringing African designers to a wider audience all the more paramount.

Alára at The Brooklyn Musuem | Image courtesy of Fola PR

Set on a path to give African designers even more global recognition, Alára, renowned for stocking brands like Kenneth Ize, Thebe Magugu, Lisa Folawiyo, Jacquemus, and Marni made its first international debut this summer with a partnership with the Brooklyn Museum’s Africa Fashion exhibit. On loan from London’s Victoria and Albert museum, the exhibit is a celebration of Africa’s profound impact on fashion and textiles spanning from the mid-20th century to present day, the exhibition simultaneously explores music, popular culture, art, politics, and iconic moments in African history. Alára’s pop-up store arrives at the end of the exhibit, reflecting the Lagos flagship store’s DNA with a blended fusion of couture, ready-to-wear, accessories, and homeware from brands like Orange Culture, Luar, Abdel el Tayeb, Selly Raby Kane, Lagos Space Programme, Theophilio, Tongoro and many more. Beyond shopping, Alára also offered immersive experiences featuring engaging conversations with figures like Folawiyo and the artist, Kehinde Wiley. Additionally, there was an Instagram collaboration with Nigerian singer Asake, Jomi Marcus-Bello of WafflesnCream, and FIT students where emerging stylists from the fashion school curated looks from the Alára merchandise and Asake picked his favorite look. Folawiyo expressed that this partnership with the Brooklyn Museum came at the perfect time, “we had already started to think about what Alára looked like to the rest of the world in terms of traveling. We thought it would be experiences; it would be engagement that might be short, fleeting, but impactful. So we didn’t consider that Alára world would settle in one place permanently,” she explains. “We wanted to travel, connect with our diaspora, and connect with culture lovers in different ways that crossed the different genres of creativity. We also felt that these connections would be important not only to foster relationships between us and our diaspora but to grow those relationships and create products and experiences from those relationships.”

Alára at The Brooklyn Musuem | Image courtesy of Fola PR

Empowering and nurturing talent has been integral to Alára’s mission in connecting Brooklyn Museum to the entire African continent. Initiatives like the Alára Emerge competition offered mentorship to creatives in photography, design, and fashion, where creatives submit applications to win one year of mentoring from judges in fashion, business, tech, and VC. The Alára Table for Young Designers connects emerging talents with experienced professionals in various fields handpicked by Folawiyo. So, what does it take for a brand to be stocked at Alára? It’s about having a distinct point of view, passion, and a commitment to sharing it. Furthermore, alignment with culture and traditions is essential. Folawiyo asked, “How do we create moments that are beneficial to us as a culture but also encourage the preservation of our traditions?” Homeware has also been part of Alára’s offerings, and the brand places great emphasis on empowering artisans, like Hugh Findletar, Yinka Ilori, Aurora James of Brother Vellies, and Côté Bougie, especially as Folawiyo has been producing furniture for over 20 years and putting their pieces in Alára as merchandise. She said, “When I’m trying to define African luxury, and this is not an exclusive definition, it has to benefit the person who’s buying it in terms of its value, but it also must benefit the person who was making it and the people in that chain of making it.”

Alára at The Brooklyn Musuem | Image courtesy of Fola PR

“How do we create moments that are beneficial to us as a culture but also encourage the preservation of our traditions?”

Alára store in Lagos, Nigeria | Image courtesy of Fola PR

On the exhibition which is nearing its end Folawiyo emphasized, “The Brooklyn Museum is an institution we hold in high regard. It resonates with our values and serves as a hub for our diaspora.” She described the set up as a homecoming, “there has been a lot of exchange the other way around, where a lot of diasporas are trying to find their roots in Africa. We felt very strongly that Alára coming to this space would be a great moment for that cross-cultural connection that we’ve had,” she said. “We thought that by sharing the ethos of Alára with New York, not only would they appreciate the depth of creativity and the contemporary nature of African Fashion, but they would be curious to learn more. It was important that we were able to show the New York market that we fit well into the important conversations around global style. Also, we were only able to be a part of this because we have great creatives in Africa that are able to allow us to look great and come to Brooklyn Museum to participate in this. So we decided to make it a thank you to our makers and say, ‘Thank you for what you bring to our lives.'” The exhibition and Alára’s pop-up, running until October 22nd, is pivotal for the Brooklyn Museum, marking 100 years since it first introduced African art to North American audiences.

Reni Folawiyo by Stephen Tayo | Image courtesy of Fola PR

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