Frank Osodi, of Brunor Creazioni, clothier of former Miss World 2002, Agbani Darego, speaks with Adetutu Audu and Ibiyemi Lawore on the state of Nigerian fashion industry and how its potentials can be harnessed
Q: After the Black, Bold and Jazzy nothing has been heard about you. Why is this so?
A: Well, I’ve been busy trying to work on bigger things, but that’s not to say that Black, Bold and Jazzy will be going out of our portfolio. It is still going to happen next year. We have other things in the pipeline which I believe will change the face of fashion in Nigeria as well. I will be organising West African Fashion Week here in Nigeria where top designers, hairstylists, jewelry makers from all over the West African sub region will assemble here and bring in the international media. It is so obvious that Nigerian designers have not been able to find their way into the international magazines like Elle and Vogue. It’s about time that someone started it and it’s not going to be we alone. We are going to have other designers coming, so that Nigerians can see fashion in different perspectives and dimensions.
Q: You have been tagged “King of Bustier.” How did you earn this reputation?
A: I think it is something I have always loved doing for the fact that it flatters people’s figures. I find it interesting as well, so we just have to improve on it. The point is, it helps women a lot, giving them that figure that was not there. That has really encouraged me to do plenty of it over the years.
Q: As an early starter in the industry, can you compare what obtains now with what used to be?
A: I started in 1989, and won the Intercontinental Designer of the Year award. But over the years I have won other awards. That was when fashion was fashion. It was when Labanella, Dakova, Maufechi, Supreme Stitches were shaking the country. What is happening now is not what fashion used to be. People are going back to reproduce what other designers have done. There is nothing creative about what most designers are doing now. Iam sorry to say this, but they are copying from Vogue and other magazines. At that time, designers were really working, every designer had his/her own identity. They were very distinct in their cuts and style. So fashion then was different. Now, you can hardly tell who made what because they are all copying themselves from magazines. Every woman who makes a little money or their husband has money and wants them to be full time housewife can start her fashion house in their home. Any girl who does not know where to go or didn’t make a degree in law or in any other discipline just buys a few machines, gets tailors and becomes a designer. Most of them can’t sit down and be creative, they merely rely on their tailors or turn to magazines. They are different from those who can sit down and sketch their designs first and foremost. Becoming a designer is not just putting buttons and stuffs like that. First, you need to be able to educate your client on what fits them, what they should wear or should not wear, understand where the flaws of your customers are and where their strengths are. So, it is not just mumbling, jumbling so many things and say you are a designer. It doesn’t work like that. At the time I came into fashion, it was tough. I was lucky enough to find an identity and even that didn’t come until after a long time of hardwork. But now, many tailors are designers who don’t have any idea of what fashion is but because they love wearing clothes, they suddenly become designers.
Q: Don’t you think this is because designers like you sell expensive clothes?
A: (Laughing)… How much do you think these gowns are worth? People just have the notion that with the kind of name I have made, I must be expensive. That is the perspective you have about some names you hear, but that might not really be it. It might just be far from it. The thing is: Nigerians love fashion and for them, it is a way of life, a way of expressing oneself and making one happy. Nigerians enjoy going into fashion, making clothes, accessories. Bead makers, jewelry makers, designers are everywhere. In all nooks and crannies, you see people sewing. There are a lot of customers with respect to fashion. That is why you see people taking advantage of the market.
Q: How can we harness the potentials in the industry?
A: It is difficult in the sense that a lot of people love fashion but they still don’t understand fashion. Understanding fashion means knowing yourself and what suits you, educating yourself on what you can wear in the morning, day and at night. When a woman who has so much money does not understand these rules, she’s going to be a fashion victim. We have too many fashion victims in Nigeria today and they appear in the magazines, they become best dressed celebrities, but when you see what they wear, it doesn’t suit them. They don’t know what motifs are, people are cutting and mutilating Ankara materials, cutting out patterns and sticking them on clothes as if they are masquerades. These are women in their 40s, 50s and 60s. If you don’t know what you should wear at your age to look graceful and elegant and still look sexy and you think you have to flaunt your breasts, such that everything is almost sticking out and you have stretch marks and everything is showing, it is a problem. These people, if they come to us we tell them what they should not wear. But because you see Silvia Edem and Bianca wearing it, you too want to wear it and if Frank refuses to make it for you, you can go somewhere else and get it done. Even if they don’t get it right, you still go somewhere else to do it and they’ll make a mess of it and you’ll still wear it. So that is the problem, because afterwards it is difficult for us to make corrections. Women need to go to finishing schools regardless of their status because that is where they are taught everything about womanhood, what you should wear, how you should sit, how you should talk and things like that. They can also get consultants, fashion stylists who can educate them on what best to wear to look their very best, be it to work, parties, luncheon, churches etc. If you go to churches the pastors, reverend fathers are all complaining. Women go to church not knowing what suits them. They don’t understand that they are going to church to praise and glorify God. And they are wearing things that are offensive, that will make someone else leave what they are there to do to be looking at them. Meanwhile, they can throw in something comfortable and face the business of the day: that is you and your God. So, women should go for counselling, fashion styling consultations because Nigerian women are going “gaga” with fashion and it is not something I Frank Osodi can do. I can’t even do that seminar because they won’t show up.
