Rhoda Michaels: On The Business Of Fashion
Rhoda Michaels is the CEO and Creative Director of Rhoda Michaels Fashion Academy, Lagos. She holds a degree in Biochemistry and Nutrition from the University of Lagos, and a Post Graduate Diploma in marketing from the University of Liverpool.
The mother of three is a certified business consultant, certified marketer, and a digital and content marketer.
Her passion for fashion and creativity is second only to her entrepreneurial dexterity. With many accolades and awards to her kitty, she continues to strive for business excellence and building fashion entrepreneurs. This she has done for over a decade, delivering innovative fashion concepts and empowering young and upcoming fashion designers.
Her knowledge of fashion is deep and passion for business infectious, making me wonder if I missed my calling. In this encounter, she spoke the heart of many concerned industry practitioners as she talked about the business side of fashion.
You could have done any other type of business: why the business of fashion?
I have always been surrounded by fashion. My mum is a veteran fashion designer so I learnt at her feet. In my household, it was compulsory for us as children to learn a vocational skill and being the first child, I started out early. At age 8, I was already learning in my Mum’s fashion school. It didn’t feel like work, it was a normal routine at home because the factory was in the same compound. As for the business side of Fashion, I started from the university when I found out my GP was low in my third year. I realized Biochemistry was not going to cut it, then it was all about working for multinationals and a good grade is needed for that. I had a conference with myself and realised that in 10 years, I will either be on the same level with my peers or surpass them. I love fashion and I decided to make a business of it. I already had experience of the good, the bad and the ugly side of business first hand from my mum, so I leveraged on her experience.
Did you take to Fashion because you are a creative or because you could afford to invest?
I am a creative but also a realist. The fear of poverty is a discerner of dreams and vision. I didn’t have good grades to qualify for the kind of multinational job I wanted at the time, or the kind of life I wanted. The best life changing decision I ever made was to commercialize my creativity. I started Rhoda Michaels from scratch on my mum’s shop veranda. Then, I took over her own space but eventually had to get my own space. Rhoda Michaels has been a steady growth process with the business funding itself. I took to fashion because, when I started, it was a question of survival and sustenance. There was no job anywhere; the situation is still pretty much the same in Nigeria today as it was then. So I made a conscious decision to be an entrepreneur.
The lack of structure has been the bane to running fashion as a business in Nigeria. What is the situation now?
The lack of structure has always been an issue in running a profitable, and scalable fashion business in Nigeria. The lack of structure is the reason Rhoda Michaels Fashion institute exists. I started out as a fashion designer, doing all jobs connected to running a fashion business because I could not find skilled staff especially, in pattern drafting and bespoke tailoring. Most artisans learnt as a vocational skill in an apprenticeship setting. Fashion has evolved; the association with illiteracy is gradually dissipating. The structural problem will be a thing of the past in the nearest future because, the fore runners in the Nigerian fashion industry are breaking grounds, changing the archaic narrative, and preparing the foundation. No lasting structure can stand the test of time without due diligence. It is important to give accolades to veterans and current fashion designers in the fashion and beauty industry. They have been and currently doing all the work, making it easier for the upcoming designers to have better circumstances and deals. Nigeria fashion industry is now on the global map with different collaborations with international brands.
Most designers are highly literate from other fields of study, thereby creating a wide pool of knowledge. The creation of structure is getting better, slowly but surely we will get to a point where people understand fashion in a diverse and integrated industry where all hands is needed on deck. There is no useless or less worthy side of fashion. The designer needs the fashion illustrator, the alterationist, the embellisher, the fabric and trainings merchant, the seamstress, the bespoke tailor, the machine repairer, the model, the embroider, the visual stylist, the buyer, the trend analyst and the list goes on and on.
New careers are developing due to the advent of social media. I dare say the structural future of fashion industry in Nigeria is going to be a very interesting one, worthy of the building and wait period.
Buyers are largely missing in the fashion value chain in Nigeria. How can the situation be remedied?
