Creative Director, Business Woman and Fashion Designer Isoken Ogiemwonyi is our Ladybrille Woman of the Month for February 2013. Ogiemwonyi is the founder of the Obsidian fashion label, co-founder of Le Petit Marche (a monthly shopping event in Lagos, Nigeria) and L’Espace Retail store. She was the 2012 MTN Lagos Fashion & Design Week/British Council
Young Creative Entrepreneur of the Year. Her label Obsidian showcased at the 2011 & 2012 MTN Lagos Fashion & Design Week and participated in the 2013 Pitti Immagine Trade show in Florence, Italy.
In this exclusive interview, she talks about the rising retail culture in Nigeria that is commanding the attention of the world, her fashion businesses and gives advice to other entrepreneurs.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Isoken it is a pleasure to be conducting this interview with you. How are you?
Isoken: The pleasure is all mine, I am doing great, thank you.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Many might know of your brands L’Espace, Obsidian Fashion label and Le Petit Marche. However, they may have no clue who you really are. So, why don’t we start off with your personal background? Tell us a bit about yourself?
Isoken: I am a graduate of Law (LLB Law – Hons.) from the University of Nottingham. I also have a PGD in Hospitality Administration from GIHE, Switzerland and an MSc in Management from BPP London. I have been in the business of fashion since 2006. I love reading, playing with new tech and experimenting with my hair!
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (I had no idea you studied law.) How did you get into fashion?
Isoken: I’ve always been obsessed with clothes. That in turn informed my obsession with branding and communication concept execution and starting out with Obsidian, and then LPM gave me incubators to create in and I haven’t looked back since.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: For those of us involved in Africa’s fashion industry day in and day out, we have watched, like the rest of the world, the huge transformation in fashion industries across the continent. What do you think is causing this revolution and shift?
Isoken: A number of factors including but not limited to the economic downturn, creative destruction caused by the digital revolution and an increase in spending power in the middle classes.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Let’s talk about these factors. Actually, I want to do so by spending the majority of our time talking about Nigeria’s retail culture and your fashion brands. Give us a brief historical overview about Nigeria’s retail landscape and how it is has changed within the past three years?
Isoken: Traditionally, people shopped at the market or ‘imported goods’ stores – it wouldn’t necessarily be fair to say there was no retail culture at all. However, the ‘highstreet’ model, although a more intuitively Nigerian concept because of accessibility and newness – is fairly new, but with the prevalence of events in the vein of Le Petit Marche, stores like L’Espace and malls like the Palms – shopping as entertainment, not just out of necessity has taken hold, and I think it is on its way to becoming a core leisure activity, part of our way of life if you will.
As for Nigerian- made design, in both the contemporary and luxury sectors, the ready to wear market was at best, nascent. Production, adequate marketing, and retail distribution being the key limitations.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Your comment on key limitations especially as to retail distribution makes for a good transition to my next train of thoughts on foreign direct investments in Nigeria. There are many multi-national companies setting up shops in Nigeria. At Ladybrille we are constantly solicited for features by these companies or their publicists. M.A.C., Clinique, Zara, Mango and the list goes on, are just examples in the fashion segment alone. In food, we’ve got KFC, McDonalds, and so forth. What do you think about this trend? Is that a good thing for Nigerians?
Isoken: (Laughs) I’m a bit of a cynic when it comes to this to be honest. It’s good in that foreign investment will undoubtedly stimulate our economy, be a driver for job creation and as some say – is an indication of our growing strength and recognition as a player on the world stage.
I’m more cautious. I think we should have our eyes wide open, and be wary of the Great White Saviour. Look what happened the last time all eyes turned to Africa.
We’re an interesting story now because the West is falling apart. I think it’s important not to forget our history in order to embrace our present – there’s an unhealthy deference given to anything branded ‘foreign’, regardless of if it’s Zara via Bangladesh. It can be tremendous for us all if we make it a playing field of equals and not a pseudo-colonial relationship, where one side is taking far more than it is giving.
