Photograph — Pitti Discovery

Lagos Fashion and Design Week (LFDW) 2015 commences tomorrow, but it is already in full motion. This year, LFDW partners with Heineken to marks its fifth year anniversary in the fashion industry. The event will feature Tiffany Amber (who launches the show), Mai Atafo, Lanre Da Silva-Ajayi, Orange Culture, Iamisigo, Iconic Invanity, Grey, Bridget Awosika, and Meena, amongst many others, including the top 16 Fashion Focus finalists.

LFDW annually aims to drive the Nigerian and African fashion industry by bringing key players together, while pursuing development for the industry as a tool for commerce and creativity. Omoyemi Akerele, the founder of the fashion week, and of Style House Files, as well as one of Africa’s leading ladies in fashion, managed to make out enough time from her consuming schedule for Ventures Africa.

Charming, soft-spoken, laid back, and with an interesting and positive persona that always come through in her voice, perhaps even on her most tired days, Omoyemi Akerele shared other aspects about LFDW and the fashion industry in Nigeria.

Ventures Africa (VA): Is Lagos Fashion and Design Week as ‘big’ as you thought it would be, starting out?

Omoyemi Akerele (OA): (Laughs). That’s an interesting question. Let me put it this way. It’s just like any little child; you walk into a candy store, and they tell you that you can have all the candy there, and then you decide to have all the candy there and then. But you don’t understand it’s best to take one at a time, and then go back for more.

To answer the question, I did not think it would be it this way, I thought it would be faster in the sense that all the things we needed to achieve, like shows and manufacturing, would get done instantly, because we had the Midas touch.

But we’ve learnt to appreciate where we are and focus on where we’re going, because it has always been about developing the fashion industry simultaneously. We wanted so many things to happen so fast right now, but we’re happy we’re no longer where we used to be.

VA: What significant changes/improvements have you recorded since establishing LFDW?

OA: I don’t know if you can tell, but the environment is slowly changing. When we started in 2011, there was only one store that I know of that retailed Nigerian and African designers’ items at the time, and that was Temple Muse. You didn’t have to go to a designer’s store or atelier to buy your designs, you could just walk into this retail store and buy. It was groundbreaking.

Fast forward 2015, you have several such retail stores sprinkled around. They might not all have the same vision, but they exist. E-commerce is also on the rise, and although Nigerian fashion is not as accessible as it should be when compared to the level of demand, progress is being made. Then, people used to ask, “So, where are we going to buy all this fashion items?” and “Why do you even have a show?” (Laughs). Retail is thriving. Grey Velvet has a store in Port Harcourt, and I think in Lagos.

I also believe the work we have done – not just LFDW as a platform, but all of us as an industry; designers, stakeholders, the model, and even journalists. Before now, not many blogs and magazines used to write about just fashion, or create the space to do so. Everyone has contributed to inspiring this change.

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VA: How about manufacturing for the fashion industry in Nigeria?

OA: We’re conscious of the fact that a lot of things need to be sorted in the industry. We’ve been doing quite a bit of research, trying to understand manufacturing, and why we’re still here. Contrary to what people think, there are people who own small-medium scale workshops that have an assembly line that can help you with your production, which is the same as going to China or India.

So, that tale of how production cannot happen in Nigeria is an old wives’ tale. Sam and Sara’s and Ruff ‘n’ Tumble have been around for a while now, and they are proof of it.

Also, before now, getting support from non-private individuals seemed near-impossible, but now they’re willing to talk to us. We’re scratching the surface. Recently, we did some work with Nigerian Export Promotion Council and UNIDO. We’re looking for designers who are serious enough to invest in. The fact that BOI launched a fashion fund is because stakeholders in the scene kept lobbying, and since this is not the first time, what makes this loan different is that it’s not just for machinery. It supports your system, you don’t need a collateral, and the interest rates are very good.

What this also means is that creative people, such as myself, need to keep our books in order so as to get make us attractive for similar funds.

Manufacturing and quality control is not where it should be at all, don’t get me wrong, but I’m just saying, there’s something in the glass. It’s not empty, and we need to be thankful for that.

VA: When did you know that fashion is what you wanted to do? Especially considering the amount of time that you dedicated to studying law.

OA: It was in 2003. I just observed the people around me. The ones who gave the job their all, and were always excited. And I was just coasting… Not to sound cliché, but I had the quest for fulfillment. It’s just something you know on the inside, whether it’s what you want to do or not. I mean, you’re not supposed to be upset when your boss throws work at you. You’re supposed to be happy.

So for me, that was the ‘tell’. If you’re not happy about reading a 200 page document that is supposed to revolutionise the telecommunications industry in Nigeria, for example, I think you should get a new job.

So, I made the transition. It wasn’t easy, but I guess time and chance helped.

