The fashion industry in Nigeria has come a long way from being the afterthought of the rich or less ambitious to becoming one of the most sought after industries in Nigeria. From an art to a science, this industry is all encompassing. More often than less when we talk about fashion in Nigeria, our minds go to women and the odds are truly in favour of the women but a selected few have started tilling the soil for menswear and are slowly changing the narrative.
Becoming Tokyo James
Amongst those few is Nigerian-British designer, creative director and stylist who came back to the country with a heavy British accent, nose in the air and the mindset to disrupt the fashion industry if he could. According to James, “A lot of people didn’t know that I was actually head hunted by the Minister of State, Petroleum Resources and Founder of True Tales Publications Limited, Emmanuel Kachikwu. We had a meeting in London through a very good friend of mine, Franca Asindi before she left Complete Fashion and that was how she and Emmaneal convinced me to move back to Nigeria to be the digital director for True Tales. I came in to change the narrative of the perception of Nigerians abroad especially when it came to the standard of work that we produced.” From that moment on he aligned himself with major brands like House of Tara and Inglot for their beauty campaigns and moved on to Made Magazine as the Editor and in 2015 he released the Tokyo James menswear line and is currently the Creative Director for Access Bank’s online TV platform Accelerate TV. His brand has only grown as James has been nominated to represent Nigeria at the World Fashion Expo at the Louvre Museum in Paris in November 2017.
Creating the brand
The creative process of designers influences their fabrics, patterns, cuts and the overall outlook of the pieces of their collection. The inspiration behind some collections can very much be the reason why they do well on the market, case in point Prabal Gurung political 2017 Fall Collection which got celebrity attention. Showcasing at the South Africa Menswear Fashion Week, James revealed his latest collection titled Son of God was inspired by everything that is currently wrong with humanity. “It is a war and a fight for our freedom. It just shows how fragile freedom is and it is something we need to fight for and protect no matter where you are in the world. Hence why there was a lot of black and leather which signifies military and strength, brown was Mother Earth which signifies unity and the green signifies new beginning for me”. He admits that his process is heavily influenced by human nature and the need to tell a story with every collection through fabric selection and colours.
If you are not familiar with the fashion label, it is no fault of yours as the brand is little over two years old and as edgy as it may seem can be worn by the Nigerian man with a distinct fashion sense. When it comes to Nigerians that wear the brand, James admits that it is usually the returnees who understand his form of fashion, “The African man is pretty conservative, there is not much drama the African man is willing to do, I feel like I have been able to keep the conservative man with details and panache that he is not normally used to”. Describing his fashion label as an alternative way of dressing, Tokyo still battles with reception of his brand. He says, “It is a situation where they are warming up to it. It could be better but that it only takes time”. He goes on to explain that the Nigerian consumer is highly sophisticated and won’t be coerced to buy what he doesn’t see value in, “They will read you for filth” he adds. James advocates for quality in the creation of designs and encourages citizens to demand quality from
their local designers and on his part aims that his merging of Western and African influences to create a design for the African man while maintaining his character would lead the way.
The $31 Billion Fashion Industry?
Accoridng to CNN, the African industry is reportedly worth $31 billion according to data by Euromonitor. Kuddus Kolawole, Lagos State Coordinator of the Fashion Designers Association of Nigeria, says the nation’s fashion industry is worth about $10 billion and should attract investors. But that is not the case and James blames it on the lack of structure. “We already know that it is a lucrative business. There are a lot of people making it with the informal side of fashion and fashion designing is the next step to structure it. In order for what we do as designers to make money, there needs to be scalability, and in order for that, structure needs to come in place and the government needs to be able to structure it. There is only so much that the private sector individuals can do.”
According to James, investors are scared of of losing their capital when investing in the industry. Using the fashion industry he is familiar with, he analyses the potential of the Nigerian fashion industry in comparison to the UK. In 2016 London Fashion Week generated 269 million pounds, “That can also be done here when everybody gets involved, I’m talking about newspapers, hotels, even brands like Coca Cola and the nightlife businesses because they know how important this is to the economy because everybody wants to get a piece of the pie.”
It is easy to point fingers but when you do so, four of yours would be pointed right back at you. So what has the Tokyo James brand done in building the structure needed by the fashion industry? “I hear so many people talk of the Nigerian way, what does that mean? For me it doesn’t mean anything! We understand there are certain constraints and challenges that other economies don’t suffer from but where there is a will there is a way and I feel that I have been able to prove that quality that the West can give can be done here too.” As we make our way back to the Island, he also points out that his factory is located in Ebute Metta, Lagos Mainland.
The rewards of fashion in Nigeria
Being a creative in Nigeria is truly a test of patience. He advises that people who are passionate about fashion should go into it but also have patience. “Majority of Nigerians want fast money and are not ready to grow in business and fashion is not the place to do it because you will become frustrated.” He aligns himself with brands like Chanel, Prada, Balmain, Dior but to mention a few who paid their dues overin some cases over a century ago and are now reaping the fruits of their labour. He adds, “Fashion is a long term thing, it is a generational thing. This is not a thing where you just wake up and think you are going to make all the money in the world from it, some people are lucky and some people are not.”
As much as fashion designing seemed to be the natural progression of things for Tokyo James as a creative he admits that it makes him the least amount of money amongst his ventures, stating that Nigeria is a goods for service type of economy, and is glad that people are now willing to pay for services of the mind. According to him, his most lucrative venture is his work as a creative director followed by styling and then designing.
Change is the only constant
As seen with a number of brands, there is always a change
from the aesthetics at the inception of the brand to the present but James at the moment says he won’t be changing the status quo with his brand, “I don’t think I am going to change the aesthetics for the brand, I probably might do a diffusion line but that will be down the line.” A firm believer of consistency, purpose and the natural progression when it comes to his fashion label, he states, “I Have been in fashion for 15 years and I knew I always wanted to be a designer but I never thought I had the authority to tell people that this is what they should be wearing so I grew and learnt on the job.” Further down the line we can expect women accessories and male accessories from his brand which he feels is the natural progression of things as a designer. “So if you cannot afford the clothing, you can afford the glasses or a pair of shoes”.
In a way Tokyo embodies the ethea of his brand which are “simplicity with edge” and “creating your own reality”, he is a hustler and he plans to represent the man whose dreams are bigger than life itself, scared of this and still pushes through while looking amazing. I am a creative at heart” he says, be it in public speaking, publishing, creative directing or with fashion designing and he hopes to be able to aid in putting the infrastructure for the next generation to thrive.
Fashion is a long-term thing, a generational thing. This is not a thing where you just wake up and think you are going to make all the money in the world.
Creative Direction: Chidera Muoka
Photography: Niyi Okeowo
Makeup: Jumoke Tychus for Eyesome Beauty
Styling: Tokyo James