Does everyone have a formative experience with a brand that they can pinpoint as the moment their love of fashion began? A serious Stussy habit, perhaps, or an unhealthy obsession with Fila? Proust had his madeleines, I had my Naf Naf pencil case.
Naf Naf was my gateway drug into designer (and more specifically French) fashion. Compared to normal high street brands, it wasn’t cheap or easily available, so it had that exclusive air that made me crave it even more.*
My Naf Naf obsession was probably the first time I consciously allied myself with a particular brand. It represented a breakaway from parental control over what I wore. Not that I’m dissing my mum’s taste, far from it – I would happily wear the Laura Ashley dungarees and corduroy pinafore dresses that she put me in as a child today. Left to my own devices, my childish taste was decidedly questionable – a cherished turquoise velour tracksuit and neon pink shell suit spring to mind… *shudders*
The star piece in my Naf Naf collection was a red and white polka dotted oversized tee with the logo embroidered in multicoloured letters across the chest. Other highlights as I progressed through my teenage years included an embroidered black satin cheongsam dress and a beautiful leather satchel that transformed my school uniform with its preppy, Left Bank chic.
The Naf Naf store on Oxford Street was almost too much for 14 year old me to cope with – like staring directly at the sun. I was used to unearthing small pockets of it in unlikely places – a few notebooks in a French hypermarche, a rail of t-shirts in a Cornish surf shop.
But the one Naf Naf piece that still makes my heart beat a little faster, both because it was so beautiful and because of the memories it so powerfully evokes, is The One That Got Away. It was a miniature backpack (before they became a ‘thing’ in the early ’90s) that I saw in the window of a boutique in the village of Castelnaudary in the south of France. I was 13, on holiday with my family and had amassed a healthy collection of Naf Naf stickers, erasers and keyrings along the way. But this gorgeous, embroidered backpack inspired an acquisitive desire in me, the likes of which I’d never experienced before
I whined, pleaded and sulked, but it was too expensive to justify buying, even with a year’s worth of pocket money. Then on the last day of the holiday my parents relented and we went back to the shop to buy it. The shop was closed, and I returned to England, heartbroken. I still occasionally type ‘Naf Naf backpack’ into eBay in the vague hope of finding this lost love, but I don’t think I’d really want it now – it’s too late. “Let it go, let it gooooo…”
The funny thing is, I didn’t know anything about the history of the brand when I first encountered it, I just instinctively loved it. Similarly, I have no idea what Naf Naf is like these days and don’t really have any desire to find out. The brand represents a very specific period in my life and I don’t want to mess with that. It’s a bit like the bands you were into in that very small window in your early/mid teens – they brand you to the core, even though objectively as an adult you might realise the music really wasn’t that great (sorry, Shed Seven).
Through Naf Naf I first learned how intoxicating the thrill of the chase can be, that feeling of triumph when you hunt down a rare (to a twelve year old) ‘piece’, and how the fashion label you ally yourself with can help you understand, define and shape your identity – the person you present to the world.
These days Naf Naf has been supplanted by APC and Carven in my wardrobe – that appreciation of cooler-than-cool French design that was ignited by a pencil case never died. I still wear the polka dot t-shirt from time to time though.
*Dishonourable mention must go to the puny British upstart ‘Naf Co.’ Ugh, so anaemic, so try-hard… Pity the hapless parent who naively presented their obnoxo-tween with a Naf Co. cagoule they sourced godknowswhere, only to have their colossal error pointed out to them in disgust. The repellent garment would then only be resentfully worn, with an air of long-suffering martyrdom, on family holidays where there was minimal risk of being seen by anyone cool.
Meet the Victorians’ answer to the Kardashian sisters
Consider this: Three sisters, daughters of a hardworking, doting father and a pushy, socially ambitious mother. All three live their lives in the brilliant glare of society, make disastrous marriages ‘for love’ etc. Remind you of anyone?
It’s the Kardashian sisters OH NO WAIT it’s the JEROME sisters!!! That’s Jennie, Clara and Leonie, sassy 19th century American socialites who all married into the British aristocracy, with Jennie making the most glittering match of all as the wife of Lord Randolph Churchill and mother of Winston.
These megababes were talented in all the feminine arts, from piano-playing, riding and dancing to making pleasant chit chat and, of course, appearing highly decorative. You can read all about them in Elizabeth Kehoe’s fascinating book, Fortune’s Daughters: The Extravagant Lives of the Jerome Sisters.
Kim is Jennie, the most famous, glamorous and beautiful of the three sisters who lived most of her life in the spotlight and whose tastes were much commented on and copied. Jennie was said to have had numerous affairs with some of the most powerful men of the age, including the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. Kim had Ray J and Khris Humphries so Jennie’s probably winning on this front. Kim has three marriages to Jennie’s two, but all were love matches, impulsively rushed into and in some cases, regretted.
