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Aderonke Ademiluyi Ogunwusi: ‘Many women in higher positions are not willing to pull the next woman up’

By Maria Diamond
22 October 2022   |   4:20 am
Queen Aderonke Ademiluyi Ogunwusi is the founder of African Fashion Week (AFW) Nigeria and London, a yearly fashion event that promotes and nurtures African and African-inspired design talents. The elegant queen of Ile Ife Kingdom, who recently got married to the Ooni of Ife Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi; (Ọjájá II), is a descendant of the…

Queen Aderonke Ademiluyi Ogunwusi is the founder of African Fashion Week (AFW) Nigeria and London, a yearly fashion event that promotes and nurtures African and African-inspired design talents. The elegant queen of Ile Ife Kingdom, who recently got married to the Ooni of Ife Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi; (Ọjájá II), is a descendant of the royal family of Ile Ife, Osun State.

A graduate of Law from West London University, she is the Global Ambassador of the legendary Queen Moremi Ajasoro (QMA) International, an initiative that supports the rights of girls and women in Nigeria and Africa. She created and produced Moremi The Musical, a musical drama of the legendary Queen of Ile Ife.

Also the CEO of Adire Oduduwa Textile Hub, Producer of the documentary Ingenious Aso Oke fabric of Nigeria and founder of the Adire Oodua Textile Hub in Ile Ife, South West Nigeria, her AFW London, which was founded in 2011, has showcased over 1000 designers and exhibitors from Africa, with over 70,000 visitors and represented designers globally including the United Kingdom (UK), France, Holland, USA, Brazil, China, the Caribbean.

In 2021, she produced The AFW London Business Fashion Forum in collaboration with the Mayor of London’s Office, Department of Trade South Africa and The V&A Museum. She is also the co-founder of Fashion Future Online Courses in partnership with Henleys Business School UK & Parsons Design School New York. She also set up the AFW London Mentoring scheme for Black fashion students in the UK in partnership with Northampton University in The UK.

In this interview with MARIA DIAMOND, she spoke on the need to empower women, especially the girl child, why women should support one another, and the place of African fashion in the global space.

Take us through your background growing up?
I WOULD say I had a very privileged background. I was born in London and lived in Success Garden, Edgware Road, London, with my parents for a while. I was actually born in Saint Mary Hospital Paddington London, so, I grew up in London. I did a bit of my education there, and came back to Nigeria.

I did my Secondary school in Akure, because my mum is from Akure and wanted us to have that feel of her own culture, historical background and identity. So, she took all her children to boarding school in Akure. After graduating from my secondary school, Fiwasaye Girls Grammar School Akure, I went back to London for my A-Level before going to the university to study Law.

As a princess of Ife Kingdom, could you share with us your historical lineage?
My great-great-grandfather was the 48th Ooni of Ife, Ooni Ajagun Ademiluyi. He is from the lineage (generation) of Oranmiyan who was the grandson of Oduduwa. So, I have a direct lineage to the progenitor of the Yoruba race, Oduduwa.

As a graduate of Law, at what point did you switch to fashion professional?
Although there are lots of connections between law and fashion, as designers now have to trademark and do a lot of high pieces for their creations, however, that wasn’t why I went to fashion. I studied law, because from a young age, I wanted to study fashion; not as a fashion designer, but more of a person doing the business of fashion and promoting creative. But while I was growing up, fashion was not a course to tell your parents you wanted to study, as there were no fashion designers at the time; only seamstresses and tailors.

Even if you look at the education system in Nigeria, we do not have fashion courses in the main universities; we have textiles, but no fashion related courses. So, for me then, studying fashion was a no go area, so I opted for Law. My late dad was a lawyer; my mum’s elder sister was a Judge, so I think that was what inspired me to study Law.

While studying Law, was there a point you felt disconnected, because you were not exactly studying a choice course?
Not really, actually, I enjoyed studying Law, because like I said, my mum’s sister was a Judge; she’s retired now. I remember during our summer holidays, I used to go with her to court, so I really enjoyed it. Yes, I know I wanted to do fashion at some point, but I actually opted for Law and liked it as well. This helped me a lot, because in the fashion business now, when I want to sign contracts, I ensure to read all thin lines a layman would not read in order to cross all the ‘Ts’ and dot the ‘Is’ before signing anything.