Just food for thought.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Funny you should say “look what happened the last time all eyes turned to Africa.” Indeed! Let’s talk a bit more about Nigeria’s fashion retail culture. I think South Africans and South African Fashion industry were a bit taken by surprise with almost overnight, the press began singing praises about Nigeria’s retail culture and fashion industry. What are your thoughts on the attention the press seems to be giving to Nigeria’s growing retail culture?
Isoken: It is well deserved. We’ve grown extremely quickly and in times where the world was seeing an untoward economic shift. There are a lot of extraordinary Nigerian brands not settling for ‘okay’ or ‘good enough’, but really making headway in production and design, it’s been really exciting to be a part of.
This is one of the myriad reasons we decided to open up L’Espace – it was virtually unheard of to have Nigerian design as the core selection criteria, but to us it was obvious that Lagos needed a focused platform to represent emerging talent. It gives the brands the commercial avenue they need to grow and to build.
And I think this is just the beginning, bar our own imminent expansion, we hear of different concepts, complementary to our own, everyday.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: I’ll get to L’Espace soon and your work with Obsidian, your label.but first, could you acquaint our audience with the important fashion markets in Nigeria? Lagos we know for sure. What are the other important markets to pay attention to?
Isoken: Research says Abuja, intuition says Port Harcourt as well.
LADYBRILLEmag.com:Why did you decide to launch your clothing line Obsidian?
Isoken: [O]nce I realized that balancing creativity and business is a challenging but rewarding experience, Obsidian happened.
We launched officially in 2009; it’s something I’ve always wanted to do and whilst I didn’t envision it as a career at first, I tried my hand at it and decided there’s nothing else I’d rather do.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: You launched Obsidian and then co-launched L’Espace and Le Petit Marche with your business partner. What are the exact problems that your brands have been able to solve with its presence in the marketplace?
Isoken:Through the work we do at Le Petit Marche and L’Espace we are striving to find workable, innovative solutions to the myriad retail problems in Nigeria, in order to fulfill our brand mission: fashion infrastructure. We believe in simplifying the distribution process, freeing designers up to concentrate on creating and buildng their brands.
The idea is to exploit operational synergies where we can, and give an opportunity to emerging talent to compete in the retail space at the same level of resources as bigger brands. When any brand joins the group, we already have in place fully functional sales accounting, PR and the brands share utilities and taxation benefits as well.
On the consumer end, the rationale for the business is to create a single point where consumers can easily find products from 35 brands, spanning fashion, beauty and lifestyle instead of visiting 35 separate stores across Lagos. The fashion enthusiasts gain a curated selection of designers and products, focused on a consistent experience. Furthermore as a multi-brand store, we are able to advertise far more efficiently, and co-opetition (Cooperative competition a Game theory concept, where brands/companies interests align partially, and the value created through interaction is greater than when apart – it’s the rationale behind shopping malls and department stores) is great for sales revenues. We can offer a far wider breadth of products and services than any one brand.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Let’s talk about L’Espace. I believe it was last year or the year before when your retail shop L’Espace had issues with Wana Clothing. We love both of your brands at Ladybrille and did not appreciate seeing all that drama played out in the public. Could you address the general challenges you have working with designers and what steps you have in place so issues like those do not come up again, at least not publicly like that?
Isoken: L’Espace was the first store to offer a Nigerian design-only led environment in Lagos. We expected a good reception from Lagosians, but we’ve been delighted by the overwhelming response, and the fast spreading word-of-mouth. We endeavor to carry clothes that can be worn anywhere globally, which means that unlike what some expect – it isn’t a flood of Ankara.
And now with our Lifestyle section with everything from crockery to wine and art, The Beauty bar retailing indigenous and foreign hair care and makeup as well as providing services, including but not limited to, skin treatments, hair care, lashes, waxing, facials and massages AND our Café set to open in a few weeks, I think we are really coming into our own as a holistic experience for the consumer.
