The Q&A: Designer Nelly Hagan-Deegbe on the Evolution of Duaba Serwa

Words by The Folklore Team

It’s safe to say that Ghanaian designer Nelly Hagan-Deegbe is on a high right now. Weeks before presenting her new Duaba Serwa collection on the runway at Lagos fashion Week in Nigeria, she had the pleasure of dressing Academy Award-winning actor Lupita Nyong’o, and her sister Fiona, for the Wearable Art Gala in New York.  Calling it “an uplift from God”, having the two women wear her signature origami dresses was a huge boost for the brand.

Hagan-Deegbe initially trained and practised as a surgical nurse before turning to jewelry making. In 2011, she founded Duaba Serwa and it became known for its bold beadwork. The brand later evolved into a womenswear line that creates modern, intricate pieces using luxurious silks and handwoven fabrics made by communities of highly skilled women in Ghana and Burkina Faso.

Its visually striking sartorial language of origami triangular pleating, smocking and a bold palette of colors has gained the brand many fans, as well as features in Forbes, Vogue Italia and Deutsche Welle. But in the ever-changing landscape of the fashion industry, one gets the sense that Duaba Serwa is just getting started. “The  most important thing I’ve learnt about the fashion industry is how dynamic it is, Hagan-Deegbe says. “It continues to change. It challenges us designers to do more with much less.”

The Folklore Edit spoke to Hagan-Deegbe about her transition from nursing to fashion, Duaba Serwa’s instantly recognizable triangular origami pleat and her vision for the brand.

Tell us about pivoting from surgical nursing to the fashion world. When did you realise that design was something you wanted to do? 

I studied nursing for four years and worked as a nurse in Ghana. Fashion was an escape from the intensity and pressures of nursing. I often transformed pieces owned by my mother and brother. You’d see me wearing a Drunknmnky T-shirt nipped and tucked into a very stylish crop top with darts for shape and an unusual hemline. The turning point was when I witnessed an infant’s death while at work. I was so deflated and needed something to help me cope so I turned to hand sewing. It wasn’t long after that I started a jewellery line, which later transitioned into a 20-piece summer collection, made from prints with beading and fabric textures.

What skills, if any, from your nursing career do you apply to your design work?

As a nurse turned designer, the skill set that I have applied most to my current design process is precision. It’s a formidable skill to have in an environment where we don’t have all the necessary machinery to make garments to perfection.

 How did the shift from jewelry to fashion design happen?  

The jewellery line was launched in 2011 and did well. My clients demanded that I offer more than jewelry. With my background in hand sewing, it was a natural progression to merge beadwork with clothing. I made doll-size dresses with beaded elements by hand and sized them up into actual clothing. My friends saw me wearing them and they would place orders.

The triangular origami pleat is a distinct feature of your collections. What drew you to this style element and why is it central to Duaba Serwa? 

I started working with textures back in 2013 after I travelled to Japan and saw the works of designers Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto. The complexity of their designs intrigued me and so I set out to find my own texture. I experimented with smock work, layering, monochromatic colours, and new shapes. When I started developing the origami pleat, it turned out bulky when I used woven fabrics and unsettled at the seam lines when stitched. The origami textured pleat is a result of years of testing fabrics and stitching into garments.

The unique fold that turns it into a triangle was inspired by paper craft origami. It does not start as a triangle. This shape affects the weight and smoothness of the stitch when it is layered, and how it fits on the woman’s body. After further research, I discovered that several African tribes had triangular insignia in their armour. A client later remarked that when she wore a Duaba Serwa dress it felt like she was wearing armour. This spurred me to go all in on the triangles and they have now become central to the brand’s DNA. 

You’re one of the newly arrived brands on our platform, The Folklore Connect. What would you say is the main reason for signing up to join the platform? How does The Folklore Connect meet the needs of your brand’s wholesale business?

I love working with people who value excellence and longevity. I feel that I can grow with The Folklore because it’s dedicated to helping African brands become global and that is very essential to me. I want to work with a group of people that share the same value for excellence in design. 

What does the future of Duaba Serwa look like?

The dream is to become one of the most sought-after brands from the African continent. We hope to expand beyond fashion into interiors with coveted pieces in limited quantities. The future of Duaba Serwa is more than just garments, it’s a lifestyle. It’s seeing a piece of furniture designed by us in your home, it’s seeing elements of us not just in your wardrobe, but everywhere you go.

Discover the Duaba Serwa collection on The Folklore Connect