How I Avoided Medicine For Fashion –Ejiro Amos Tafiri – The Sun Nigeria
By Vivian Onyebukwa
Ejiro Amos Tafiri, is one of the notable fashion designers in Nigeria. A brilliant child, gifted in both science and the arts, her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Amos Tafiri, then civil servants, wanted her to become a doctor. She chose to go into fashion instead, which didn’t sit well with her parents. They felt let down, especially at a time when the craft of sewing was seen as territory for school dropouts. They couldn’t imagine how she wouldn’t want to study medicine at the University of Lagos, but chose to do fashion at Yaba College of Technology, where she eventually graduated. However, she decided to pursue her dream diligently and make her chosen career a success knowing full well that she had no support.
Today, she is a proud child of her parents with her excellent achievement in the fashion industry. One film that inspired her growing up was Woman of Substance, the story of a young helper who took up sewing and started her own business to become a globally established designer. The film, according to her, was a confirmation of her dream of becoming a remarkable fashion designer. She also started reading stories about top fashion designers like “Rose of Sharon”, belonging to oil magnet, Folorunsho Alakija, and others, whose works greatly inspired her.
After her National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), Tafiri completed a two-year internship at Tiffany Amber, an international fashion brand owned by Nigerian women. She left work and started her label in 2010.
In this interview, she talked about her life and her career.
How small did you start and how tall are you now?
I started sewing from home. Later, I moved into two small shops at the back of my mother’s house in Ikotun Egbe, Lagos. From there I moved into a three bedroom apartment in Egbe, Lagos where I still keep my plant. I also have a showroom in the heart of Ikoyi, and a fashion school in Ikeja.
What were your first challenges in the company?
I am a person who does not catalog the challenges. I don’t even want to see them, because my whole career in fashion has already been met with resistance and a lot of Noh. Also, I didn’t come from a wealthy background. The people we were into fashion together had a lot of rich, worldly friends. It was this network of people that defined what fashion was. They would be your customers, your champions and people who would celebrate you. They’d get the media talking about you if you were already a well-to-do kid. Where I came from, both my parents were civil servants. Then my father was already retired and my mother was still working. It was difficult to break in. I had to rely on talent, grace and ingenuity, think outside the box, because I don’t have what it takes to do it. I’ll do it with what I have my way, and it worked for me. So doing an internship in different fashion houses, working before launching my brand, helped me to really understand what the current fashion world was like, to understand my niche, to know how I wanted to attract my customers even if I had no shop and money. There was no dream of owning a boutique. I was living in Ikotun, Lagos at the time. But then I quickly thought about exposure and how to stand out and bring all these things together.
So there would always be challenges. All that would make you successful is seeing these things as work. Other challenges included electricity and bad roads. Banks back then didn’t lend you money. Then the stigma of designers and tailors who never deliver on time was also a challenge. So if you sit down and start worrying about your challenges, you won’t make a move. They are many. I don’t live in them, I live in what I am able to achieve.
Why is everyone rushing into the fashion world these days?
It’s a boom. I think it’s social media. Also, in Nigeria, the fact that many people drop out of school and cannot find jobs is another reason. More so, the entry requirements into fashion are very minimal, and there is also this Instagram boom; because of social media, there is an ease of marketing. The entry requirement into fashion design is easier, cheaper and accessible. I think that’s why there’s a huge influx into fashion. You don’t need a cameraman, a model to model your clothes. You can do it yourself. You can use your phone, take photos and post on Instagram. Africans are generally very creative people, and the fact that there is no work, everyone digs deep to crave their creativity. It is also accepted by parents now. When I started, my parents didn’t like it at all. It was almost like an abomination, a taboo for you to be a smart kid and say you want to do fashion. It was seen as something for people who weren’t doing well in school. A child who had all A’s and was supposed to go to medical school, choosing fashion was unheard of. But now it’s not like that. It’s like people are doing well in music and fashion. Parents can now be proud of it. Again, the whole buy Nigeria, wear Nigeria campaign is another thing. A lot of things are done to affect the psyche and people now know that when they produce, people are going to patronize them. They don’t have that foreign mentality as much as they used to, you had to wear a foreign brand. Then on the red carpet you find only foreign brands. Now on the red carpet you only have Nigerian or African brands. It is almost impossible and unheard of in Africa right now for you to step onto the red carpet without wearing an African brand.