The main challenge working with designers is stock replenishment (something (she) faces as a designer as well), most people work with small studios and the production capacity isn’t there yet, but we believe speed-to-market is our main advantage and we try to give meaningful feedback to our vendors to ensure they aren’t stumbling blindly when it comes to what will sell and what won’t. Although that in itself can be a danger, as Steve Jobs’said, you can’t always give the people what they want. They don’t always know what they want. Designers are meant to push boundaries and convince us to try something new that defies the norm, delivering only what the customer wants can lead to stagnation and blandness – finding the balance isn’t that easy.
With that said, in general – every business, especially new ones comes with challenges. As business owners we understand our responsibility to our stakeholders and we’ve put additional procedures in place to ensure a full understanding of the agreement by both parties and strengthened the communication lines with all our vendors.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: In the USA, New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and Miami are our key market centers and each city has their own market week. Are you thinking of creating some sort of market week or trade show for the industry, given your keen interest in retail, that can possibly make Nigeria a true force to b reckoned with?
Isoken: It’s an idea we’ve explored and may well pursue at a later date.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: For our Ladybrille entrepreneurs who will read and soak up all of the knowledge you will share, tell us the most difficult challenges you have faced as a business owner.
Isoken: In addition to the innumerable problems that face Nigerian businesses in general, the poor infrastructure in Nigeria is an ever-present issue that we have to tackle on a daily basis. We also often encounter problems in the supply chain, including problems with manufacturing, planning, and effective marketing to name a few. We deal with these issues by making the most of what is available and constantly looking for ways to innovate and improve the overall process.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: How have you been able to overcome these challenges?
Isoken: Staying focused and ignoring the noise. Trying to ‘innovate out of the box’. There’s always a solution, sometimes it just takes a while to arrive at.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What was the personal lesson and growth that you obtained from these challenges?
Isoken: I’ve definitely learnt to be a little more patient and grateful for the little things, because the journey is infinitely more interesting (and exhausting) than the goal itself. It’s amplified my can-do attitude and tempered my sometimes reactionary nature. And more than anything we appreciate our FORMIDABLE partnership even more – we see people fail everyday and not because they aren’t smart or talented or well suited.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Really paint the picture of what goes into producing the LPM event because I think many people think it is such an easy thing?
Isoken: LPM is for all intents and purposes an event. Its commercial nature confuses most people into thinking the challenge is getting vendors to participate –the challenge is actually getting warm bodies in to buy, in order for more vendors to come in next month. And the month after that. By the time LPM day arrives, most of the work is already done.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: I remember seeing the LPM start from scratch and you have basically used it change the retail culture in Nigeria. How do you stay consistent?
Isoken: We were the first but now we want to concentrate on being the best. It has definitely been a challenge, especially as the market evolves so quickly and we have less time (monthly) to respond to demand on both the vendor and consumer side. We try to focus on making it the best experience we can and give value for money. Nevertheless we are tweaking and making some changes to LPM this year so look out for them!
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What drives you?
Isoken: I really, really REALLY love what I do. If I didn’t, I would be unable to live, breathe, think and sleep it. From design to working with people to create campaigns for Obsidian to the big picture thinking and brand building for LPM and L’Espace. It makes everyday an experience. The lows can be soul-destroying (melodramatic I know) but the highs make up for it EVERY time.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What are the daily principles you live by?
Isoken: Act as though it is impossible to fail. Never stop learning. An idea is just an idea until it is executed.
LADYBRILLemag.com: What do you want to be remembered most for?
Isoken: As a successful entrepreneur that generates and supports other successful entrepreneurs.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: For you, what does it mean to be a brilliant (Ladybrille) woman?
Isoken: The Proverbs 31 Woman is the epitome of everything a Ladybrille woman should be, and in an ideal world – can be.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Thank you Isoken.
Isoken: Thank you for having me. Such an honor!