Whether little North West will turn out to be a twenty-first century Winston Churchill remains to be seen, but there is definitely a resemblance between Kanye West and Winston’s charismatic, powerful, (and should I mention possibly syphilitic? Imma not let myself finish) father Lord Randolph.
Kourtney reminds me of Clara, naive, romantic, married to a hopeless dreamer and schemer who can’t stick to anything and is incredibly smooth, charming and persuasive but with a bit of a dark side. Oh, right, that’s Scott…
And finally, Khloe is Leonie, the most sensible of the three who married once for love, wasn’t quite as pretty as her sisters but was very down to earth, generous and popular.
So what can we learn from this sketchy Komparison (sorry)? That people will always be fascinated by that potent combination of beauty, money and scandal. That families stick together through thick and thin and ill-advised 72-day marriages. And that there’s no force greater than an amibitious mother (see also: Mrs Bennett).
Sorry Victoria Beckham (chief offender), but empowerment is not kitting yourself out in a two grand frock that the wearer can’t even breathe in and which cuts into her armpits. A favourite outfit can lift your mood or smarten you up for a special occasion, but to hear VB preaching to her followers that a dress is ‘empowering’ is disingenuous and patronising, merely thinly-veiled marketingspeak.
Just because FEMINISM IS BACK, I’m not going to buy into a vague glossy-mag cliché about what-women-want and who they’d like to be. VB is all flitting from fashion week-to-launch-to-awards ceremony in her private jet and toe-rotting shoes, living her expensive life on some unimaginable, unbelievable plain and in the meantime we’re all down here in the real world doing what – wishing if only?
Reading celeb tips about how we might ‘empower’ ourselves through shopping in between pages of vacant-eyed, soul-bereft ads makes even more visible the gulf between the experience of coveting consumer goods and the likelihood of ever owning them for the average reader.
I love escapism and fashion fantasy, but that’s not the issue here – it’s the suggestion that we can’t just buy clothes, we can buy into them. When one examines the reasons why one lusts after certain items it can reveal a whole lot more that you’re maybe trying to ignore. A dress/haircut will never change your life and a new bag is not a substitute for some friends who like you or a job that pays you enough to leave you with some money at the end of the month.
Some things which are really empowering: being able to drive; mentoring a younger person; getting out of debt; getting an education; not being afraid. Doing useful things.
Things which are not empowering: Wearing high heels – it just makes you taller, means you can’t walk and sometimes finishes off an outfit nicely; thinking a debt-making frock will change your life; thinking a bag will get you a new job; buying magazines.
VB obviously can’t come out in these fluffy interviews and say ‘buy my extortionately-priced dresses because they’re nice and so exquisitely made and be smug in the knowledge that you have enough disposable cash to afford one’, she needs a story to go with her brand and hers is that these magical dresses have the power to transform their wearers.
Maybe I’m being harsh on VB. She after all is not au fait in the vocab of contemporary feminist theory and is an extremely busy woman, but I still think that we shouldn’t let her or any of the rest of the empowerment-spouting, unwanted-advice bores get away with this kind of lazy language. Such sloppiness is a wider problem in the media discussions around what women want and people with power and influence need to take responsibility for their nonsense-chatter. Turning empowerment into something almost entirely passive shows how blind they are to what women might actually need to hear. VB has always been my favourite Spice, but throwing this word around is as relevant as GIRL POWER was: redundant, reductive and meaningless.
5 ways to tell you’re empowered – list + quiz on page 102
THE FIVE AGES OF WOMAN
0-13 learning / safety / innocence
14-21 boys+girls / exams / music / introspection
22-29 oblivion / mistakes / narcissism / london
30-midthirties self-discovery / wildernesses / yoga /wellbeing / refined taste in wines / the countryside
When I was roaming the aisles of Epsom library looking for something to make my commute a little less grim, I never imagined that a book on display in the travel section – Noo Saro-Wiwa’s Looking For Transwonderland – would bring my Nigerian childhood so vividly back to life and inspire me to want to write one of my own. (There, that’s in print now so I’m going to have to do it). Noo graciously met me for a conversation that involved much reminiscing about plantain, Port Harcourt and watching the same films over and over on VHS (in her case Coming to America, in mine Hello Dolly), as well as reflections on the new wave of Nigerian writing, identity and the tricky, scary art of writing the personal.
Did you feel any apprehension about embarking on this journey re. your dad (the Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa who was executed in 1995) and how did you overcome it?
