SARAH ATINUKE JEMIRIFO:Globalising African Fashion
Words by— Josephine Agbonkhese
Through her UK-based high-end fashion label, Hydration London, founded only five years ago, Nigerian-British entrepreneur, Sarah Atinuke Jemirifo, is gradually redefining what it means to be an African designer as she uniquely infuses local statements into her designs which are fast sinking into the global fashion market.
Born in the UK to a Nigerian father from Osun State and an English mother from Middlesex County, in London, Sarah, a graduate of Business & Finance from the University of Greenwich, England, whose work experiences span several industries ranging from real estates to film & television, fashion, beauty and wellness, has resided in both Nigeria and England.
Little wonder her aim with Hydration London is to showcase the rich heritage and traditional craftsmanship of her home country, Nigeria, while presenting it in a contemporary and global context. Thus, the brand, which is currently on display in prominent retail stores in America and Europe, recently featured in one of UK’s largest fashion festivals, Pure London, and also showcased at the London Fashion Week 2023.
In this exclusive chat with Allure, the bi-linguist talks about her fashion line, the inspiration behind her brand, her plans to sink her toes deeper into the Nigerian fashion scene, and her global vision for African fashion.
You have thrived as a real estate entrepreneur all these years; why the transition to fashion?
I have always had a passion for fashion and dreamt of creating my own brand to express my identity in the industry but real estate created the pathway for me to finance that dream.
Your brand, Hydration London, recently featured in one of UK’s largest fashion festivals, Pure London, and at the London Fashion Week 2023. What does this mean to you?
I will say this is a dream come true! I was beyond thrilled that we had the incredible opportunity to showcase our stunning outfits at these shows. For me, it is a great honour to be among the selected few considering the competitiveness of the fashion industry in the United Kingdom. I cannot be prouder of what we have accomplished.
Tell us more about your fashion label, ‘Hydration London’…
Hydration London tells my story as inspired by my journey from a comfortable life in London to the slums of Nigeria and back again! Our varieties; from luxury, jewel encrusted velvet tracksuits to show-stopping dresses, are more than just a garment. They are narratives borne from memories. For instance, the ‘Chilli Pepper’ design is inspired by the nickname given to me while growing up. The brand simply reflects the rebirth of one’s life, rejuvenated by turning over a new leaf, re-energised by a new beginning and a brighter future.
What inspires your designs?
I draw inspiration from my eventful life experiences. As I am naturally creative, the blend of the two elements come together in unison when I am designing either for Hydration London or privately. I also draw inspiration from traditional Nigerian textiles, vibrant colours, and cultural motifs, which are reinterpreted and blended with modern silhouettes and innovative techniques.
How has your multicultural background affected the brand?
I am of mixed-race heritage from an English mother from London and a Nigerian father from Osun State, Nigeria. In my younger days, there were times I felt as though I did not belong to any concrete social group but it did allow me the opportunity to easily socialise with a broader range of people from different backgrounds. Overall, having a multicultural background is one of the most amazing qualities that helped me and I am really happy to embrace these multicultural personality differences.
What was your experience striving to establish your brand in the international market and how would you assess the journey so far?
As the founder and CEO, I have always haboured a passion for creativity. So, even though it proved tough breaking into the international market, I was however able to, through what the brand represents: strength, resilience and the pursuit of creativity. It took a lot of hard work and doggedness to get to where I am now. So, I would say Hydration London serves as an inspiration to those who find themselves in challenging situations.
Are there bigger plans for the Nigerian fashion industry whose market you are already breaking into?
One of our goals is to showcase Hydration London as one the best from Africa, paving the way to a global audience while promoting it to the continent’s growing fashion industry.
The Nigerian fashion market is so vast and diverse and is one of the biggest markets in Africa. I love to represent my Nigerian roots and I also speak Yoruba natively. It makes sense that we get to have a share of the market with our unique “atarodo” designs.
Generally, what are your thoughts on the Nigerian fashion industry and contemporary Nigerian designers?
