MCcoy Okpa, Yomi Casual and Kola Kuddus – Defining Brands with Passion
The Nigerian fashion industry has grown over the years, producing brands that can stand side by side other brands in Africa and, someday, will stand up to its global contemporaries. These three designer brands, Yomi Casual, Kola Kuddus and McCoy of MC Tell Gallery, had dreams and passion they fuelled to build their brands. Today, their names strike a chord in the industry and they have no plans of slowing down. In this interview, they talk about their passions and expectations for the future of Nigerian fashion.
Top designer, Kola Kuddus, started small; his humble beginnings as a personal shopper brewed an interest into fashion designing. After years of study and perseverance, he has built a brand worthy to stand beside global brands. He is a Diamond Bank brand ambassador and his designs are widely worn in more than eight states of the country through his collaboration with retail store brand, Twice as Nice. In this sit-down, he speaks of his humble beginnings and his vision for the Kola Kuddus brand.
What challenges have you encountered since you started designing?
There have been a lot of challenges. Truth be told, the Nigerian fashion industry is still in the elementary stage; it’s still growing and it’s still not mature compared to other parts of the world. Years back, we didn’t have these platforms for designers or even a fashion industry as a whole. Now, we have government trying to invest in fashion, stakeholders trying to invest in fashion-based products, fashion based television programmes, fashion photographers etc.
Like every other business, one of the major challenges I have faced as a business man and designer is capital; capital to build a brand because in this business, you need to buy machines, power them, buy fabrics, pay staff, etc. Another major challenge would be human capital. I say this because the level at which our staff are being trained is still very basic. We lack experts and professionals; people with over 25 years work experience in the industry. It’s rare to find people who do proper fashion courses; one can’t compare the level of expertise of those who attend Nigerian fashion schools to those who study abroad.
Finally, I would say that government needs to do something about the issue of power; the average designer uses nothing less than two million naira monthly or less to run their business and power machines. Imagine a situation where there is power, that money can be utilized in another way.
Tell us about your collaboration with “Twice as Nice”.
Okay. Well, it came about as the need for retail spaces became a logistic nightmare. Twice as Nice is a retail partner; they have branches across Nigeria, with spaces in most of the major malls in the country. They have stores all over the country – including Abuja, Port Harcourt, Warri, Enugu, Kwara and Lagos. This gives our products much needed visibility. It allows the average consumer have access to the Kola Kuddus brand. That’s why you can see people in Nigeria wear Ralph Lauren or whatever brand you want without even knowing what he looks like. That was the idea behind the collaboration.
What do you think the fashion industry needs?
I think the industry needs to start working on collaborating with government to spread (our brand) appeal and production hub. We need to work hand in hand with government to work on getting premium locations for various brands because, you find people complaining that Nigerian designers are over-priced without considering how much we pay as rent, how much we spend on power, salaries, adverts, photo-shoots, look books etc. It’s all very tight and you find that, at the end of the day, it comes to a really lump sum.
Tell us about your work with the “Diamond Bank Entrepreneurship Programme”.
A few years ago, I saw an advert for a business school competition and I entered for it. Over 3,000 people applied and I count myself as one of the lucky few to be chosen among a selected 50. I have always wanted to go to Lagos Business School to train and upgrade my skills. This opportunity came and we were trained for 6 months; after those 6 months, they picked the best 15. After another 6 months, they rounded it off to the top 5 which I was fortunate to be among. I also walked away with 3 million naira as a grant to grow my business. That was after a year of rigorous training. That’s how I became directly or indirectly an ambassador for Diamond Bank.
What projects are you working on now?
Right now, we are working on a new collection; a new brand to suit the present economic situation of Nigeria (laughs). Everybody knows that Nigeria is in a deep recession right now and people aren’t spending; people aren’t buying so we need to create that collection – that label that would appeal to everybody; something that would keep the business running.
How do you handle difficult clients?
The world, as they say, is not a fair one so different people with different characters. That’s what makes the world. Everybody cannot act the same way. Sometimes, we have clients that over react. It’s even worse when the client doesn’t react because those ones are even more dangerous.
The idea is to know how to manage people. The clients who act out tend to apologize later for blowing up but the ones who don’t say anything just go off grid. As a designer, one needs to learn patience and perseverance.
Would you say your clothing is affordable?