The first question should be what is the buyer buying? Who are the buyers buying from? Who will the buyers be selling to and at what cost? What is the buyers return on investment from a Nigerian designer that will motivate him to buy more at a consistent, deliverable rate and quality?
My humble opinion is to study the problem- we can’t find wholesale buyers. No major buyer wants to be held accountable for unsold merchandise. That is one complex problem. The average Nigerian is a unique breed. She wants everything instant. If you say place an order you will get it soon, she is out the door to your competition. She also does not want “common clothes” she wants couture every time.
Let’s leave customers and talk about designers that you want to buy from. I get to do quality assurance for some stores wanting to buy from designers. What I often find are clothes not properly made, no universal size measurements, samples delivery come late and no apparent business structure from the designer. The situation can be disheartening. Some designers should still be designers-in-training yet, they own labels. No apparent big brand stores or malls in Nigeria, there is piracy, copy right infringement issues. The list is endless. The problem is not the buyers; the problem is the existing structure. The competition is stiff globally, from research and development, to production, maintaining ethical standards during manufacturing, cost of production, predicting trend cycle right, capital and human resources, logistics and delivery. So many 21st century issues. The remedy as far as I can tell, is not to look for buyers with a non-existent structure, don’t bite more than you can chew. Buyers will find you if you have what they want and meet their terms and conditions. There are buyers everywhere. The question should be how can we sustain and satisfy a buyer and buying conditions? If you can carve a niche, be the best at what you do, have integrity. If it’s one piece you have the capacity to produce at a certain time, let the buyers know and if you have to sell your design out rightly, give a good realistic price. If you don’t have the capacity to get a buyer, grow to that stage. Create designs that would fly off the rack.
Do you think designers have knowledge of the proper workings of a fashion industry to be able to play well?
I think there needs to be a clear distinction between a fashion designer and a fashionpreneur: which is an entrepreneur with the core in fashion. The question is relative and I believe it should be individual based because competition is stiff. I tell my students you can’t give what you don’t have. You call yourself a designer and you have no idea what is happening locally and globally in the fashion industry. The pitfalls, the challenges are all a misery. The designer must have a credible system in place to even begin to think of functioning. It is a trust and camaraderie based industry.
A lot of Nigerian fashion designers are trying really hard to be building good brands, so I would say. If you lack a skill in moving your business or label forward, go get it, no price is too much for knowledge acquisition. It is way cheaper than the crisis that originates from foolishness and ignorance. If you are a fashion designer with little or no business skills get a manager. If you a fashion businessperson with no fashion designing skills, hire a fashion designer. If you are both, keep adding more knowledge. Problem arises when you have not discovered the limitations of your skill set.
How do you equip the young designers you churn out?
The designers that graduate form Rhoda Michaels Fashion Institute, go through an enlightening and a rigorous phase of learning. The Rhoda Michaels student is trained as a fashion designer from pattern drafting to clothing construction, bespoke tailoring, fashion illustration, colour and trend analysis, fashion media and fashion education. Each student gets a free brother LS14 sewing machine and sewing tools. So no matter what your background, you have basic tools to start a business. We have embedded the 4’cs of learning into our curriculum; our students understand the place of critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration. Each student is expected to be punctual for classes, strict assignment submission policy. We also have career sessions (master Classes) with notable brands and individuals who come into the school from time to time to teach and educate our students on the intricacies involved in running a fashion business. We expose them to fashion shows home and abroad, they go on excursions to different fashion manufacturing companies to see how they operate. Our graduation process is a very encompassing one which takes the young designer through every aspect of personal label creation, manufacturing process and a fashion show to launch each graduating student’s brand. We believe in empowering the next generation.
We can each turn Nigeria around one person at the time. A country’s greatest asset is its small businesses. If we can create profitable and sustainable small businesses, we would have a better outcome in Nigeria.
How well are the master classes helping?
