Funmi Ajila-Ladipo: FADAN’s Engine Room

Funmi Ajila-Ladipo: FADAN’s Engine Room

Call her one of the forerunners of the Nigerian fashion industry and you won’t be wrong. That is because Funmi Ajila-Ladipo, the creative head of fore

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Call her one of the forerunners of the Nigerian fashion industry and you won’t be wrong. That is because Funmi Ajila-Ladipo, the creative head of foremost fashion house, Regalia by FAL is one designer who despite having started out in the fashion industry at a time when fashion wasn’t quite as recognized as it is today, has not only remained true to her craft but has managed to successfully evolve to still remain at the top of her game. A designer par excellence whose creativity and professionalism has continually distinguished her in several foras, it is little wonder that emerged the President of the Nigeria’s fashion body, Fashion Designer Association of Nigeria, FADAN. Now currently in her second tenure, Funmi Ajila-Ladipo opens up to the Lifestyle/Editorial head, Nkarenyi Ukonu in this no holds barred interview on some of her accomplishments the past few years as the president of the body, her legacy on completion of her tenure as well as the true state, without embellishments, of the fashion industry in Nigeria.

Funmi Ajila-Ladipo, you are already half way into the end of your 2nd tenure as FADAN president with about a year and a half left.  How would you describe the journey so far?
I won’t say it has been that easy. You know how it is in Nigeria when you are leading a group of very good creative people. The journey has been so far, so good, fulfilling for me. I have been able to learn on the job and see people in other forms. We have over 200 members and they all have their individual challenges and if you have to be on top of your game, you have to sometimes be like them, above them, or even below them to get the job done. So it is a huge task; there is so much to be done but luckily, we are getting the job done to the best of our abilities. It hasn’t been so bad but we are not there yet.

What has been the highlight of your tenure?
  that we weren’t doing then. We now have more serious people who really want to grow their brand and are doing serious business. There is also the sub skills through which we give back. We try to as much as possible train members on subjects they do not know. The fashion industry has a lot of different units; from designing to illustrations to sourcing to sewing itself, draping etc. There are so many things in the fashion chain that not many people know about so that is where the sub skill comes in, by ensuring our members are well rounded in fashion. Then we also started the master classes where other top designers talk to our members on how to grow one’s brand from time to time. As well as the business side of fashion. You find out that a lot of us, myself inclusive, we know how to be creative but when it comes to the business side of it, many of us are lacking. We have also been able to build chapters in different parts of the country, in about 11 states. In states where there aren’t too many professional designers, we register them directly rather than build chapters until we are able to get at least 10 of them according to our constitution. Also we have been able to partner with other bodies in the industry; the textile industry and virtually any affiliate of the fashion industry. FADAN is no longer what it used to be. Now people can authoritatively say they want to go into partnership with FADAN. In those days, it was never like that. FADAN would go all out to look for these people but now, they come looking for us and that is what life should be about. Unfortunately in Nigeria, we don’t come together in clusters, everyone wants to be a big man in their own way and it doesn’t work out like that in the creative industry because we learn from each other. God has given each of us different creative abilities. What I know how to do, you may not know but we can rub minds together and make it work. Very recently, two of our members went to Michigan, US to represent the association at a world trade festival and even in Japan. That is to show that our efforts are paying off; people are growing their brand and that means they are growing the business aspect of fashion as opposed to just being creative alone. Also we have been able to create awareness for Nigerian brands by making people wear Nigerian brands and the government has bought into it. It may be a bit difficult now because our textile industries are not working and we have to depend on foreign goods to service the fashion industry in Nigeria. But so far, I think we are getting somewhere. A few days ago, a friend of mine in London sent me a photograph of an Ankara suit displayed in a London shop being sold for over a thousand pounds.

What would you like to be remembered for at the end of your tenure?
That I have been able to bring the serious minded designers together, that members have been able to grow their brands and learnt how to showcase and package their business properly for profitability.

What project is Funmi Ajila-Ladipo currently working on to outlive her?
We are trying to see if we can get a property for FADAN so we can have our own secretariat, have a bus for conveying people from point A to point b. We are also working on the Runway FADAN for 2017 as well as a lot of exhibition and other fashion shows.

