LAGOS, Nigeria—Lunch hour in downtown Lagos. Bankers and secretaries stream out of their offices toward fast-food joints with names like Mr. Biggs, Tastee Fried Chicken, and Tantalizers. Others hustle toward food stands overseen by women with powerful forearms.
I sit on a rickety wooden bench at one of the stalls, waiting for a waitress to bring me a soda water and spicy jollof rice.
A few men chat nearby. They’ve kept their suit jackets on despite the midday sun, and they aren’t sweating. Their shirts and pants are crisp and clean. They are sporting cufflinks, and pocket squares, and tie bars. They laugh and nudge each other when a group of young women enters the food stall to order pounded yams. The women look them up and down and give slight, approving grins: The men are well-put-together; they deserve smiles.
I look away from them and down at myself. Shoes scuffed and nearly worn through. Pants ripped and caked in dirt. Shirt wrinkled and yellowed. My handkerchief damp from the frequent passes it has made over my forehead.
I’ve never felt as unkempt as I do in Lagos. Staying composed and well-groomed in a hot, humid city built on swampland is tough enough. Most days I give up and let the heat take over.
But there’s also the traffic and garbage to deal with. Fifteen million people living in a city originally meant for 100,000 means that it’s not easy to stay clean in Lagos. Especially if you don’t have your own vehicle. Public transport comes in two forms: impossibly crowded danfos (mini-buses) and fast but dangerous okadas (motorcycle taxis). Neither allows for space to keep shirts unruffled or shoes unscuffed.
Lagosians, though, manage to keep their brilliantly colored clothes (traditional and Western) clean through it all. People look neat and presentable every day here, because in Lagos, you have to. Appearances matter everywhere, but Nigerians—and Lagosians in particular—are the most status- and style-conscious people I’ve ever been around.
I once headed out the door unshaven, wearing a T-shirt with a small hole in it. My Nigerian friends refused to be seen in public with me, and they weren’t joking. A few days later, a friend saw my outdated, beat-up cell phone and offered his BlackBerry so that the people we were going to meet wouldn’t shun us. Grunge will never be in style here.
“People judge you by what you’re wearing,” said Gbenga Badejo, a British-Nigerian recently returned from London. “It’s always been that way, but now it’s gone astronomical. It’s also an indication of the severe level of poverty here: You stand out if you dress well. Others will think you’re better than them. What can you do?”
Gbenga and his wife, Atinuke, hope to take advantage of their countrymen’s natural sense of style and use it to ease their notoriously short tempers and bravado. They recently founded the Lagos Finishing School and the Lagos Etiquette Bank. They mostly cater to businesses, holding seminars on how to speak and act professionally, but they also hope to take their teachings to the streets soon.
There they will be met by taxi drivers with little regard for human life, traffic police with liberal ideas on the use of batons and whips, shop customers with a complete disregard for queues, people who transform from normal-seeming commuters into screaming tyrants at the slightest provocation, and motorcycles honking tricked-out horns that make them sound like 18-wheelers.
The Badejos have their work cut out for them.
When I brought up their venture at a recent dinner party, both Nigerians and expatriates laughed heartily.
“My God, it will never work,” one guest said.
“It could be a brilliant business model, actually,” another replied. “But as a real means for change in Lagos? Hah, never!”
One thing the couple will not have to worry about is whether Nigerians dress well.
“We live to look good, because looking good is good business,” said Tolu Olusoga, the manager of a branch of T.M. Lewin, the classic British clothier, in Lagos. “If I look good, it will be a big plus for me at a job interview.”
But they don’t just want to look good. They want to stop traffic.
“We like it loud, and we’re very particular about brand names,” Olusoga said. “We’re funky.”
While eating lunch at a French-themed restaurant recently, I noticed a dapper young man sitting by himself nearby, tapping his fingers steadily on the table. Eventually another man approached him and sat down with a fat book of cloth samples.
“You know, you should give me 10 percent off because you were late!” the first man said, poking his finger at the second.
After a few more exhortations—and a few expletives—the first man began leafing through the pages and finally settled on a suitable style. When the tailor left, I asked the client why Nigerian men, and Lagosian men in particular, are so style-conscious.
“I don’t want to look bogus,” the man said, looking at me as if I had asked him why humans breathe. His name was Stanley Ajirioghene, and he was in advertising. Before I could ask another question, Stanley started off on one of the brilliant, stream-of-consciousness rants that Lagosians are famous for.
“I want to look immaculate, sharp!” he said. “Appearance does matter. If you walk into a meeting dressed well, your chances of doing business go up. If you make a good first impression, you’re 70 percent there. It’s worth it, every penny of it. It’s an innate thing. It starts in high school, trying to get girls. Then at Christmas and Easter, you get new clothes, and you compete with your friends to see who got the best stuff. Then as a young adult, the competition becomes stiff as you enter the business world. You know you have to invest a lot in wardrobe. Now it’s about business first, then girls.”
The custom-made suit Stanley had just ordered would eventually cost well over 125,000 naira, or nearly $1,000. Typical, perhaps, in developed countries, but an absolute fortune in a country where the average person earns about $2 a day.
Worries about style and appearance are not limited to wealthy Nigerians, however. Those without high-paying jobs also make sure to dress well, such as my friend Aziz.
Aziz drives a small motorcycle vending cart around the streets of Lagos selling Indomie, a popular brand of instant ramen noodles, to food stands and kiosks. He owns one simple shirt—a solid-colored button-down—and one pair of khakis.
After each day spent fighting through grinding traffic and trying to convince shop owners to buy more Indomie noodles, he returns to the room he shares with several other young men and washes his shirt by hand in a small plastic bucket. He hangs the shirt up to dry overnight and spends the rest of the night in a stretched singlet or bare-chested. He rises at dawn, takes the shirt down from the clothesline, and carefully irons it on the floor before heading out for another long day.