Model Adesuwa Aighewi Wants To Unite The African Diaspora Through Art
Her new Legacy project sells craftwork for a cause.
Adesuwa Aighewi knows what it’s like to feel rootless. As a member of the African diaspora, and as someone who moved from place to place often growing up — and continues to do so today as a globetrotting, in-demand model — Aighewi’s desire for the feeling of home pushed her to begin work on a creative endeavor in 2018. It would take four years and a great deal of international travel for field research to launch her Legacy project, which connects the talented artisans she’s met in her travels with a global audience, this past October. Available via an online made-to-order marketplace, the pieces themselves will depend on the specialties of the local craftspeople she brings into the fold, but fashion and jewelry have proved comfortable entry points for the model to realize her goal.
“I love jewelry, and as a model, I understand the power of it,” she says. “I understand the process. I’ve seen people sell rocks for literally millions of dollars.” Aighewi knew she wanted Legacy’s debut to center around jewelry not only because it’s a marketable category but because she feels strongly about its capabilities: These adornments speak a language of symbolism, bringing the scattered populations of the African diaspora back to their roots through totems of metal and gemstones. She sees it as a springboard to boost the project into the multidisciplinary artist collective she envisions. And while the pieces are merely an initial step in introducing the masses to the beauty of her homeland, it was important to establish the initiative by making it clear that luxury items like fine jewelry could be made anywhere in Africa — that the obstacle to their creation was resources, not skill. “How can I tell these stories from a place that is typically seen as poor?” Aighewi says. “How can I get you to see Africa how I see Africa? For me, having jewelry as the first thing was a no-brainer.”
The work of Legacy is a deeply personal to Aighewi. “If I have three passports, where is my home?” Aighewi pondered in her soul-searching. “Home to me has never been a place; I’ve never lived in one place like that. Home is literally your body. If you feel at peace, you feel safe. How can I teach that? How can I show that? These little tokens, this little education: Remember the fact that you were a king,” she says, hoping that the pieces will make those with African ancestry feel connected to their culture, one that is not defined solely by struggle or oppression but a rich tapestry vibrant with narratives of righteousness and royalty.
Aighewi began conceptualizing the shape her business could take after amplifying the craftwork of artisans she encountered in Benin City, Nigeria. She saw how they used pipes, leaf blowers, and other unconventional tools to create incredible bronze leopard statues and balked when she heard the pieces would market for only $30. And so she took to Instagram, displaying figures to her more than 100,000 followers with the click of a button — but not before upping the prices to reflect something closer to their true value. “I was like, ‘OK, $250 a pop,’” she remembers “And all of it sold.”
There was undeniable talent in the craftspeople she came across; there was proven demand for the work they created. The disconnect between artist and audience was one Aighewi could bridge. She would design and front an inaugural collection, sourcing materials from all over and working with artisans across Africa and Asia. Precious stones, freshwater pearls, and Ghanaian beads would form sartorial narratives for Queen Mother Idia, the empire’s first queen, and King Oranmiyan Omoluabi Odede, leader of the Yoruba Kingdom of Ile-Ife. Descendants of Africa all over the world were top of mind for Aighewi as she built the pieces. “Anybody who’s Black or brown, it looks immaculate in them,” she says. “It’s designed that way on purpose. The hues are for brown skin tones.”
The items retail from $240 to $10,000, and will soon to be available at auction. Some styles are still being priced out — assigning a dollar amount to the intricate beadwork of pieces like the Ivie hoodie, handmade in Benin by esteemed beader Uwaila Loveth Irorewean, is no simple task. The coral beads used in the garment’s design were typically exclusively worn by Nigerian royalty, the adornments of kings and queens.
The barriers to entry for craftspeople the likes of which she’s met across Côte d'Ivoire, South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, and Thailand are not issues the industry at large genuinely recognizes, in Aighewi’s view. “People there have to source from remnants of the world,” she says. “And then there’s the issue of light, or there’s no water — you have to pay so much more. It is way more expensive to produce [products].” Even those who manage to crack the upper echelons of high fashion face criticism that demonstrates a complete lack of understanding for the challenges those living outside the West must navigate to arrive at the very same stages. “Kenneth Ize uses traditional African fabrics, weaving it in the village,” she offers, referencing the Lagos-born 2019 LVMH Prize Finalist. The designer is known for incorporating traditional West African textiles in his work as well as collaborating with Nigerian artisans to bring his namesake brand to life. “Everything [in the West] is machines, and it’s as fast as possible. Other people are competing with hands,” she remarks incredulously.
