Toyin Lawani: Entrepreneur Extraordinaire
By Yemisi Suleiman
Toyin Lawani is phenomenal at what she does. She is a stylist, fashion designer, beautician and hair stylist, who has diversified into so many different fields and excelling in all. The owner of Tiannah’s Place Empire, who found success before age 30, is a hard worker and a hustler. Unlike some entrepreneurs and successful business people, she doesn’t give off an air of entitlement, but rather one of gratitude for all that she has accomplished. For Toyin, life could only mean one thing; ‘keep pushing until you hit your goal.” The mother of two, who is also the face of Nigeria’s Next Top Designer, tells her journey into the business world, her success trick, family and more.
How did you start off in business?
I started business while I was in SS1. As a food and nutrition student, I learnt how to bake cakes, scotch eggs, meat pies which I sold to a lady who ran a shop in the same building with my mum. Before I knew it, her customers were hooked to it. That was how I started my secret cash flow. I remember the day I made fried rice and whole roasted chicken in school. I was the best and got an award for that. It felt good at that tender age. I also started selling secretly in school to my friends. And from then, I moved from one business to the other.
Students used to wake me up at night to buy clothes to wear to clubs. All these went on till I relocated to the UK, got married and had my daughter.
How did Tiannah’s Place Empire come to be?
After living abroad for a while, I got bored because I didn’t see myself doing a 9 to 5 job. So I came back to Nigeria with my baby and started my businesses in Victoria Island.nIt kicked off so fast and all my previous customers on the mainland followed me to Victoria Island. The business is named after my daughter Tiannah. Under Tiannah’s place I have beauty salon, barbing salon, hair goddess, Tiannah’s Spa, Tiannah Glow Products, Tiannah Travel and Tours and Elegante Boutique (which I started out with unique vintage pieces).
Along the line, I started choreographing dance projects and stage shows. I started directing music videos etc., scripting, building projects etc. All the businesses grew and were located at different places till I decided to move all of my businesses under one roof. That was how Tiannah’s Place Empire was birthed
You are from a very business-conscious background. Would you say that it inspired your business sense?
Yes. I would say it contributed a lot to my business. While growing up, my mum took us to Ibadan to live with our grandma when she left my dad. I did part of my primary school there; my grandma was married to the first Minister of Works in the Western Region, Aare Elijah Babalola (my grandpa). She was later crowned the Adale Oba of Ikoyi Ikole Ekiti. Being a regent and also a chief justice required a lot of activities.
We went back and forth, between Ekiti and Ibadan. My grandma had a huge hotel in Akure called Formount Hotel. I saw her controlling her businesses. We also own a huge estate in Ibadan called Babalola Estate in Odona, Orita Challenge, Ibadan. We lived in my grandma’s mansion, close to her filling station, a pharmacy, a drink depot, a restaurant called “Something Else” (with weekend live band), supermarket, pepper grinders, business centres, etc. All these businesses she owned.
By the time I was 9 years old, I had full knowledge of the workings of my grandma’s empire. Put together, she had about 350 staff working for her and I learned a lot from them.
My mother’s business life also influenced me a lot. She studied Hotel Management and Catering Services in California, USA. She later went to beauty school and started her skin care product, hairdressing salon and cosmetics line. Her skin was to die for. She used to make me mix her glow products, which was how I started my home made, all-natural skin products called “Tiannah’s Glow”. She used to glow endlessly and her red lip was always nicely done. She had two outlets; one at Oshodi and the other in Surulere. She was very successful in the gold and textile industry. She had shops at Oshodi, Yaba, Tejuosho and Idumota, Lagos.
After school, she used to make us go to her shop at Yaba and we would go home together. While at the shops, despite the fact that my mum had up to 35 people working for her and three house girls at home, she used to make us do chores around the shop and home. I would cut fabrics and help her around. She sent my sister and I to Hong Kong to know her factories. She used to travel a lot for her various businesses. Once she hears about a new business boom, she quickly delves into it and cashes out before the market knows. I learned a lot from her while growing up. I was her shadow because I loved beauty and food.
What is your target market?
I say this all the time: I design for everyone, from ages 0 to 100 (young, matured and old clients). I cater for wide range of clientsfrom governors’ wives to ministers, honourables, commissioners, musicians, bankers and judges. They are my discreet clients so I don’t post them on my social media pages in order to ensure that I have their trust.
I also make uniforms for companies, restaurants,movies, music videos, pageants etc.
What would you say makes your music video special, why should I come to you to style my video?
People love the videos I style because I create all my pieces from scratch and due to that fact, I keep getting more jobs. So, the entertainment industry is a major part of my target market.
I also realized that there is money in creating aso-ebi styles in Nigeria so I found a way to infuse my own European ideas and it keeps bringing clients. My pieces are always one of a kind but, I still stick to my creative ideas when it’s the runway. I create according to my clients’ wishes.
Tell us about your various businesses.
I run 20 businesses under Tiannah’s Place Empire. They all work hand in hand and complement each other. For example, when I’m on set for a music video or a movie, we used to employ a hair stylist, make-up artist; production crew etc. But now, we have our own in-house make-up artist, hairstylist and production crew etc. All I do now is pick my team members from each department and we pull our skills together. Now, I make money from the whole production because I have everything in-house.
