Joan Okorodudu – Time For A Fashion Council
By Remmy Diagbare
She is a fashion designer, entrepreneur, ex-beauty queen, cosmetologist, former athlete and psychiatrist. Dynamic Joan Okorodudu, founder of ISIS Modelling Agency and creator of the Nigeria’s Next Super Model contest, is our cover star this week.
In May this year, Joan Okorodudu and Amina Mohamed – United Nations Deputy Secretary-General – were the only two Nigerian women given prestigious prizes by New African Woman Magazine in Dakar, Senegal. Joan was awarded the ‘The New African Woman in Arts & Culture’ for her service in raising the profile of African models and fashion on the continet while Mrs. Mohammed was awarded the ‘The New African Woman in Politics’.
Joan Okorodudu’s journey in Fashion started back in 2007 when she created the Nigeria’s Next Super Model competition in search of Nigerian modelling talents with potentials to make it on a global level. The winner was promised a contract with an international modelling agency. However, Okorodudu wasn’t getting any response from the agencies once the winner was announced. She got fed up with people giving excuses and making it difficult for her girls to work and get the international exposure promised them.
As a result, she decided to take control of her destiny by establishing ISIS Modelling Agency which, today, boasts some of the most sought-after faces in the African modelling business. Her 2008 debut as a modelling agent didn’t go unnoticed; flying ten of her models into South Africa for castings at the Johannesburg Fashion Week, she has not looked back since then. Today, her models are working on the world stage, modelling for big names like Gucci and Prada.
The 58 year-old model agency owner, designer and Boston University alumnus, Joan Okorodudu, is married to a retired Air Force General, Gabriel Okorodudu. In this interview, she shares her ten-year journey with NNSM and adds her voice to the call for a fashion council in Nigeria.
Fashion Week was held last week. Did you attend? If yes, how was it? If no, why did you stay away?
I missed the Fashion Week because I have been in Abuja for over a month. I wish I made it because Ronke is my very good friend.
Congratulations on your recent award. Please, tell us about it.
Thank you very much. Winning the New African Woman Award was everything and winning in Lupita Nyongo’s category shocked me because we all know that she is a major icon; one that I love and cherish. When I got a mail saying that I was nominated, I never knew that I could win and that is a fact. However, I went to Dakar where I met so many amazing people including the MD of Nigeria Ports Authority, Hadjia Hadeza Bala Usman, who was also a nominee.
How does it make you feel getting this recognition, especially outside the country?
So many Nigerians were nominated but only Dr. Amina Mohammed, the Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations and I won. I made so many friends and this was all worth it.
I thank all the Africans that voted for me. Well, I have always gotten recognition outside Nigeria and it suits me just fine.
How will you rate the fashion and modelling industry today – compared to when you started the NNSM?
The fashion and modelling industry is still under infancy and we cannot compare Nigerian fashion industry with that of South Africa. Here, there are no regulatory bodies for these two groups. However, we have some amazing designers and models.
First of all, companies don’t like paying for models and this is so sad. Some designers have paid top money for look books. Designers like Deola Sagoe have paid half a million naira for lookbooks; House of Farah, Keto Couture and Go Go Magin who flew in a top known photographer to shoot her look book with my models.
We need to regulate the modelling and fashion industry; period. I can tell you that when I got a mail from late Franca Sozzani inviting me to Vogue Italia’s office in Milan to discuss Fashion and she asked if I could handle the Vogue Talent for Africa, I said yes. And, we had to raise funds for the project. Mr. Ifeanyi Oputa of Colvin Nigeria Limited, owner of Studio 24 was also a partner of Vogue Talent for Africa. The project was a major success which saw Maxoxa by Laduma win. Access Bank assisted with part of the funds and I raised the rest by myself. Franca was an amazing woman that truly loved Africa and African fashion. We also sponsored the winner to Milan for the Vogue Talent event in Milan.
Is there a market that can absorb Nigerian girls internationally or you are hoping to fill the local demand for models?
With the models, there has been a lot of success in the industry which has seen a lot more Black girls doing quite well. We, Nigerians, have never had it so good. We have girls like Bunmi Ademokoya who recently did a campaign for Adidas, Imade Ogbewi, Mayowa Nicholas, Elizabeth Ayodele, Ibukun Sammy and Olamide Ogundele. The boys are not left out; the likes of Davison and Peter Finn.