With Legacy, Aighewi taps into local talent and gives them space to “play,” something that those operating on lower incomes are generally denied. She’ll provide the resources and the industry experience to help hone their existing abilities and cultivate creative communities, with the end goal of identifying their most marketable work and selling it worldwide through a direct-to-consumer model.
“Without playing, without this time, they don’t get the opportunity to [experiment],” Aighewi explains. “You can’t because you’re hungry and you’ve got to go, go, go. That’s where I come in and create this safe space. We listen, play together, learn each other. Let’s have these little think tanks; no one’s really having them. If it’s fashion and that’s a way we can do it, cool. People like clothes. Fashion has no passport.”
Aighewi knows that thoughtful design is only one part of the equation. The project is structured around developing a sustainable model for artisans to operate and earn income, but sustainability in terms of environmental preservation is also a consideration. Aighewi shares an upcoming fashion-based Legacy initiative in the works that addresses it: her Back to Sender collection. The tons of textiles dumped in the global south unfortunately make their way to landfills and to the sea, but a portion of those items end up at markets where they’re sold in bins and baskets, often for cheap. She’ll buy those imported pieces and set about redesigning and enhancing them with traditional embroidery techniques, thereby recycling fabric at risk of ending up as waste into beautiful garments for tourists and other travelers — likely those hailing from the very same countries contributing all those textiles — to take back home.
The model’s community-oriented mindset, this passion for supporting her brothers and sisters, is evident in even a short conversation about Legacy. It has been an uphill battle. She can still be found on runways at fashion weeks worldwide, opening Ralph Lauren’s Spring/Summer 2023 California show just last month, but four years of living in various hotels, and some less hospitable locations, of investing and losing her valuable time in the process of trial and error and learning what business models will work, she’s learned to manage her exspectations. “The system in itself will humble you,” she says. “Even if you anticipate so-and-so. Being a designer there and getting anything done, it's a miracle, infrastructure-wise.” She’s learned not to be so deadline-oriented, instead following the path that feels right, no matter how long it is.
Spending months sometimes without easy access to water and dodging the wrath of mosquitoes were inconveniences but not too much to ask of herself; this is the work she’s been building toward all along, gaining momentum with Dior campaigns and Oscar de la Renta runway shows to eventually, finally, bring it all back home. Aighewi says social impact was the only reason she pursued modeling to begin with. Forging real opportunities for those in her homeland to make art — and to make a living off of it — has been the broader aim of her entire career.
There are still plenty of kinks to work out, as is always the case in embarking on such an ambitious endeavor. She has little faith in businesspeople to be the force that helps uplift craftspeople in poverty, to recognize their true skill and construct the systems they need both to develop as artists and to earn a livelihood. Aighewi knows creatives are the ones that will have to set an example. If she’s able to prove Legacy can be profitable in delivering the products of African tradition to a wider consumer base, perhaps investors and others will see such a symbiosis is indeed possible and follow her lead.
“There is something we can do,” Aighewi stresses. She sees no reason why a global audience wouldn’t feel more compelled to spend their dollars on the craftwork of Africa, gaining insight into their histories and recognizing their true ingenuity, if they only knew about it. Art has long been a major conduit for change, and it’s one Aighewi views as her focal point: “Art is even an expression of ourselves,” she says. “It is a language of only our heart.” Legacy allows her to channel all the eyes that have followed her modeling work back to the land of her ancestors — as was always her intention. She’s put years into building her own platform knowing it was only ever a stepping stone to spotlight the work of a larger group of African creatives. “Typically, females in Nigeria and Africa have to be born into power or marry into power, but I’m not either one of those,” she says. “So I’m like, ‘I would like my own power.’ The way to do that now is through celebrity. So I thought I would model, bust my ass, ride that wave, and then use that to educate the world.”