Deola Sagoe has been a force in African fashion for the last 25 years. Now she is trying to make African designs globally competitive and grow a multi-billion-dollar industry.

VENTURES AFRICA – On the evening of 18 May 2014, I went to the Intercontinental Hotel, a brand –new, towering glass and steel structure on Victoria Island, Lagos, to attend the premier of October 1, a film by the Nigerian director, Kunle Afolayan. Set during the transition from British rule to independence at the beginning of the 1960s, the film tells the story of a northern Nigerian detective assigned to solve a series of murders of young women in a small southwestern Nigerian town. With its crisp cinematography, historical narrative and exquisite period costumes, Afolayan’s movie points to a growing sophistication of the Nollywood film industry, which, in its rush to release films, can often neglect production values. Nigerian movies are often shot on micro budgets and can seem like souped-up home videos, with their poor sound quality and haphazard costumes – hastily constituted ensembles of garments that can sometimes make characters into caricatures.

When Afolayan needed a costume designer for the 1960s-era colonial uniforms worn by the major characters in his film, he sought out the Nigerian fashion designer, Deola Sagoe (pronounced “say-go”), founder of the eponymous label Deola and one of Africa’s most recognised design talents, both on the continent and internationally. Deola’s brass buttoned safari short suits, worn by the film’s Nigerian “officers of the peace,” are as historically accurate as they are well-tailored. In many ways they help elevate the film’s production standards to the level Afolayan seeks.

When I spoke to Afolayan on the phone about his decision to bring Sagoe into the production, he told me: “First thing: she’s a brand, and the way I work, I always look for the best way to not only look at the creative side of my work but also to look at how to bring in people who can add value in other areas […] For October 1, which for me is a period piece, it has a whole lot of creativity and [needed] someone who pays a lot of attention to details. That was why we decided to involve her. So, I approached her and told her what I was planning to do. She believed in it, saw reasons why she should be part of it, and that was what brought us together.”

For Sagoe, participation in the production – not only as the designer, but also in a cameo appearance as Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, the Nigerian feminist activist and mother of afrobeat musician and activist, Fela Kuti – seems like a departure from the future-oriented runways of high fashion. But the move is part of her realization that building an African fashion brand is about more than designing pretty clothes. It is about access to the capital necessary to grow African fashion into a multi-billion dollar, globally competitive industry. Indeed, the October 1 premier brought together members of the Lagos elite with deep pockets. At the event, Sagoe was in fine form. Dressed simply in a sleeveless black top, black jeans high heels, her hair pulled back in a neat bun, she worked the crowd in her own way, occasionally engaging in small talk but, more than anything else, listening to others speak.

At 48 years of age, Sagoe is an elder stateswoman of the Nigerian fashion scene. She carries herself with the presence of a matriarch, and her face often wears an expression of concern mixed with subtle amusement. Friends and family describe her as introspective or understated and deliberate, but her eclectic designs display an easy flamboyance that has resulted in comparisons to the work of Scottish designer, Alexander McQueen. A bespoke Deola dress features plunging necklines with exciting cuts and vibrantly coloured fabric. Her runway haute couture collections have used exotic materials like porcupine quills and have attracted the attention of Vogue editors and A-list celebrities. But the real draw and core element of Sagoe’s work is her use of Aso Oke fabric, a traditional hand-woven cloth from the Yoruba areas of Nigeria.

When I first met with Sagoe at her flagship store and headquarters in Victoria Island, an upscale area of Lagos, she told me: “I did a lot of research and found out that we actually have quite a few locations all over Nigeria, in different states, where the fabric is woven. So in my head, I thought, ‘Wow, if I could just create demand for our own fabrics outside just the traditional use of them, then we could start something here. We could start a lot of economic development.’ So then all I had to think about was to be creative and be innovative about the fabrics such that, globally, they would be appealing.”

