When Adebayo Oke-Lawal was a child, it seemed his dream of becoming a fashion designer would remain just that — a dream.
The Lagos-born designer, who would later launch his brand, Orange Culture, to international acclaim, saw no way he could turn his passion for sketching outfit designs into a business. Like many young people in Nigeria, his family’s ambition was for him to enter a traditional profession, so he duly studied banking at university.
“When I told my parents I wanted to be a designer it wasn’t a feasible thing because they just couldn’t envisage anyone having a successful career in fashion,” Oke-Lawal told BoF. “It’s because there was no yardstick of success for them to say: ‘okay, this is what a successful fashion designer in Nigeria looks like.’”
But aged 20, without a clear playbook or any expectations of what was to come, Oke-Lawal launched Orange Culture at the inaugural edition of Lagos Fashion Week in 2011. Three years later, his brand had made it to the finals of the LVMH Prize alongside fellow rising design stars Simon Jacquemus and Simone Rocha, hailing from Paris and London respectively.
Orange Culture now has a vibrant business and counts stockists spanning global retailers like Browns and Farfetch as well as stores on the African continent including Temple Muse in Lagos and South Africa’s Merchants of Long.
“Through defiance of societal expectations, we were able to fight for what we didn’t even see was possible,” said Oke-Lawal, who still operates his business from the country’s commercial capital Lagos.
Nigeria’s fashion industry looks remarkably different to how it did back then, buoyed by a new generation of talent who see the success of designers like Oke-Lawal as proof that designers can create, display and sell their collections from their home country. But credit for this change doesn’t lie only with the brand founders who blazed a trail.
Lagos Fashion Week, a showcase event founded eleven years ago by entrepreneur and fashion executive Omoyemi Akerele, is seen as the centrepiece of the country’s evolving fashion ecosystem.
Thanks in part to Akerele’s platform, designers across the African continent can now access both local and regional buyers and press, and over the years she has provided an international springboard for homegrown brands like Orange Culture’s fellow LVMH prize finalist Kenneth Ize, Lisa Folawiyo, Lagos Space Programme, Onalaja and Emmy Kasbit.
“There’s a gradual, increasing shift where Nigeria is entering the global fashion conversation,” said Akerele, who operates the event through her agency Style House Files. “There’s been an increase in attention, not just on Lagos Fashion Week, but a spotlight on Nigeria as a possible frontier for sourcing, for manufacturing, and for discovering new talent.”
That talent now extends to local marketing and media moguls and multi-brand retailers who have tapped into the significant purchasing power of the country’s upper and middle classes. Indeed, there is now a local dimension to nearly every link in the value chain.
Lagos PR agencies are leveraging the creative industries to help international brands create localised activations in the country and internationally renowned Nigerian photographers and stylists are putting fashion brands in front of a global audience thanks to a thriving influencer economy made up of actors, musicians and other celebrities.
Cultural exports from the Nollywood film industry and the local Afrobeats music scene increasingly have regional and global appeal.
“The support you get from Nigerian consumers and press helps you unlock audiences and customers from across the whole of Africa,” said Nigerian-British designer Abigail Ajobi, who chose to have her debut runway show in October at Lagos Fashion Week, after being mentored by Akerele.
But for that ripple effect to take effect, brands often need to collaborate with behind-the-scenes industry leaders in Lagos.
Enter the Image Makers
Momo Hassan-Odukale says that a new guard of Nigerian publications has provided an outlet for stylists and creative directors like her to help brands — both local and international — reach a Nigerian and wider African consumer base.
“I worked a lot with The Native magazine which was getting big just at the time I wanted to become a stylist — we were all just figuring it out and working together at the same time,” said Hassan-Odukale, who has helped to style and direct campaigns for Lagos Fashion Week since 2019, and in February provided creative direction for Lisa Folawiyo and Ghanaian label Ajabeng’s shows at Arise Fashion Week.