We still have a lot of difficulties in the Industry. For example, two seasons ago, when Givenchy in Paris booked Peter Finn, they had sent his ticket and hotel booking and it was Givenchy Exclusive. He missed it because his visa came out late. However, last season he did well. Most people don’t know that it is very difficult to get to the top as a model. However, when you begin to book six figures, the prayer is to remain at the top for as long as possible. Take Imade as an example; you can get booked at six figures a day for five days. That is what I like.
For Africa, South Africa remains the best place for any model who is looking to start a career in modelling. Isis Models started from South Africa and I am glad that we are back there after years of physical absence even though we have been booking our models there since 2008.
How has been the ten-year journey of NNSM?
It has been ten years of struggle and, of course, the pull-her-down-syndrome in our society has become a stumbling block that we still see today. I have invested my life savings. At the beginning of Nigeria’s Next Super Model, National Sports Lottery was a major sponsor and bought the first car and my husband continued to pay for the cars until 2012 when Studio 24 started donating the cars.
We are seriously reconsidering giving the models cash that will be enough to relocate the winner internationally instead of giving cars away to young girls. Some, as we speak, have sold their cars and are seen hopping okada. Some are not driving their cars and you see them coming to castings with marwa and you wonder if it was wrong to do that. However, they are still in the minority because 70 percent of the girls still have their cars and some have bought other cars and still own their Nigeria’s Next Super Model cars.
Imagine having to spend your money paying for tickets, rents and hotel bill and house some of them and still pay school fees. Models should know that no agency owes them all these and they don’t make enough money in Nigeria to even pay their agencies back. Moreover, I saw what I was doing as service to humanity.
What has been the progress of your winners?
The winners have done so well. Eunice Eyo is a mother of two and doing so well in business. Last season, Bunmi did the Adidas campaign in London and had done several shows at the New York, London, Milan, Jo’burg, Paris and Cape Town fashion weeks. Ibukun is doing extremely well. Victoria just finished her university education and getting ready for February next year. Aisha Bello is doing so well with her Fashion Elegance by Aisha and also owns a big farm in Badore. Imade, we saw her in top shows like Gucci and so many jobs for Zara, Edun, Kate Spade and lots of fashion week all over.
The local market cannot do anything for a model who wants to get to the top. Yes, Imade is doing very well and has worked with top designers. As we speak, she has been booked by Gucchi for five days; three days and two days respectively. We will continue to look at South Africa as the market that can take Nigerian Models. I also have models from other African countries. Models from European countries are beginning to join our agency. Nigeria, as a country, is not ready yet. I owe companies like the makers of Sofy Pads and Mysha Skin Care for using our models for their campaigns. Bunmi is the new face of Mysha and Ibukun is the face of Sofy Pads.
Your second but last winner, Imade, is said to be doing so well abroad. Tell us about her work schedule and the designers she has modelled for.
Yes, Imade is doing quite well and commanding a lot of booking fees. We get a lot of options for her and she lives in her suitcase. This week alone, she has a job with Gucci in Milan and another job with a brand next week in Milan and will fly back to Paris for a client and to Barcelona for yet another. She will (also) go to London for a job and will return to Paris for yet another. Some models don’t know the importance of having a mother agency; it is important for any model starting out to go through a mother agency. That way, they can push and push for you as a model. Yes, Imade has done well. I recently posted videos of Bunmi at the Paris Fashion Week 2010 for Dany Atrache and people were shocked that we have been going international for that long.
Imade has graced a lot of magazines. She has her images in top magazines of the world like King Kong, V Magazine, W Magazine, WWD Magazine, Black Beauty Magazine and Indie Magazine. She was recently on the cover of European luxury magazine, Kin Folk, that has over one million followers on Instagram. She has also featured in Italian Vogue and other magazines in the world.
