Making a case for dichotomous design labels in Nigeria

It takes a lot of guts to decide to become an entrepreneur in Nigeria, especially so if you decide to  become a Nigerian designer. There are so many challenges against stacked against upstarts: a glaring lack of the most basic amenities (electricity and deficient transportation), lack of trained manpower (seamstress and pattern cutters), absence of industry, an unstable economy, lack of support for government and absence of a sales framework. The list of obstacles go on and on. But everyday, a new designer pops up in spite of the unfavorable climate to join the ranks. Most of them manage only meager success, and only a handful manage to translate their drive to create clothes into a thriving multinational business. Late last year I had the opportunity to interact with a number of successful Nigerian designers, all showing at the Lagos Fashion and Design Week 2014 and all my conversations about how they grew (and are growing their brands) into international success coalesced into one concept, Dichotomous Nigerian Brands.

What is a Dichotomous Nigerian brand?

In the simplest of terms, it’s a brand that has managed to maintain two interrelated but clearly distinct presences in the Nigerian and International Market.

Is it enough to be a Nigerian based brand?

Is it enough to be foreign based Nigerian owned brand?

In today’s fashion climate, it is not enough to be either, brands have to be both, simultaneously. The Nigerian designer has to embrace a dichotomy, in principle and action. It is a little like being multi-racial, one must find a way to embrace both sides of that duality without losing any part of one’s individuality.

Why is this important?

Two reasons, for a Nigerian based brand where business is crippled by the unending list of obstacles that hinder hitch-free business, foreign clientele is a serious financial boost and usually spells the difference between fiscal success and barely breaking even. For the foreign based brand in an industry that is already saturated with designers with more access to capital and a better understanding of the underlying business framework, infusing indigenous heritage (in this case Nigeria) as part of one’s brand can be a big incentive for customers looking to embrace new fashion influences. The best brands marry both, by maintaining a presence both in Nigeria and their foreign country of business

A good example of a dichotomous brand is Virgo’s Lounge, owned by British Nigerians Fioye Akinsola, Oyeyemi Akinsola and Adenike Ajanaku and started in 2008. Virgos Lounge is particularly great success story, rising from a vintage blog to a vintage online store, to the renowned brand it has become to today. They are stocked by British retail giants ASOS and have had high profile collaborations that resulted in capsule collections for British retail darling TopShop. Virgos Lounge began to stock at premier Nigerian fashion Boutique L’Espace in 2011, a coup at the time for the brand which was just starting out. Ade Bakare, the renowned Nigerian born British couturier is another brand who only recently began to stock at Lagos based concept boutique Miliki. Republic of Foreigner, the Nigerian high street brand started by sisters Selina and Carmen Sutherland stock in New York and Lagos, to mention a few.

The Women of Virgo's Lounge.
The Women of Virgo’s Lounge.

All three brands mentioned have achieved various levels of success, with Virgo’s Lounge attaining the highest visibility. What separates these brands from other Nigerian brands, indigenous and foreign based is their dualized approach to business.

Dichotomy comes with many perks. The first is direct access to two very different markets. The Nigerian market is bothered with world class quality and name brand status at affordable prices. The international market is interested in ‘niche fashion’; owning exclusive pieces of clothing that herald new trends not already overworked by the perpetual motion engine that is the foreign high street markets. Over the last half decade, ‘genuine’ ‘African’ (a generalization still sadly in use) aesthetic has been the new focus of the global market with Ankara, formerly ignored becoming the darling of international brands. For a dichotomous Nigerian fashion brand, this new attention gives two very different narratives to the same brand/in fact the same collection. For their international clients, they become an African brand with a base in ‘Lagos’ bringing their unique Nigerian fashion to a wider global market. For their Nigerian clientele, they are an international brand returning home to cater to Nigeria’s stylish and criminally under-served glitterati. It’s a win-win both ways.

There is also access to the west’s advanced manufacturing factories that greatly reduce cost as well as Nigeria’s labour intensive but cheap workforce. Also having an international presence makes it far easier to source funding from international banks while still accessing the local financial opportunities offered by private and government SME initiatives. The opportunities available to a dichotomous fashion brand are overwhelming.

Dichotomy’s biggest perk is also it’s biggest problem; catering to two distinct markets can become the illusive grail that will send a business drowning, finding a middle ground between the needs and the aesthetics of both climates is undeniably tasking but it’s the safest way to stay afloat.

I’m a strong advocate for Dichotomous branding in Nigeria, it is time to use this global attention that we now finally have to good use.

NB: Thanks to Selina Sutherland for making really start to consider dichotomous branding as something serious. Bissoux


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