Past presidents of FADAN never had the opportunity to do a second term. You were lucky to score a second term. What do you, Funmi Ajila-Ladipo think may have been responsible for your victory?
Maybe God wanted me to do it again. Maybe because I needed to complete what I started. I guess that was my winning strategy. I won’t say it is because I am better than anyone neither would I say that I was desperate because leading people is not so easy. Some would like you , others will resent you but the most important thing is for you to know why you are there, do the job and have a continuity arrangement before leaving. Being FADAN president is such a huge task as there is so much to be done. When I came in, my team and I turned things around; we revolutionized the way FADAN was being run and perceived and you know, you can’t turn things around without a fight. People will fight you especially those who aren’t ready for change. But to change things, one must be ready for a fight. So maybe I was ready for a fight to get things done. At first I felt like giving up and just facing my own business but after a while, it dawned on me that if we all keep running away, then no one will do the things that need to be done.  I mean if God has placed one there, all one needed to do was to set the machinery in motion even if one may not be the one to complete the task. The resistance was so much but I was determined to turn things around. The world itself is full of battles, even in our homes and one cannot run away, one has to stand firm and get the job done. But in the process of standing, you have to stand right otherwise, you will probably lose out or something may go wrong. So I stood right, I decided that certain things must change in FADAN. You can’t please everyone so it is important to face the task ahead of one and tackle it. So I felt that I needed to finish what I started with God giving me the strength and ability. If it did not please God for me to be the president of FADAN, I won’t be there.

In other words, managing people must be your greatest challenge running FADAN
Getting people to be in agreement with what you believe in is a battle because they are all creative people. I had to double convince them that things have to go a certain way. Luckily I have many sensible people who have been yearning for change and immediately I came in, they were all ready to support me.

Bank of Industry (BOI) has been the biggest supporter of FADAN since you came on board especially with the N1bn SME fund for people in the fashion business. How has that partnership turned out?
It has turned out well for those who want the loan. Not everyone was willing to take the loan. Some rather preferred to remain the way they are because of the uncertainty of the loan, uncertainty of how things may turn out tomorrow. The government is not directly supporting the fashion industry the way they should unlike other countries. The truth is that the government may wake up tomorrow and ban the importation of a particular fashion good. What then happens to you who have taken the loan or the customers who are awaiting your goods? So a lot of people would rather not get into such a fix. Those who did, took it to invest in their business by buying more machinery for mass production.

Are there really people into mass production of fashion goods in Nigeria?
Yes but on a small scale but what they produce is mostly exported out of the country. Unfortunately we are unable to do large scale mass production here because there is no market for that sort of thing besides the power situation isn’t stable. Add also the fact that the man power skill isn’t readily available. There is no serious mass export happening in fashion and the government needs to look into the business of fashion as it is so vast it is beyond just textiles. With the exception of Daviva, no other company is into mass production and it is not encouraging at all. If we had a textile industry that is producing the kind of textiles we expend energy looking for, all I need to do is get a sample from your marketing officers. I don’t need to know who owns the factory. If the quality is good enough we then go into business. I tell you to produce for me and deliver at a scheduled time. I don’t need to start walking round Balogun market. It is distracting and draining and God help you if you don’t find the kind of fabric you are looking for.

What are the criteria for accessing the BOI loan?
You must have all your papers together: certification of incorporation, your account details and a few other things to be sure you are capable of paying back the loan.

Is FADAN pushing for a production hub through BOI?
There is something of that nature in the works. But FADAN is still in the process of getting a parcel of land and we are in talks with a few people. This is one of the many things the government should be doing for the fashion industry.

Why haven’t you reached out to the aspect of government in charge?
We have written a letter to them before, we will keep writing. But we can’t keep waiting until when the government is ready to give us land otherwise we would wait forever. The past president also made moves by writing to government to help out but up until as we speak, nothing has come out of it.

Besides being a fashion designer. What are the other criteria for being a member of FADAN?
You have to be a practicing fashion designer; either sewing or at least doing something in the value chain of fashion. You can be a fashion photographer, shoe makers, illustrators, bag makers etc. as long as you come up with a fashion concept that is wearable from the head to the toe.

But there are people in the fashion industry who are not members of FADAN. Why is this so?
You can’t force people to be members of FADAN. Everyone wants to be on their own which is a problem; they think they are better than others but they haven’t seen what others are doing. No one has the power to monopolize fashion in Nigeria. Nigeria is quite a complex country. I have even personally invited some of them to join the body. Some pay their dues but don’t come for meetings. Perhaps they feel they are too big to sit with others. But you see that should be the beginning of humility. Veteran designers like YSL and the likes, still come together even with up and coming designers. The only thing is that they are classified. But how can FADAN classify designers in Nigeria when they shy away from meetings or chose not to be members? Instead they prefer to be aligned with the American and European fashion world. We all should try to come together and make it work. Some of them are so big they can actually talk to the government to help get things working but they would rather have it for themselves. Perhaps that is why the Federal Government is not taking us serious.

