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The Wax Sellers of Wentworth St

January 17, 2011
by the gentle author

Franceskka Abimbola, Franceskka Fabrics

On a rainy Sunday in Spitalfields when everything is grey, I wend my way to Wentworth St to visit the African textile stores, that glow like multicoloured lanterns illuminated in the dusk – where a troupe of magnificent women preside, each one a shining goddess in her own universe. A radiance which Spitalfields Life contributing photographer Jeremy Freedman celebrates in his exuberant portraits published here.

Sunday is when it all happens in Wentworth St, when customers coming from as far as away as Aberdeen and the Netherlands converge to savour its wonders as the international destination for the best Holland Wax, French Lace, Swiss Voile and Headties to be found anywhere.

Weaving through the Petticoat Lane Market and pausing in the drizzle to gaze into the shop windows, you will spy the fine ladies of Wentworth St holding court in their shops to the assembled throng, simultaneously displaying the wit of matriarchs, the authority of monarchs and the glamour of movie-stars, and all dressed up to show off the potential of their textiles. Identified upon the fascias by their first names, as Franceskka Fabrics, Tayo Fashions & Textiles, and Fola Textile, many of these women put themselves forward personally as bold trendsetters, designing their own fabrics, defining the fashion and styling their customers too. In this, the oldest part of Spitalfields, the textile industry which has defined this neighbourhood for centuries is alive and thriving today thanks to the talents of these shrewd businesswomen of Wentworth St.

Franceskka Abimbola, whose business is the longest established here, welcomed me into her kaleidoscopic shop with mirrored ceiling and walls draped in lush fabrics, just as there was a brief lull in the mid-afternoon trade. “In the late eighties, I came here from Edinburgh to Petticoat Lane to buy this fabric and I found the dealers were all Jewish who didn’t wear it and didn’t understand it,” she explained with a humorous frown, “I spoke to Solomon at Renee’s who introduced me to his supplier. So then I wanted to be the first African woman to open a shop, and I used to buy it and sell it from the back of a car. But when I spoke to the supplier about opening my own place, he said, ‘You want to open a shop and start selling my fabrics? I’m going to break you into pieces!’”

Undeterred, Franceskka bravely opened her shop in the Kingsland Rd – at a respectable distance – and, fourteen years ago, she was one of the very first to open in Wentworth St, thus initiating this extraordinary phenomenon where now every other shop here sells Wax, all fiercely competing with their own styles and prices. Thankfully, Franceskka is still in one piece and, in reward for her courage, she is a big success.

“Lots of Nigerian women came at first to buy and ask advice,” she revealed delightedly, “but then women from Gambia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe and Ghana came too. Many didn’t know how to tie the headtie so I teach them how to do it.” With an unassuming relaxed presence, Franceskka, who has a Post Graduate Diploma in Business Studies, controls her international business empire from this tiny shop, extending to two more in Lagos and a third in Abuja. “I go to the fabric exhibitions in Paris and Spain to get inspiration, I design the fabrics myself and get them manufactured in Switzerland. The French Laces are in vogue at the moment and they are very expensive, but if it’s for a wedding people will go all out to look beautiful.” she said, with a delicate smile and lift of her brow, merely hinting at the razzle-dazzle on offer.

Banke Adetoro at Royal Fashions incarnates the notion of sassy with her extravagant eyelashes, constantly fluttering like butterflies. “There’s nothing you want that you can’t get here,” she informed me with an amused gesture of unqualified authority, when I dropped in, “I get all the latest stuff. I can do as many as twenty buying trips in a year. My shop is the biggest and the most beautiful!” You really need to visit this shop to experience the vast phantasmagoria of patterns on display.

By contrast, across the road at Tayo Fashions & Textiles, I met the alluring Tayo herself in her modestly-sized shop. “My mother used to do this back in Africa, and I picked it up,” she confided to me quietly, “I just started trading at home and through the church, and then I started in a small shop with a little help from the bank. Now I have a shop in Lagos too and I go three times a year.” Outlining the convenient balance between the trade in  both continents, “At Christmas it’s busy there when it’s quiet here, and it’s busy here in the Summer when it’s quiet there.” she said. Tayo’s two sons help her out in the shop and I was fascinated that in every single shop I visited these women had their children present. In fact, most had come into it through their families and some already had their children working with them, and I found it an interesting contrast to the perceived dilemma between children and career that many European women face.