Did you ever really practice law before getting into the fashion business?
No, I didn’t practice, even when I was studying Law at West London University (it used to be Thames Valley University when I was studying), I was still in the business of fashion, then I used to buy and sell to my friends. I would travel to Thailand, Bangkok, Paris, the United States of America, all over the world to bring things back to London to sell. So, I had always been involved in the business of fashion.

When did you fully get into the business of fashion professionally?
In 2001, I moved back to Nigeria from the United Kingdom. After studying and having my daughter, I opened my first boutique called Rukkies on Opebi Ikeja Lagos. Then, it became a chain of boutiques; I had two in Opebi, one in Lekki, Surulere and inside Lagos Island. We were selling Western fashion; it was a retail fashion boutique.

As a professional in the fashion industry, do you think African fashion is doing well globally?
We are doing amazingly well. As a matter of fact, Lagos has now become one of the fashion capitals of the world. So, when it comes to fashion and trends, Nigerians set the pace and everyone else follows. African fashion now influences global fashion. Unlike in the days when Western fashion were basically dull colours, African fashion has brought vibrancy, colours into the mainstream fashion industry.

The world is now looking at Africa to see what next it’s coming out of our fashion space. This is because our designers are great with excellent creativities and I think we’re just scratching the surface, because Africa has 54 countries and each of them have 200-500 tribes, and each of these tribes have their own fashion culture. Nigeria has about 300 tribes and each has this unique fashion culture. So, when it comes to fashion creativity, we haven’t reached our peak yet.

However, infrastructure is setting us back, as a lot of the designers struggle with electricity inconsistency, hereby relying on generators to power, which is not lucrative for their business. Also, we don’t manufacture textiles here, so most of the fabrics are imported. This is why we are imploring the government to support the industry, because even now, a lot of organisations in Nigeria still don’t see fashion as something they should invest in. But this can change by educating them about the possibilities and how the industry can be used as poverty eradication, especially for the younger generation.

Tell us about African Fashion Week London?
African Fashion week London started in 2011. Initially, before going to London, I actually wanted to do the African Fashion Week in Nigeria as part of Nigeria @ 50 celebration in 2010. I remember going to Abuja a couple of times, but I think then they didn’t really understand the concept behind the Fashion Week, as I did so many presentations and proposals to various organisations. However, they just didn’t understand it.

So, out of frustration, after spending about four months in Abuja as it was meant to be part of Nigeria @ 50 showcasing the best of Nigeria’s emerging fashion talents, I just went back to London. London is my second home, so for me, it was easy. I came up with the concept there, spoke to designers and they thought it was a platform that was really needed as African fashion was exempted from the mainstream fashion industry then. So, African Fashion Week London was born out of that urgent need – more like a moral obligation to black creatives’ to set up a platform that could help them get the needed awareness to become sustainable brands.

When did you finally get ‘okay’ to showcase African Fashion Week Nigeria?
For the first African Fashion Week London in 2011, we got a venue for about 700 people, but to our amazement, we had over 4000 people show up. It was fully booked; the awareness, media and people around it were huge. So, it was the success of the African Fashion Week London that gave birth to so many other African Fashion Weeks in other cities around the world, which is why they call us the Mother of African Fashion Weeks.

So this success naturally paved the way for African Fashion Week Nigeria, which we started in 2014. This is because there were so many creative designers in Nigeria and other African countries who could not afford the logistics of travelling to London.

Take us through the journey of showcasing African fashion, culture and heritage in London?
Initially, when I wanted to start the African Fashion Week in London in 2011, I did come across a few stumbling blocks, as people felt nobody would buy African Fashion in London. This is because when you talk about African Fashion in London, what comes to mind is the traditional regalia that people wear to parties; not everyday rocking outfits as we do now. There was an identity issue, however, now African Fashion is popular out there based on contemporary designs.

So, I decided to have contemporary everyday use designs on the show. Everything created comes with a thought process; you think about it first, and it is the ability to be able to turn that thought into an action that gives you your end result. While I was conceiving the idea, I spoke to so many people and it turned out to be a huge success to the Glory of God who is the creator of all creations.

