How I work with Europeans, Asians to create African fashion — Top Nigerian designer, Deola Ojo

Courtesy of Deola Ojo. It was shot by Buchi Akpati
Courtesy of Deola Ojo. It was shot by Buchi Akpati

Deola Ojo is an acknowledged advocate of haute couture and one of Nigeria’s most prominent fashion designers. The first child of the chairman of Toyota Nigeria, Michael Ade-Ojo, she owns the eponymous label, House of Deola.

In this exclusive interview with PREMIUM TIMES, the talented designer, who has been plying her trade for almost three decades, speaks about her craft and passion for fashion.

PT: What is the secret behind your longevity in the very unpredictable Nigerian fashion industry?

Deola Ojo: Well, if I knew exactly what the secret is, if there is a secret at all, then I’d package it and sell it! I’m grateful for my achievements and my continuing relevance and growth in fashion as I close in on 30 years in the business. Over that time I have produced a lot of fashion, and God knows how many dresses.

I think it has to do with intention and purpose. I never was about just the glitz and glam of fashion – I always had a love and respect for craft and expertise. I also never trust anything that comes too easy – which I’ve learned is what some people actually want out of life – the quick and easy thing. I always plan and execute things with as much attention to detail and care as possible.

PT: What vision did you have for your brand from the outset?

Deola Ojo: I wanted my fashion to be about a new kind of woman, an African contemporary woman, who is a citizen of the world, a person that reflects their culture but is also part of the ever-developing world and society. At the time I started in this business, I didn’t like the feeling that somebody was dictating my fashion options from another part of the world. I wanted something that reflected my background and perspective. Also sometimes I would see design that was in some way sort of apologising for being Nigerian. I didn’t like that. I wanted to celebrate my heritage. Coco Channel was never apologetic for being French so why should I be apologetic for being Nigerian.

I’m not really about chasing trends, more defining a fashion idea or vision. It does sound rather grand but chasing these ideals is at the heart of what I do and maybe why my brand continues to have relevance. I’m about fashion not about trends.

PT: You have no doubt revolutionised the Iro and Buba…

Deola Ojo: I should make it clear that Iro and Buba was never a stagnant mode of attire. We must learn to appreciate our own heritage’s genius. It isn’t correct to think that Iro and Buba does not renew itself and even in revolutionary ways sometimes. This is a living culture so it ebbs and flows. What has been the biggest gift for me has been to realise just how versatile Aso Oke is at its core. Anything you truly love you make an effort to know and understand deeply. As my understanding and knowledge of this wonderful material has grown so has my ability to apply different influences and ideas in the creation of my fashion.

PT: What inspired the Komole Kandids series for instance?

Deola Ojo: Komole Kandids is like the tip of an iceberg. I already have a personal history with the development of Komole fabric that spans about 13 years. Komole Kandids is just a part along the continuum of styles and fashion ideas, like the way a chapter tells part of a story.

PT: What major lessons have you imbibed from your experiences especially overseas and how have they shaped your brand?

Deola Ojo: Fashion is a universal language and fashion that works, works multi-dimensionally. That means fashion that works crosses boundaries. I was lucky that I was received very pleasantly abroad from my earliest days as a designer, but I was never too convinced of my own brilliance, so I was able to learn, observe and adapt. I learned a lot about how people come to appreciate a new thing, or how far they want to be pulled into something new or not familiar to them. I have learned a lot about pure business from my experiences abroad. I have also learned that unless you love who you are and what makes you, “you”, you’re going to have a difficult time getting anyone to like you or value you.

PT: How have you also managed low moments in your career?

Deola Ojo: Thank you for reminding me that I have had some low moments! Yes, there have been obstacles that I have faced, and I should point out that many were faced completely alone, but as I sit here today I see that it has all been part of a rich tapestry of experience, which itself is a source of inspiration.