She has worked with Gucci and is still working for them; Zara, Vivienne West Wood, Casely Hayford, shoe designer Stuart Weitzman, Jate Spade, Tomy NYC, Desigual, Mulhier, Ulla Johnson, Bibhumohaptra and Band of Outsiders. Also for Edun, Naeem Khan NYC, Matthew Miller, Adam Selman, Phillip Plim, Moncler, Jacquemus, N21 Official, Aquilano Rimondi, MSGM, Stella Jean, Mario Dici and so many others.
Let’s talk about the modelling industry in Nigeria. Is there growth? Is there a demand? Are the girls of international standard?
The demand for Black models has gone up internationally; we were practically going in search for work. Now, once I post a photo of a new girl, scouts all over will be calling and saying we want that girl.
There is this 15-year old that so many agencies wanted and I decided to sign her with D1 New York, D1 London, MP Paris and MP New York. Visa is also a big issue. Imagine Ibukun missing a Gucci campaign even when they paid for expedited visa which did not come out on time. Instead of 24 hours, it came out 72 hours and she missed it. The casting director saw her and said, “Oh dear! So, you couldn’t do the shoot. Next time.”
I think we have internationally ranked modelling agencies now; even scouting agencies. The future looks good. However, I can only say it has also created avenues for fraudulent modelling agencies. We hope that the agencies would come together and do something about it.
The modelling industry is very fragile and highly prone to abuse. How can one safeguard models and protect them from unscrupulous agents?
For me, I have gone back to SA where things are done properly and it is looking so good. I have more of South African models. The industry is tough and you have to spend so much money to be able to get an international standard model.
For instance, you have a model from Ajegunle; where is he or she going to get a flight ticket to go abroad? You will start by changing the person’s wardrobe. I have had to pay to treat a model’s skin before a fashion week in Milan and the agency insisted on taking the model to a skin spa had to take a cab there. It does not come cheap. I also had to pay to do a model’s tooth. I have housed and fed some models and paid for school fees. Imagine having a model that needed surgery and the doctor refused to start until I paid the money. Thank God the model is alive today. I only book models in Nigeria if the money is good. I think we should regulate this industry as soon as possible.
I have been calling for the setting up of a fashion council in Nigeria. Do you think a fashion council will help to structure the fashion and modelling industry?
I know you have been calling for a fashion council to be set up. However, we come from a country that nothing works and it is sad. Yes, we need a fashion council now or we are going to remain where we are now. Designers in South Africa are smiling to the bank with the ‘Wear South Africa’ movement.
Nigeria’s Next Super Model is ten years and it has been rough. Thank goodness to Allure Vanguard, Linda Ikeji, Deola Sagoe, Clara Okoro, Silverbird Group, Studio 24, my husband of 33 years, my son and so many other people who have been instrumental to the success story. Linda Ikeji TV is now the executive producer as we take it to Linda Ikeji TV on DSTV.
The government never supports this kind of venture and I don’t bother anymore. DESOPADEC has supported us and we are in talks with an organisation that is coming on board. The government does not understand that an erstwhile richest man in the world is in fashion. The AGOA (African Grown and Opportunity Act) that President Bill Clinton started, renewed by President George Bush and now extended to 2025 by President Barack Obama has not been used by Nigeria. Our children who are dying in the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea should be in Nigeria if we could provide jobs in the fashion industry.
Twenty five percent of America’s GDP is from fashion. India, Nepal, Vietnam are all doing very well in fashion, exporting and increasing their individual country’s GDP. Tribalism will never allow this industry to grow. Until a none Lagosian can go to the government with a good proposal and it is adopted, then Nigeria can change or a Lagosian can go to the East and contribute to the system; then, I will say Nigeria is detribalized. I have lost so much hope; it is so sad.
I want the government to step in and set up a body to regulate the fashion industry. We hope to see it soon.
Ten years on, what is the future of NNSM?
The show is now in the hands of younger people. I think Bunmi Ademokoya and Aisha Bello will handle Nigeria’s Next Super Model. Of course, my head booker who is very much involved is to make sure that we get the best models in the continent.
Finally, what advice can you give to young girls and boys who wish to pursue a career in modelling?
To upcoming models and young girls who want to model, my advice is counselling first. Not all young girls can make it as models and not all beautiful girls can make it to the top. Select a good agency; one that can promote you. Modelling is a tough business; a business that can reject young girls. I am happy that I was able to change some lives.