Q: So how can you help to curb indecent dressing especially in wearing the corsets which is now in vogue?
A: You must know your cup size. Some women like when it presses their breast and it is overflowing. It is just a habit that they like and these women have husbands or boyfriends and the man is complaining, but they don’t listen. They believe it is their body so they can do whatever they like with it and because they have it, they want to flaunt it. Some people want to sell so what do you want to do? It is their body and they want to be in control of their body, so what can you do. You can only talk but they know that if they flash these things, it will get them some attention. You journalists should do a lot about this as well by making sure you do not promote this in your magazine. Some of them are sorry sights but those are the people you like to flash in your magazines. How can a magazine publisher not be able to say what is right or wrong. How can someone be called best dressed and what they are wearing is not sitting well? Even when they are not well dressed, they still appear as the glamour babes of Nigeria and a lot of ladies are taking a cue from them everyday. It is the magazines that are making this popular. If anyone comes here with magazines with a particular style in mind, sorry I won’t make it because I am not the type that copies patterns and then wrecks them. Every fabric has its own language, so let the fabric speak its language. My clothes speak grace and femininity and must sit well.
Q: Can’t other designers take a stand on this issue?
A: If you look at Lagos, the tailors at Tejuosho upstairs are not designers. But this is not to say that some of them are not designers. Those people are not enlightened enough to know what should suit you. It is what you tell them to do that they do. Even if we the top designers say we can’t make a particular clothe or style, the people in Tejuosho will sew them. If we reject them, then we will lose customers. I don’t mind losing customers because my customers will always come, but the last thing I will do is for someone to wear a dress made by me somewhere and someone asks, ‘who made this? and you say ‘it is Frank’ and he says ‘Frank must be very stupid to have done this.’ I am concerned about what I create. It might not be overly creative but it must sit well, have substance, must have grace and class.
Q: Can you enlighten us more on the finishing schools?
A: There is this lady, Yetunde Abraham, who can educate every first lady in this country about dressing and other issues. Abroad, beauty queens, first ladies, wives of executives and even executives themselves go to finishing schools. When you have to appear in public or your work entails appearing in public, it is necessary for you go to finishing school. There you are taught how to be graceful, what hairstyles suit your head, what colours suit your skin and your spirit. There is something you wear and your spirit will be warm. There are other things you wear that kills your personality. When you are through with that at the finishing school, then you’ll need a stylist who will help to enhance your personality with what you wear. He knows the kind of earrings or jewelry that fits your neck and so on. Finishing school is meant for every woman and every lady.
Q: What fabrics do you work with to get the best touch for your designs?
A: Based on the demands here in Nigeria, we work with all kinds of fabric. Because we have this ‘aso-ebi’ culture, we want to sew it well. We are more into ceremonial clothes, party wears, evening wears, cocktail dresses, bridal wears and bridal ensembles. We still make Ankara, ‘aso-oke’ among others.
Q: Ankara is taking central stage in fashion trends now. What is your take on this fabric?
A: People misinterpret and misrepresent it most of the time. A lot of people would rather not wear it. No matter how new it is, people wear it because it is cheaper than buying lace. Ankara is nice but people should understand that they should do theirs tastefully. Forget about the ‘cut-cut.; it does not make you look beautiful but rather draws attention needlessly towards you. If you make a dress that sits well on you and it is not ‘busy’, you’ll be happy to wear it again and again. Ankara has its purpose. It is what you can wear everyday. You can wear it leisurely, to meeting even to the office if you sew it well. Nigerians should respect fabrics and stop mutilating them.
Q: You have provided wardrobe for many queens. Do you think the prevalence of beauty pageants and fashion shows is healthy for the fashion industry?
A: Yes, it is good in the sense that at the end of every pageant, it gives employment to some people. Like the resource people, the lighting stage makers, make up artistes, hairdressers. As long as they fulfil their obligations to the beauty queens and the pageant has a social justification for holding it, then it is healthy. It must affect the society positively and the queen must have an impact on the youth. I believe so much in youth development.
Q: What prompted you to go into the fashion industry?