London is one of the Fashion capitals of the world and with the African Fashion Week London, we have done so many things; we have produced the Mayor of London, Africa of the Square for about four consecutive years, and we have partnered with universities to mentor black fashion students. The last one we did was with the University of Northampton, where we have some of the students who were facing challenges with black fashion creativity. Over there in the North, a lot is not known about African or black fashion – they don’t have representatives who have editorials about African fashion, so we got there as the leading voice of African Fashion in the UK. Now, when they need anything about African Fashion they come to us.

Give us an insight into the geographical representations of the pieces showcased at AFW London?
It covers the entirety of Africa; North, West, East, South. The South African comes with delegations of about 20 designs every year. Imagine all the vibrant bold African colours on the catwalk. So, it’s an amazing mixture of fashion culture and it has become the biggest festival of African Fashion in the whole of the UK. As a matter of fact, it has become a household name that people look forward to every year. The only year we didn’t do it was during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the cause of Africans creating pieces to improve the GDP of the continent, are the designers for AFW London strictly Africans?
Not all the designers are African. The designers for AFW Nigeria are Africans with about 80 per cent Nigerians, because it’s their home. However, for the AFW London, it is the diaspora and we have designers who are non-Africans, but are interested in African Fashion and textiles, which they use for their designs.

So, with the UK, it’s a bit different; there is a mixture of culture. We have designers coming in from Pakistan who use African fabrics, but he is not necessarily an African. So, for the London event, it’s a wider scope. This year’s AFW London, which just concluded, was the first time we had the ‘Adire Pavilion’ supported by Eco Bank. The bank gave Adire Artisans a chance to showcase their designs, textiles and fabrics at the event. This would help grow the Nigeria GDP, as they would be paid in foreign currency that would be remitted back into the country.

Tell us about the Ooni’s support for AFW, why do you think he’s highly supportive of the fashion initiative?
His Imperial Majesty, the Ooni of Ife is a custodian of culture and tradition and our fashion is our culture and identity. He has been supporting the event since 2014, even before he became the Ooni of Ife and right now, he is our Ambassador at large who supports made in Nigeria and emerging Creatives’ so that they can become sustainable.

As we all know, unemployment in Nigeria is on the rise; we turn out graduates every year with no job for them. So, we are trying to encourage them to pick up a skill in fashion, tailoring, adire making so that they won’t be idle or out of jobs for years. This is what His Majesty does with his House of Oduduwa Foundation that supports the AFW.

Tell us about the Adire Odua Textile Hub in Ile Ife, what’s the idea behind that project?
After COVID-19, there were a number of rural women in Ife who, due to the pandemic, had nothing to do. So, to enable us eradicate poverty, we thought about how to help them by asking them about their skill; they all said they know how to do Adire. So, I spoke to His Majesty about it and he said we should set up an Adire Hub for them to make fabrics for the Africa Fashion Week designers.

We started with a few people, but all of a sudden, it blew. It was conceived in March 2021 and from then till now, we have trained about 200 women and young people. The training is free and sponsored by His Majesty.

We also work with Obafemi Awolowo University where some of the students come to the hub to do their Industrial Attachment and we teach them different skills of adire making – adire alabere, adire elefo, adire oniko, adire alabela, marbling, flooring etc. We also teach them the different methods and techniques of adire – the mixing of colours and the screen-printing method. We teach all of them for free and some of the people who have graduated from the hub have now gone up to set up their own small-scale adire businesses and become employers of labour.

Another reason we set up the hub is because adire is trending now and this is because Ankara has been sidetracked and people are now using adire. One of the reasons a lot of our designers also use adire is because, I remember at AFW London in 2016, we had a designer who made a shirt dress in Ankara and there was a buyer from a store who wanted a thousand pieces; the order was made, price agreed on, but the designer came back to Nigeria and couldn’t find the Ankara in the market anymore. This got her stuck, as she couldn’t go back to tell them that Ankara is no longer available. However, with Adire, there is no such thing as ‘not available anymore’, as we have the capacity to produce thousands of pieces of the same pattern and design at the Adire Oduduwa Textile Hub. This is because Adire is handmade and enables consistency for the designers unlike the Ankara where they would have to go to China and invest so much money as they have the minimum quantity order which could sometimes be about 10-thousand pieces. So, with designers who are up and coming, where will they get such bulk money to buy that much quantity? But with Adire Hub, you can do small rounds.

