Dundee fashion label Nkili aims to reinstate the blouse as a key fashion item
Fastened up to the neck. Nonchalantly falling open. Sheer, patterned, with tipped-collars – blouses are everywhere right now, and Anna Burnside sings their praises
Has anyone worn a blouse to greater effect than Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary? She looked filthier in her high-necked, pussy-bowed polka-dot number than in her Agent Provocateur shoot. On the right person, the mother of pearl button, the leg of mutton sleeve and rustle of crêpe against skin kicks the bondage suspender ensemble into the laundry basket.
Worn the wrong way, however, the blouse scurries back into geography teacher territory. This season, wearable Mad Men stylings and scarf-topped Miss Moneypenny numbers have been overtaken by Peter Pan collars, pin tucks, pastel colours and tropical prints. When you are young and gorgeous, what could be more delightful than a cutesy collar, kooky birdcage print number and sheer fabric? Those who own a lawnmower should, however, reverse out of the shop with all speed.
Tolani Onajide aims to get round this generational problem by creating beautiful, cross-seasonal blouses – she calls them shirts – for women of all ages. An architect by training, Onajide thinks the shirt is the linchpin of a modern lady’s wardrobe and should be a thing of beauty to treasure for years.
Her label, Nkili, means ‘seeing beautiful things’ in Igbo. (It’s also her middle name.) ‘I started Nkili because I wanted to create a women’s luxury brand that focuses on beautifully crafted silk shirts.’ Her inspiration comes not from Stella McCartney or Phoebe Philo, but from minimalist architect Mies Van der Rohe. ‘To achieve the essential quality of a building, he stripped everything down to a minimum to create extreme clarity and simplicity. Nkili focuses on the one most important piece in the wardrobe: the shirt. By highlighting the garment in its pure form, without distraction, the craft and beauty can be seen.’
No pointy Farah Fawcett Major collars or lurid scarf prints of the kind once beloved of Noel Edmonds here. Neither are polyester and its scratchy friend rayon welcome in 22-year-old Onajide’s Dundee studio. Her shirts may have a contrast neckband, or an all-over print, but they have an understatement that will, she hopes, lead to longevity.
‘The process of combining tonal hand drawings with traditional silk-screen printing and hand painting techniques on pure silk makes each piece unique,’ she says. ‘I hope people will treasure these pieces.’
Most days, Onajide dons one of her own designs. ‘In the summer I wear Nkili casually, with a pair of black fringe trim shorts, low wedged sandals and a pair of John Lennon sunglasses. To the beach I tuck the sleeveless shirt into a pair of high-waisted denim shorts and tie the printed headscarf in an oversized bow.’
Printed scarves are, at the moment, the only non-shirt items in the Nkili range. She does not rule out expanding into other garments, but the shirt will always be central.
At night she buttons one up and tucks it into a gold skirt. In winter, she will chuck over a fur or leather jacket. The antithesis of nasty fast fashion, these are blouses to bond with over the years, manufactured in Scotland. ‘Nkili allows the woman to wear the shirt throughout her life rather than on just one occasion,’ she says. ‘I think Nkili shows that shirts could be something as special and delicate as an evening dress.’