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For Sagoe, the emphasis on using local fabric and production was born from the idea that African designers need to celebrate their cultural roots and fashion history in order to become globally competitive. “When I started out, it was with a certain philosophy, because at that time it wasn’t cool to look African. Africa wasn’t on the map as it is now,” she said. “There was really nothing happening in terms of African fashion going global, or Africans being able to make a business of African fashion outside of the shores of Africa. So I went into it, sort of, to prove a point and to say ‘Listen. We can do this. We can add value.’ And to also bring the attention of the world to our own native abilities.”

For Sagoe, fashion is, paradoxically, both an unlikely and obvious field. She comes from a prominent family of Yoruba entrepreneurs who own the Elizade Group, a company started by her father, Chief Michael Ade-Ojo, and her late mother, Elizabeth, who died in 2003. Elizade, currently run by Sagoe’s younger brother, Demola Ade-Ojo, is now one of the largest suppliers of Toyota vehicles in Nigeria. The company, which began as Elizade Trading Stores, originally sold baby clothes, bed sheets, and textiles. Elizabeth Ade-Ojo also ran a small bespoke garment-making operation called Odua Creations as part of the larger group.

While Sagoe clearly enjoyed a privileged upbringing, her parents were strict disciplinarians who focused on education. When I asked her brother Demola whether there was any indication that Sagoe would enter a creative field, he said: “Not a thing. Not at all. Don’t even think she saw it in herself either, because everything about childhood was ‘You guys would grow up, go to school, come back, and work in the business.’ So there was not any other thing outside of that picture for us growing up. That’s why I think that even she didn’t know there was this talent that she had.”

It was while studying business administration at the University of Miami, Florida in the mid 1980s that Sagoe began to realise the global appeal of African style, and her flair for it. “I started my own campaign – like James Brown – I am black and I am proud kind of thing. But I used fashion to express that,” Sagoe said. “So when I got over there they were always asking me [about my clothes], ‘Wow, what is this? You are so different.’ And I would say ‘Yes, it’s African.’ And my friends started to want it and they started to ask me for them.”

After graduating in 1987, Sagoe returned to Nigeria and began her masters in finance. When student unrest cut short the school term, her father encouraged her to begin working in the family business. Sagoe told me: “I didn’t want to go into the automobile section because I knew that I had to go out and sell. I didn’t really fancy that. I was a creative. At that time I was the it girl, because [of] my dressing, my sense of style.”

By the time she returned, her mother had grown her small tailoring operation into a recognised fashion label that mainly produced traditional men’s clothing detailed with intricate patterns and embroidery. “I told my mum, ‘You are always complaining about your tailors. Let me come in here and manage them’,” Sagoe said. In her new position, she sought not only to direct the staff but also to contemporise the clothing designs by slimming down the normally voluminous garments and experimenting with different forms of embroidery.

But devoting her attention to Odua Creations soon brought her into conflict with her father. When I visited Chief Ade-Ojo in his massive office on the third floor of the Elizade Plaza building, overlooking Ikorodu Road, a major artery running through the city of Lagos, he said: “I told her she was wasting time, that ‘if you sell cars for me, you will make the money you are making in a month from a car’.” The two reached a compromise and Sagoe, who worked actively as an executive director at the Elizade Group until recently (she is now a non-executive vice chairman), was able to combine her fashion work with her corporate responsibilities all while having three children.

But her break did not come until the year 2000, when she won the MNET/Anglo Gold African Designs Award and was subsequently selected as one of four designers from the continent to show at New York Fashion Week. “I was the only designer who was actually dealing with our own fabrics from antiquity, authentic African fabrics, not all these Guinea brocades, Ankara and all that,” she said, referring to the boldly coloured Dutch wax print fabrics often mistaken as originating in Africa. “When you thought of Africa, that’s what came to your mind, big, huge, bold batik prints and stuff like that. I just begged to differ; I just thought why can’t I have all this structured for contemporary Africa. So by the time I then showed in New York – all my silhouettes but with fabrics that date back to the 11th century – they were shocked. Africans, Americans and the West alike were like ‘what!’ Even from South Africa, they couldn’t believe it. They kept on asking me, ‘How did you say they were made again? What is this? What kind of fabric is this?’ They had never seen it before. They saw that it was modern but at the same time it had so much heritage, and that is what serious fashionistas look for.”

Deola Sagoe’s flagship store and headquarters are housed in a two-story building on Ajose Adeogun Street on Victoria Island. With its bright white façade and its massive elephant tusk columns, which arch around glass window displays of mannequins dressed in Deola clothing, the flagship’s crispness and originality are a relief for the eye from the older and less imaginative buildings that surround it. The structure, which Sagoe commissioned after Deola’s growth prompted a move from older, cramped quarters in Elizade Plaza, was finished in 2008 and also houses the brand’s offices and production facilities.

On the ground floor, behind the showrooms, is a large empty space with rustic wood floors that was originally intended for use as a coffee shop. Sagoe employs about 20 people at this location, including a team of cutters and seamstresses from Korea.

Producing a collection is an involved process that can take up to a year. It begins with developing a mood board – a grouping of ideas, fabrics and sketches that narrate the design aesthetic for the collection – as well as specification sheets that give the measurements of garments down to the last detail. Sagoe then visits different fabric manufacturers, including local weavers, to source the season’s materials.

Clients who request bespoke pieces meet with Sagoe multiple times and are asked to strip completely so that she can take exact measurements. “You have to strip. I see where your curves start and end, where you shoot out too much, to minimise you there,” she said. “Here you are dealing with flesh and lumps and bumps. But what I then learned to do without knowing it is, rather than send you out there and cut up your skin and do you a cosmetic surgery, I had to cut up clothes to try to tame your body and to accentuate your pluses.” She said the process originates with a desire to help others. “You have to have some humane thing about you, because for me it was all about making that person feel good about themselves. That’s what cosmetic surgery aims to do and that’s what I aimed at with all the clothing.” Her methods have built Deola a reputation for excellence in production and design, as well as a fierce brand loyalty, with clients who return to purchase garments that cost thousands of pounds each.

In the mid-aughts, Sagoe began working with Dayo Ogunyemi, a friend and entertainment lawyer currently based in Nairobi, who originally made contact with her in 2001 after hearing about her futuristic designs. “A friend of mine said, ‘You know there is this woman who is doing this really cutting-edge stuff with Aso Oke,’ Ogunyemi told me by Skype from Nairobi. He now serves as a director for Deola. Ogunyemi helped Sagoe to think through business planning, market segmentation, and how to push the more affordable diffusion lines, like jeans and t-shirts, that she had started conceptualising.

Later, Sagoe brought in Fauzi Fahm, a leading creative director and fashion branding strategist and the son of Nigerian fashion icon, Sade Thomas-Fahm, to help to further commercialise her business. When I spoke with Fahm he told me: “There was a determined effort to monetize the brand and start to look for revenue streams derived solely from the brand […] The brand is a lot bigger than just the fashion.” He worked to determine how to maintain the quality of Deola designs at a lower price-point to attract a wider consumer base without diluting the brand’s standing. One result of this effort was the 2011 launch of the Clan label, founded by Sagoe’s three young daughters. Clan produces meticulously designed casual wear and dresses that retail from $120 dollars and up, a much lower price point than Deola. “She keeps things the best quality,” Fahm says of Sagoe’s lower-priced lines. “And that also is not an easy thing. It’s a struggle because you can do the obvious thing of just making cheap versions of what you already make.”

Fahm also oversaw improvements to customer service that give Deola’s patrons a more intimate and involved experience. “At Deola usually there are several materials that [Sagoe] might have mixed, several different sewing techniques that she might have used,” Fahm said.  “I used to tell the sales staff to explain to customers when they came in what had gone into making the garment. Not [to prove] it was just the right price, but just to show that the garments are actually being made with quite a bit of thought and quite a bit of love.”

