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Talking Sneakers and Skate Culture with Hauwa Mukan

OAP, Voiceover artist, and sneakerhead, Hauwa Mukan talks to B.Side on the burgeoning sneaker and skate subculture in Nigeria.

In the past decade, Nigeria’s fashion industry has taken a more global front, transcending the country’s borders and making its way to foreign soils. We can credit this international recognition to our young, innovative creatives whose fashion exploits — a colourful blend of their cultural roots with Western influences — have placed Nigeria’s fashion industry firmly on the map. Think Kenneth Ize’s collaboration with Karl Lagerfield, Fisayo Longe’s Gaia dress being named summer dress of the year, and rocked by some of the world’s most influential personalities, amongst many other gigantic cross-cultural leaps. This cross-cultural exchange has also greatly influenced Nigeria’s sneaker as well as its skating culture, with young Nigerians establishing communities of their own and nurturing a sustainable tradition around sneakers and skating. and the obsession that comes with it.

This leaping trend is easy to see from the numerous retail shops dedicated to sneakers to the fake sneaker industry pumping the local markets. Brands like WafflesnCream and Motherlan are greatly helping Nigeria’s skate subculture thrivelocally and internationally - and find firm footing. Despite several societal and economic constraints, young Nigerians love their sneakers and are making do with the available resources on the ground. They are also embracing skating as a vibrant point of expression of an urbane street-life.

Unlike most Nigerians whose love for sneakers began from following global pop culture, Hauwa Mukan’s love for sneakers started in the U.S, the cultural epicenter. She was a 10.5-year-old who had just moved from Nigeria, where her mother dressed her in Penny loafers every morning when she made for school. It was the required footwear stipulated by the private school she attended along with a uniformed look, as is standard with Nigerian primary and secondary schools. Naturally, this limited wardrobe option could not have prepared her for the boisterous, hierarchal, competitive, and deeply passionate world of sneakers she would soon become a part of in America. In the U.S, Hauwa began to understand that footwear holds a more significant cultural weight for Americans. It is the signifier of importance or lack thereof, the determiner of one’s taste and status. It was also there that she came into an interconnected body of sneakers with the skate culture, as both cultures carry their level of devout participants who bask in the edginess it provides them.

To further unpack this cultural movement’s flow in Nigeria, we talk to Hauwa, an established sneakerhead on Nigeria’s evolving sneaker culture, her origins with sneakers, history with skating, what she looks out for in a pair of sneakers, and what she thinks of the current state of Nigeria’s sneaker and skate culture.

B.Side: How did your love for sneakers begin?

Hauwa Mukan: As a child, my mom would put me in penny loafers, which were the required shoes for our uniformed look at the private schools I attended in Nigeria. When I got a bit older and moved to the U.S for middle school, I noticed that the kids there did not wear penny loafers. Not even close. They wore sneakers, tennis shoes of all shapes and sizes and colors! The basketball players and athletes I had become close friends with in high school - as I too was in athletics - they had in rotation different pairs of colorful sneakers every day and obsessed over them just as much as their other performance sneakers they wore on the court for their individual sports. The popping brands back then were Nike and Adidas, anything else would get severely clowned. So it was just as much a fashion statement as it was a status indicator. Shoewear dictated the levels and pecking order in the mean hallways of our American highschool. Just watching my peers premiere their new Jordans every week, getting clowned on for off-brand sneakers, or entering into heated altercations when their shoes were stepped on or scuffed by anybody, and all the dialogue and discussion about shoe design and which basketball player or famous athlete was wearing what. Plus, all the other stories of victory, woe, and loss; kids queueing in line for hours/days just to buy a pair, or getting chased down the street by bullies just to get beaten up and robbed of the sneakers on their feet. All of these stories fascinated me, all these sneakers in different sizes and variations; the colors, the culture, the flash, and the struggle. So when I was finally able to afford my own pair of expensive Air Jordans, I too felt like I was part of this small, predominantly male community where we all spoke the same language of leather, mesh, shoelaces, and amazing colorways. I've been obsessed since and still am, but those were the humble beginnings of my sneakerhead journey.

B.Side: What draws you to a pair of sneakers?

HM: The colorway is what always gets my attention first. Is it colorful, monochrome, metallic, snakeskin, animal print…. That's what I see first. Then next would be the construction and the brand. Hightops, low-tops, slingbacks, chunky heels, vulcanized soles, sewed on soles, with a tongue, or are they slip on? Nike, Adidas, Puma, Asics, Saucony, BAPE, or even no-name brands, all of these elements come into consideration.

B.Side: How does skate culture intersect with sneakers?

HM: All athletics are heavily centered around the equipment used by an athlete to perform at their best. Skate culture is no different. As skating is a sport (Olympic sports mind you…catch the skaters in the next Olympics and thank me later) and skating primarily has only 2 pieces of equipment - the board, and what is used to control it and take the impact - the shoes. The sneakers are crucial to avoid toes and ankles from crushing and smashing to the impact of the board and or the pavement. Skaters are always looking for the most comfortable and least cumbersome shoe to get the job done. Sneakers and skate culture go hand in hand.

