Great things never come from comfort zones. Lisa Folawiyo, a lawyer turned fashion designer of a global brand, speaks to The Interviewon why designing is still her passion despite its challenges
You said that you started your label at home after the birth of your daughter. How did you get the concept for the business?
I had never toyed with the idea of designing; it hadn’t really crossed my mind. I had been programmed to know that I would become a lawyer, like many of us at that time. However, I knew that I had a flair for all things fashion, for dressing up. From a youngish age, dressing was quite important to me.I took it very seriously. It was innate. I ended up practicing Law for a short time. After having my baby, I didn’t really want to go back to it. I didn’t want to be idle either. Being who I am, I felt I had to do somethingto keep myself busy. I bring my friend, Didi in on everything. She’s very creative and was making hats and jewellery then. I knew that I had an interest in fashion. One conversation led to another about me wanting to create a ready-to-wear label and I wrote all my ideas down. I wanted to do something fresh and funky. Something I would want to wear. Ankara had not been done in that way before, so that’s how Jewel by Lisa came about. I saw embellishment of ankara fabric as a different way of doing things. We wanted tosee the fabric used in a modern way.
Finance has often been cited as a major challenge for start-ups. Was this the case for you and what were the challenges you faced?
When you’re young – I’m still very young (she smiles) – I wasn’t worried and I didn’t have any anxieties. I had written things down about what I wanted to do and create. I didn’t have a formal business plan, because I just knew what I wanted to do and I fearlessly and with a very tiny amount of money went into it. Didi and I went to the market and bought a few Nigerian Waxmaterials. This was for approximately N3,500. They were very affordable. I started with about, I think, N10,000 then. We made just two tiered skirts, in order to make something simple that people could connect with. I beaded the skirt and wore it. Since that day, honestly, I always tell people, I’ve been working. I didn’t have any tailors, but my mum had one who is a close family friend and she helped with samples at an affordable cost to me. We created a few pieces here and there and sold them. I would outsource and didn’t even have the space to expand. I just had the vision and wanted to achieve it. As I made money, I bought equipment. I recruited from church. I wasn’t going to let anything ‘big’ get in the way. I did the little I could do with the little I had. I worked out of my home for about seven years. I made what I had work for me.
As a woman building her business, what support network would you say helped you the most?
Indeed God is real. He has plans for us and has given us a future. I had a lot of support from friends and family too.
Do you think there’s a formula for becoming a successful entrepreneur?
I’ve heard many stories and have followed many successful people and everybody has done it differently, so I don’t know if there’s a formula as such. I feel thatin life, as it moves along, you start to realise certain things. I was listening to a TED talk by a woman of Nigerian origin and she said, “Success comes when opportunity meets preparation.”I’ve heard variations of that often, but this resonated with me. I took every opportunity. My preparedness was that by all means, I’m going to do this. I have a goal; I have a vision and I’m just focused on achieving them.Many opportunities came. I had friends in magazines and they helped me by featuring the clothes. I did a stint on Big Brother. I just went for it. I remember my sister-in-law saying to me, “Lisa, anything you’re asked to do at this stage, say you can. Then go back and find out how you’re going to do it.” So, opportunities came and I took them. For me, that’s it. I will find a way. I tell that to my staff. And talking about staff, you must always treat them right. Everyone wants to be valued and respected. If you make them feel that they are worth something to you, they will reciprocate. I encourage my staff to take pride in what they do, appreciate that they have a skill that is not to be taken lightly. You also have to learn self-control, as there will be setbacks, especially in this industry.
I don’t want to scare away any budding designers but initially, I had high blood pressure and sometimes worked with a lot of anxiety. But I had to learn how to control my emotions and to keep myself together. Starting a business was a new world for me, so I had to learn to manage the pressure.
To what do you attribute your success?
I’m convinced that there was definitely a divine plan. Then there was my plan. I love clothes, fashion and that whole world. I wrote in a notebook that I wanted to be a name in the fashion industry. Years later, I found that notebook and was surprised that I had written that without any formal training in the field. I feel, therefore, that there had always been something inside me waiting to be birthed. I feel that God always has a plan for us and that was the plan for my life at that point in time. I was able to tap into it at that point, because sometimes you miss it.
Other than that, I would say maybe my determination and tenacity. I would say courage. I wasn’t afraid then at the start. I’m probably more afraid now! With Jewel by Lisa, I always set out to say something different; it’s an expression of who I am in terms of how I see fashion. I guess my individuality speaks through what we create. I feel that gives Jewel by Lisa an edge. I say with all humility that the way I think of style and fashion is probably not theway most African women think about it. I feel like my ideas and views and what inspires me are a little different; Ifeel like Jewel by Lisa was able to make people see African fashion differently. We have always tried to remain different. I call it my fashion point of view and this had made people pay attention.
What advice would you give to women starting out in your field today?
It is important to have a vision and set a goal. Despite it being a creative industry with no definite template, you have to ask yourself where you see the business going. A designer’s strength is when collection after collection has his/her DNA running through it. This can only happen when you know who you are. You have to know your aesthetic and stick to it. Stay on course, as there will always be challenges.To anyone starting out I would say take risks. Formal training is an advantage. Keep abreast of local and international competition to stay relevant. Protect your authenticity. I have, from the start, always been very particular about our brand’s identity.