We are actually a premium brand. We aren’t expensive and we don’t come cheap as well. Looking at the time we put in and quality of our pieces, the finishing and the standard we want to deliver; because for us at Kola Kuddus, we don’t see ourselves as just a Lagos or Nigerian brand. We see ourselves as worthy of competing on an international scale, because fashion is global. As someone who has dreams of having an international brand, you need to define your status and set a standard.
Yomi Casual is the CEO and face of the Yomi Casual brand. His move into fashion was inspired by a mistake his sister made filling his JAMB form. The abstract artist loves to paint and infuses his creative passion into his designs, using patterns and unique forms to bring his clothing to life.
Yomi, younger brother of comedian and actor, AY Makun, honed his skill and today designs for top personalities in the country. In this interview, he talks about his brand and focus for the future.
How did your brand come to be?
It all started in 2007. I studied Fashion Designing and Clothing Technology at Auchi Polytechnic. It was all a mistake (laughs). Fashion was not my thing. I never wanted to be a designer. My older sister got my JAMB form in 2002 and mistakenly filled in Fashion Designing instead of Fine and Applied Art. That was how it all came to be.
So, if you weren’t doing fashion designing, what career line would you be in?
First and foremost, I’m an artist. I love to paint, sketch etc. I do a lot of creative art and painting. I’m an illustrator. Before I gained admission into school, I used to paint on my street, sell local paintings, meet people and sketch them for a token and I believe I’m good at that.
Have you done any painting that is showcased anywhere at the moment?
Way back, I always wished and believed I would be a big artist like Picasso etc. But as it happens, I found myself in fashion which is equally as exciting. Even though none of my works is in any gallery, I hope someday to paint a masterpiece that everyone would come to see and be willing to buy and love.
What is the inspiration behind Yomi Casual?
First of all, you need to know that Yomi Casual is a very creative guy. Like I said, I’m an artist and as the saying goes: “artists have a third eye”. The way we reason is very different from other people. I see life from a totally different perspective. In essence, the brain behind Yomi Casual is really unorthodox. I get my ideas from the oddest places like the internet, the streets, the thread I sew with, life etc.
Who is your focus market?
From the beginning, I looked up to one designer, Mudi; he is my mentor. When I came to Lagos, I saw his work and my brother told me who he is. That inspired me to go into designing knowing that there were creative people like me making it in the fashion scene.
Mudi’s work gave me a focus group; he caters for high society, politicians and CEOs. My focus is those top personalities in the country because of the designs and pricy fabrics I use but soon, I intend to create lines that will cater for everybody.
Would you say that your brother’s social status influenced your rise to the top?
Of course, very much so. AY came in as a backbone for my career. It’s always good to have that person who can help and push you forward; you need much more than talent to rise to the top. You need that voice, out there, to speak for you. There are designers with crazy talent that don’t have a voice. I would say my brother gave me that voice and opportunity for people to see what I could do.
With people like IK Ogbonna, Alex Ekubo, Zack Orji etc. representing your brand, what influenced your choice of brand ambassadors?
Truth is, I don’t like using skinny models. My target was these kinds of individuals; the normal man. You hear designers telling you things like they don’t have designs for anybody that is size 14; you have to be like an 8 or 10. When I started out, I made an outline for the kind of people I wanted to wear my outfits and I feel good when I see them putting on my designs.
Tell us about your collaboration with Tu-Face for the shirt collection.
I was with Tu-Face a while back and told him that he hadn’t endorsed me so he came up with the idea of the Tu-Face collection for Yomi Casual. That is something that has been on with other notable celebrities for designer brands like Rihanna for River Island and Justin Bieber for Calvin Klein. So, this is Tu-Face for Yomi Casual. It will be very unique and exceptional so look out for it. Fingers crossed.
What is your vision for Yomi Casual in the future?
In the nearest future, I hope my brand will be one of the biggest in Nigeria. I make traditional wears that are appealing and I hope they will be better in time to come. I’m also looking at a long overdue fashion showcase. I have sent proposals out and I hope my sponsors see this. Please, I am still hoping for positive feedback (laughs).
What has been your biggest challenge since inception?
I would say there are a lot of designers in Nigeria that don’t want to work. They are so lazy that they don’t want to think and come up with their own original designs. They wait for you to work and then steal your original design. That hurts me a lot.
What do you think will put the Nigerian fashion scene on fashion’s global map?
I think we are doing it already. We already have an appeal; people respect the Nigerian fashion industry and praise it. Way back, you couldn’t come out and say you’re a designer; they looked down on us. What I think we need is backing from government. We need investors who believe in the industry’s potential.
