ABAH FOLAWIYO: THE DOYEN OF NIGERIAN FASHION
By Remmy Diagbare
Princess Abah Folawiyo, wife of the late Baba Adinni of Yorubaland, Alhaji Wahab Iyanda Folawiyo, businessman and philanthropist is a fashion icon, who has been gracing the covers of newspapers and magazines from the early ‘70s. Mrs. Folawiyo, until she retired in 2004, was the owner of the upscale fashion outfit, Labenella, which clothed top celebrities in and outside the country.
Famously called ‘Sisi Abah’, her love for fashion design first blossomed when she was 7 years old and she became a professional much later at the age of 25. Prior to that, in 1963, Princess Folawiyo emerged Best Designer [VC10 Award] in Ghana; her winning prize was a first class ticket to London. On arrival, she decided to stay back in London where she did internship and training with a foremost designer in the UK. She returned home in 1977 and founded Labanella Creations in 1978. In 1981, it was formally incorporated as a limited liability company.
Her passion and commitment to fashion was such that she designed from her heart rather than from her head; so, she put in a lot of loving effort into every design at Labanella, making sure that what she made for people were what she would wear herself. Princess Abah travelled the African continent, showcasing her designs to the world. The Doyen of Nigerian fashion, in this interview, speaks on the growth of the industry and life.
How do you see the fashion industry now?
Fashion designers are trying. They are really very creative. However, they should all be under one umbrella so they can be stronger together and have more impact.
They can travel out as a group and make a lot of noise about African fashion. Everyone is big in their own way but the key to success for the Nigerian industry is to come together as a group. Funmi Ladipo, the current President of FADAN is trying but I do not know how far she has gone in bringing all the big names in. I hope they would all come in. The association would have stronger impact and more influence.
Fashion is an alternative to oil. Do you agree?
I have always maintained that fashion is a credible alternative to oil; when President Obasanjo was in power, I made this clear to him. There are so many things in Nigeria that are bigger than oil but everyone is fixated on oil. If the government can support the fashion industry, it can earn trillions for the economy.
Your love for fashion is still on?
I love fashion. I will love it till the end. I still make my clothes and for selected friends who have refused to go anywhere else.
What has changed in your fashion sense?
Nothing has changed. I still wear what I used to wear in my early days. I may add a little twist here and there to make it look different. For instance, I still wear my culottes and my kaftans which I design to suit my style.
I notice that you do not like iro and buba?
I do not like iro and buba. I find them uncomfortable to wear. So, the few I had, I gave out. But with the new way of styling, like the oleku wrapper with the rope, I might wear it.
But do you know what I did to solve the problem of tying wrapper, which I found too cumbersome? I created the skirt – like iro and buba which is the way I wear mine. I made a wrap-around skirt with the buba on top, tucked in like a blouse. I make that for a lot of people now.
You were one of those who started the use of African fabrics for contemporary styles. How do you feel when you see contemporary African designs being worn by everyone?
I am so happy. When former President Obasanjo was in government, I used to make all his agabda outfits, using African prints. The African fabric is so beautiful and versatile. I feel really fulfilled when I see the way they are worn now. Designers have even gone several steps higher than what I did; with the beading and stoning, it is really gratifying.
Do you think there is any reason to go abroad and shop for clothes?
There is absolutely no need to do that. We are just wasting time. When I travel abroad now, I make all the clothes I am going to wear. If it’s summer, I make my summer clothes. If it’s winter, I mix them with wool. And, I receive a lot of compliments when I wear them out. Foreigners love my clothes and it’s all made with ankara or adire; that is all I wear. People should stop wasting time and money shopping abroad; we have everything in Nigeria.
Should government have a policy that boutiques must stock certain percentage, say 30% made in Nigeria clothes?
Yes, I absolutely think so. During President Obasanjo’s time, there was a ban on imported clothes and that was what gave opportunity for ankara to become what it is today. I remember once when Customs officers came to my factory thinking the clothes in my factory were imported but by the time they inspected and saw that they were local, they went back. That is what government should do again. They should also create a hub where people can mass produce ready-to-wear clothes at very cheap price.
In terms of pricing, Nigerian designers are way too pricy?
I agree! I tell some of them that their prices are too expensive; not everyone can afford them. When I had my factory, my prices were very reasonable; anybody could buy from the shop.
What is the average price that an ankara outfit should cost?
The most expensive shouldn’t be more than N40,000 – N50,000; because of the beads and stones which are imported, they may charge a bit more – depending on who is buying. But, the ordinary ankara shouldn’t be more than N10,000 or N20,000.
How can the industry move forward?
I think they should reduce their prices, make it affordable. They can have expensive ones for selected few. That way, there is something for everybody. The association should be made stronger and every designer should belong.
How do you take care of yourself and what keeps you going now?
I take life easy. I occupy myself with watching movies. I enjoy watching Nigerian and Yoruba movies because you learn a lot from them. Occasionally, I go visiting friends. I attend parties. If I am bored, I go shopping. I go to Balogun; most people in Balogun know me.
What about your diet? What do you eat now?
I have not changed my diet much. I just reduced portions. I eat everything but in moderation. I eat good food – eba, plantain, elubo, rice etc.
You will be 75 next year. What lessons has life taught you?
There is nothing in life. Don’t take life so hard.