The Small, Black-Owned Label Taking on the Big Brands in the Style Olympics

The fashion game at the Summer Olympics continues to heat up. The latest competitor to step forward: Team Nigeria, which will be dressed for the opening ceremony, the closing ceremony, the podium, the Olympic Village and the track and field competition by Actively Black, a small label in Los Angeles founded by Lanny Smith, a former professional basketball player, in 2020.

For Actively Black, a company with only three employees, that’s the equivalent of getting a gold medal before the Games have even begun.

“To see a Black-owned brand on the same global stage as Nike and Lululemon and Adidas, it makes everyone start to look at us differently,” Mr. Smith said via video from his office in Los Angeles just before the looks were unveiled. “It’s a major moment for us.”

The partnership with Nigeria puts Actively Black in a whole new fashion league, one that does not involve just sports brands, but also the high-fashion names dressing their countries for the opening ceremony, like Berluti (the LVMH brand outfitting Team France), Giorgio Armani (Italy), Ben Sherman (Britain) and Ralph Lauren (the United States).

Linking up with an underdog, mission-focused fashion brand is also a way for Nigeria, which is sending a delegation of about 200 to the Games, to capture attention and enthusiasm, much the way Liberia did when it teamed with Telfar for its Olympic looks in 2021. (Though Actively Black dressed the Nigerians who walked in the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in 2022, there were only two of them; now the delegation has critical mass.)

“Part of that Nigeria vibe is you’re going to look nice,” Mr. Smith said. “I know we have to show up in a way that represents that. As a former athlete, you love that competition, that challenge.”

What that will look like in practice is a combination of what Mr. Smith calls “traditional and modern.” For example, the opening ceremony outfits, featuring a classic block print in the green and white of the Nigerian flag, will be made from a Funtua cotton, which is named after the Nigerian state where it is produced. Men will wear a long vest over slim track pants with coordinating piping down the legs, a silhouette inspired by the traditional Nigerian senator suit popular with politicians. Women will wear a style derived from the classic buba dress. Each of the looks will be accessorized with traditional headgear.

The podium looks, by contrast, will superimpose the shadow of the Nigerian eagle on Actively Black’s performance materials. And the closing-ceremony styles will feature a dashiki-inspired top, paired with wide, white pants and, once again, coordinating gele and fila hats.

The looks were designed with Jordan Jackson and Danielle McCoy of Amen, Amen. Studios in Portland, Ore., whom Mr. Smith called in when he realized the extent of the Olympics commitment. Amen, Amen. Studios in turn enlisted its Nigerian partners, the Lekki Garment Factory and Afrikstabel Textiles Productions, to help with the project.

After all, it is no small thing, helping a country show up. Especially because Mr. Smith never intended to get into sports clothing.

A star basketball player at the University of Houston, he was drafted by the Sacramento Kings in 2009. “The NBA was my Plan A, B and C,” he said. An ACL injury 33 days into his professional career put an end to that idea, sending him into a deep depression. During that time, he took refuge in his faith — and in apparel. In 2010, he started Active Faith Sports, a Christian sports brand. (Imagine athleisure and performance wear with slogans like “In Jesus’ name I play,” and you’ll get the idea.)

Ten years later, Active Faith Sports led to Actively Black, which was inspired by Mr. Smith’s desire to use clothing to do what the “Black Panther” movie had done: bring the Black community together. Especially in the wake of what he considered performative marketing by other sports brands after George Floyd’s murder.

“I was a top-ranked basketball player starting in the sixth grade,” Mr. Smith said. “I got all the best Nike gear growing up. And then you realize they’re just looking for the next Michael Jordan, the next LeBron James, the next athlete to market and sell product. Billions of dollars have been made off Black culture, Black talent and Black consumerism, and I felt like those brands hadn’t adequately reinvested back into the Black community.”

He decided it was time, he said, “to stop asking for a seat at the table and build your own table.” Actively Black was introduced on Black Friday in 2020 as a direct-to-consumer brand. Fans include Dwyane Wade, Ludacris, Steph Curry — and now the Nigerian Olympic Committee.

Mr. Smith was first connected to Team Nigeria by Seun Adigun, a college friend who represented Nigeria as a track and field athlete in the 2012 Summer Olympics and then founded its bobsled team, which competed in the 2018 Winter Olympics. (Ms. Adigun was the first African athlete to compete in the Summer and Winter Olympics.) She enlisted Mr. Smith to design the bobsled outfits for the 2022 Winter Olympics, but the team failed to qualify, so when the country’s planned uniform sponsor fell through for the Summer Games, she contacted Mr. Smith again. He jumped at the chance.

For an American brand to dress the Nigerian team is proof, Mr. Smith said, “that Actively Black was built for the Black community.”

“And when I say that, I don’t mean just African Americans. I mean we’re a global brand for the entire diaspora.”

Mr. Smith said that he was already getting calls from other African countries and some Caribbean delegations about working together. “It’s an opportunity that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise,” he said. And not just for the brand.

Mr. Smith had always dreamed of making it to the Olympics. After his injury, he assumed it would never happen. But on July 26, he will march into Paris with Team Nigeria — another step, he said, in his quest to become “the Black-owned version of Nike.”

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