A country like China encourages creativity because innovation aids in economic growth and that is what they thrive on. So, if more money is invested in the industry, then we will definitely grow.
What motto do you live by?
Live life as it goes with planning. I don’t like to stress and bother about anything that will happen. But I always plan as well.
Okpa McCoy is a fast rising designer and creative artist. Much like his contemporaries, he had a humble beginning. The Cross River State indigene always had passion for fashion and decided to improve his skill by attending fashion school. His commitment to his trade and passion finally earned him recognition when he was named Da Viva brand ambassador. He is also billed to showcase at the Africa Fashion Week Nigeria in July. In this interview, he talks about his work, passion and plans.
What was growing up like for you?
I’m the fifth child from a family of eight. I had older ones who were very caring and I have always been creative. I usually found myself styling my older ones and even my parents. My drive for fashion started way back, when I was quite young. Then, I didn’t even know what I was doing. It wasn’t a defined thing. I became more aware when I went to fashion school. I looked at all the sketches I had made and learnt the nitty gritty of styling and designing. All in all, I would say growing up was fun.
You have won several awards which include FADAN and AFWN awards for best emerging designer. How did that make you feel?
My very first award came in December of 2014. It was the search for the next Da Viva brand ambassador organized by the Fashion Designers Association of Nigeria (FADAN). I showcased my designs and emerged one of the top-three winners. That was where it all started. After that, everything became so fast. I wasn’t even ready to start fashion at that point. I got a lot of calls and a lot of contracts through this avenue and this enabled me to launch officially.
My Africa Fashion Week Nigeria award came later on. When I got the call initially, I was scared and felt I wasn’t ready for a platform as big as that but, thankfully, I gave it my all and everything turned out amazing. The part that I’m most thankful for is that someone actually noticed my skill and rewarded me for it.
If you weren’t designing, what would you be doing?
I trained as an artist. I studied Fine Arts and Design from the University of Port Harcourt. Not to sound boastful, I was the best graduating student from my set (laughs) so if I wasn’t designing, I’m a trained painter. I would’ve been running a gallery or something; although fashion is still art so I’m still in the corridors of art. My going into arts actually was to fine-tune what was already there.
What does it entail to be the Da Viva brand ambassador?
Being the Da Viva brand ambassador is a lot of responsibility. When I won, it hit me that I had to sit up and work twice as hard. It keeps me on my toes each time I have to come out to represent them. It brushed me up for the fashion business at a young age. As the brand ambassador, I am a face to push the brand, showing the essence in my designs and speaking at the forefront; representing them in the fashion scene. It isn’t an easy task but I’m thankful for it.
Which celebrities have you worked with?
My very first collection was used to style Miss Tourism Nigeria at the time. I have also styled for several music videos after which I styled on the set of “Seriously Speaking with Adesuwa Onyenokwe”. I have also styled Yeka Onka, the first winner of Nigerian Idol, who is a personal friend of mine. I recently dressed Yemi Alade for the cover of Africa Fashion Week Nigeria.
What inspires you to design?
I would say everything; everything around me is bright and beautiful in my eyes and it all inspires me. Art is all around us and it takes a keen eye to capture it and translate it into something exceptional.
How would you describe your MC Tell Gallery Design line?
Naturally, I am a couture designer; even before I think little pieces, what comes to my mind, I see it in couture. I like my designs having a bit of drama; something has to pop and represent my brand in all my designs.
What motto do you live by?
What is worth doing at all is worth doing well.
Who are your fashion influences?
I used to love Giorgio Armani as a young man. I liked the fact that he has twenty three brands and he manages all of them and none of them is suffering. I like the fact that his brand is so big and still growing. However, at the moment, I’m not looking at foreigners anymore. I’m looking at people I can reach, people who can mentor me one-on-one.
I actually met Modella, the creative director of Modella Couture. I also met with several other designers who have helped me to grow. I especially look (out for) our generation – people like Ejiro Amos Tafiri, Kola Kuddus etc.
What do you think the Nigeria fashion industry needs?
The industry is growing fast and I am so happy to be a part of it now because a lot of attention is going to the industry; more attention than it has had in the past ten years. I see the industry growing bigger; it just needs a few kinks here and there. More focus should be put on building the business aspects and promoting the industry on a larger scale.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am showcasing at Africa Fashion Week Nigeria in July. I am also part of the Nigeria’s Next Top Designer Competition. I’m part of the top twenty finalists which is in tandem with the AFWN. It’s given me sleepless nights but I’m thankful and hopeful for more.
By Pamela Echemunor