Lagos, Nigeria – The roads are empty, the only signs of life are birds chirping and foremen working the courtyards.
It is early morning in Lagos’ affluent Lekki area, and a makeup artist is rushing to get Sandra Tubobereni ready for a busy day ahead.
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Tubo, as she and her clothing line are popularly known, is an up-and-coming designer in Nigeria and her clothes and fashion services are in high demand.
The phone rings constantly in the all-white reception room, and clients sit patiently under its sparkling chandelier, waiting to see the 26-year-old.
Tubo specialises in wedding dresses with a traditional African twist.
“Demand, as you can see, is extremely high. The industry is growing, and at the moment the world can’t have enough of our designs,” she said, smiling under the bright lights of her office.
And that is not an overstatement. Former US first lady Michelle Obama, Oscar-winner Lupita Nyongo, and pop stars Beyonce and Lady Gaga are just a few of the names who have recently worn clothes by Nigerian designers.
“Before, Nigerians wanted to be seen wearing clothes by foreign designers. That was the trend. But now they see famous people wearing our clothes. So now they say ‘if it is good enough for Michelle Obama and Beyonce, it is good enough for me too,'” Tubo said as Vibrate – a song by Nigerian artist Timaya – played in the background.
Tubo employs 15 staff, including 10 tailors, to keep up with the growing demand. Her work is not just limited to Africa’s most populous country. She has travelled to London, Amsterdam, Accra, Houston and Banjul in the last year to attend to her clients.
“Social media helps our work a lot. People see our designs online and reach to us. On an average day, we get a minimum of 10 requests. Our dresses range from $1,000 to $3,000,” Tubo, who trained as an economist before embarking on her lifelong ambition to be a designer, said.
The trend now in Nigeria, the continent’s biggest economy, is for the well-to-do to have their own personal fashion guru. Ade Bakare is one of the most sought-after designers in Lagos. He is the personal clothing creator for the country’s former first lady, Stella Obasanjo.
“There are many people here in Nigeria that have a large disposable income. Before, they used to travel abroad to shop, which was not very convenient,” Bakare said as interns stood nearby hanging on his every word.
“Nigerians are fashion obsessed. They just don’t follow trends. They set the trend,” he added.
First fashion academy
Bakare – who relocated from London, where he still owns a clothing shop, more than seven years ago – has also noticed another huge gap in the market.
“When I first came back I noticed there was a lack of experience. Those involved in the industry had little or no training. It was limiting their potential. So I started the first fashion academy in the country,” he said.
And his students are not just from Nigeria. Beverly Chipchirchir Langat, 23, is from Kenya and is about to graduate from the academy.
“Nigerians are bold compared to us Kenyans. They appreciate fashion more than East Africans. They celebrate their fashion. In Kenya, we are still evolving. We will get there,” she said with a smile.
No one knows how much Nigeria’s fashion industry is worth, but some of the old challenges remain.
The country’s textile industry has all but collapsed. Cheap imports from abroad still compete with locally made clothes. Electricity at best remains erratic. But these obstacles have not deterred many Nigerians from embracing their own.
In Lagos’ Iponri area, business is brisk as customers haggle with their clothing makers.
“I like my designer,” said Paul Akinbuja, an interior designer, pointing towards a man in a tight-fitting T-shirt with a gold necklace a few metres away.
“He is very precise. He makes clothes just the way I want them. Since he started making my clothes I hardly buy any clothes made abroad,” Akinbuja said.
‘Taste of Africa’
Soares Anthony, his fashion designer, is a former model who currently employs five staff at his business.
“I’m 35-years old. You cannot be a model forever,” he said with a burst of hearty laughter.
“I saw how much our people like clothes and fashion. I focus on the middle market. My clothes are between $50 to $200. They are affordable,” he added.
With the country recently overtaking South Africa as the biggest economy on the continent, designers in Lagos see no limit to what they can achieve.
“I don’t make clothes for just Nigerians. I’m making a wedding dress for a white English woman marrying a Gambian man. We are here for anyone who wants good quality fashion and a taste of Africa,” Tobu, the young wedding dress designer, said as another eager client walked into her studio.
Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa