I have been in the Nigerian fashion industry informally since 2009, and formally since 2013. I worked every gig there is; styled and directed editorial shoots, collaborated with major Nigerian designers, working behind the shadows and sometimes front and centre with them. I have worked as an independent fashion blogger and contribute for Guardian Life, one of the nation’s biggest print dailies.
I have run my boutique label and consulted for other designers on how to build and strengthen their brands, and how to stay profitable, in an industry where almost no one is making any money. And money matters if you will stay in fashion.
Over the last year, I have had the very rare privilege of observing fashion at both ends of the design spectrum and have come up with some ideas of how the business of fashion diverges from the visual tableau that the fashion industry has become defined by.
My friends run two fashion labels, one is a high street, and the other is at the apex of premium fashion in Nigeria. The first designer is self-taught, has pared down his aesthetic and collections to fall within what we call the ‘wardrobe staple’, the cardinal pieces of clothing on which you build your own personal style. He is focused on getting as many people to see his clothes and wear them at the most minimal costs.
The other designer trained with some of the best fashion educators in Milan. She returned to Nigeria, focused on finding cultural identifiers unique to Nigeria and repurposing that to appeal to a global audience. She is cultivating a small but loyal clientele, with an appreciation of the skill and talent it takes to produce clothing at the level of quality she does.
While both designers are experiencing moderate success, neither are at the level where they can successfully release the reins of their businesses and focus on the creation and they both have admitted that sometimes it feels like that moment will never come. They are right. This is because every designer that comes into the business of fashion, do so because they are sold a lie.
We are told that talent is enough to keep a business afloat.
This message is everywhere.
It is implied by the Nigerian stylists, fashion editors and fans who are on the eternal hunt for the fashion wunderkind, it is impressed on Nigerian designers who after years of making excellent clothing with no big break in sight, are asked to apply themselves more. We are made to believe the only barrier separating you from your next big break, is a few yards of cloth and a big idea.
Sure, there is some truth in that. After all designers like Diane von Fürstenberg, Yves Saint Laurent, Missoni, Versace and Dries Van Noten all made their names by taking an item of clothing and revolutionising it for a new audience. Even contemporary designers like Maki Oh, Re Lagos and now Emmy Kasbit have found a global audience by doubling down on design quirks.
But that only is a small part of their success. The rest of the iceberg is a massive but innocuous infrastructure that takes their ideas from sketch to final customer, a system that is largely inaccessible to the average Nigerian designer, tailor or visual artist. This infrastructure is an organic ecosystem includes pattern cutters, who take a designer’s wild ideas and like an engineer bringing an architect’s vision to life, bring design ideas to life.
There are buyers, who from fashion samples pay designers in advance to mass produce pieces they can market to the buying public, artisans and craftsmen that mass produce these samples, and retailers who do the very hard business of convincing buyers to spend money on these designer’s ideas and the brand they have built. Print, online and digital media act as sureties, convincing the buyer through editorials, reviews and opinion pieces that these clothes are not only fashion forward, they are sustainable, or luxury or whatever prefix is in vogue these days. And of course, the influencer is a new addition to the mix, the door to door salesman who shows that these fashionable clothes can blend effortlessly into our daily lives.
My friends right now have none of this.
Nigerian buyers are few and far between and are unwilling to take a risk on any Nigerian designer, established or emerging. Our artisans are self-taught and refuse to unionise for the same reason Nigerian designers discourage them to; it is cheaper that way. Retail is ubiquitous in Nigeria, but it is informal and exists almost exclusively to satisfy a very Nigerian need for anything foreign and cheap. After the average Nigerian designer has cut their own designs, paid their own manufacturers out of pocket, and painstakingly built a brand for their clothes, they are also forced to underwrite the risk that their clothes might not sell by offering their clothes to retailers based on commission based deals. The odds are stacked against them.
But my friends are resilient and have decided they are no longer going to limit themselves by the traditional structures of fashion merchandising. They are innovating ways to take advantage of the peculiarities of Nigerian social life. My friends routinely hold pop-ups and souks, offline events where they can personally interact with potential customers, forging that personal connection that often converts a speculative buyer into a repeat customer. They are harnessing national pride to brand their labels, and drawing the attention of international media through social media. They are offering bespoke tailoring as a compromise to their customers, accounting for the reality that Nigerians are most likely to spend money on fashion if it is directly or indirectly tied to a social event. They tell the majority of their clients to come to them via word of mouth and return because they made such an impression. They are making do in an industry where nothing really works.
It is not enough, but it is a good start. One that affirms that fashion is not a monolith and every country must build on the pre-existing culture and institutions, celebrating them. The business of fashion in Nigeria is one that will fail if it isn’t built around people, and I am glad that finally, we are listening.