For an Indigenous fabric, quality Adire is quite expensive, what’s responsible for that?
This is because everything we use to make adire, aside from the intellectual property of the artisans, is imported. From the wax, the dyes, the chemicals, the fabrics we use as they come plain… we don’t have any textile industries in Nigeria, so where are we going to get the cotton, the silk, chiffon? We don’t make them here; we have to rely on import.

Even when we used to make adire with the natural dyes (indigo) called ‘aro’, it died. So, gradually now, we’re trying to revive all those processes – we are looking into using vegetable-based dyes, things that can make dyes out of vegetables because even all these chemical dyes we are using are harmful to the environment and don’t go with the sustainable goals of the United Nations.

What would you say prompted the sudden revival and trend of adire that used to be perceived as old fashion fabric?
Desperate times call for desperate measures; the innovative people behind it have always promoted everything about our fashion – the way they can turn the fabrics into beautiful, attractive designs and styles. So, it’s about innovative designers who have the ability to turn a fabric into a garment and make that garment so appealing that people want it, which in turn give rise to the demand of the fabric.

However, a lot of people have forgotten that during the civil war in the 1960s, the fabric that was used for the Peacekeeping Conference was actually Adire. So, the fabric that united the whole of Nigeria was Adire, which is where the name Kampala came from. A lot of people call it Adire Kampala; this is because it was used for the Kampala Peacekeeping Conference by the United States to bring harmony to Nigeria.

Over the years, the West came and imposed Ankara on us. Ankara does not belong to us; it was dumped on the coast of West Africa and adopted by Nigeria. Ankara is an Indonesian Batik method fabric, but the Dutch made the printed version, took it to Indonesia, but their government rejected it. They didn’t know where to take it; they didn’t want to take it back to Holland or the Dutch, so they dumped it at the coast of Africa. However, Africans saw the colours and we adopted Ankara. Over the years, they started using our stories as symbols to put print on Ankara. The fact that Ankara doesn’t belong to us is why you would see Igbo mothers wear the Hollandis made Ankara.

For years, we had been able to help them sustain their economy by buying the Ankara, which is a Dutch fabric – even the laces as well. The Swiss people don’t wear lace, they use it as curtains, but we wear it. So, we’ve helped them sustain their economy by importing their fabrics into our country and buying them. This is what we also want to do with our Adire now; we want to position Adire to be a money spinner, GDP earner, to take so many people out of poverty, especially the artisan who have over the years practiced and sustained the skills of Adire making.

Tell us about the Queen Moremi cultural Pageant, what informed the initiative?
Queen Moremi was a queen from Ile-Ife and so many things have been done in her memory; the tallest statue in Nigeria was erected in her memory by his Imperial Majesty the Ooni of Ife who is a custodian of culture and tradition. He is also the custodian of the legacy Moremi and he appointed me as a Global Ambassador of the Queen Moremi Ajasaro (QMA) initiative and together, we came up with so many ideas; how we could impact the story of Moremi on the lives of young women growing up. His Majesty is very passionate about women leadership. We use Moremi as an inspiration to talk to young women; this is how the cultural Pageant came up.

There is a festival that takes place in Ife every November called The Moremi Festival in remembrance of Queen Moremi’s legacy. For a month, they ceased to beat drums to remember Queen Moremi for the heroic act that she took to save the people of Ife. So, when drums cease to beat, it puts the people in a sober mood, because at the end of the day, she didn’t have children; the only child she had was sacrificed in the process of trying to save her people. So, she is seen as the mother of Ife, which makes her Mother of the Yoruba, as all the Yoruba’s come from Ife.

This is why the cultural pageant is not a conventional beauty pageant, but a cultural and leadership pageant where we have hundreds of young ladies register yearly for an audition. After that, about 40 of them are selected and we put them in a boot camp where we teach them various things in relation to our heritage and culture, task them with various activities etc., and eventually the finalist emerges who is gifted with a cash prize to start her business and if she is in school, to add to funding her education. Then His Majesty and the Ex-First Lady of Ogun State Olufunsho Amosun who we call Mama Moremi gift her with a car; something for her to start her life. The winner also becomes the young Cultural Ambassador of the Moremi legacy, and when His Majesty travels, she forms part of the entourage on an international cultural exchange programme where she talks about our culture and also learns about the culture of the visiting country. Our previous contestants have gone to Brazil, USA, UK, Ghana, etc.