A: I didn’t know I will end up as a designer really. I studied visual arts. However, I have always enjoyed drawing all my life. I have always drawn clothes and my mum used to make her own clothes in her spare time and always expected us to work with her. She will show us how to draw patterns. That was how it started. I started seeing women in clothes, then I was drawing them and I started changing things and started bringing my own ideas into the styles that I draw.
Q: Will you encourage your child to do what you are doing?
A: Well, encouraging a child entails telling them the truth about the hazards and the positive sides to it. It is not easy. It is painstaking and a lot of people have given up on it as well. Designing is painstaking but it gives you that fulfilment when you make something good and someone else wears it. It is very financially rewarding as well but other things like electricity and using generators could be frustrating too. The tailors too are not all well groomed. You will need also to be in the workshop for 24 hours. As a designer, you are a workshop person. Leave the glamour to your customers. You can make a name but if you stop being in the workshop, your name will start to fade because that is where the name comes from. You must be part of it and experience how it is done and make sure that it meets your standard.
Q: What impact have you made on the fashion industry?
A: A lot of people say I inspire them positively. I get people writing all the time wanting to come and understudy me for a month or two. We have students coming from fashion schools to do industrial training, IT. People come to visit from fashion departments of schools.
Q: What impact has fashion made on your own life?
A: I have made dresses for a lot of customers who are now my friends. I have made name for myself. The kind of name that decades to come will remain known. There’s nothing as good as that because there’s no amount of money you can pay to get a good name. That is enough blessing on its own. Also, it has given me opportunity to go outside the country to represent Nigeria at fashion shows in South Africa, Cote d’Ivoire and others. It exposed me to the international world and of course when Agbani won the Miss World, it gave me a lot of mileage for that simple evening dress. It gives me joy as well all the time when I make designs and they appear in magazines and people are talking about them. Apart from the pain, the lack of electricity and the customers who owe, being in the industry gives one the opportunity to be alive and creative with your hand and your brain and your whole mind. It is exciting and interesting.
Q: How affordable are your wears?
A: They are very affordable. The wedding gowns are from N120,000. They are specially made and you can’t find this same style or design in any shop. No matter how simple they look, they are specifically made for a particular person.
Q: At 40 we expected you to have a woman by your side, especially when you are in a business that attracts women?
A: That is true. I have been too involved with my work for too long. You know, when you are young, you are determined to make a name. I have been too involved with my work, so my relationships didn’t stay long because of false accusations such as ‘you don’t have time for me, you are married to fashion’ and so on. I have a choice because that dedication paid off and that’s what gave me my name and brought me this far. If I didn’t have to sacrifice all that, my customers will not take me seriously. I will say to a certain extent that I am married to my work but now, I am trying to re-orientate myself. I close by 6pm now. For a long time, until 3 years ago, I was not used to traveling. I just work round the clock and I don’t go on leave unless I go for fashion shows. I am still trying to find my feet because I am not there yet.
Q: Have you considered exporting?
A: It is a whole lot of work in the sense that, where you want to export this work to, they have a lot of designers there to contend with. Sincerely speaking, they are not on our level. We are not exposed to the fabrics and accessories they are exposed to. Their things are customs-made and we can’t afford them. There is no Nigerian fashion designer that is exporting. We can’t even satisfy all Nigerians not to talk of exporting. The only things we can export are casual wears, summer clothings, shirt and trousers.
Q: What’s your dream for this business?
A: I am hoping that the government will look at fashion and take it seriously because it can earn foreign exchange for this country. They should allow things – everything associated with fashion to come in. Designers should come in here. I don’t mind competition. I need to know if I am stepping up or moving backward. Accessories and fabrics should come in. It should not just be Ankara all the time. Even those producing prints prefer foreign prints because they are moisturable. For fashion to take a new turn, the government has to really step into it. If you go abroad for fairs, you’ll see other designers being sponsored by their governments because they are carrying the name of the country with them. But it doesn’t happen here. Senators, commissioners, ministers and governors are moving from one country to another speaking so much grammar that do not make any sense and come back to the country without affecting people’s lives or instituting changes here. Government needs to be involved in fashion sincerely and thoroughly for the industry to climb to a higher level. They need to allow accessories and other things that can help us to compete with the internationally acclaimed designers to come in and let them see us work. There’s no way prints can take over the global fashion market. It is not possible. They whites are generally not used to wearing prints, but it is our own culture, yet that is not what we want to wear. You must look smart or do you want to use Ankara to sew a wedding gown? The church wedding is also a borrowed idea, so you must not mess around with the whole concept and think you want to infuse Ankara somewhere. There are certain traditions that must be left the way they are.
Q: What inspires your designs?
A: They are so many. The fabrics, customers, clients can inspire a designer. Trimmings and accessories also inspire. Everything around me inspires me. Once I get in contact with the element, object or subject, I get an inspiration. A person’s personality and comportment can tell me what will best suit them.