Lagos’ expansive fashion industry is in debt.
We see this debt every day, splashed across the Instagram profiles of our favourite designers, stylists and photographers. We speculate about it when a designer label doesn’t show at any of our annual fashion showcases or release a catalogue heralding a new collection. We gather when we hear a brand we like but have never bought into is having a clearance sale, whispering as we buy one or two pieces. But not before complaining about price points and accessibility.
We hear it from designers when someone asks how the business is going. They sigh and make jokes about how they are barely making even. We laugh with them and try not to think about it too deeply.
We have all heard the statistics and our online shopping carts buttress the numbers, we are buying a lot of clothes. Inditex, the owner of immensely popular fast fashion brand Zara made profits in excess of 200 million dollars in the last year selling fast fashion to Africa and Asia. There are more indigenous fashion retail stores in Nigeria than there have ever been. This doesn’t even factor in the hordes of young designers setting up cottage labels. It is then hard to understand why all this activity isn’t translating to sales and growth.
The problem is multi-faceted. The Nigerian economy is erratic at best, with dips and spikes so sudden that designers are forced to price their clothes arbitrarily and hope that this price covers any eventualities. There also is the absence of a framework that grooms designers through mentoring and curating, to help them put out the best versions of their work and ensure that a standard of quality is adhered to in everything that is put out. Then there is the blatant refusal to give and share credit for work done.
With the exception of fashion behemoths like Deola Sagoe, Lisa Folawiyo and Tiffany Amber, a vast majority of the indigenous labels in Nigeria are boutique labels, aiming to sell to a niche market. Their target is usually the discerning luxury buyer, always looking for a new perspective and able to pay for the arbitrary (read as costly) prices of the clothes on offer. The problem is that this puts them in competition with international luxury brands and fast fashion brands selling close enough replicas of the clothes the international luxury brands are hawking. This is not a place anyone would want to be.
So in a bid to match these brands, indigenous brands sell a glossy exterior of brightly lit campaigns and glamorous models. They seem to be silently screaming ‘’We too are a well-oiled, impersonal machine, churning out beautiful clothes.”
The problem with this approach is that for alternative labels, the story behind the clothes is just as big a draw for the buyer as the intricate cuts. It is a badly kept secret that these labels all have small workshops where their clothes are cut and sewn by a small team of tailors and pattern cutters and the designer is a part of nearly every part of the process. Enthusiastic young interns, working as the designer’s eyes and ears in this crucial part of the design process sketch, sew and help to create looks that end up in each collection.
This is completely at odds with the sleek exterior that these brands try to push as their image. The work and passion of these people are glossed over and the clothes are presented, ready-made and devoid of context. Many buyers are sold this false impression that their money isn’t valuable to our indigenous brands; that they aren’t buying into something tangible. There is also the fact that credit would allow younger creative professionals build the pedigree and following that is necessary to launch a personal career.
A good example of this is Ejiro Amos Tafiri, who after an education at the Yaba College of Technology spent years working on the design teams of several high profile labels before going on to head the design team at Tiffany Amber. She applied atT the Lagos Fashion and Design Week’s fashion incubator program to springboard her personal label. Even now, very few people realise how much work she has done and how experienced she is as a designer.
If our labels want to attract repeat buyers who buy into the ethos of their brands, they need to become more transparent, acknowledging the work of the ‘small men’ whose artisanal work is the foundation on which their labels grow. Until that happens, our labels will struggle with finding and keeping customers.