The master classes have truly transformed the minds of our students. Getting knowledge for me is truly phenomenal. All the speakers we have invited come freely to impact knowledge. At Rhoda Michaels we believe experience is the best teacher, the catch is, it can be anybody’s experience. We encourage our students to learn at the feet of experts, so they can leverage on their experience. If you learn and listen well, you can avoid the mistakes and pitfalls they encountered on their journey, to accelerate yours in a concise and definitive, productive manner. We truly believe everyone is a teacher; you are constantly four persons away from your needed contact.
What more can be done?
So much more can be done. Government can do better. As individuals, let’s give the best of ourselves, learn our craft, know our times and seasons in business and grow steadily. Get Educated and get wisdom. You can’t miss it if you are wise. Wisdom is the perfect application of knowledge that has been perfectly understood. The understanding comes from deciphering of knowledge. How do you get knowledge by deciphering information? How do you get informed? Get Educated. It is as simple as that. The solution to so many fashion problems can be attributed to the mindset. We at Rhoda Michaels transform lives using fashion as a tool. We are all about creating business models and projects that add value first. Once the mind is working right, we can create viable sustainable solutions to help us grow as a fashion industry in a nation filled with intelligent minds.
Why is it that the industry still doesn’t have a production hub?
Very simple, my people have not fully comprehended that it is also a fashion business that is so profitable. In fact, as we are talking, I think I am going to start one. The potential is astronomical. Do you know how wealthy you can become with fashion hub that produces clothes and other fashion accessories for people? I deal with back end of the industry so I can tell.
Aside from being a teacher, I am also a certified business consultant. I am also a certified marketer, a digital and content marketer. So believe me when I say there is market for it. A lot of designers are coming up now that are tired of production because of the stress of tailors, power issues, and the many infrastructural problems we have in the country. This is a solid business but it requires someone with the spirit of excellence and an astute mind because if mess up production, you are finished. Get the necessary skills, have integrity, have solid business projection plan and grow steadily. Learn to say no to jobs you are not prepared for. Once people realize they can make a lot of money from production, that you don’t have to have a personal label to be relevant in the industry, and are willing to do the work it entails, we would have plenty production hubs in Nigeria.
As a fashion designer what is the best skill you input into your students?
The cliché is to say we teach this, we teach that. We can be the best teachers but if you have a student with a terrible ideology of life, a terrible mindset or a student that has no clue who they are, or why they exist, or what their purpose in life is, all has been lost. There is nothing you teach that will have meaning because there is a zero value addition. You can only place value on what is important to you. We engage the minds of our students, we take them on a journey with themselves, and we help them discover their true identity and potential. Then their creativity is unleashed in an astonishing way which makes them unique, carve a niche for them. Then we start to teach the fashion production skills and the business skills. At that point, it all comes together to give us a brilliant and above all profitable fashion designer.
What is the most important lesson you have learnt as a business woman?
Very simple. Mind your business; your business will mind you. This is the most valuable lesson I have learnt. If you give your business the right nutrient at the right time, it will take care of you in bountiful ways. I focus on my focus. Get wisdom. For me Jesus is wisdom, so I listen to the Holy Spirit. He is not lazy; you have to do the work. He points me in the right direction, it is my job to now figure out and know everything concerning the new direction he is pointing me to. I study hard, read a lot of books, watch a lot of video clips, and listen to podcasts on a wide range of subjects. It is important to stay informed. I have the spirit of excellence and I truly believe in myself. In a world where there are now too many teachers and philosophers, it has become paramount to nurture my mind, so I can have a unique voice.
You organize a standard fashion show for your graduates. How do you fund it without sponsors?
For us, it is all about adding value to the life of budding fashion designers, putting their best foot forward, giving them a platform to shine. They are our success story. We work with the philosophy all for one, one for all. We are as good as our weakest link at Rhoda Michaels. Our Spirit of excellence shows in everything we do. We consider our fashion shows a lucrative investment in our students that will surely yield dividends.
If you were starting business today, what will you do differently?
I would focus on a steady growth plan and I will worry less about money or funds. I now truly believe that you don’t need money to start a business. You need a burning idea that can transcend time. I would not expand and diversify rapidly.
How would you describe your style?
Sporty, simple, effortlessly chic. Less is more.