Similarly, Stephen Tayo credits the growing web of creative industry talent in Nigeria with his career rise. The self-taught fashion photographer, who gained recognition by capturing intimate portraits of Lagos street style, has since been tapped by international titles such as The New York Times, Dazed and Vogue.
But it’s not all plain sailing for fashion talent working in the most populous nation and largest economy on the African continent.
Entrepreneurs with Built-in Resilience
Nigeria-based entrepreneurs and creatives operate in a market facing longstanding challenges such as political instability, poor infrastructure and high levels of poverty, inequality and unemployment. The country ranks among some of the lowest in the World Bank’s ease of doing business index.
The bank’s latest update on the outlook for Nigeria characterises it as a “deteriorating economic situation” in the short-term. There are concerns that the presidential election scheduled for this weekend might be abruptly postponed as it was in 2019. Recent weeks have seen escalating public unrest at the Nigerian Central Bank’s decision — now put on hold — to print new bank notes, which would render much of the existing naira notes in circulation worthless.
Nevertheless, the Nigerian economy is expected to grow 3.3 percent in 2024 as oil output picks up again, according to country risk ratings agency Fitch Solutions.
The relative resilience of the entrepreneurs and consumers driving the Nigerian economy means that, despite the market’s many challenges, sectors such as fashion are expected to grow faster there in the coming years than in most other major markets on the continent. The overall retail value of apparel sales in the country may now be lower than of South Africa, Egypt and Morocco but Nigeria trumps them all in terms of growth prospects.
“That resilience is what really created this…pathway that we’ve seen with a lot of people who are now running fashion [businesses here],” said Oke-Lawal.
Sales of apparel in Nigeria recovered from 2019 pre-pandemic levels as early as 2021, reaching $940.5 million in 2023, according to data from Euromonitor International. Next year the apparel category alone is expected to reach the billion-dollar mark. And this year, the overall value of the Nigerian fashion market has already exceeded the $1 billion threshold when footwear and personal accessories categories are added to the apparel category figure.
Looking further ahead, average growth rates of apparel sales in Nigeria are expected to hit 9.5 percent each year between 2024 and 2027, buoyed by increasing luxury expenditure from affluent consumers less affected by economic downturns and “a shift in the mindset of younger consumers who increasingly splurge on items which make them look and feel good,” said Euromonitor International senior analyst Rubab Abdoolla, citing the market research firm’s forecasts.
Clearly, there will be enough money circulating in the local fashion industry to support successful ancillary businesses too. Those leading the marketing sector are likely to benefit earlier than others.
Getting the Right Kind of Publicity
After completing university in Europe ten years ago, Ijeoma Balogun returned to Lagos where she founded her agency, Redrick Public Relations. Having already worked as style editor-at-large at local media outlet Bella Naija, a role to which she was appointed aged just 19, Balogun was acutely aware of a gap in the market. International fashion and beauty brands needed help launching localised campaigns and activations.
“Brands were definitely attracted [to the Nigeria market] because of the numbers, in terms of the possible audience they can reach,” said Balogun, who has worked with L’Oréal and Armani, and represents a growing number of homegrown labels. “Not everyone gets it right the first time, but it’s too big a market to be ignored.”
Another key Lagos-based public relations player is Glam Brand, a beauty-focussed agency founded by Bola Balogun, a pioneering fashion stylist and image consultant.
Glam Brand assisted French luxury beauty major Lancôme’s launch in the Nigerian market in 2018, and last year the agency organised an Issey Miyake fragrance launch hosted by Nigerian rapper M.I Abaga which was attended by celebrities and influencers. In September, it brokered a high-profile collaboration between Mac and Tiwa Savage, which saw the singer-songwriter become the beauty brand’s first African “Mac Maker,” co-creating a signature lipstick product.
Conduits to the Rich and Famous
Local entrepreneurs have long tapped into Nigerian demand for luxury. Watches and jewellery industry leader Jennifer Obayuwana, executive director of Polo Luxury Group, sells brands such as Rolex and Piaget through the company’s network of Polo multi-brand and mono-brand boutiques across the Nigerian market, alongside her father John who founded the firm more than 30 years ago.
