Up the rickety stairs of the Sacred Heart building on the sprawling grounds of Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne, you’ll find a tiny studio and retail showroom brimming with colour. “It hits you like a tonne of bricks,” says Ulo founder and designer Dinzi Amobi-Sanderson. “What I’ve tried to do with the showroom is build a space which represents Africa – as if you’re going into the market,” she says.
Rolls of wax fabrics – from Ghana, Tanzania, Nigeria and Senegal – are stacked tall, and homewares such as cushions, lampshades and placemats decorate the space.
“Customers come in and they say, ‘Oh, I like this fabric’ then they turn around and say ‘No, no, this one.’ And that’s what it’s like growing up in Africa and shopping in the market. You just walk around [and] you love everything.”
Amobi-Sanderson was born in London. She moved to Nigeria as a child and lived there until she was nine. She later moved back to the UK to study law. Then, six years ago, she moved to Australia to pursue a career as a lawyer, spending her evenings designing clothes with fabrics her friends and family would send from back home.
“I guess the dream is to be able to showcase all the different textiles in the African region,” Amobi-Sanderson says. Ulo uses African wax prints, also known as Ankara and Dutch wax prints. The colourful cotton cloths are produced with batik-inspired printing (an Indonesian technique of wax-resist dyeing applied to the whole cloth). The result is equal colour intensity on the front and back of each piece.
“A lot of these fabrics carry traditional African stories, and myths and fables are incorporated into the designs,” she says. They’re vibrant, colourful and really, really beautiful to work with. They’re [also] very limited in quantity.”
The designer sources her materials directly from African fabric vendors, who only ever carry very limited quantities of each pattern. “We thought [it] was a bit of a challenge at first because how do you create clothing or collections with one or two pieces of fabric? But it’s actually been a wonderful part of our business.”
Ulo means “home” in Igbo – one of the African dialects spoken in southern Nigeria. The designer says the blue record print symbolises the joy of African communities that love music and celebration. The Fleurs de Mariage print’s name comes from the Ivory Coast; it’s a vibrant depiction of the marriage flower. “Our vendor in Ghana, he actually wore this fabric for his wedding ceremony,” Amobi-Sanderson says. “And for me that was such an I-have-to-have-that-in-my-collection [moment], not only because it’s such a beautiful, vibrant colour, fabric and pattern, but also because it was a way for me to start telling the stories of some of the vendors that we work with in Africa.”
Patterns are carefully considered for each garment. “For example, with a dress you want to use a really big bold pattern because you can showcase that better in the design. [For] pants, you may go for more intimate, subtle, intricate patterns.”
Amobi-Sanderson designs every collection, working alongside a small production team that works on a made-to-order model. “It’s not about a seasonal collection. It’s creating pieces that people are going to wear for years and years to come.”
Since the pandemic began, Ulo’s production has taken place off-site. But the retail space at Abbotsford Convent continues to be the beating heart of the company. “It’s a welcoming space. It’s warm. It’s small. But it’s a good space to start.”