Queen Moremi the Musical, what’s the ideology behind it?
Queen Moremi the Musical is another project under the QMA initiative. Under the QMA initiative, we have Entrepreneurship Funds, Education Fund, the Say No To Rape Initiative, Say No To Trafficking Initiative. All these initiatives connect to the story of Queen Moremi, as she stopped the trafficking and enslavement of her people, children and women. So, everything we do around the Queen Moremi initiative connects to the legendary Queen Moremi.

However, the reason we did her musical, which was adapted from the Moremi book that I wrote in collaboration with Obafemi Awolowo University, was to enable us to tell her story in a visual format that could appeal to the younger generation, and the best way to do that was to capture it like the Lion King and show it like that. We also have plans to take it on a global tour. Though we were preparing for that before COVID-19 placed it on hold, but the preparation to take it to the US, Canada, Caribbean and other places is on.

Lets talk about the QMA mentorship programme for young ladies, what’s the idea behind it?
The QMA mentorship programme is one that occurs during the Queen Moremi Cultural Pageant. The young ladies are mentored; we put them into groups, ask them what they want to achieve in life and we get women who have done so well in the field they want to go into to mentor them on how to go about becoming successful.
Considering your passion to empower and mentor girls and women, what is the drive?

Women are not normally celebrated, they also hardly support each other, so, the idea of working with women, especially the younger ones, is to change the perception. A lot of young women do not have mentors.

When I was growing up, I didn’t have mentors or any woman I could look up to. So, the idea is to change the narrative by helping these young women and letting them know there is no height or position they can’t attain if they set their mind to it. Telling them that there is no height of desired success that can’t be attained legitimately without the need to sell their bodies. Giving them this sense of pride. This is what we do with all of these initiatives.

Being a culturally inclined person and knowing how within the Nigerian culture women are expected to answer to men, would you say this perception is the reason some women don’t have the drive to dare to dream high?
I think it is more about the way the narrative has been told. Before colonisation, women in Nigeria used to be in the positions of power. We had female Kings in Nigeria, which is why I wrote the book Unspoken for them to see that we had female leadership and women were able to manage both roles as a leader, wife and as a mother – nothing was lacking.

This is the story of a women king from 500 years ago and a lot of people did not know that once upon a time, there were women kings who took charge of their kingdoms successfully. As women, we have the ability to multitask – it is a God given gift. This is why I wrote the book Unspoken, to change that perception that women cannot be leaders. If 500 years ago women made their ways to leadership positions, what then is stopping women in this digital age to be leaders? Women can govern and be president and when we do it, we do it so well and with empathy.

What would you say is the logical way for women to break the culture restriction of attaining success?
I think it’s about women coming together to change that narrative by pulling each other up. So many women in higher positions are not willing to pull the next woman up and until we start showing the men that we are not our own enemies but here to support each other, to hold each other’s hands and not to be enemies of each other or be envious of each other but to be more supportive of one another.

So, I think it’s our actions that would speak, and show the men that we mean business as oppose to us just talking the talk and trying to fight our way through it or trying to go all feminists. I am not saying there is anything wrong with being a feminist, but we should show it more rather than just talking. So, until we back up our talks with actions, we are not going to be taken seriously.

You tie your hair always, what is the story behind this style?
I got used to the culture of tying my hair years back. As a matter of fact I really don’t like doing my hair, even as a little girl I would always cry when onidiri (Hairdresser) makes my hair. So I never liked making my hair – the idea of going to the salon, wearing wigs and all that. Sometimes I would go out in a wig and remove it the minute I get into the car. So making hair didn’t really go well with me which is how I started tying my hair but of course I tie the hair a certain way that is peculiar to me which then make it my style.

You’re always on Adire attires, is this style a campaign for Adire or just a signature?
When I started African Fashion Week 2011, I changed my wardrobe to Ankara as it was trending at the time. This was in bid to support the designers who were showcasing AFW. I would always buy pieces from them so I always wore Ankara then and I still have about hundreds of these dresses that I no longer wear and I am giving them away gradually. However in 2021, I switched to Adire, which has been my most recent style, and this isn’t changing any time soon because the fabric is so amazing to wear and there is so much that can be done with it.