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Ireti Zaccheaus: Lagos to London

Nigerian streetwear champion with a Virgil Abloh co-sign, Basement Approved speaks to Street Souk founder, Ireti Zaccheaus about the culture clash between Lagos and London and building a legacy for her people.

It’s late August and we’re sitting in Brixton Morleys. “Nowhere has fried chicken like Morleys, it’s the best thing about south” Ireti says. Meeting through the scene, Ireti and I connected over our love of streetwear, being professional party girls (not sorry), and having both attended all girls school in the same area of Kent. We hit it off straight away.

At 22 years old, entrepreneur Ireti Zaccheaus is the founder of Street Souk, Africa’s first and biggest streetwear convention. Creating a platform for an underrepresented fashion scene, Ireti is one of the few Gen Z’s really putting Nigeria on the map. In December 2018, Ireti launched the first edition of Street Souk in Nigeria – the first of its kind in West Africa. Having sat on several panels, including Browns ‘Can Africa Generate The Rebirth Of Streetwear’, (hosted by Homecoming, Browns and Metallic Inc), Ireti is one of the most powerful young black women in the game. A champion of African fashion and culture, she continues to break serious boundaries and is already getting the recognition she deserves.

Born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, Ireti is proud to reflect her hometown in her style “Us Lagosians, and Nigerians in general, we’re loud people. We want people to know when we’ve arrived. By nature, you are gonna see me walking and I’m going to make sure that your head is turned, that’s how I was raised.” Speaking of her childhood, she notes her parent’s style was a huge influence, “They are big into how they look, how they present themselves. My parents have like really sick drip so honestly, I was bound to be into it. Everyone around me, my brother as well, everyone dresses a certain kind of way that is very authentic and original to themselves.”

"The fashion scene is literally taking off."

Having lived in the UK for the last 9 years, Ireti’s knowledge and experience spans across both cities. Comparing the two she notes, “it’s very different but also very similar. In terms of the Lagos scene – as big as it and as big as our population is – if you’re out there you know everyone else, and it’s the same in London. I realised that after a while, as I started going out a bit more, you start seeing the same people as everyone is on a similar wavelength, similar vibe so it does make a lot of sense.”

"I feel at home in London. It's always been my second home, but with the community and people even more so."

There’s a big overlap between the two cities, with the amount of Nigerians in the London scene as well; the Motherlan boys to name just one group. Soho has long been the hub for all things fashion in London, but with culture hotspots developing all over the capital, there’s more to see outside of just Zone 1. 

East London has been a point of interest in recent years and one of Ireti’s favourite spots. “I just started exploring East London. I’ve been around Dalston, Hoxton, Hackney. I’ve really enjoyed it because everyone is just free, it’s very New York, it’s very just do what you wanna do, live how you wanna live, dress how you wanna dress, and no one really cares.” Commenting on the sense of camaraderie that exists in the east London neighbourhoods, she says, “people just walk past you on the road, like ‘you look so good, I love this or that.’ So yeah I’d just say east in general not one place in particular is a vibe.”

You have probably heard of Teezee. A recent feature on Skepta’s new track ‘Peace of Mind’; the self-proclaimed prince of Lagos; the city’s biggest rapper and, of course, Ireti’s brother. Through his lens, Ireti got her first exposure to the Nigerian scene. “One thing that has always stood out about him and his group is the way they dressed. It’s always considered unconventional compared to everyone else in the Nigerian scene. They were just so out of the box, wearing floor length Dashikis, always pushing the boundaries, wearing the glasses indoors, and the hats and everything. He had all the ice creams, all the cool streetwear stuff, and then I kinda formed all my own opinions on what I liked.”

Ireti’s work ethic is umatched. Talking on her first job in the fashion industry “I was the social media manager for one of the first streetwear stores in Nigeria, like a concession store, they sold supreme, BAPE, and their own brand called XII Glover, so that was my first fashion related job per-se and from there everything else kinda happened.”

From there on, Ireti’s love for streetwear went from strength to strength until she felt compelled to launch Street Souk, which quickly grew into Africa’s biggest streetwear convention. The inspiration to start the monumental event comes from her mother, “Street Souk started off because my Mum had something similar, but for a different demographic and a different generation. I visited it for the first time when I was back home in Lagos and was shocked that there’s a possibility to put something on like this in Lagos, and this many people would turn up”. But Ireti always knew she wanted it to be something more than a trade fair…

“I thought I could do this for people in my generation, and make it more than a trade fair: involving fashion, music, art, all the things that young Nigerians care about. We’re creative, we're into pop culture and know everything that's going on.”

She admits while it’s the first of its kind in Africa, she is not the first to come up with the format. “It’s nothing that hasn’t been done before of course, Complexcon has been going on for years, so the blueprint is there. AlI I had to do was make it authentic and wholly Nigerian. I wanted to make it fit my people and my purpose and goals for the brands. Making sure that we’re all connected and moving as one is important.”