Fashion retailers like Alara and Temple Muse are cornerstones of the multi-brand retail scene in Lagos. The latter, founded in 2008 by brothers Avinash and Kabir Wadhwani may be the multi-brand pioneer between the two but the former is widely recognised as the country’s first major concept store.
Founded in 2014 by Nigerian businesswoman Reni Folawiyo in the affluent Victoria Island area, Alara is known for its eye-catching façade — designed by Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye — as much as for its assortment of international luxury brands and homegrown favourites. It also operates as a cultural hub, hosting community events, displaying local art and selling lifestyle products such as furniture.
One of the newer entrants to the Lagos multi-brand scene is fashion designer and entrepreneur Yinka Ash’s Ashluxury boutique. The store is part of an increasingly competitive landscape of boutiques jostling for attention, including Halima Yunusa and Jamila Adetayo’s independent designer-focussed 41 Luxe and Vane Style, the Victoria Island boutique for Nigerian womenswear run by stylist Veronica Odeka.
A minimalist concept store based over two floors in the city’s Lekki neighbourhood, Ashluxury stocks a range of international brands across streetwear, contemporary fashion and luxury, aimed at younger consumers, including Coperni, A Cold Wall, Rhude and Kenzo, as well as the retailer’s private label AshLuxe.
According to Ash, sales are growing steadily year on year, as Ashluxe clothing is increasingly championed by Nigerian celebrities like music icons Davido, Naira Marley and Zlatan whose endorsements help extend his customer base.
Business Beyond Lagos
Opportunities are certainly not limited to Nigeria’s largest city Lagos. Tayo and Ayo Amusan’s Persianas Group, a major Nigerian commercial retail development company, has played an important role in helping international brands access consumers elsewhere, most recently opening a Puma store in the upmarket Jabi Lake Mall, in the Nigerian capital Abuja in May last year.
“As we look to the future, [we] will be doubling our brick-and-mortar footprint in many underserved areas across the country,” Ayo Amusan told guests at the event, according to a Bella Naija report.
Entrepreneurs selling both global and local beauty brands started earlier than their fashion counterparts and have penetrated far deeper into the country than Lagos and Abuja.
Two competitors, Abiola Kasumu from Essenza and Alali Hart from Montaigne Place, operate stores in major cities with pockets of wealth including Port Harcourt, Ibadan, Kano, Owerri, Enugu, Benin City and Warri, distributing everything from Marc Jacobs and Black Up to Chanel and Clarins.
Meanwhile, digital fashion entrepreneurs are trying to fill the gaps in physical retail footprints or complement the offering made by mass market e-commerce giants Jumia and Konga.
UK-registered e-commerce start-up Jendaya, whose founders Ayotunde Rufai, Kemi Adetu, and Teni Sagoe are based between London and Lagos, closed a £1 million ($1.2 million) pre-seed funding round in February. The luxury retailer, which says it stocks brands including JW Anderson, Balenciaga and Tokyo James, is focussed on catering to demand from African consumers and counts Nigeria as its largest customer base.
Rapidly Growing Influencer Economy
Nigeria’s increasingly diverse influencer economy is thriving, with fashion and beauty brands — both local and international — increasingly eager to work with tastemakers and content creators with significant online followings, such as Dénola Grey, Angel Obasi, Noble Igwe and Dr. Akin Faminu.
As is the case with their counterparts elsewhere, some local influencers and content creators are leveraging their followings to create spin-off businesses adjacent to fashion. Grey, who launched a style and image consulting business, is one example.
Dr. Akin Faminu, a practising medical doctor who is also a menswear style and beauty content creator on Instagram working with a long list of brands including Armani Beauty and Nivea, is another. “I’ve watched the influencer economy in Nigeria grow rapidly from being almost non-existent when I started eight years ago, to the level it is now,” he said.