Betwixt the fabulous fabric shops in Wentworth St are those selling the accessories to complete the outfit, the gleaming metallic pointy shoes and matching bags in multiple colourways and, of course, the jewellery. My favourite is Beauty Stones, lined entirely with coral necklaces that cascade like a waterfall down the walls to create an environment enraptured like a magic cave in a fairy tale. “In the beginning of African culture, anyone that wears it will be honoured,” declared Onome, the gentle custodian of the coral, “In Africa, we believe it is more precious than gold but, in this market, I have realised that lots of people are in love with it too.” Standing proud, Onome who is a celebrant in her own tribe, gestured to the coral that surrounded her, feeling its benign presence. “It’s my mother’s business,” she continued fondly,”but when she died ten years ago I couldn’t let the business die too.” And today the business is lively, since Onome’s nine children work in the shop (two were adopted after her sister’s death) and, as we spoke, happy little children ran around our legs playing with strings of corals beads they were threading. “It’s really is lovely to look at – sometimes when I put my hand on a bead, it tells me what to do, how to make the necklace,” Onome admitted, clasping a string of coral in her hand, “and the children are very good at the beads too, it’s in the family.”

Speaking with the Wax sellers of Wentworth St, who taught me the Yoruba concept of “Aso- Ebi” – using co-ordinated textiles at a social gathering to express the inter-relationships of all the people there – I realised that these modest shops contain an entire cultural universe with its own sophisticated language spoken in the vocabulary of textiles. Fashion exists here but, more than this, each decision taken, both in the choice and combination of fabrics makes a personal statement, which gives every single outfit a vibrant poetry all of its own.

Sheba Eferoghene, Novo Fashions

Tayo Oladele, Tayo Fashions & Textiles

Fola Mustapha, Fola Textile

Banke Adetoro, Royal Fashions

Onome Efebeh-Atano, Beauty Stones

Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman

With grateful thanks to Sheba Eferoghene for making the introductions.

You can read my original feature about Jo & Sheba Eferoghene, Novo Fashions

15 Responses leave one →
  1. Konono Number One- Paradiso permalink
    January 17, 2011

    This has jumped off the macbook screen this morning with an explosion of colour. Safi sana!

  2. January 17, 2011

    Thanks for taking me into this wonderful shop with its extraordinary women, colour and culture!

  3. Margaret Lambert permalink
    January 17, 2011

    I’ve loved textiles all my life, it’s a heritage a bit like that of these wonderful, enterprising African women, though mine is from linen and cotton mills in Ireland and Switzerland. A fascinating story of women’s strength, creativity and determination. Thank you, as always!

  4. January 17, 2011

    I have walked by those shops before and admired them from the outside. What a pleasure to see the interiors and hear the stories of the women inside.

  5. Clare permalink
    January 18, 2011

    This story is just what I needed on greyest Monday of my life.

    Thank you… Clare

  6. January 18, 2011

    Wonderful story & pictures. I wish I could hear them.

  7. Phoebeast permalink
    January 18, 2011

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

    You and Jeremy make a great team – these beautiful photographs truly venerate these pioneering and hardworking woman. I love the fact that Wentworth Street’s cloth trade has an unbroken history dating back nearly half a millennia and that these women now fly the flag. What I love even more is that its less than 15 minutes away from my home!

    Thank you for this insight, into this colourful world of personalities and fabric.
    I particularly like the photographs of Sheba Eferoghene and Banke Adetoro.

  8. January 18, 2011

    What a lovely and thoughtful post. ‘Aso-Ebi’ is a fascinating concept – I’ve always liked fabrics and rugs with stories woven into them, especially as so often we dismiss people who love clothes and fashion as shallow. The colours are really cheery in such a grey month too!

    I’m a big fan of this blog.

  9. jeannette permalink
    January 22, 2011

    i wanted to think you for this story, to which i’m linking for a friend who can’t be promoted in the corporate world because of her children — just as others won’t be hired because they have 24/7 obligation to elderly people at home.
    the mavis, dilruba (sp?) and ince umbrella pieces are all priceless, and i sense (as i discuss female employment woes with friends) that this is where the economy is headed once again.
    mavis, what a lovely face. tell her she has a fan in new mexico.

  10. jeannette permalink
    January 22, 2011

    i thought you’d also be interested in the work of sophie callaghan, a young british textile artist who references a great deal of african and aboriginal themes in her work.
    http://www.sophiecallaghan.co.uk/PAGES/MAIN/aboutme.html

  11. Barbara McCann permalink
    January 24, 2011

    What a wonderful surprise to start the day in cold, cold Ottawa, looking at these great ladies and their cloth. Good story — the inventiveness of women entrepreneurs.

  12. xtine permalink
    July 13, 2012

    pls how do i find wentworth street

  13. Rose in SV/LO permalink
    November 29, 2012

    Lovely! Thank you for sharing this information and the wonderful pictures!

  14. Antonio Sánchez permalink
    December 29, 2012

    Please I wolud lake to contact Onome Efebeh-Atano of coral shop
    ansape0756@yahoo.es
    Grettings
    Antonio

  15. April 22, 2013

    Unfortunately most shops nowadays are not selling real lace from Austria or Switzerland anymore. Instead they copy designs in China and sell the low-grade quality for high prices (even sometimes labeling them as “Swiss Lace”). Be careful when buying…

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