B.Side: What was your impression of the skate culture while in the U.S?

HM: Skating was illegal when I was growing up. So of course it was the coolest thing ever. In the 1990s in the U.S, skater and surfer ‘counter’ culture was already being packaged and utilized heavily by athletic and clothing brands to underhandedly market to their biggest customers, the youth dem. So at a time, I was definitely about the JNCO obnoxiously wide-leg jeans, shell-toe Adidas, PacSun floral and tie-dye shirts. I was always a fan.

B.Side: What do you make of the budding skate culture in Nigeria?

HM: The skate culture is definitely alive, albeit in pockets of society, but as with all new or strange things, they fully catch on when the time is right. In Lagos, the group of skaters I know and break bread with are all affiliated with the WafflesNCream brand. And they are the only known skater apparel store I know of in Lagos. They make clothes, and skateboards just for skaters and also have a strong friendship with Adidas. They train and empower young skaters to get on the concrete and get bold. Guys, women and kids, anyone who has an interest in the sport.

B.Side: Have you ever tried skating?

HM: Definitely. Back at Howard University my friends and I were known to ride around on our painted skateboards. I was given my board by my American friend from high school who was a hardcore gothic-type skater guy, and I always took interest in his boards and the culture so when we graduated he gave me his old busted-up board which was perfect and slow enough for me. The new boards move too fast lol. By the time I got to University, I met my best friend, who would ride her own board in-front of our house and on campus and I’d ride alongside. Our clique at the time consisted of guys and girls with wheels - skateboards or bikes. Other times we’d just pose with our boards to bask in the essence of our weirdness. Mind you, at the time Howard University was well known for the enrollment of well-put-together slay-queens; babes with full face-beats, designer clothes, and stiletto heels going to and from class as early as 6 am. My clique was decidedly different, we wore sneakers, lay around in the grass, busting cartwheels and skateboards on the school Yard and pavements. Nothing hardcore, no tricks or anything, just simple gliding from point A to point B. And yes recently during lockdown I got back on the board for the first time in years and damn near blew out my left knee. These days I respect myself and my age, I leave those things to young people.

B.Side: As a notable Nigerian sneakerhead, have you noticed any impressive progress in homegrown brands?

HM: I definitely have noticed impressive progress among our homegrown brands. Starting with my own sneaker line HRM Sneakers, slowly but surely getting our feet into this international shoe game - all puns intended. Birthed and sustained in Africa with a select group of loyal customers and a strong focus on utilizing local fabrics, being sustainable, and promoting women, upcycling, and recycling. Then there are the guys at the KEEKS sneaker brand who are super impressive in the way they have retailed their shoes within Nigeria, how they go about their local production and storage and promotion. I really like the newspaper print edition low tops they did a while back. To the other smaller brands who are also incorporating local fabrics and artisans into their supply chain to create jobs and sustenance for the artisans in their communities. I love to see the community grow, to see more brands come out with interesting designs all speaking the same language of love for leather, mesh, shoelaces, and amazing colorways.

B.Side: How and when was HRM founded? HM: HRM was birthed in 2007 but officially founded in 2010 B.Side: What was the inspiration behind its establishment, as well as the inspiration behind the designs? How do you usually come up with designs? HM: The past designs have centered around a theme of colorful ankara nostalgia. The prints I’ve used in the past were popular ankara prints that have been around since the 1970s; nostalgic in that most Africans will instantly recognize the patterns from their childhoods in one way or another. Being used around the house or even having siblings who were "backed" in them, having outfits made from them, etc. The first batch of HRM’s was made and inspired by my mother headscarves, I relieved her of all the scarves from her traditional outfits, sometimes having her send them to me in school all the way from Lagos to my Washington DC University. It was a way for me to connect with her and my family in Nigeria- my ancient - with my modern life in the campus halls of Howard University. Traditional wear remixes with streetwear. My inspiration always was and will be, to showcase the best of African textiles in all their various forms - from every corner of the African continent, mixing these unique vibes with footwear and streetwear.

B.Side: Do you think the skate and sneaker subculture in Nigeria is being tapped enough?

HM: I think it is being tapped just enough. Any more would be overkill and I mean that in terms of global pop culture. There are so many tv shows, music videos, concerts, advertising executives, and influencers who use this sneakerhead culture to push their commercial agendas, and it all works for them - from the very top to their bottom line. Within Africa or Nigeria, it is not that big a part of the conversation. For a myriad of reasons, ranging the economic capacity of the youth within the continent. It's the youth that drives the sneaker culture, and these days our Nigerian and African youth are more preoccupied with lifting themselves out of their current economic status', Arsenal's losses, and fighting for their rights...oftentimes flash and decadence are put to the side when issues like these are in the forefront. But when unemployment declines, mouths are fed and expendable income is put back in the pockets of our African youth population, I'm certain the next level will be to flex. And that's where the fly sneakers and sneaker culture will come in and dominate. We will give it time. Till then we will continue to create and hopefully inspire, building the ecosystem to sustain and grow our sneakerhead ways.

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