4 Apr 2024 ///

‘Exploring Nigerian Heritage Through Clothing with Tolu Oye’s Meji Meji’

We infuse [our designs with] the legacy and the constitution of traditional Nigerian style. We bring those styles, those iconographies, those distinct attributes that are Nigerian, and we modernise them for a wider world. Tokyo James (Brooklyn Museum, 2023)

 Two months ago, the eponymous cult-worthy Nigerian streetwear brand, Meiji Meji, announced imminent plans to grace South Africa’s borders and host two pop-up experiences in Cape Town & Johannesburg respectively.

Needless to say, these pop ups were a thorough success, spearheaded by the enigmatic creative director of Tolu Oye– with  support from local South African brand-retailers, such as ‘Broke’ (Cape Town), ‘99 Juta’ & ‘73oxDikatara (Johannesburg).

The Meji Meji pop up in Cape Town was hosted at the Broke Klubhouse nestled on Wale Street in the Mother City of Cape Town. Next up on the itinerary: Johannesburg, which included deejaying contributions from a hotbed of exciting local acts, such as Glock Angel, Nkuley & more – with the expert curatorial assistance of 73oxDikatara, hosted at 99 Juta in Braamfontein, the new heartbeat of Jozi.

The stark visual appeal of the aforementioned Meji Meji pop-ups, combined with their sheer magnitude of attendance, left me feeling very curious about the brand and its emanating roots. At the live events, there were clothing items such as the iconic Meji Meji baby tees on display, with sublime sonics filling the spaces – all accompanied by the recognisable Meji Meji Nollywood-influenced graphics emblazoned all over the venues.

Photographed by Jade Charnel Alexander

It’s safe to say that my interest in Meji Meji was further piqued after witnessing how these two curated experiences spread virally online.

So, I managed to take a deep dive into the history of the brand & engage Tolu Oye in a virtual to-and-fro about all things Meji Meji–an enlightening conversation which revealed to me the hunger of a determined fashion entrepreneur enroute to creating an eclectic fashion empire–inspired by the juxtaposition of her culture and heritage as a Nigerian-American woman. 

For those of you who may not have heard of her (yet), Tolu (which is a direct translation for “To God Be The Glory”) is a Nigerian-born fashion designer and creative director of the adorned fashion label, Meji Meji. After moving to the United States at the age of five and spending the majority of her upbringing and schooling in Ohio, at the ripe age of only sixteen, Tolu eventually decided to chase her dreams of working in the fashion industry in New York. Believe it or not, she boldly created a PowerPoint presentation as the method of convincing her parents to allow her to move to the Big Apple. In our conversation, she mentions: 

“That’s kind of been my motto with everything I do in life. If I want it – I’ll put it in a deck and I’ll put it out into the world.”

Photographed by Rete Poki

Photographed by Odey Ikpa

Fast-forward four years of education at the illustrious Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and Tolu managed to graduate from the same establishment which boasts the likes of Michael Kors, Calvin Klein & Schiaparelli’s Daniel Roseberry as alumni. After successfully obtaining her degree double-majoring in Fashion Advertising & Marketing, she decided to stay in Brooklyn, whilst interning at different fashion design & production houses domiciled in the New York area. LaQuan Smith probably sticks out as the most notable from Tolu’s recollection–citing her learning experience working under the former CFDA Award Finalist.

And then, the 2020 Covid lockdown hit. Something which genuinely sparked a change in direction for the young designer. Having already lived and experienced the “American Dream”, I think the creation of Meji Meji was Tolu’s attempt to discover more outside of it. Innovating the use of  our own identities as African people–remembering our roots at the epicentre always.

Tolu, at the time, was staying with her friend who specialises in graphic design and assisted in crafting the brand’s visual identity. From instantly being stocked in revered global experiential fashion retailer, Nordstrom, back when the brand launched–as well as hosting Meji Meji pop ups all over the world– now she manages to circle back to South Africa.

Judging from the tone of our conversation, Tolu Oye’s Meji Meji has plans on staying here too.

Something I picked up from Tolu during our enticing conversation is that when living in America, there was always a longing for home. I liken the feeling to an unshakeable nostalgia; a yearning to understand more about your personal identity and heritage as an African domiciled in a completely different environment. Her visits back home to Nigeria during her adolescence only served as fuel to motivate her to go back home to Lagos and decipher the meaning of her own Nigerian roots; for the purposes of her own personal and creative expansion. This story actually ties in perfectly with the brand name, Meji Meji, and bodes well with its naming conventions from which it was conceived. 

When I asked Tolu what the name means and how she decided upon it, she responded: “So I am Nigerian and there is a dialect within our culture called ‘Yoruba’. One day I sat down and flicked through a Yoruba dictionary and looked for a word which would resonate the most with my brand. I saw the word ‘Meji Meji’ and thought it sounded fun–the word means “two” or “double” and how I view it is that my blessings will come in two’s. Also, my grandmother stays on ‘Ore Meji’ Street, which basically means “two friends on a street.”

Tolu Oye has been designing all of her life. Genuinely. From learning how to sew as a kid from her mother, using pattern papers – it’s evident that her strength has always been working with her hands and creating as such. This skillset is not limited to clothing too, as Tolu also has prior experience within the hair & beauty space, through ‘Oye Green’. She also grew up in a very religious household (her father is a pastor in Ohio) so it makes sense why the Meji Meji graphics & concepts are always infused with Christianity and intertwined with different notions of faith and religion. That aspect of the brand identity is continuous; Tolu views Meji Meji as a Ministry more than anything, and this brand ideology is evident in the various religious motifs which are ever-present within her work.

We fast-forward to present-day Meji Meji and the future is brighter than ever. I honestly feel as if the fruits of her ambition, risk-taking, as well as the inherent belief in her abilities, have ripened–and what we witness today is an accumulation of years of hardwork and dedication. From 2020–the year when she founded Meji Meji–the list of accomplishments is astounding (and still getting longer!). The Nigerian brand has garnered international attention in such a short space of time–including features from Vogue America, Native Mag, Essence, and more. The proof is literally in the pudding.

In closing I pose a question: what can we learn from the story of Tolu Oye and her brainchild Meji Meji? One certainty is: authentic African stories will always win. For example, I see quintessential crossovers between Meji Meji’s work, local creative powerhouse ‘Ebumnandini’–and to me this is progress. Different African creative establishments need to move in unison across the diaspora–telling our unique African stories as only us Africans can. This is the embodiment of Tolu Oye’s Meji Meji and I cannot wait to witness the lengths to which she will propel her vision into.

Written by: Odwa Zamane

For more news, visit the Connect Everything Collective homepage www.ceconline.co.za

You May Also Like

A Sartorial Genesis with Chloe Andrea Welgemoed

A Sartorial Genesis with Chloe Andrea Welgemoed

When reality seems to present a flat surface of 2-dimensional, replicated ideas: Chloe Andrea Welgemoed is a stylist and art director whose maximalist spirited work stands in direct resistance to any and all oblique tediousness.