VA: What would you say has been the most tasking aspect of coming into the fashion industry?

OA: In truth, every part of it was tasking. Life is all about phases and understanding where you are. By tasking, I mean it’s just that fashion is not exactly an established industry. You need to convince people to believe in you, by sharing your vision with them. When my partner and I (Bola Balogun) decided to take fashion to a different level, we had to convince clients to come on board, and even to pay. Also magazines, to give you some space. Now we’ve grown to a point where you have ‘influencers’, people who are stylish, and those who even get paid to dress up.

The most important thing, however, is when you believe in yourself, and you’re committed, it makes it better. And let’s not forget the most important ingredients – prayer. I helps take your mind away from how tasking it is. You get so many people telling you “no”, or not placing value on your work – even till now.

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VA: Coming back to the event… what caused the switch in sponsorship to Heineken? 

OA: Interestingly, nothing happened. It’s just, as with all things you do, it gets to a point where you have to make a decision. That’s all it was. We’ve had amazing partners. MTN and Guaranty Trust Bank were amazing. With Heineken, the timing was just right, and it so happened that they came along at a time when we are celebrating. In Nigeria, getting past your first year in business is huge, and we’re five years this year.

Heineken is a global supporter of fashion, and so for us to be working with them, we believe it’s the beginning of more things to come in the fashion scene in Nigeria.

VA: Besides the celebratory aspect, is there anything in particular that you would consider a ‘wow factor’ in this year’s programme lineup?

OA: At LFDW, we shy from using words like that. Or even exciting. We believe that it’s important for you to experience it yourself. You be the judge, let us know if you think it’s ‘wow’. We just try to ensure that whatever we do represents the industry at every point in time, addressing pending issues, such as the fashion business scene; what we’re doing with our designers, what the future holds, and so on.

For us, it’s not really about the ‘wow’, or putting up a show. It’s beyond that. One of our Fashion Focus designers is manufacturing and designing a collection with Grey Velvet, to sell at their stores, for instance. We’re really excited about it, because in that case the designer doesn’t have to worry about production costs, as Grey Velvet takes care of all that.

People need to understand that funding fashion is not the same as funding oil and gas. There’s a lot to consider. It’s not a quick turnover business, you have to nurture it. LFDW is trying to ensure that fashion can contribute to Nigeria’s economy. That’s who we are, and that’s what we’re trying to do.

VA: How would you compare LFDW with its local and international counterparts?

OA: I wouldn’t. We’re just trying to be and do LFDW. However, we aspire to be one of the top four fashion weeks in the world. It’s a dream, because there’s so much work to be done, but that’s where we want to go. We want to exist in an industry that functions properly, where there’s manufacturing, retail, textile availability, electricity, funding, and the designers have what they need. Let’s just keep going.

Hopefully, we get to a point that there are Nigerian owned brands that you can shop from, side by side international ones. And we’re not even talking about luxury, were talking about everyday fashion brands. So, it’s not a competition. We need as many hands as we can get.

VA: Speaking of the African fashion industry, how has it grown?

OA: There are figures that show you the value of the industry today. It’s something that cannot be ignored, especially in an emerging continent. Even though the oil prices have dropped, and we don’t know how the naira devaluation would further affect the economy.

There’s still a lot to do. We need to take the entire fashion chain into cognizance, and it starts with agriculture. We need to take the farmers into consideration. How do we ensure we have textiles that designers can work with? How do we ensure that the designers and tailors are well trained, in order to serve the industry and themselves? Even in education. How are schools like Yabatech upgrading their curriculum?

To be able to move on, we need to tap into what currently exists to be able to fine tune the future.

VA: Personally, how do you prepare for the fashion week every year? Do you have a ritual or routine?

OA: Personally? (Laughs). I was having a conversation with somebody the other day about fashion week, and they were asking who and what I was wearing, and I was like, “Is that a joke? I can’t believe another fashion week has arrived”. I haven’t thought about all that. I usually remember the day before and I go. “Uh-oh”.

Well, I try to get my hair in a shape at least. I don’t know if I’m the girl to be asking. Don’t get me wrong, I like looking good, but sometimes it’s so demanding, and the pace is so fast that preparing on a personal note might not necessarily be top priority.

Sorry, if you were expecting me to say “I’m wearing so-and-so designer, and then I’ll match that with my shoes… you’ve got the wrong girl. (Laughs)

VA: I actually think that it is interesting

OA: I go back stage sometimes and they’re like, “No! You can’t come in.”, and people are like, “Ah, let her in”. So I go with my flats and all.

VA: That means that you’re really into your job…

OA: Or it means I’m lazy there.

VA: I don’t think so.

OA: And how are you preparing yourself?

VA: Well, I guess we are in the same boat.

OA: Welcome to my world. Don’t worry, they’ll accept us anyway.

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