Learning is good. Stay up-to-date. I have tonnes of books. It is also important to tailor your passion to make the business work.
What’s your favourite aspect about being an entrepreneur?
I think it must be the flexibility of time, especially now that I have a good system in place. I have such amazing staff and I work with my sister. She’s the business mind. I’m able now to delegate, as I know that things will be handled well even if I’m not here. That is number one. As a designer, I’m excited when I’m working on a collection. Another thing about being a creative person is that I get bored very easily. Once I’ve designed a collection and people are raving about it, I am already thinking about the next collection. I get very excited about creating new things, very excited to see how I can push myself. I am very excited when I have fashion shows. It is extremely stressful, but there is a rush I feel; it comes from many things about seeing what you have created,brought to life.
Where do you see yourlabel in the next few years?
That’s a tough question. Today, I feel like I take fewer risks. I’m not fearful and I don’t fear the future, but you start to be more realistic, because you have experience. Because we have tried and tested several things, we know better now what works. Our consumer behaviour can be very varied, but after a few years, we have been able to gauge the fashion world. We now have our J-label, based on knowing what we have seen that people want. It is a more affordable line for those who want to enjoy the brand. People love what we do, but we have always been a luxury brand. There’s a lot of intricate work done on our clothes and people have to pay a premium for that. With the current economic downturn, people are very mindful of how they spend their money. We have asked ourselves, “How do we not lose the essence of who we are, but make sure we are more accessible by being more affordable?” This paved the way for the creation of our J-label.
J-label is going to be a big player in the future. The brand Lisa Folawiyo will continue to have great international presence. From day 1, I wanted us to be a global brand. I always said why should it be known only here in Nigeria? We are definitely expanding.We will continue to work to make sure that we are a global brand.We’re here to stay.
You and Reni Folawiyo recently joined the Business of Fashion’s 500 list, alongside celebrities like Amal Clooney. What does this imply for your business and the fashion industry in Nigeria?
It is a big thing. It gives us more fashion clout internationally and we are definitely taken more seriously outside the country. Back home, people seem unmoved.
Arianna Huffington, co-founder of the Huffington Post is credited with saying: “…understanding that failure is not the opposite of success, it’s part of the success.” What has your experience been?
Any failures we have had have only pushed us to do things better. I’m happy for the mistakes along the way and I’m sure we will make more, because we can’t know everything. What we always keep in mind, though, is how do we flip the script? Any failure will be one of the toughest times you’ll experience, but you develop a thick skin and you correct and correct. Mistakes teach you great lessons, if you’re wise and can see where you went wrong.
You trained as a lawyer yet you run a globally recognised fashion business.Do you think there was anything in your training that prepared you for what you do now?
I am that type of person who once I set my mind on something I will do it. That’s one of the things that got me doing what I do. I cannot really connect anything about my fashion designing to my Law training. I know a few people who studied Law and are in the creative field, so perhaps there is a leaning in that direction if you’re creatively inclined. For me, there is no direct connection between Law and what I do now. It is very gruelling studying Law, so perhaps studying under that intense pressure prepares you for working under pressure as a designer.
As a female entrepreneur, have you found there to be an enabling environment for women in terms of government or other support.
Nigeria hasn’t been the most conducive environment for our kind of business. To attain true success in the fashion business is when we are able to manufacture in volume. Despite the wealth of creativity that we have in Nigeria, because we still don’t have manufacturing down to a tee, it is a very challenging environment to work in. There are some initiatives coming up to assist and the export industry is being worked on, so I am hopeful. Little by little, it will get better.
What is the most expensive item you have produced so far and how much was it?
I believe it must have been a custom print, fully embellished dress that cost about N650,000.
Many think that Nigerian women spend too much on fashion, what’s your take on this?
Do they? It is who we are as a people to want to look good. To look good costs. However that is relative. As a designer, I can’t say that they spend too much. We Nigerians are showy, but all over the world women spend on fashion.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I watch a lot of television, a lot of sometimes-mindless television, because that’s when I can switch off. I like to travel and plan to do more of it. I’m generally a homebody and like to spend time with family and friends.
Who would be on the guest list of your ideal dinner party and why?
Michelle Obama – because I think she is an amazing woman. She seems so normal, just like you and I and yet she is one of the most powerful women in the world. She is very relaxed in her role. I would love to pick her brain.
Miuccia Prada – I would love to know how she has kept her fashion line true to her ideals for so long.
Someone from 50s or 60s Nigeria, who lived a full and exciting life in those days. I would love to get some insight into that time.
Rihanna – I know she’s crazy, but what makes her tick?
I would like a man of God. Perhaps Pastor Poju Oyemade, who I follow on Twitter. He seems to know how to connect the Word of God to real life. He would be the voice of reason.
Dries Van Noten, a designer who is not so out there.People don’t know a lot about him and he seems mysterious, but year after year, he puts his designs out.
I must always have my husband – we balance each other out.
I would also like to have President Buhari, so he could educate me on his plans for our nation.