Fahm helped to push Sagoe beyond haute couture towards more commercial projects, like designing and manufacturing uniforms for Nigeria-based Access Bank. “His head just happened to be screwed on a little tighter than mine,” Sagoe said. “And he was like, ‘Dee, I know this is not your Aso Oke and your innovative, fantastic, fantabulous designs. These are uniforms, but Dee, you have to sit up and do this […] This is sustainability we are talking about here, not just arty arty, take the bow and then get off the stage, and then what happens after that?’”

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For Sagoe and other African designers, scaling up production and distribution has proven particularly difficult, hindering the growth of a potentially lucrative industry. “When I was going to launch my jeans line,” Sagoe said, “I did all the design work and everything, all my samples, my technical details – everything, done here. But no infrastructure, nothing. I had to go out. I had to outsource

the production of thousands of pairs of jeans.” African designers face numerous infrastructural problems unimaginable in the West or even Asia. These setbacks drive up the costs of production and distribution, thus stifling growth. Nigeria’s inability to generate affordable power makes local production lines incredibly costly to build and operate. Arcane customs regulations and high tariffs also drive up the cost of importing many finished products.

According to Nike Ogunlesi, a close friend of Sagoe and the founder and CEO of the Nigerian children’s fashion brand, Ruff ‘n’ Tumble, the big impediments to expansion in Africa are a dearth of skilled workers and a lack of affordable retail spaces. “It’s not about having a shop girl, it’s about creating a brand, and within the context of that brand, the customer experience is something that has to be consistently delightful,” Ogunlesi said. She also pointed out that the cost of exorbitantly high interest rates on the loans used to finance construction of new retail spaces – like The Palms shopping mall in Lekki, a suburb of Lagos – are passed on to retailers and ultimately to consumers, stifling growth.

Sagoe thinks the African fashion industry currently contributes only a small fraction of what it could to the continent’s GDP. She believes that African fashion could become a $15.5-billion industry over the next five years, as personal incomes increase and the continent’s economies grow. However, in order for this to happen, investors must be willing to take a chance on local brands.

Kola Kuddus, a menswear designer and the Lagos State Coordinator for the Fashion Designers Association of Nigeria (FADAN), said Nigeria’s fashion industry is now worth about $1 billion, constituting a 40-percent share of the total market for fashion in Africa. “The growth rate year in, year out is about 15 to 20 percent,” he added. According to him, investors spend huge sums to bring foreign fashion brands to Nigeria while local brands are left searching for money. However, as consumers see increased production quality and value in local brands, their tastes have started to shift. “You can see the potentials of foreign brands, and you can see that there is a local brand that can do something as good as this,” Kuddus said. A local business with a high growth rate might get an investor to “put $20,000 in this business for the first year […] in the next five years, the potential investor might put $100,000 in the business” when she sees that her return has been realised.

“Smart” investors who are patient and willing to take a hand in business development and market-shaping are a must for Sagoe. When I asked her what investors are missing by not putting money in fashion, she said: “First of all, the Nigerian market is huge. If you can get it right in Nigeria, you don’t even need to go anywhere […] Just in Africa there is a huge market without us now even going out to Europe, specifically England, UK, Paris, those fashion capitals. And then the US – there is a huge market there. We haven’t even talked about the Diaspora there. So how on Earth can I value that? That’s huge. That’s billions in lost business.”

Sagoe has no plans to slow her pace despite the adverse environment. She herself has been likened to Fela or Wole Soyinka, pioneer artists whose work was a little ahead of its time. Ogunyemi, who regularly visits Sagoe’s headquarters when he is in Nigeria just to see the new work she has produced, said: “She’s a pioneer, a legend in the real sense of that word, but she’s very much present and active.” Even with the numerous accolades and high praise she has received for the otherworldly and artistic quality of her work, Sagoe remains focused on her mission of building a sustainable and internationally known platform for herself and other African fashion pioneers. “Clothing, garments, fashion design,” Sagoe said, “if you take away all the fluffy stuff, really is about clothing oneself. It’s a basic necessity. So why ever won’t it work? It’s a billion-dollar industry.”

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