The “Esther” dress is hand-painted with images reflecting the conflicts on the African continent. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

The dress is named after designer Patience Torlowei’s mother, who passed away. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

This sleeveless gown with the hand-painted train is a conversation — about the violence man has committed against the Earth as well as the beauty that springs from it.

The dress’s dazzling bodice has a metallic glint, as if it was spun from strands of 22-karat gold. The skirt is an artist’s canvas — an achingly visceral landscape of red flames, puce-colored water, a hazy sun, gray smoke, rusted pipes and brown torsos etched with muscles. At a glance, the gown is a stunning example of one-of-a-kind fashion. But really look at it and the dress expresses the richness of Africa’s natural resources, its bloody conflicts, the blithe despoiling of its communities and the toll that such degradation takes on the people.

The dress communicates in long, emotional paragraphs a story that its designer Patience Torlowei, who was born in Enugu, Nigeria, knows intimately. Growing up so close to the country’s oil-producing region, she saw the havoc that the drilling and the subsequent spills of poisonous crude have had on the surrounding environment. “Small lakes, from one day to the other, the fish would all be dead. All these things could be destroyed over night.

“The dress,” Torlowei says, “comes out of pain.”

But it also comes from her heart and from the well of creativity that Torlowei, an established fashion designer, brings to everything, from this one-of-a-kind meditation on the environment to practical lingerie.

The gown, named “Esther,” is part of “I Am. . . Contemporary Women Artists of Africa,” which runs through July 5, 2020, at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. The dress occupies the middle of the exhibition’s main gallery, where it’s surrounded by the work of other African female artists who explore identity through portraiture, sculpture and video art. “Esther,” however, holds the distinction of being the first example of modern designer fashion to be added to the museum’s permanent collection.


The dress is the first work of modern designer fashion to become part of the permanent collection at the National Museum of African Art. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

The dress joins an archive of African textiles and historical garments. The museum was not avoiding contemporary attire, but “high fashion can be an expensive territory to enter,” says curator Karen Milbourne. Torlowei made “Esther” a gift to a delighted museum.

“That gown is a work of art,” Milbourne says.

The museum refers to the dress as “couture,” but Torlowei knows “Esther” doesn’t meet the proscribed standards of haute couture as set by Paris, which essentially says that if a garment is not crafted by a designated couture house, then it’s not couture. It’s just fashion. And Torlowei is admiring and respectful of the lineage of a term that speaks of Hubert de Givenchy, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel and Christian Dior.

“I’ve always loved fashion: Dior, the style of Saint Tropez. I’m not going to classify it as couture. Couture is couture,” Torlowei says.

She originally created “Esther” for a fashion show that accompanied the museum’s 2013 exhibition “Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa.” Those were tumultuous times for Torlowei. Her mother had recently passed away and the dress was named after her. But the name also calls to mind the story of the biblical figure who saved the Jews from death and who has become a symbol of salvation through the power of language.


Designer Patience Torlowei (Torlowei)

Torlowei speaks through the language of fashion. “Esther” is her poetry. Her other work, while no less meticulously crafted, is prose.

At 55, Torlowei is a fashion designer stepping into the light of the Western fashion world at a time when the industry is searching for new markets, welcoming more diverse voices and striving for inclusiveness — not so much out of moral rectitude but because it is good business. Gucci, for example, has developed scholarship programs in Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa, among other countries.

This year’s shortlist for the LVMH Prize for new designers includes representation from Nigeria and South Africa. And brands such as Brother Vellies and Lemlem have tapped into the artisan traditions in Africa. Torlowei’s ready-to-wear line focuses on lingerie and merges techniques that she learned working in Brussels with the aesthetics of her Ni­ger­ian birthplace.


The Torlowei collection on the runway at the 2019 Arise Fashion Week show in Lagos, Nigeria. (Torlowei)

(Torlowei)

Torlowei spent more than 20 years in Brussels. Her husband didn’t want her to work outside the home and so she became a stay-at-home mother of two yearning for a creative outlet. She began teaching herself how to make lingerie, particularly the way it was done in the 1920s. She loved the fragility and intimacy of it.

In 2008, she spent about six months working in the atelier of a seamstress whose family’s roots in the craft went back generations. “She taught me without reservation. She answered every question,” Torlowei says. “Not many people want you to know everything about how things are done. But lingerie-making is moving to China. She was glad to teach me.”

Through it all, Torlowei was building a business focused on high-end lingerie and loungewear. (Her marriage dissolved in 2003.) After some success in Belgium, Torlowei moved back to Nigeria. In what she calls phase two of her life, she decided to create an Africa-based luxury line that catered to African women. What she discovered in Nigeria was a lingerie market that was colloquially referred to as BDS, or “bend down and select.” Women were buying used lingerie from vendors who spread their wares on a sheath of plastic that was unfurled on the ground.

“You’d see working women in beautiful outer garments who were wearing secondhand lingerie,” Torlowei says. “It pained me. I said I have to change what I wanted to do.”

“Why was no one addressing the undergarment needs of African women?” she asked herself. She rationalized it this way: African designers are only just being recognized. In their desire to have their work seen and respected for its quality and creativity, they gave little attention to the part of the wardrobe that is essential but mostly hidden.

So instead of focusing solely on one-of-a-kind or special-order pieces, Torlowei decided to offer everyday lingerie — that was indulgent and stunning.

Torlowei’s collection comes in deep jewel tones and delicate pastels. Some of it is embellished with lace and marabou. Other pieces have discreet pleats, judicious embroidery and a sweet daintiness that makes each camisole or pair of tap pants feel like a special treat.

She recently showed the collection at Lagos’s Arise Fashion Week, which has begun to attract interest from around the world. Torlowei met fashion editor André Leon Talley at a panel discussion. He was impressed enough by her work that he is hosting a dinner in her honor the day after the September fashion shows finish in New York.


Delicate details such as tiny pleats are part of Torlowei’s aesthetic vocabulary. (Torlowei)

Torlowei’s use of lace and embroidery calls to mind the techniques favored by artisans in Belgium, where Torlowei apprenticed. (Torlowei)

“There was no real reason why it should happen,” Torlowei says of her relationship with Talley. By that, she means, she was not part of an inner circle of fashion professionals; she didn’t have any particular connections; she wasn’t a guest at a VIP party. Talley was on a panel and she was seated in the audience with her daughter, Mojisola Adegbile, who was wearing a Torlowei camisole. Adegbile stood to ask a question. Talley liked the camisole. What followed? A thank you for the compliment. A post-panel introduction. An extended conversation. A private meeting. A kinship. And now, a dinner.

“Her work stands out as she takes lingerie and intimates to a high level of design that blurs the lines between the duality of fashion,” Talley writes in an email. “In other words, a slip is not just a slip; a camisole with lace motifs can be worn as luxury clothing, a kimono wrapper translates into private dressing or dinner dressing.”

Torlowei, Talley says, “has successfully aligned traditional African cultural influences with a sophisticated vision of women’s luxury intimate apparel.”

In what is now, perhaps, chapter three of her professional life, Torlowei is in the center of one of the fashion industry’s leading stories: the rise of Africa. She wants to give African women the pampering associated with beautiful lingerie and she wants to do so using the skills of Ni­ger­ian seamstresses. Along the way, she hopes to demolish stereotypes about what African consumers want and what homegrown brands can deliver.

A brand “coming out of Africa, people don’t expect it to be perfect,” Torlowei says. “We have to change that expectation.”