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Eight years of Lagos Fashion Week: The journey so far

The fashion show has an interesting history. As one might expect, they began in French salons at some point in the 19th century. Their influence soon spread beyond France to the rest of Europe and across the Atlantic to America. This gave the French practically total power to shape fashion in those countries - American…

Omoyemi Akerele, founder and CEO of Lagos Fashion Week

The fashion show has an interesting history. As one might expect, they began in French salons at some point in the 19th century. Their influence soon spread beyond France to the rest of Europe and across the Atlantic to America. This gave the French practically total power to shape fashion in those countries – American designers simply waited to see what the French were doing and copied them for the American market. From this, it does not require a leap of imagination to work out that American designers who had ideas that were not French-inspired struggled to get any kind of publicity at all.

And so in 1943, spotting an opportunity, a woman described as a ‘tireless promoter’ – Eleanor Lambert – came up with the idea of what she called ‘Press Week’. The name belied what was actually the start of what is today one of the ‘big 4’ fashion shows in the world – New York Fashion Week (NYFW). Today, it might seem normal to go to NYFW and see the best American designers showing off their ideas but ‘Press Week’ was revolutionary at the time in the way that it gave American designers a platform to show their ideas to the press (hence the name), without having to worry about whether or not they were French enough. From there came iconic American names like Oscar de la Renta, Anne Klein, Donna Karan, Bill Blass and many others.

One can tell this story about almost any other country in the world. To paraphrase John Maynard Keynes – we are all slaves to some long dead or defunct ideas. Sometimes this is not so bad but sometimes it prevents talent from blooming. Until someone comes along and disrupts things with an idea that gives room for new and unheralded ideas to break out into their own.

Omoyemi Akerele, founder and CEO of Lagos Fashion Week, was a lawyer when she felt that she wanted ‘more’ from herself and from life in general. She took up a course in image consulting in the UK and returned to Nigeria to try out her hand as a stylist with Genevieve Magazine and fashion editor of True Love Magazine. In 2008, she settled on the idea of Lagos Fashion Week (originally called Lagos Fashion and Design Week until earlier this year) and started the journey of putting it all together. But it is illegal for anything to be easy in Nigeria and so it took three years of literally pounding the streets to get financial backing for the event when MTN finally bought the idea in 2011. On October 24th this year, the 8th edition of Lagos Fashion Week, now sponsored by Heineken, will take place. It has come to feel like a normal fixture of the fashion scene in Nigeria and the African continent while Omoyemi herself has made it on to The Business of Fashion 500 – “the definitive professional index of the people shaping the $2.4 trillion global fashion industry”

Lagos Fashion Week is part of the Fashion Business which also includes SHF Trains (garment manufacturing workshops and fashion production), Fashion Business Series, Fashion Advisory (strategy and investments) and various Trade Shows. Part of doing anything in a developing country like Nigeria is that you can never be restricted to what you think is your core business. For instance, starting an international fashion week in Lagos might necessitate acquiring the skills of a travel agent among others. In this case, once you have decided to create a platform to showcase Nigerian fashion talent, then you’ll have to ensure you are part of developing the pipeline that guarantees the talent coming through. There’s the Fashion Focus Fund which seeks to fund the growth and development of emerging fashion talent in Africa. In late August when the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, landed in Nigeria, she was sporting a jacket made by Emmy Kasbit, who won N5 million from the fund earlier this year. For a company that wants to take Nigerian fashion to the world, it was a quietly satisfying moment.

Getting to eight years was never easy. Omoyemi and Tokunbo (her husband who doubles as Chairman of the group) initially signed up a big Nigerian bank as their sponsors for three years. The bank refused to sign a two or three-year contract with them with the CEO saying it was ‘to keep them on their toes’. But the real reason soon became clear – the bank was building its own fashion show brand. In those three years, the Akereles shared their blueprint with the bank and as a result it was privy to all their strengths and weaknesses (the same bank stands accused of doing the same thing to other people as well).

Such a painful betrayal of trust could have ended the whole idea but LFW is still here and has big plans for the future. They want to discover and nurture more creative talents. They want to fire up manufacturing hubs across the country. They are stepping up collaborations across the continent and this year there have been Fashion Focus talks in Ghana, Kenya and New York. They have a strong focus on helping Nigerian designers access markets in Africa and the wider world and to that end there have been partnerships with Selfridge’s and The Place London.

When you browse Nigerian social media, you cannot miss the raw energy and inventiveness of Nigerian creatives. You’ll find incredibly talented photographers and make-up artists on Instagram. You’ll find comedians making a career out of short video skits where they often play multiple roles. You’ll find fashion designers pushing the boundaries of what is conventional and infusing old ideas with new energy. Omoyemi and Tokunbo think that there’s a role for government to play in developing infrastructure that powers the growth of the Nigerian fashion industry. For years, the government has been trying (and failing) to revive the textile industry based on a misreading of history that the textile industry was once great. But textile is only a means to an end and that end is a potential billion dollar industry spanning the value chain from cotton crops to high fashion.

Lagos Fashion Week now has some plenty of competition. The Akereles take this as a good thing because the landscape was pretty sparse eight years ago when they began. It is a validation that the industry has a really bright future and can be a lever for wealth and job creation as well as a tool for economic development for Nigeria as a whole. The business that almost never started and was nearly knocked out cold in its most vulnerable years is now confidently looking to the future.

There can be no greater vindication of the idea that the Nigerian fashion industry is ready for the world.