Even Tiannah Styling Fashion Academy students are privileged to learn anything they wish at the empire. I tell them that a stylist that can fix and blow-dry hair or do make-up is a dresser not a stylist; which is different from being a designer. Before any shoot or event, we start from our client’s skin, just to ensure it’s glowing on their big day; which we attain with our natural products via Tiannah’s Glow products. A stylist must know how to illustrate, make-up, design, make hair; she must know about skin.
How did you get into styling?
I would style my friends from my personal closet which is a closet to die for and that started getting me jobs to build closets for dignitaries. Music videos, movie and magazine covers started pulling my pieces and along the line, I started styling events, music videos, editorial covers; I started styling magazine covers, major artistes and shows. Vector’s album cover was the first I styled; then, D Prince, Dammy Krane etc. I styled few videos for Wizkid, D Prince etc. I started styling Tiwa Savage, Seyi Shay, Waje, etc. All these showcased my work to the world. I started working with Amarachi and directed her video; I scripted Amarachi’s dances. Vector saw my work and he said I should direct and shoot his video for ‘Shiga’, Sean Tizzle’s ‘Shole’ video and Goldie’s ‘Say My Name’ video. I also worked with Dammy Krane and Pasuma.
I was the official stylist/designer for ‘Love like a Movie’. I got to style Ciara in our denim iro and buba outfit she wore to visit a school and also her street dance with Kaffy in my transformer piece. I started styling dignitaries like Florence Ita-Giwa, Grace Egbagbe, and Ben Bruce etc.
What is your dream for Tiannahs Place Empire?
My dream is to make Tiannahs Place Empire into a learning organization. Right now, we have a fashion and styling school, make-up, photography school, skin beauty/ nail and modelling school.
What makes you happy?
I am fulfilled when I help people by impacting knowledge. My mum taught me a lot before she got ill in America with cancer and passed on.
I really love to give back. I felt empty, for some time, but along the line. I met Gladys and her sister Mercyln; they are both deaf and dumb. I gave her a job to clean my tailoring department and fix labels and buttons but one day, I saw her making a pair of shorts for her baby and started training her in men’s wear. Now, she makes all our pants; well tailored. She got pregnant again and had to take care of herself and two kids. She’s been with me for five years now and she has really evolved. Mercyln, her sister, was already good with braids. She makes my blue, pink and grey hair. Now, they fend for their kids and live a good life and that really makes me happy and fulfilled.
What challenges do you face running your business?
The number one issue in business is competitors copying your work, thinking you are in a competition with them. But our brand is very unique and we provide services that can’t be imitated. Once you standout, people all over the world will enquire about your services. Customer service is the most important issue in any business, but you just have to keep training your staff (to know) that clients are kings and queens. Dishonest staff can cost you your business so you have to be on the watch.Theycan sabotage your business due to their own selfish interests; some of them even come and steal your clients and poach your good staff.
How does it feel to be the Face of Nigeria Next Top Designer?
I felt so honoured when I got an email with an amazing headline asking me to be the face of the brand and the head judge. I wasn’t shocked but I know God, my consistent hardwork and setting trends got me there. I was a judge on Season one and I guess they saw that I knew my onions with the advice I gave the designers on their finishing etc. I was so happy when wehad the meeting where I was told to take over. All the producers said I brought a lot of buzz for the audience. So, NNTD was handed over to me to take to greater heights.
What were your expectations from competing designers?
I would say that I was so impressed with NNTD Season 2 designers. We are already worried about who is going to emerge because the designers, this year, didn’t take chances. They all came prepared; some said I inspired their designs. Iam glad I set trends and people copy most of my unique looks.
I look out for outstanding pieces. The winner must not only be a designer; he/she has to know how to style to perfection. Season one was a fashion mess but this year’s contestants are so good. Some already have stores and design for the public so they showedthat they have what it takes to shine and show their talent to the fashion/entertainment industry. Their own personal look matters as well, because you are what you sell. No excuses. For 2 years now, I have been wearing strictly my own designs and people always walk up to me to ask how they can get either my trend or dress, even to the point of paying me to take it off. So, be your own walking billboard.
What does style mean to you?
Style is a way of saying who you are without saying a word. A lot of people mistake fashion for style. They are different. You might wear a bin bag and not get it right and I might wear a bin bag and style it properly to make a fashion statement. It’s not about what you are wearing; it’s about who is wearing it. I am really happy to see that I set trends and people follow. I started the pyjamas trend years ago and now the distressed jeans style is evolving and has an attitude.
How do you juggle your business with your family?
It’s not been easy being a mother of two and juggling 20 businesses daily, but I still balance it one way or the other. Multi-tasking is the key to any business. If you can’t work under pressure, then you won’t be able to handle fashion entrepreneurship.
Amongst all your businesses, which do you love the most?
To be honest, I can’t choose one because all my various businesses were passions I developed into business ventures. Every skill I possess, I turned it into a business.
You recently showcased at the Africa Fashion Week Nigeria 2016. What was the experience like for you?
It was an amazing experience at the gala night and finale of Africa Fashion Week 2016. I pulled out all the stops with the Transformer Collection.
My collection had everything from detachable Transformer outfits, print kimonos, ball dresses detached to jump suits, kids ball dresses, latex skater dresses, bridal looks to casual wear and more.. There was something for everyone.
The collection was fresh, classic and age-diverse. I got really great reviews and I thank God everyone loved it. My collection closed the show for Africa Fashion Week Nigeria 2016.
It was, indeed, a spectacular and celebrity-studded catwalk.
I am grateful to all the celebrities and socialites who strutted the runway in my pieces.