Thank God there has always been a release valve for me when times got tough. I’m like that lady in the film “Gone with the wind”, Scarlet O’ Hara. When things got really bad for her, she would say, “After all, tomorrow is another day!”- And sometimes it has to be that simple, especially when things start looking overwhelming.

PT: Can you share some of these experiences with us?

Deola Ojo: I have had situations with workers playing tricks, or being used by others to play tricks on me; or contemporaries who for some reason felt that in order for them to go up I would have to be put down. That’s one I have always found strange, that someone else’s success needs to be maligned in order to make your own success greater – pure rubbish if you ask me!

PT: You played a cameo yet significant role as the late iconic Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti in Kunle Afolayan’s October 1. Is acting something you would love to explore further?

Deola Ojo: That experience was quite something. As an actor you have to be like a river. Things must flow through you, even faster than in real life when you have the opportunity to consider what to say or how to react. It is like you are living in a heightened moment. It can be quite nerve racking but Kunle is the consummate professional and he is very technical about all elements, so you can put your ego aside and join in contributing to his vision. I’m a designer not an actor but I never say never. If the right project comes along then you might well see Deola the actress again.

PT: At what point in your life did you begin to realise the global appeal of African style, and your flair for it?

Deola Ojo: African style is world style. So much of what we see everywhere has been influenced by Africa in one form or the other. Perhaps the biggest issue is that we Africans as a people and the whole continent have not been very good at acknowledging our own brilliance in modern history.

This is changing slowly and now we are getting closer to the crux, which is how we sell and proliferate our ideas. Intellectual property is hugely important so we must respect it and become conductors of this domain. An idea is all it takes to launch a thousand ships!

PT: In what ways can Nigeria encourage her creative industry?

Deola Ojo: So especially in Nigeria, we must grow up about this and give people their due recognition if they originate something or create something new. Also as a nation we must protect those amongst us who are the creators and generators because they are the ones shaping tomorrow, for the good of us all.

PT: Do you also work with Nigerian tailors considering the fact that your team comprises of cutters and seamstresses from Korea?

Deola Ojo: I work with anybody of any race, gender or age to fulfill any project that I am interested in. My only prejudice is that you are talented and take your work seriously. As I mentioned we are closing in on 30 years of business so if I track every nationality of persons that I have worked with over the years then it would certainly be very revealing. Nigerian tailors are amongst the best in the world and very innovative. Right now my team consists of Nigerians, Europeans and Asians, and I would say it is a good squad, expertise and flavour wise. Along the continuum of my brands development this represents a fraction of the time, so I am an inclusive and not an exclusive type of person.

PT: Your bespoke outfits can be likened to a typical cosmetic surgery. Kindly take us through the thought process?

Deola Ojo: I think you must mean that the form of some of the bespoke outfits that we produce can be transformative when put unto the body. Unlike cosmetic surgery I am not trying to make anybody look or seem like somebody else or somebody they are not, but yes, some designs do accentuate, or withhold depending on what we are trying to achieve.

PT: Can you elucidate further?

Deola Ojo: For instance, if we are making a wedding dress for someone it is a very unique experience because that dress has to be about the woman in it – but that woman on her best day. We essentially sculpt the dress around her frame and translate her personality into the form of the dress.

PT: What do you consider to be the future of fashion designing in Nigeria?

Deola Ojo: The future for Nigeria is bright, and the future for Nigerian fashion is bright. One thing we know for sure is that Nigerians, are not lazy and we also have a strong point of view, both of which are requisites for renewing the fashion bloodline. No one said it was going to be easy but there are enough new minds out there to keep the ball rolling.

PT: Are you looking to retire soon and what are your plans in this regard? Are you thinking of succession?

Deola Ojo: Succession planning is what any true business owner should be giving thought to. Considering how to navigate into the future is a prerequisite for managing change. But retirement is far from my mind as there is still a long way to go before handing over the reins.

PT: How do you unwind?

Deola Ojo: I dance and I thoroughly advise it to everybody. Shaking your tail feathers does wonders for lightening your mood!


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