Street Souk saw its first convention in December 2018, with the fourth upcoming 2021 event on the horizon. Ireti stresses the importance of authenticity at her convention “I’m a student of the game, streetwear has been everything to me for as long as I can remember, it’s the most authentic thing I could give back to my community.” It’s equally important to her that the event remains true to the core tenets of authentic streetwear.

“It’s just a bunch of young people having fun. No politics, nothing but let's just have fun and grow. Let’s make our brands, keep them vibrant and keep living."

Quickly garnering an impressive international reputation, Ireti landed the co-sign of none other than Virgil Abloh. The founder of Off-White and now creative director for Louis Vuitton, Virgil – a frequent champion of kids on the come up – has shown a keen interest in Ireti’s journey. Their connection began at the ‘Can Africa Generate The Re-Birth Of Streetwear’ panel hosted by Browns and continued at Homecoming in 2020 alongside fellow panelists Grace and Alex of Metallic Inc. Featured as a guest speaker alongside Angelo Baque of AWAKE NY, Guillaume at Patta, Ciesay of PLACES + FACES, Ghana based streetwear brand & collective Free The Youth, the guys at Motherlan, Vivendii, WafflesNCream and Daily Paper, the panel was an eye opening exploration of the African streetwear scene. With her knowledge and passion, Ireti caught the attention of the internationally renowned design force. “I was doing my talk and at the end of the panel Virgil reached out to me saying he really loves what I’m doing and would like to help and be involved in my journey. We kept in contact and planned for him to come to Nigeria but due to covid that wasn’t possible.”

The collaborative efforts led to an exclusive graphic t-shirt, released from Street Souk with Off-White motifs embedded in the design. “The shirts mean so much to me because of the colour, the yellow and black” Ireti tells us, “there was so much going on in Nigeria last year, and the words on the shirt saying ‘I Support Young Nigerian Women’ represent that”.

“There was a whole movement of freedom that was being led by women. It was amazing to have something to represent that and to show that we are out here, doing what we’re doing.”

But her journey hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Being a young woman in a male dominated field is a challenge in itself, but that’s never stopped Ireti. “I used to play football for Crystal Palace so I’ve always been in areas where it’s male dominated which pushed me to be even better, to be the best and show that man or women I’m better than you, I don’t care.” Her uphill battle was compounded by her modest age. “Nigerians believe with age comes wisdom. A whole lot of issues have come from being young. Having people take you seriously or people older than you working for you can be difficult when setting boundaries.” 

Driven to prove herself, despite the nay-sayers, Ireti has prover herself as the convention grows year on year. “It has become easier, it’s like ‘oh ok, look at her track record.’” At just 22, Ireti’s achievements now speak for themselves and her outlook has been shaped by the challenges she’s faced. “Regardless of how it goes down, life goes on. No matter what happens, the next second is gonna tick and life’s gonna keep ticking. So you better lick your wounds and keep moving all the time. Sometimes it’s hard but you have to keep moving because time waits for no man and it never stops.”

Moving forward, Ireti has a long list of future goals and mountains to climb, with far-reaching interests which branch beyond fashion. “I’ve always said I want to go into tech, go into agriculture. There’s so much more to me than clothes and streetwear,” she says. “Continuing to be a voice and ambassador for my community is pivotal. Wherever I go, I’m going to carry my country on my back, you’re going to know that she’s a young Nigerian girl and she did that.” And where Street Souk is concerned, her vision for the convention is far bigger than just her.“I’m making sure everything we’re building is going to last way beyond my time. I’m not here to just be popping and cool, but 10 years from now no-one will remember what we did here.” 

“My vision for StreetSouk is so much bigger than me; it’s community building, it’s jobs for people, there’s so much more to it than meets the eye.”

That said, while she is here, popping and cool, it’s worth acknowledging her inimitable style. Fusing African streetwear brands, with the hottest sneakers and luxury bags, Ireti’s style is an individualistic collision of cultures. Speaking on one of her favourite pieces – a pair of denim from Nigerian streetwear label 5200 Fleece – she says, “the level of craft on the denim was nothing I ever expected to be coming out of the scene in Nigeria, considering the hardships to face to do anything.” Ireti takes notice of how straightforward things are in London by comparison. “Everything is so easy, you can do anything you want to do. But in Nigeria there’s no electricity for the average person. There’s no water, the struggles people go through to still be able to create what they create is just crazy. It’s so inspiring.”

As our conversation comes to a close, I ask her to leave us with some words of inspiration for young creatives on the scene. “Don’t think it’s the easy way out because it really isn’t. I feel like there is this weird thought process that people aim to be a creative to avoid having a 9 to 5, but what they don’t realise is that you have a 24/7 instead. You need to make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, that your talents and hard work lie in the right place.”