Lagos as Inspiration for Art Director Onyinye Fafi Obi

LAGOS, Nigeria - You may not always reference her by name, but you certainly know her work. As art director and founder of Studio Matte, a boutique brand management agency, Onyinye Fafi Obi collaborates with some of the biggest creatives on the continent - from Lanre Da Silva Ajayi to Lakin Ogunbanwo - shaping their visual identities on and offline.

It's a challenging job that requires a fine balance - to showcase an authentic aesthetic that appeals to a growing audience at home while crafting images with the ability to transcend cultural expectations abroad. Her scenes are vibrant, full of color, and richly melaninated, but not kitschy and contrived. Obi has a spirit that will surely take her far in her creative endeavors. PROTOChic connected with Obi to hear how she explores her hometown of Lagos as a tourist and where African creatives will be in the next twenty years.

PROTOChic: You are deeply involved in image-making. Where did it all begin for you and who inspired you in the pursuit of this path ?

Onyinye Fafi Obi: One of the first things I picked up when I was young was that I knew I wanted to work in fashion. I loved the fantasy, the dream, and the positivity. Art direction and production became my world long after I had interned in various sectors of fashion from the age of 17 and I decided to stick to art directing because I felt I was really good at it. I figured out my strengths and focused on getting better as time went by. I'm constantly thinking up concepts and different angles. It gives me the opportunity to work with creatives I admire - whether it's a photographer, model, or makeup artist.

Studio Matte for Lagos Fashion & Design Week

Studio Matte for Lagos Fashion & Design Week

PC: Your client work shows such a range in experiences and sentiments, from your work for Lagos Fashion & Design Week to Vlisco. What is your process when working with a client ?

Obi: In a way, my choice of clients is more important to me than anything. I work better when creative freedom and expression within a predefined set of parameters is given to me to create content that serves the client and also makes me sleep with a smile at night. Not all Nigerian clients are open to working that way! I think the pace at the beginning of my career was really fast because I was picked up quite quickly, but eventually I slowed down and now I’m very selective with what I do. It's all about fulfillment and achieving a greater purpose for me right now. I have a goal to create content that transcends beyond Nigeria, so if the brief I am being given doesn't serve this purpose, then the work isn't for me.

PC: How does the city of Lagos inspire your work ?

Obi: I challenged myself this year to open my inner eye to be able to see and digest every little detail that Lagos has to offer. I'd like to say I'm trying things around me like a tourist in a city I was born and bred in. When I travel, everything I'm experiencing, whether it’s something I see when I am walking the streets or traveling in a car, all of this triggers ideas in my mind. I try to recreate that in Lagos without the heavy ticket price and hotel accommodations. I'm starting to see Lagos in a very different way. I'm inspired by seeing different things and thinking of ways to interpret it into a fashion visual.

PC: You recently launched a skincare range Matte Apothecary. What inspired the brand extension and how are you finding the experience versus your work in art direction and production ?

Matte Apothecary

Matte Apothecary

Obi: It's been a learning process. I feel like a young student learning the ropes of business and building a brand from scratch as opposed to telling people how I think their brand should be. In early 2016, I became obsessed with my skin and what I put on it. I started reading labels on my favorite skin products and couldn't understand half of the ingredients that were in it and decided to go organic. My friends noticed my passion and motivated me to start a skincare brand. It's really different from art direction and production because I can do that in my sleep, but Matte Apothecary requires both attention and focus to grow into the brand I want it to be.

PC: How would you define your personal style and how does your hair play into your self-expression?

Obi: My personal style would be described in one word - COMFORT. I am never in anything not comfortable. There are a thousand and one things going through my mind from sunrise to sunset and life as a creative isn't really a walk in the park either, so I like to be comfortable. My style icon would be Victoria Beckham circa 2015 to date. Her wardrobe has made me exclaim 'OMG! I'd wear that. That's so me!' more times than I can remember and that's so rare for me. I have a signature hairstyle and it was never a conscious effort to try to make a statement with it, except to cover my baby cheeks. With time, older people liken me to vivacious women such as Chaka Khan and Diana Ross and now I feel really sassy with it, like it has a life of its own - my very own helmet.

PC: What inspires your creative eye ?

Obi: I try not to limit my sources of inspiration because I never know what will spark up my creative juices. I'm mostly inspired by my travels and music in different languages of the countries I travel to. I'm obsessed with trips within Africa because I never return to Lagos the same. I'm also inspired by the Golden Age photographers such as Oumar Ly, Jacques Touselle, Mory Bamba, Seydou Keita, and James Barnor because their visuals possess a certain spark towards art direction that I would like to interpret into my own work.

PC: When you think about the next 20 years, where do you see African fashion ?

Obi: The African fashion scene is growing at an alarming rate. There are so many amazing platforms joining hands to push it forward and results are being seen. The creatives are evolving, getting better at their craft, and exporting their talents out of their respective countries. In 20 years, the African fashion scene will be at a point of maturity and stability - a point where parents of young creatives wouldn't raise an eyebrow in doubt at the thought of their children working in fashion.

This interview has been edited and condensed.