Lisa Folawiyo is one of the best-loved designers in the African Fashion industry, a pioneer in the popularity of beaded ankara and is internationally known for her fashion labels under the Jewel by Lisa umbrella, namely Jewel by Lisa, the J label and Pretty Precious the kids collection). Although her work has been featured worldwide, from Lagos Fashion and Design Week to New York Fashion Week, Folawiyo emphasises the notion of looking more inward rather than internationally for recognition.
Guardian Life caught up with Folawiyo for a chat to celebrate International Women’s Month and find out more about her progression as a fashion designer in the Nigerian high society.
What was growing up like for you? How did your background influence your decision to become a designer?
If my background influenced that decision then I wasn’t aware of it, I didn’t sort of connect my childhood to me being a designer. I think of the process of moving from law and I think this had some sort of influence, for example, my mother being from the West Indies. I think this brought about my love for prints.
I believe that it turned my mind in that direction with the colour and the print. I had a regular childhood, my father from Oyo state, he worked with Federal Palace and we lived in the residential area and that was fantastic because we had access to everything. We used to take part in TV commercials because there was an agency in the hotel, we used to play and cook. Lagos was freer, we were very free back then, perhaps in a sense that was a foundation for thinking creatively.
Was your plan always to be a designer? Were your parents supportive in your career choice?
I did my law degree, law school and ventured into law practice for a year and I really did think I could be a good lawyer. However, happily enough it didn’t work out. When I decided I wasn’t going back to the law practice, I decided to make design clothes and they never ever were discouraging. As time went on they said “well if this is what she is doing then okay.” They support me all way.
Would you say that the Nigerian society is somewhat judgmental about young girls who choose to be designers?
Of course, a lot of people up till date feel like it is an easy cop out. They say “so she’s lazy, she may not have done well enough or she’s spoilt.” Those who have just come out of school, people we say “oh her parents probably have too much money she can do whatever she wants.” Orm “her husband has too much money, it’s a hobby.” A lot of people have said that and still say that. It is changing because perhaps Nigerians are seeing the potential in it.
Our thinking is what it is and somehow I cannot blame people because we have always been a closed society, not very open minded, it is part of our upbringing and culture. We have what we have, the “accepted” professions, we grew up like that. These were the things that our parents and their parents felt were right. And there’s nothing wrong with those professions to be honest with you, I know what it was to study to become a lawyer for so many years so we cannot disregard those professions. However fashion design is a profession and an industry on its own. As a designer you run your own business and you’re in control. It is honestly one of the most difficult things anyone can take on and should never ever be disregarded.
How would you describe your personal style? Who are your favourites when it comes to designers?
My favourite designer would be Lisa Folawiyo! My personal style, I just go with whatever calls out to me. You know when people ask me about that, I guess I don’t know but I do know what I like. There are certain designers you like and they cater to your needs in terms of style, but I don’t favour one more than the other, I am open to any brand that gives me what I want, I love details and print. I am a lot of the time my own muse [but] as a designer you realise that you are not catering to yourself. I feel like you can be schizophrenic with style, some days I want to look a certain way and you see me the next day, I could be completely different.
You introduced the beaded ankara trend. How has your brand evolved since then?
We did introduce the beaded ankara to West Africa and the embellishment sort of is something that I love and will always, it is a big part of my aesthetic and brand identity, however of course we have moved but not moved on because we still do the embellished ankara. I always call it my first love. But we have grown and evolved, like any business you become more dynamic. We have the Jewel by Lisa brand, which deals with custom prints, and we deal with embellishments one way or another, it might not be the same embellishments. Also our aesthetics has sort of matured as we have, our designs are identifiable, it is important for any brand, when you see a piece and you know it’s Jewel by Lisa. As a designer, my mindset has changed, as a designer you represent yourself. I am saying the things I want to say through my designs, it’s deeper now.
We can recall your line in Selfridges. Do you have any plans to take you brand global again?
We live in a global world, of course the idea for any fashion brand is to be able to be bigger than your space, you want people to know you and recognise your brand in all parts of the world, we continue to walk towards that. Selfridges was interesting, saying that, I cannot in any way undermine or put aside the business of fashion. There was a time when there was hunger for it. Doesn’t mean I am not hungry, I everyone should have a little bit of hunger but I feel like they will come, it is not the be-all to be there and here. I am not pandering anymore, the focus is on my designs and on the brand. it’s working because internationally, they are calling, and they want us here and there, it’s wonderful. There was a time where it was about what the international market wanted to see from us and we would be running around, but not anymore. Now it is more about what we are saying. You can agree with us or not.
Has Lagos Fashion and Design Week lived up to its expectations for you as a designer?
I am grateful for the platforms that have helped raised the brand and open doors for us. If not for these platforms I probably wouldn’t be where I am today and probably not have as much exposure. I have always known that it rests on the team to achieve the goals we have set for ourselves. LFDW was a platform for me as well as other people to see my work, runways allow me to see my mistakes, I see where I can change things and LFDW has done that. As time goes on, you do really learn to manage your expectations from other people and avenues. LFDW has been good but things could always be better with any platform. We are all working together to make this industry strong and viable and I like that we are looking within a bit more now.
Many had high hopes for the Nigerian fashion industry, that it would one day lead up to manufacturing, have you lost hope for the industry? Do you think the system has let you down in any way?
Baby steps are being taken but it is still a major challenge we have here. Apart from the manufacturing we are fighting everyday with all the other things that obstruct our development and growth. I mean just from basic infrastructure and electricity, hiring good staff just these little things. As a designer owning fashion house, workshop, tailoring it is difficult. We are not able to produce in numbers, the industry is not there yet but I think there are training institutes now. I am waiting to see and hoping, it will make life easier and indeed cause this industry to really grow. Just imagine if I could manufacture here! We had to travel out to manufacture the J Label in thousands because we couldn’t do it here.
What do you think about the originality in Nigeria? Are designs being copied?
There are always mostly young designers that will copy designs but at the same time,it’s great that they are taking inspiration from within, here in Nigeria? There’s pros and cons, copying can be annoying to any designer from a business perspective, but at least they are drawing ideas from our own environment and not from outside.