Transcending: In Conversation with Nneji Akunne

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With the Ohio-born, Lagos-based designer on homecomings, conversations on sustainability, and tackling garment waste through Transcending, her first exhibition.
Photography: Bisi Daniels

In April 2022, designer Nneji Akunne opened the doors to Transcending, her first exhibition and a week-long manifestation of her creative intersections. During the 7-day production, visitors entered Akunne’s mind through unique installations, culturally-driven sculptures, and clothing.

For Akunne, Transcending is more than just a representation of her recent work. It is a message hoping to ignite the conversation about the global impact of garment waste. As the founder of AKACHI, a luxury fashion house based in Lagos, Akunne has seen the importance of a brand anchored on sustainability. According to current estimates, over 90 million tonnes of textile waste is generated every year and quickly climbing.

We spoke with the designer about finding her way home to Nigeria, the conversations around sustainability, and bringing Transcending to life.

"I finally saw Lagos and Imo State without filtered lenses. Upon my return to the U.S. in early 2019, I felt a sense of loneliness, like I didn’t belong anymore."

Let’s start with place. Where are you from, where are you now, and what are some places you called home along the way? 

I’m originally from Columbus, Ohio, and currently in Paris, France, although I’m primarily based in Lagos these days. I’ve called Los Angeles, Hamburg, Germany, Detroit, Michigan, and Oklahoma City home. 

Tell us a bit about your first memory of discovering yourself as a creator and artist. 

In elementary school, I found myself drawing circles all over my schoolwork. They were different sizes. Some bold, others thin, I just kept drawing them as it made me feel complete, in a way. For my 5th grade project, I filled a 22x28 poster board with circles of various sizes using markers and colored pencils. While I didn’t win any awards for that piece, I displayed it in my childhood bedroom until I moved away to university. 

You relocated to Nigeria in 2019; why was it important to you to do so, specifically at the point in your life when you did? 

Nigeria has been on my heart since I was a child. Born in the midwest to Nigerian parents, I always felt something was missing. For a long time, my parents were the only ones in their families that had relocated outside of the African continent, so the aunts and cousins that I knew weren’t related to me. 

Everything I did centered around the African continent and my Nigerian heritage, in a way. From growing up in the Ogadinma Dance Troupe in Columbus, Ohio, which showcased the cultural beauty of Igbo songs through dance, to being president of the Association of Nigerians during undergrad. I realized the missing link in my life was me actually experiencing life on the continent. 

I visited Nigeria in December 2018 for the first time without my parents. For the entire duration of my stay, something inside me was telling me that I was “home .” I finally saw Lagos and Imo State without filtered lenses. Upon my return to the U.S. in early 2019, I felt a sense of loneliness, like I didn’t belong anymore. 

I was working in the automotive industry in Oklahoma City, and neither that city nor career path felt fulfilling. One weekend in January, I opened Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and read it cover to cover in two days. I experienced multiple emotions that weekend, from sadness to rage, disbelief, and pain. The novel opened my eyes to a notion I knew all along; that I could return to my maternal home whenever I was ready. 

The plan was originally to leave my job in September 2019. After continuous back and forth around my career and next steps, I decided to quit much earlier in May 2019. That August, a month shy of my 30th birthday, I was on a one-way flight to Lagos, Nigeria.

"While reflecting on the global impact that fashion has on the world, and the amount of garment waste that comes from it, I discovered that the conversations about what to do with old or unwanted garments are few and far between."

Your art takes many shapes and forms: Akachi (a luxury fashion house), African L’homme (a men’s lifestyle publication), ILERA (a family-owned skincare brand), and now Transcending (your first physical exhibition). What would you say is the through-line that connects all of these?

My desire to amplify African voices is what connects all of my art. The continent is raw, not just from the materials found across 52 countries but also from stories often overshadowed by western media. My ultimate goal is to rethink Africa’s fashion, beauty, and lifestyle narratives. One of the best ways for me to do that is by creating platforms that can help towards that goal. 

You recently unveiled your first exhibition, Transcending; tell us more about that project? 

Transcending Pt. 1 is my introduction to the artistry behind sustainability by going beyond garment design. I created textile on canvas mediums assembled from materials leftover from my debut collection. The exhibition served as a visual depiction of the importance of sustainability in fashion and the global impact of garment waste.  

You chose to focus on sustainability and garment waste as the anchor for all the pieces in the exhibition. What inspired this?

While reflecting on the global impact that fashion has on the world, and the amount of garment waste that comes from it, I discovered that the conversations about what to do with old or unwanted garments are few and far between. You might find a few upcycling videos online that show how to turn old t-shirts into kitchen rags, carpets, or pet beds. Still, I had trouble finding inspiration around taking an item and upcycling it into art pieces that you can admire.

My goal with Transcending is to highlight the importance of caring for your garments and put human action at the forefront of the global fashion industry. AKACHI is sustainable at its core. We create limited collections, we source all our textiles from around the continent, and the tailors involved in clothing development come from various parts of Africa. 

Was there anything you learned that surprised you while bringing Transcending to life? 

The most surprising thing that I learned was that I have what it takes to produce a week-long solo exhibition. I toyed with presenting Transcending as a 1-hour experience where I’d invite the top names in the fashion and sustainability sectors. As I dug deeper into AKACHI’s mission, I realized that Transcending is a conversation for everyone. 

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What’s next for Nneji? If you look out to the horizon of your life over the next few months or years, what excites you?

I’m generally excited about the growth of my brands. I’m currently expanding AKACHI to include menswear. While building African L’homme, I learned a lot about what African men on the continent and diaspora are looking for from a lifestyle and fashion perspective. I’m making clothes that are meaningful and serve as conversation pieces, so, including the male demographic can help in that process.

On a more personal level, I’m excited about embracing the discomfort of growth by intentionally exploring myself more. I’m redefining my story, learning more about my heritage, and building generational wealth. 

Now, a little bit lighter: What are you reading, listening to, or watching these days? 

So, I started taking French and Igbo lessons earlier this year. Because I’m entirely new to French and can understand a little Igbo, I’ve decided to give myself a complete immersion. I love listening to French artists like Celia Wa and Inna Modja. I also listen to a lot of Igbo musicians, from the likes of Osita Osadebe to Ayaka Nsugbe.

You can connect with Nneji by following her daily updates on Instagram @nnejiakunne or on her website