Models backstage at the Lagos Fashion & Design Week in Nigeria. — AFP photos Models backstage at the Lagos Fashion & Design Week in Nigeria. — AFP photos

Karl Lagerfeld once sniffed that "no one wants to see curvy women" on the runway, but a wave of Nigerian designers are proving him wrong. The opening night of Lagos Fashion and Design Week on Wednesday featured five designers showcasing plus-size collections in a defiant celebration of all things curvy. "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but if he was in Africa, he probably wouldn't make that statement," designer Aisha Abubakar Achonu said backstage.

Achonu, a regal 32-year-old with feline eyes, said that in Nigeria bigger can be better. "Our culture appreciates plus-size more than other parts of the world," she said. "No woman should be subjected to looking a certain way."Most seemed to agree. When the lights went up and the first plus-size model strode onto the runway wearing sunglasses, crimson lips and a ton of attitude, the crowd went wild. Unlike the hesitant, calf-like models before them, the curvy women owned the runway, blowing kisses to the cameras as they shimmied down the catwalk to hoots and cheers. Waiters in pressed white shirts lost their composure, hollering "mama" and whistling. "Oh. My. God," said a thin woman in the audience with an Afro and gold hoop earrings. "Wow."

Booming business

Model Olivia Emenike, who is a size 18, stands over six feet tall and counts curvy star Ashley Graham and reality tycoon Kim Kardashian as inspiration, says she felt "fabulous" on the runway and wouldn't have it any other way. "I've never criticized my big bones or thick thighs. No one should feel ashamed of what they have," said the 25-year-old. "I wanted to be part of this event and show that plus-size women are fashionable." Plus-size clothing is shedding its dowdy reputation as more big name stores including Target and Mango introduce larger lines.

US actress Melissa McCarthy introduced her own Seven7 brand after no one would make her a dress for the 2012 Academy Awards, with her manifesto declaring "clothes should flatter our bodies and not just try to cover us up." Of course, it's not just about looks: plus-size is big business too.  Annual US sales of women's plus-size clothing -- 14 and higher-rose to $20.4 billion in 2016, according to market research firm NPD Group.  With studies showing that waistlines are starting to bulge in Africa too, designers are set to cash in on the growing demand for curvy clothes.  "They see someone as big as me and look at my dresses and say I can relate to that," designer Makioba Olugbile said. Olugbile, who says she's a proud size "Africa 16", showed a dramatic black and white collection inspired by the moon "for how you want to look in the spotlight." Her business is booming. "You can't even imagine," Olugbile said, her eyes widening with excitement. "Now people are embracing plus-size."

A movement is born

The enthusiasm was infectious backstage. "I saw some of them when they were walking, I was like-you go girls!" said 18-year-old model Aduke Shitta-Bey, wearing a white lace robe and her straight black hair in a high pony-tail. "Nigerians appreciate curvy girls, they say why are you so skinny? They say big is healthy, that's Nigerian beauty." The curvy collective was brought together by Latasha Ngwube, a 33-year-old former journalist and founder of About That Curvy Life, a lifestyle website "aimed at inspiring and supporting the plus-size community".

Ngwube started using the hashtag #AboutThatCurvyLife when she was attending fashion shows. Now her website has 15,000 visitors a week.  A "movement" was born, Ngwube said. "It's not just fashion, it's body positivity, the freedom to just be allowed to want to be beautiful."  For Ngwube-and many others-curvy fashion is emancipation.  "It's my duty to educate people through the language of fashion," Ngwube continued. "I think it's just mission started, but for tonight we'll take mission accomplished." _ AFP