In terms of the discipline of writing a book, especially non-fiction, you’re just writing down what’s happened. It’s just like a giant status update, it’s very easy! So that part of it was alright, but I was kind of skirting the issue, when I first told my agent that my second book would be Nigeria, I was like ‘yeah I want to travel around the country, but I don’t want to talk about anything about my family, I just want it to be a travelogue’ and she was just like ‘listen, you cannot do that. With a name like yours people are going to find it weird.’ And I was like ‘I really don’t want to do this.’ But I realised that that’s what I was going to have to do.
But of course when you’re writing, quite often you write on two levels – there’s that superficial level and there’s the real, deep stuff. And it’s being able to access that – sometimes you think you’re being deep, but you’re holding back and not realising it, and so once you realise that, actually confronting the truth makes the writing a lot easier. It was difficult.
But on the whole it was really good, the whole process, the travelogue element was very easy, and actually just weaving it into my personal story made perfect sense. Wherever I went, a few instances I’d been there before when we were kids, so you would tie that in or there was an issue like corruption. So you just have to bring all that personal stuff into it and it totally enhances the writing, but it wasn’t easy. I had to be pushed. If I’d decided to publish on Kindle or something and I hadn’t had an editor the book would have been so different.
The thing with freedom is that it’s wonderful, it’s very liberating but it’s also very scary. I arrived in Lagos and I don’t plan my trips ahead, I just knew I was staying with my aunt and that was it. I’d always been chauffeur-driven and I was like ‘Oh my God, how am I actually going to get around?!’ So I was forced to engage and forced to figure out my way around. But it was really nice, you can go where you please, you’ve got money – you’re not begging your parents for pocket money or anything – and it was just wonderful, you see the country or the city in a completely different light.
The possibilities all around you – you can talk to that random person, you can go to that fancy shopping mall, you can engage with it in exactly the way that you do in London or New York. That really changed things. It makes you realise that as a kid, you think that you don’t enjoy being in a place, but actually it’s just you don’t enjoy being ruled by your parents or told what to do. So it was very liberating. It changes the way that you view a place. Nowhere is boring when you’re an adult, when you’re a kid everything is boring.
Has your ‘outsider’ status here and in Nigeria has helped you as a writer – even made you a writer?
I don’t know what makes me a writer, I have no idea, but that constantly comparing and contrasting definitely helps, because if you’re an English person who’s a bit narrow minded and prejudiced, you’ll just look at the world and say well things are better here because we’re better, whereas if you’re a Nigerian who’s raised over here you know that’s not true. You know that people over there are just as smart as people over here, so you question and you analyse.
I think that has really helped me, and I think that being a diasporan meant I was much more likely to travel round Nigeria. You’re not likely to do that in your own back yard… This book would never have been written if I’d been raised in Nigeria. And that’s why it annoys me when people say diasporans shouldn’t write about Nigeria – if I hadn’t written this travelogue who else would? I was influenced by Western travel writers, I saw them travelling around and thought I want to do the same thing, and if I’d gone to school in Nigeria I wouldn’t have been exposed to those books. I’m very glad that I straddle both worlds.
Did you finish the journey/book feeling optimistic about Nigeria, and how do you feel now?
It’s a very extreme country, there are so many good things going on, so much potential, but there are all these underlying factors and that’s what I concluded in my book, that’s what I felt then and I still feel that now. You could sense that something [Boko Haram] was going to happen – with a country like that, when you have that level of corruption, people are poor, it’s going to happen one way or another.
Prior to September 11 it was different – people would express their dissatisfaction differently. This is the problem – this is why countries have to deal with poverty, because in any given decade you can think ‘Oh well, we’ve just ticked along, we’ve got this poverty but everything’s fine’, but eventually there’ll be some external factor that’s just going to come along and change the game, and that’s exactly what happened. You had poverty in the 80s and 90s, people barely even protested sometimes, but now… no-one predicted September 11, al quaeda, so that’s just come in now. But the preconditions for that, the poverty, it was there, you knew, you could tell that something was going to happen.
When I went to Maiduguri in 2008, it was just a miserable town. It’s sad, it’s like they’re on a beach, there’s so much desertification. People don’t have firewood any more, they’ve chopped down the trees, it’s like this can’t go on. You feel like Boko Haram is just an inevitable consequence of all that. But at the same time you go down to Lagos and things are really happening. You’ve got this governor Fashola who’s really made an effort to improve the city, and the south is generally better educated and so once the military dictatorships had gone and things had opened up, you could see that Nigerian entrepreneurial spirit taking hold, so things were changing. But there’s always that thing lurking, corruption, religion, so for me Nigeria is as it’s always been, just a constant precipice – things could go really well, things could go really badly, you just don’t know. There’s always tension that never turns into civil war, it’s a country that’s permanently on the brink.
Looking For Transwonderland (£9.99), is published by Granta Books