What is the concept behind Runway FADAN?
It is an annual celebration of all that members of the body have done all through the year. It is also a network opportunity for various designers. It is noteworthy to state that I started the concept, Runway FADAN which began in 2015

Why doesn’t the body align with the annual Lagos Fashion and Design Week, African Fashion Week etc. rather than just create your own fashion show?
The ones you mentioned are entertainers. The people behind these shows are not fashion designers. But they call up designers to come and exhibit at the show and get buyers to buy the designs. Everyone is trying to make money in any way they can and you can’t ask an association to be part of the exhibitors. All we do is to partner with them. It’s their show, it belongs to them. They don’t have to be members of the association. Theses organizers may decided at any time to rest the fashion shows if they so choose but FADAN is a fashion body that has always and will always be in existence.

With the proliferation of fashion shows, isn’t it the job of FADAN to regulate the fashion industry?
We can’t regulate the fashion industry without the backing of the Federal Government. You can’t stop people from doing these fashion shows because they are not designers, they are business people. If they partner with us, that is fine otherwise there is really nothing we can do as there is no regulation in the industry. There is no body regulating fashion in Nigeria. So we can only remain a body and try to do as much as we can in terms of partnership with corporate bodies.

What isn’t FADAN working towards being a regulating body it?
Oh believe me have written series of letters, turned it into an issue on twitter to get government’s attention but nothing came out of it. There is no fashion council and that is the job of the government. You can’t have a body without the government approving it or putting their weight behind it. Now to further complicate things, FADAN falls under the Ministry of Commerce and Tourism, Ministry of Culture, Tourism and National Orientation, Export Promotion Council (NEPC). So we really do not know who to actually direct our letters to.

Having led a small body of people these past few years, is Funmi Ajila-Ladipo looking to make greater impact on a large scale through politics?
No. Politics in Nigeria is a very dirty game and it makes people hate you unnecessarily. After my tenure, if I get an appointment, I won’t mind but I won’t seek elective position. However, I want to be in a place where I can make impact in the lives of people but not necessarily through politics.

Are you fulfilled, Funmi Ajila-Ladipo?
Very much because I love what I do and I am passionate about it. I am satisfied with it and I am enjoying it. I am believing God for my dream to come to pass which is to have a place where I can mass produce and I know it will come. It is not about going to borrow money to make it work because I can if I want to. The time will come I believe, when I can handle it, when things will fall easily on my laps. When it is time, something will prompt me to get going. Money isn’t quite the problem, proper planning is key.

What is your most prized possession?
My salvation

What would you say must have significantly shaped you to be who you are in life today?
My parents. They gave me all the training and moral support I needed growing up. God used them to help me find my way quickly in life and help me find my passion which is fashion. They mentored me. It is only a parent who watches her child closely that would know what the child’s passion is. I pray that more and more parents will find the time for their children, train them properly and give them the right morals. They made me know the literal meaning of a good name being better than silver or gold.

What motivates you?
A lot of times I would have given up because the most difficult thing to do is to make clothes. You have to get the clothes into the exact body shape of a person and we all have different body sizes and shapes. Also the designer has to get into the mind and conscience of the wearer because sometimes the cloth may fit but the wearer may not like it. The work of a doctor is far easier than that of a designer who would only prescribe drugs for use. But a designer not only has to make sure the clothes are well tailored, it must fit the body of the wearer perfectly. Designers are not even well paid for the work they do. It is a whole lot of work but I enjoy it.  It is what I am called to do.

You have been married for several years and in this age and time where marriages break down irretrievably as soon as they contracted, what advice do you have for the younger generation?
Marriage is beautiful but not easy. It is like a man travelling by air; you can’t ask the pilot to park in the air for you to come down. If you see your marriage that way, you will just take the good and bad and try and make it work. Yes I agree some marriages are unmanageable. If it is contesting with your God and religion, please move out of it. I call marriages contracted these days, microwave marriages. So my advice to them is to look into it properly before taking the plunge.