Written by Helen Jennings, Images Studio Hans Wilschut
As you leave the dusty hurly-burly of Akin Olugbade Street and pass through the towering black gates that guard the Alára compound, you are immediately confronted by an imposing three-storey rectangular edifice unlike any other in Lagos.
Its boxy dimensions are cast from concrete, the surface of which is covered in geometric patterns and red pigment reminiscent of the Nigerian soil upon which the building stands.
Nine metres of glass form the front inset wall, which is partially disguised by metal fretwork. And incongruously, an antique wooden football table sits next to the entrance, a hint at the playful experience that awaits you within this new luxury concept store.
Once inside, the structure’s open-plan volume draws you instinctively forward to journey up a series of pyramid-like landings connected by moveable staircases. Irresistible items are displayed on each level – a woven armchair by Mali’s Cheick Diallo here, a kente tailored jacket by Ivorian Loza Maléombho there.
You feel like a blessed explorer, travelling up platforms and around hidden corners, each time rewarded with more glorious treasures.
One wood-panelled enclosure is filled with understated menswear, another with quirky handbags and chunky jewellery.
And at the very top you are rewarded with the womenswear room, where pieces by African and Western designers hang side by side, from Tiffany Amber to Stella McCartney, from Duro Olowu to Dries van Noten.
Alára, meaning ‘wondrous performer’ in Yoruba, is the dream come true of lawyer and interior design consultant Reni Folawiyo.
“I felt that we needed something iconic that would change our city, change the way we see ourselves and also change the way the world sees us,” she told the Wall Street Journal of her incentive to create this destination store, which officially opened in June 2015.
“Just because we live in a country that has problems does not mean we are excluded from the enjoyment of beautiful things.”
She commissioned David Adjaye to realise her vision, an architect renowned for his transformative visual language, integrating Africa’s rich history of design into global architectural dialogues with his unapologetically bold buildings.
For Alára, Adjaye was inspired by his immediate surroundings. “I wanted the space to work as a celebration of design talent, but also something that would be a new kind of cultural hub for West Africa,” he says.
“The building is very much a celebration of its context, which culminates with a rooftop art gallery and terrace offering expansive views of Lagos’ beautiful coastal landscape.
“It is also about combining the indigenous and modern architectural lineages of the city into one space: the translucent screens speak to the brises soleils of African modernist buildings while the geometry of their pattern derives from Yoruban adire textiles.”
Lagos, the megacity of over 20 million people offers a diverse panorama, veering from the watery slums of Makoko to the high-rise hotels of Victoria Island, where Alára is tucked away.
A multi-phase build, eventually two more buildings will flank the current one, completing a complex including a restaurant, events space and secluded garden.
Although revolutionary, the Alára offering also feels inevitable. Nigeria is now Africa’s largest economy and Lagos is teeming with wealthy individuals who love to shop.
While local upscale retail is improving (Temple Muse and Stranger being notable examples), those who can afford to, regularly travel abroad to get their retail fix.
Alára hopes to sway them not only to stay home but also to appreciate African lifestyle goods as highly as global ones.
Folawiyo’s expertly curated edit of fashion, art, furniture and accessories elevates regional craftsmanship as part of her passion for redefining African luxury.
She doesn’t simply buy curios and put them in desirable surroundings, she commissions artists to make one-of-a-kind pieces in keeping with her contemporary aesthetic.
“Alára is the now and the future of African design,” says Amaka Osakwe of Alára-stocked womenswear label Maki Oh.
“It houses masterpieces from both world-famous designers and highly-skilled local artisans, keeping true to the narrative of great workmanship.” Wondrous indeed.