Ejiro Amos Tafiri is a renowned fashion designer in Nigeria. She didn’t just come into the fashion industry by picking up scissors and needle. She studied fashion as a full five year course at Yaba College of Technology. She was privileged to serve with Tiffany Amber before establishing her self-named brand, Ejiro Amos Tafiri Fashion House. In an interview with IFEOMA ONONYE, she speaks about issues in the fashion industry that are overlooked and why Nigeria fashion industry has not got to where it is supposed to be
Your collections and dresses always have very unique names. How do you come up with those names?
Are they named after someone? Just like you name children according to what you think their identity should be or according to their looks. Like the way you give things names according to what attaches to their origin.
So, it is when it comes to naming the dresses, it’s just me trying to find a way to remember them. It could be the name of the first customer to wear it, or it could be the inspiration for the collection, where the piece came from. If it’s inspired by Arabian culture, I will pick Arabian names. If it’s inspired by Igbo culture, I pick Igbo names. If it’s inspired by Yoruba culture, I will pick Yoruba names.
If it’s just something that I and my staff came up with, we can just go for a nice sounding name. Often times, if it’s part of a proper collection, I make the names to come from where the inspiration for the collection originated from.
Like the Raliah dress, has this Mediterranean vibe to the name. It also helps people to know where such design is coming from.
There was time you said one of the dresses in a collection was called ‘Tasha dress’ gotten from Lifestyle journalist, Latasha. Is this related to the names as well?
Yes, some of the dresses, their names come from consulting with a customer on the style they want. Just like the Tasha dress came from consulting with Latasha Ngwube. Typically, such pieces will carry the customer’s name because she is the origin of the piece.
We always hear the word, ‘Bespoke’ and ‘couture’ from designers like you. What is the difference between the two and which is your brand known for?
When you say a dress is bespoke, it means it is tailored to you. It is tailored to a particular person. Couture is higher level of bespoke. Couture means that that dress is designed, made especially for you.
Usually, there is no two of it. Even if there is two or more of it, it usually takes intricate process to make the dress. All those tailoring, manipulations of different techniques that are very intricate and technical just to make the dress.
That is what is called couture pieces. Bespoke is when you get, even if it’s a regular dress that everybody has, you get it tailored to you.
So, they will take your measurements and get it tailored for you. They may tweak it here and there, but it’s tailored for you. That a style is available on ready-to-wear does not mean it cannot be made as bespoke for someone. Ready-to-wear simply means, a collection of clothes by a company, that you can go into a store or order online.
Do you do all, or just couture and bespoke?
I do all. I run a proper fashion design house. Most design houses have their couture pieces; they have their ready-to-wear line and they have a few of their customers who they do bespoke for.
There can be so many fashion entrepreneurs, fashion companies that don’t have anything to do with bespoke, don’t have anything to do with couture but they do ready-to-wear. For example, everything Zara does is ready-to-wear.
It’s typically called ‘High Streets’. Every proper fashion design house, like Christian Dior, have their ready-to-wear pieces. It doesn’t make it cheap. They have their bespoke clients, like when a movie star wants to go the red carpet or to the Oscars, they make bespoke for that person.
It can be a style from their collection that they will tweak and make it fit the celebrity. They can change the length or the colour to be bespoke to that person.
Why are some styles on the runway at International fashion weeks not wearable?
Those are some of the designs you see at couture fashion weeks. They are not sold so much but that are the engineers of ideas. Even though it is not wearable to regular people, it is usually to show you the depth of creativity that is possible. From there, they can take them apart and create what works for the general market.
Some of those fashion called weird can be worn for a musical video shoot, or for a movie scene.
We all are being encouraged to buy and wear Nigerian brands to help improve our productivity and boost the economy while doing that but most times, the Nigerian ready-to-wear is not cheap.
A good designer that is termed cheap is between N20,000 to N25,000 and I ask, how can it be made affordable for an average Nigerian to be able to buy?
If you compare that price to the price of the clothes you buy in other countries that have everything done for them by their government, you will know that Nigerian designers are trying.
There are so many factors in our environment that will not allow it happen that easily. A designer in Nigeria trains themselves. There are not many schools to cater for the number of people who would love to study fashion. The schools are not up to the current world standard.
A designer in Nigeria here has to be his or her own government. You pay for labour, provide for power, pay rent, your water, your transportation. Nothing is thought out for you by the government. Power alone drives up the cost.
Every aspect of power in Nigeria is extremely expensive, both the power in the metre and generator are ridiculously expensive. Diesel is not cheap. You are creating out of nothing.
The challenges are not just a fashion designer’s challenge; it’s everybody that is in business challenge. If you compare the amount after all the cost incurred and challenges, you will find out that you are making next to nothing. But that is not to excuse people that do mediocre stuff and put whatever price.
Do you believe Nigeria should be at the stage in fashion where we have factories that produce clothings in bulk?
We have been on that stage from the day we were created because we are a very big nation. If we don’t create it ourselves, we import it. Close your eyes and imagine how many jeans we wear in this country, imagine how many underwear, pants, socks, BYC tshirts that we wear in this country.