Nigerian fashion designers have skilfully merged traditional and modern aesthetics in their creations. This fusion embodies the rich cultural heritage of Nigeria while keeping up with contemporary fashion trends. It is crucial to preserve cultural elements in fashion as they provide a sense of identity and uniqueness to Nigerian designers.
By combining tradition and modernity, Nigerian fashion designers have been able to showcase their creativity and talent, resulting in stunning and innovative designs that captivate both local and international audiences.
How do you walk the line between being unique and having commercial appeal, especially with regards to trends?
The truth is that I demand nothing less than great artistic designs in my collections. It is about pushing me to be better, technically and every other way that one can imagine. It is the designs’ uniqueness that brings the commercial appeal.
Tell us about a recent collection or two that you are most proud of and why?
Our line of premium couture dresses for women, especially the Chillis Collection, is my most celebrated creation. Two of the designs, Tia Tale and Boss Girl, were recently worn by a high-profile international celebrity at major fashion and media events. My brand actually caters to men and women, offering a wide range of styles including unisex street wear for an elevated and casual look with elegant long and short dresses for women.
What has been your biggest challenge growing a global fashion business?
Having the right team of people and developing and retaining skill sets within the fashion community are some of the greatest challenges of growing a global fashion business. I have to say I am grateful to have a fantastic group of talented individuals who are able to participate with me on my journey.
What lessons did you take from growing a successful real estate business into the fashion business?
That was back in my early days as a property developer. I picked up a run-down property in one of the best locations in London. I lived in it while slowly renovating the place. It turned out to be a total refurbishment project and was very challenging. In the end, it was worth the effort as I managed to exit the investment for a handsome profit and truly gained my first real taste of being an entrepreneur. Being persistently focused and having a strong business acumen are the important transferable attributes from my prior business experience.
What would you name as your highest moment so far as an entrepreneur?
There are quite a few momentous occasions that capped my entrepreneurial milestones. One of which was being on the catwalk during the London Fashion Week at Harvey Nicols Knightsbridge London. The most memorable has to be the global launch of my brand at the beginning of 2023 after five years of hard work and preparation.
What was growing up like and in what city did you grow up?
My time in London didn’t last long before my family relocated back to Ibadan in Oyo state, Nigeria when I was five years old. Life took a turn for the worst and I ended up living without either parents and found myself living in the slums. In short, I had a very traumatic childhood.
What is the best advice anyone ever gave you about life and business; and who was that?
The best advice came from one of my mentors during my early adult life: “Do not put emotions ahead of intelligence when you come to make business decisions.”
Who are your favourite African and international designers?
I am a supporter of Lisa Folawiyo. She is an international designer who is proud of her Nigerian identity.
Describe your personal style?
My personal style is to look chic and sophisticated. Fashion is part of my everyday life and I love to make an impact in my immediate environment by ensuring my style makes a statement.
Who is your style icon?
J Lo and Rihanna. They are multi-talented, strong female role models and business driven.
Describe your beauty routine?
My beauty routine is quite straight forward and takes place before bed time. I am a big fan of The Body Shop’s Himalayas Charcoal purifying glow mask and their Vitamin E cream cleanser and hydrating toner. My ultimate finish is with the moisturising cream from Crème de la Mer.
What is your most cherished fashion accessory?
It is a big fight between my shoe collection vs. handbag collection!
Where do you see the Hydration London brand in five years?
We have expansion plans both locally and internationally— we look forward to spreading our tentacles in the UK, MEA and across the globe. We want to be identified with innovative designs and impeccable craftsmanship, sophistication and elegance. Overall, we aim to captivate fashion enthusiasts, collaborate with influential figures and celebrities and participate in more renowned fashion events. Hydration London is currently on display on some prominent retail stores in America and Europe including Doors Retail Shop on West Broadway in New York, USA and Modern Showroom in Milan, Italy. One of the main objectives is to be stocked globally by high-end retail stores.