By Yemisi Suleiman
Abah Folawiyo is one of the iconic names that headlined the Nigerian fashion industry back in the ‘70s, spearheading a fashion revolution that embraced the beauty of our local ankara fabric that has, today, become a favourite for all. Famously known by her brand name then, Labanella, no designer’s work and personal style is as synonymous with glamour as Aunty Abah’s. As she turns 75 this July, she relives her past experiences and challenges as a designer, life as the widow of late business mogul, Wahab Folawiyo, and her expectations for the fashion industry, amongst other things.
You’re turning 75 this month. How do you feel?
I feel the same by the grace of God. The way I felt when I was 50, 60, 70, and now 75. I feel the same, nothing has changed.
How do you take care of yourself now, in your diet and health?
Well, I have changed my diet. I no longer eat all the things I used to eat before now; things like garri and all. This diet change has also helped me to lose so much weight, which I like, as I am now quite light. I do not eat eba and pounded yam anymore. And, I eat twice a day; I have my breakfast and dinner. I take my dinner is as early as 7 p.m.
What do you like for breakfast and dinner?
For breakfast, I can eat anything. I don’t eat eggs; sometimes, I eat potato, boiled sweet potato, boiled yam or kenke, fried fish and pepper.
Do you go to the spa?
Well, I was not a spa and beauty person so nothing has really changed. All I do is take a good bath. I don’t believe in spa and all the beauty treats.
So, what is life like after your husband’s death? How has life treated you?
Well, I thank God. I am still alive and I am still looking very healthy, so I thank God. But, I miss him a lot. I really miss him because he was a good husband to me; however, his children have taken over. They’re really taking care of me. So, I don’t have any cause to complain but I regret that he died.
What do you miss mostly about him?
That will be his sweetness, kindness and his care. He took care of me very well. He didn’t joke with me; he pampered me a lot. He was not a troublesome husband and was very quiet.
You started the fashion industry years back with some of your contemporaries. How would you describe the industry then and now?
When I started, fashion was not very much in vogue. People were not appreciating fashion designers then. They were importing clothes; ready-made clothes were coming in freely. Then, I started making designs with our local prints. I started with our prints and cotton but they were not appreciated until Obasanjo banned importation of ready-made fabrics and clothes. That was when people realised there are designers here and they started patronising me. That was when the business started booming. I am very pleased that things are different now. There are lots of designers now who work with our prints and they are doing very well in Nigeria. I appreciate all the designers and dressmakers.
We still have an issue with making fabrics in Nigeria because a lot of people will rather not patronise Nigerian fabrics because they are low quality. What do you think?
No, the fabrics are excellent now; they are fantastic. There are well made-in-Nigeria fabrics but many people don’t appreciate it. You know, Nigerians like importing things. They should stop because we have a lot of stuff here in Nigeria. The prints they make here are sold for N1,000 to N1,500 but they would rather buy Hollandis for N30,000, N50,000; that means they’re original. They don’t know that you can use the same inexpensive print to make the same design and it will look even better. Which is what I do a lot; I use lots of cheap fabrics. If you’re a designer, you should be able to use any material, no matter how cheap. Nigeria is trying; same with designers. It’s just that people don’t appreciate what we do here.
So, if you want to advice the government on ways to improve the fashion industry to create revenue for the country, what would you tell them?
Well, I must say the government is not doing enough. They are trying but they are not doing enough. I know that FADAN (Fashion Designers Association of Nigeria) has been all over the government; to get them to help the industry one way or the other but they have been very adamant about it.
They do not take the fashion industry seriously at all; they would rather pay attention to the music industry, which is wrong. So, I would advise that the government should focus, just a little bit, on the fashion industry because it is a money spinner. Other countries make lots of money from their fashion industry. They make lots of money with designers. My hope is that, someday, government will appreciate and support the industry and take it beyond what it is now.
Do you still sew your clothes?
I do sew some of them; I do make them. I have a lot of designers that I groomed and they all love me so, whoever I pick to make a dress that I love, they will make it for me. Sometimes, I give them my design and tell them to make it for me and they do.
Speaking about designs, do you still have inspirations? How does it come?
Of course, I do; that will never go. I don’t know where I get inspirations from, they just come. When I see fabrics, straight away I know what I want to do with them. It just comes naturally.
When you are not working, how do you love to relax?
I watch Nigerian movies; Yoruba and English movies. I watch movies a lot. They help me to relax. When I wake up, I do my prayers and get my breakfast ready. When I’m having my breakfast, I watch movies and learn from them. They teach you facts about life.
How did fashion design begin for you?
It started with my mother. All my family members are dress makers; my mother was an outstanding designer in Ghana, so I got it from her. It is in-born. It runs in the family. We are all into designing. My grandchildren make designs for me. I make them and sell in my factory. Even the boy, he also designs clothes for me to make and I make them and sell them in my shop.
Tell me a bit about growing up, the fun memories you have of your youth.
My childhood was beautiful. I enjoyed myself. I liked going clubbing. I like dancing a lot. So I am a happy person.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Ghana and then I came over here to Nigeria. I have been in Nigeria since then. I got married here and Nigeria is my home.
How do you like your jewellery?
I like everything that I can wear and will make me look nice, whether it’s gold or costume jewellery or whatever. I wear anything that suits me.
I’ve seen you at some fashion shows. What do you have to say about the crop of designers whose collections you see on the runways?
Many of the designers are good and very creative from design to finishing. Yes, most of them are very good and I appreciate them.
There has never been a time you saw clothes on the runway and you were disappointed?
Yes, of course! A lot of occasions but they are all trying and growing and learning.
We hear you’re planning to launch a book for your 80th birthday. Tell us about it. Who’s writing it?
Your editor, Remi Diagbare. She is the same person who wrote for me when I was 70; I intend to use her again in writing this new book.
What will be the difference between the two books?
I don’t know; just documenting my life from 70 to 80 years. But I haven’t decided. I haven’t sat down to know what will be in it.
What is your advice to young designers out there? What would you tell them about the industry, their career? What do you think they should keep in mind?
Well, what they should remember is that designers are strong-minded and hard working people; you design, you sew and it is not easy. It is all in the head. You will be working round the clock, thinking what design you’ll be making with the fabric at hand. It is tough work but, at the same time, it is a straight forward thing to do. So, they should concentrate on what they’re doing but work hard.
What do you like to wear when it comes to parties? Relaxing? What are the kinds of clothes you like to wear?
I like casual wears, kaftans. Sometimes, I wear long dresses; maybe, it’s because I am a Muslim. I don’t like showing my legs so I don’t wear mini-skirts and all but I wear clothes that suit me. I wear more of ankara. I love prints; I love our ankara. It’s my favourite.
When you look back at life from when you started, is there regret? Anything you think you should’ve done that you didn’t do?
I don’t have any regret at all. I thank God for everything and if I come back to this world again, I would want to live the same way I have lived. I would want to be myself.