Colours of the World: How This Designer Fuses Asian and African Cultures

What do Nigerian and Singaporean cultures have in common? Molecular geneticist turned fashion entrepreneur Ifeoma Ubby explains how her brand OliveAnkara is a joyous blend of influences.

By SGN | 18 Jan 2023

You might assume that Singapore and Nigeria are as far apart culturally as they are geographically, but after nearly a decade of living in Singapore, Ify is quick to point out similarities in the traditions of the two lands. 

For example, the Malay dish rendang is very similar to a Nigerian beef stew served with rice, and Nigerian grooms take part in rituals on their wedding day to ‘fight’ for their brides, similar to the gatecrash custom practised by the Chinese in Singapore.

“There’s a common love for food, gatherings and celebrations,” she observes, although, when she first moved to Singapore, she had little idea what Asian cultures would be like.

Introducing a splash of African colour

Born and raised in Mirano, Italy – a town just outside Venice – to Nigerian parents who immigrated in the 80s, Ify counts herself fortunate to have grown up bicultural, thanks to the strong presence of a Nigerian community.

She describes Nigerian culture as a culture of celebration where, through food, fashion, music and festive get-togethers, they commemorate not just big occasions like weddings, but also the smaller blessings in life – like obtaining a secondhand car that allows for an easier commute to work.

For most of her life, Ify devoted herself to the study of science. After completing a PhD in human molecular genetics, she made a bold move with her now-husband, relocating to Singapore to take up a postdoctoral position at the National Cancer Centre.

Ify moved with her husband to Singapore in 2013.

Given the modest size of the African community in Singapore, Ify found her culture to be hardly known and scarcely represented. As a result, friends would often ask about the vibrant, colourful clothes she wore. “I realised there were a lot of people here curious to learn about other cultures,” she recalls.

This prompted her to launch OliveAnkara in July 2017, a side hustle showcasing African fashion through ankara fabrics. “I started the brand because I really wanted to share my culture with others and bring joy into their lives,” she says.

Introduced by the Dutch in 19th-century West Africa, ankara is a wax-printed cotton textile that bears a deep Asian-African connection. It is based on Indonesian batik, yet departs from its Southeast Asian counterpart in two ways: the material is made by machine, not hand, and incorporates brighter hues and bolder patterns favoured by Africans. 

Intriguingly, many ankara prints are embedded with stories, sayings, and other hidden meanings. The iconic Speed Bird print, which features swallows encircled by ovals, is a reminder to use money wisely, since it can fly away and leave you ‘rich today, poor tomorrow’. Another print, known as Santana, is an abstract tricoloured design that represents an angry woman in bed whose husband beseeches, ‘Darling, don’t turn your back on me.’

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Embracing cultures with an open heart

From the beginning, OliveAnkara has taken an open-hearted approach to its designs, exploring modern cuts and embracing Asian forms such as the cheongsam or kimono. “I really like the idea of blending different influences, because OliveAnkara is all about the celebration of cultures,” Ify explains. 

Her collection Ajo Aye (‘colourful journey’ in Yoruba) presents original prints inspired by Nigerian and Japanese beliefs surrounding the element of water. In a significant step towards sustainability, Ify had the garments fabricated with TENCEL™ Lyocell, a biodegradable fibre made from cellulose. 

“OliveAnkara is a slow fashion brand,” Ify says. “I prefer to have quality over quantity. We produce a very limited number of pieces and minimise waste, using around 97% of our fabric. With leftover fabric from the adult collection, we create the kids’ collection, and from there we create the accessories.” Within the last 18 months, the business achieved waste neutrality and eliminated single-use plastics from its production processes.

Summing it up, Ify says, “OliveAnkara customers are a community of culturally curious people who know they’re wearing clothes that are unique, of high quality, and created in an ethical way.”

OliveAnkara is a slow fashion brand that produces in small batches and minimises waste.

Connecting with new communities

As OliveAnkara grew, Ify took a leap of faith to focus on the fashion business fulltime, leaving behind her scientific career. “It was not an easy decision,” she recalls. “Science is also one of my passions, but I didn’t want to do either halfheartedly.”

Navigating the worlds of business and fashion as a newcomer was tough, and the early years entailed many highs and lows, lots of trial and error, and considerable financial uncertainty. “Being an entrepreneur is a long, lonely journey,” Ify says, “but what keeps me going is the support of customers, friends and family to chase my passion. I’m super grateful because they really give me energy and lift me up.”

Since moving to Singapore, Ify has formed a circle of close friends that includes expats but comprises mostly of locals. She says it is vital to “find your people” when adjusting to a new environment and creating a home away from home.

Ify has also formed connections with other business owners, participating in The Bridge Fashion Incubator by the Singapore Fashion Council, joining CRIB, a network of women entrepreneurs, and meeting other vendors at events like Boutique Fairs. “Singapore has a lot of communities that support entrepreneurs,” she notes. “I wish I had known about them from the beginning. It would have saved me a lot of heartache.”

Ify enjoys the intermingling and mutual appreciation of cultures in Singapore.

One of the greatest gifts of living in Singapore, Ify says, is being able to explore the region and experience a potpourri of Asian cultures. Even within Singapore, she enjoys the colourful intermingling of ethnic groups and cuisines. 

“What I love about Singapore is that there is such a mutual appreciation of cultures,” she enthuses, citing the example of how an Indian woman might attend a Chinese wedding wearing a cheongsam. With OliveAnkara, she hopes to play a small part in deepening this exchange and enriching the cultural fabric of Singapore.

“When I see someone on the street wearing my clothes, feeling good expressing themselves while sharing my heritage with others – that’s a big high for me.”

About Ify

Ify is the founder and designer of OliveAnkara, a Singapore-based slow fashion label that celebrates her Nigerian heritage through the ankara prints of West and Central Africa.

Connect with her here.

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