How lucrative is the business?
For the most part, you’d say it’s lucrative, but it’s all about sustainability. What do you call lucrative? How much are you investing? How high do you want to grow? Generally, it is lucrative depending on how you position your business. Do you want to become a ready-to-wear designer? Who is your target audience? Who are you trying to sell to? How good is your marketing strategy? If you have everything, of course, yes, it’s lucrative, but sometimes it’s difficult, especially if you want to do it a certain way and assign a certain level. It depends on what you call success. Some people might make simple tops and skirts in the Yaba market, sell them for 1,500 or 3,000 naira and earn millions a day. Some are there as top designers and they can’t pay their bills and are still working on investors and guarantors. For me, it depends on what you call success. So working in the fashion value chain, yes, it’s lucrative.
Who are your clients ?
They are women with upward mobility. Women sure of who they are and who know where they are going. My clothes help women express their powers, their identity and their status. Basically, they are CEOs of companies, senior executives of different organizations, young women who have an idea of who they are, who are between 30 and 40 years old and have a sense of themselves. I’m in my early 20s, but they’re usually the confident ones who have developed their sense of style. I don’t wear crowd clothes. Each fabric is chic and timeless, yet complex.
Can you name a few?
It’s not really fair to mention who your customers are. It’s boastful, but for ease. In fact, almost all top female musicians such as Tiwa Savage, Waje and Nollywood actress, Rita Dominic are among them. Generally, any A-list female star in music and Nollywood could have worn the Ejiro Amos Tafiri brand at one point or another. Then in other industries, you have captains of industries, and leading businesswomen and businesswomen, and people who own their businesses.
What fabric do you feel comfortable working with?
Fabrics that drape. I work a lot with muslin, silk; any fabric that has movement. Even if the fabric has no movement, I make sure it moves. I’m best known for draping, so they call me the queen of Nigerian draping.
Where do you usually get your fabrics from?
From the local market. Sometimes I can draw a picture and print it. Sometimes I receive from Turkey or China, but generally I shop here. I work a lot with local artisans. I do a lot of tie and die. I also work with aso oke weavers.
What about ankara fabric?
I’m not into ankara fabric. People call it Nigerian fabric but I know it’s not Nigerian. It has its deep root, the foundation of Dutch, which is Dutch, made by accompanying Holland. I know it’s not Nigerian, although they borrow a lot of our designs. We started wearing a lot of it, so they take a lot of our heritage and use it to design with the pattern, but it’s not that it has to be made here. So even if you go to Ankara, it’s not like it’s something that comes from a village, no. But also oke is a traditional fabric that we make ourselves. Tie and die, and akwete too. These are our own traditional fabrics. Yes, ankara could be called African fabric because it is specifically used by Africans. I use it sometimes. I was a Vilisco Ambassador, so I use it.
What is style for you?
For my client, when I think about my brand, I think about different women, what it means to different people, and what it means to be an independent, strong woman with high self-esteem.
For me, style is being able to put on something, dress in a certain way that reflects my emotion, and be free or conscripted, but do it with a decent level of elegance and of ease. I believe fashion should be for people, not people for fashion, like when you and your fashion mood become one. That’s the style for me.
What can you say about your turning point in your career?
The major turning point in my career started at Oleku, an outfit born from the re-imagining of Iro and Buba. “Oleku” is a traditional outfit that I loved to wear when I was a child and a young girl. Although it was not well received at first, the design sold to thousands of people, which gave me the financial power to open the Ikoyi store. Other designs I’ve designed include the Celine dress and the Nadine set.