Angel Obasi, the self-styled “Hat Lady” running an accessories brand, is another prominent content creator tapped for partnerships by fashion and beauty brands such as Bioderma, Kilian Paris and Mango.
Shifting Media Landscape
From heavyweight lifestyle titles like Uche Eze’s Bella Naija and Betty Irabor’s Genevieve to new-gen publications such as The Native, the local media landscape has grown in tandem with Nigeria’s fashion industry.
“We have seen major changes within the last five to 10 years,” said Mary Edoro, Bella Naija’s head of strategy. “The growth of [Nigeria’s] fashion and beauty sectors, coupled with the rise of online media, has created a competitive and diverse environment where multiple media outlets are now covering these topics.”
Founded in 2003, Genevieve quickly grew to become an authority on Nigerian culture and lifestyle, offering opportunities to many of the country’s fashion creatives.
One such beneficiary is fashion editor Ifeoma Odogwu, who has worked with Genevieve since 2012, a few years after graduating with a degree in chemistry from Lagos State University. In turn, Odogwu saw it as her mission to showcase the work of local creative talent in the early years, including photographers, models, hair stylists and makeup artists, as well as brands.
These days Odogwu also lends her creative skills to projects through her consultancy, Hyperfashun, and she recently directed the runway show of Lanre Da-Silva Ajayi at Lagos Fashion Week.
A more recent edition to the local media landscape is The Native, a music, style and culture platform founded by Seni Saraki and Teni Teezee Zaccheaus in 2016.
The popular publication has come to represent the country’s new-gen creative scene and has ridden the wave of global popularity of Nigerian music, featuring some of the country’s biggest artists on cover shoots, such as Burna Boy, Rema and Asake. Its fashion editorials are a mix of local and international brands, placing Lagos-born, London-based designer Mowalola Ogunlesi alongside big luxury labels like Bottega Veneta.
From Talent Scout to Fashion Diplomat
To make any ecosystem work, the component parts need to be interconnected. That often comes down to central figures like Akerele helping start-ups to build business relationships.
“One of our biggest support systems [in becoming an international brand] was Lagos Fashion Week,” said Orange Culture founder Adebayo Oke-Lawal. “Whether that’s through introductions to international press or buyers, Omoyemi Akerele has really played a part in supporting and globalising so many African fashion brands.”
Another part of the fashion ecosystem that Akerele has helped nurture is the local modelling industry.
“Some of the most successful models in Africa, such as Mayowa Nicholas, Nyagua Ruea, Victor Ndigwe, and Davidson Obennebo, were all discovered by [our] agency,” said Elizabeth Isiorho, founder of Beth Model Africa, highlighting Nicholas who has booked jobs with brands such as Chanel, Victoria’s Secret, Balmain and Calvin Klein.
Away from fashion weeks and traditional industry events, new trade events are also emerging in the country. As subcultures in music, skateboarding and fashion converge, the country’s streetwear scene is booming, pioneered by Gen-Z creatives and entrepreneurs like Iretidayo Zaccheaus, founder of Street Souk, West Africa’s primary annual streetwear convention, which began in 2018 and takes place each December in Lagos.
Internationally recognised streetwear collectives like Motherlan and Wafflesncream have both worked with the event, while high-profile fans and attendees include British rapper Skepta, as well as Davido and Rema.
“The growth of the streetwear scene in Nigeria has been crazy,” Zaccheaus told BoF. “It’s gone from having 16 people selling t-shirts at the first ever Street Souk, to the 2022 edition, where we had over 6,000 people, and more than 120 different brands with fully developed collections on display.”
If someone working in a specialist sector like Zaccheaus can gain an international following in just a few years, then some of Nigeria’s more established mainstream gatekeepers are in a strong position to embed themselves even deeper in the global fashion industry.
The market environment will continue to be challenging in Nigeria — especially for international players — but one way to navigate its risks is to leverage local know-how through local partnerships.
Nigeria’s long-term potential is too big for laggards to wait much longer to find them — or to put down roots.
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