These are all clothing, even bras are clothing as well, including uniforms. The thing is, has our government realised that clothing Nigeria and producing to sell to other countries will generate revenue for us?
I don’t think so. We have over 200 million people. Imagine that 70% of what we wear in Nigeria is made by Nigerians. Until they are patient enough to invest in clothing industry, create right laws and sign the right bills that will make all these workable, also give it enough gestation period to be able to yield dividend, put in place a good maintenance system that will help it grow, until when we have this mindset, things are never going to change. If we don’t provide it by ourselves, we are going to keep importing from other people. China became world power because they closed their borders and started producing for themselves and now they produce for the whole world. Japan is doing well in technology because they told themselves they must get it right, but Nigeria, even the oil that we have, we dash it out and say we are buy back the refined oil and keep saying we are not due for refinery. We are allowing ourselves to be raped, robbed and be trampled upon without a care. As a people, I don’t think we value ourselves enough.
You have been in the fashion business for more than one decade. You have seen all kinds of challenges. Which would you say is the most predominant challenge that keeps coming up every time?
Making the staff to stay. I believe that is the biggest challenge. I am being frank and honest. Lack of power supply is part of our lives. So, to me, it is not that big of a challenge anymore. Before I started my business 12 years ago, I already knew that we don’t have light in Nigeria. Power supply is no longer part of things I worry about, or think about. You just factor it into your cost, factor it into your maintenance fee and keep moving. You cannot be complaining about power and you live in Nigeria. You just have to deal with it. They are controllable variable. The challenge you cannot shock like power, are the staff. They are people; they have their own mind and thoughts. If they are not able to key into the vision of the company, it becomes a problem. Once they learn a little, they are off and gone. This gen-z generation are not easy. There is a lot of poaching because the entry requirements for this business is very little. Once you have a sewing machine, you have started. This generation of young people don’t really want to work by staying in a place. So, it affects. Staying in the business is quite the challenge.
Aside Yabatech, are there other full education, five years course fashion schools in Nigeria?
We have Nekede Polytechnic and one other polytechnic. Yabatech is the premiere polytechnic that has churned out fashion graduates and professional for up to 20 to 30 years. Fashion course should be in happening cities. In cities where fashion thrives, like there should be one fashion school in Aba. That is the fabrics capital in Nigeria.
The trending style for women on red carpet now is corset, bustier one-arm dresses and your brand is rarely into that kind of style. Is there a reason you don’t follow trend?
If you call yourself a designer, what is special about you is what defines and differentiates you from the pack. I make classic timeless pieces. My customers are still wearing their dresses from my first collection from 12 years ago. Some have a dress from my collection every year and they are still wearing them. It’s timeless. There is nothing like it’s out of season.
Some of the styles in trend does not go with the ethos of who I am and the brand that I have created. We have corset infused into some of our designs but when you see it, you won’t know it’s corset. If I am doing what everybody else is doing, how will I be Ejiro Amos Tafiri?
A famous designer, Zizi Cardow, said there is a lot of copycat when it comes to Nigerian fashion industry. Is there something you do for other designers not to copy your work?
I am the most copied designer in Nigeria. There was a season I was the most copied designer. I just learned how to make it a bit more difficult to copy. Without a union, without a council that is particular about how respectable this fashion career is, we will still have these issues.
Until we as a group can be as resolved as our music industry did to get it right, the fashion industry will remain like this. The Nigerian fashion journalists have not done well for the industry as well. They just pick sides and not telling people the truth about copying designs and other issues. These days, there are no hard cover books like we had when I was studying fashion.
What we have now are media online write ups as the voice of fashion. I miss the Nigeria I know in the 80’s when I was born and the 90’s when I was growing up. People were a bit more honest back then. What is good is good and what is bad is bad. There nothing like, “if it’s working for you sha” that people say now instead of saying the truth.
Do believe fashion can contribute a huge chunk into Nigeria economy?
Everybody wears clothes. Fashion is a multibillion dollars industry. We are extremely fashionable people. We love luxury. We love to look good. It is not just the fashion industry. Government should revive the textile industries. The machinery part of the fashion industry needs people that can man them.
China has a farm that grows the cotton that is used to make fabrics. They have people in the lab that come up with new fabric texture. It’s a whole value chain. There are many things to be done beyond sewing. Sewing is just one tiny part of fashion.
You once said fashion is mathematics. Explain that a little?
Mathematics is part of fashion. Pattern drafting is maths. You cannot come to fashion and not know maths. Fashion is like architecture. You are constructing on someone’s body. The body is a complicated topography. You have to create what will match every curve. It is not a joke.
A tie and dye expert once said that down to caustic soda for dying clothes are imported…
That is too far. We import threads, buttons, even needle. I wonder who did this to us. Dubai that all of us are running to see was a desert. Someone had that dream of making it what it is today.
They pumped water from the sea to create their own beach. They don’t even have drinking water. All we care about is selling the birth right God gave us.
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