October 10, 2013 10:46 pm

Nigeria takes to the fashion catwalk

On a stifling Thursday morning at the end of September a group of people are seated outside the upscale Oceanview restaurant on Victoria Island in Lagos, engaged in animated discussion. A TV crew hovers, filming.

It’s the planning committee of the 2013 Lagos Fashion & Design Week (LFDW), to be held between October 23 and 26. Only in its third year, LFDW is now one of the most prominent fixtures on the creative arts scene in Nigeria’s biggest city. Leading the meeting is Omoyemi Akerele, founder of Style House Files, a fashion consultancy, and the creative director of the Festival.

The Festival – featuring more than 40 established and emerging designers this year – is the most recent incarnation of Mrs Akerele’s passion; long before founding it the lawyer had built a reputation as a stylist and fashion consultant.

“I came [into the fashion industry] at a point when people didn’t know what a fashion editorial was; pictures just appeared in magazines – in those days things just happened,” she says. “I needed to convince designers why they had to get their clothes into magazines.”

In the decade since, much has changed. Nigerian designers are now much more savvy, she says, understanding the importance of having specialist support in everything from pattern cutting to PR and brand development.

“I think there’s now an appreciation for, and pride in Nigerian fashion,” says designer Bisola Edun (Taé), a 2008 finalist in the British Council’s International Young Fashion Entrepreneur Competition. “People see it as a viable business, and the international market is beginning to take note.”

In February, Hugo Boss became the first international luxury brand to launch in Nigeria, with a store in the Palms Mall on the edge of Lagos’ Victoria Island. Two months later Ermenegildo Zegna followed suit. The Zegna store was the first to be opened in sub-Saharan Africa.

TM Lewin is currently repositioning itself in Nigeria; in September it opened a new store in Lagos. High street store Mango now has two stores, and Diesel has recently launched its first.

At the more modest end of the market, South African fashion retailer Mr Price opened its first Nigerian store in Lagos in 2012, and has opened another in Ibadan, 120 kilometres north of Nigeria’s commercial hub. Pep, another South African retail brand (its clothing and footwear merchandise form a chunk of its offerings) has been aggressive, opening 18 stores in Nigeria since June 2012.

Long before the international fashion brands, London-based British-Nigerian designer Ade Bakare (Ade Bakare Couture) had seen the potential. Amid a deluge from Nigeria of brides-to-be visiting his London showroom for wedding dress fittings, Bakare decided he needed a second base. So, in 2006 he opened a Lagos showroom, which he visits four times a year.

The effect of the international attention, while flattering, appears to pale in comparison to what is happening on the local scene – the noticeable surge in the sophistication of the industry.

“[Nigeria’s] fashion shows are moving from pure entertainment to business, where you have press, buyers and retailers,” says Ms. Edun.

LFDW, focused on creating an event that highlights commercial value, is leading the way. It has partnered with the British Council to create an award for the most outstanding “young creative entrepreneur”. As part of the Festival there is also a Fashion Business Series, to help teach the industry’s creatives about such matters as raising funding and running businesses.

“It’s not just about a fashion show; it’s about building an industry,” says Dami Amolegbe, founder of HauteFashionAfrica.com and part of the organising team of the LFDW. “There are people who’ve got money and are looking to invest it, but won’t invest in any venture without a structure.”

Where what passed for the fashion industry in Nigeria was once only the designers, there are now thriving photographers, stylists, models, make-up artists, and buyers.

And there are the increasingly influential bloggers as well, evidence of how much the internet is actively shaping the evolution of the industry.

Ecommerce is taking off among Nigeria’s middle class, on the back of growing access to the internet, and rising confidence in epayment options.

Local online retailers like Jumia and Konga are aggressively rolling out, just as British online fashion store ASOS now delivers to Nigeria – remarkable considering the country’s reputation for credit card fraud.

That Nigeria doesn’t have a nationwide brick-and-mortar retail line like Primark or M&S is puzzling; with a population of 173m, the largest in Africa, the potential is huge.

Much of the market is still served by vendors selling cheap, second-hand items from Europe and America. Some importers evade duties, keeping prices of these clothes low and making it harder for formal retailers to compete.

And a once-thriving local textile manufacturing industry is a shambles, plagued by the poor quality of locally produced cotton, bad infrastructure, and the relentless competition from smuggling.

In 2010 the Nigerian Textile Manufacturers Association estimated that smuggling accounts for as much as 85 per cent of the textile market in Nigeria.

Many of the problems can only be solved by the government; there’s a limit to what individuals, no matter how passionate, can achieve by themselves. But the progress so far has been inspiring, say local designers.

“[The evolution] has been interesting to watch,” says Mrs Akerele. “We’re not there yet but we’ve come a long way.”

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