Lagos Island: A deep dive into Nigeria's Fashion Industry

Dec 13, 2019|Michael Adesanya

Standing adjacent to a rack of detailed designed kaftans, Kola Kuddus looks like a very simple man. The personal-shopper-cum-bespoke-men’s-fashion-designer is a prominent member of a generation of designers at the heart of the renaissance of Nigeria’s fashion industry. Their designs are as visible in Paris as they are in Lagos, from brands that were inspired by, and have now begun to redefine Africanism.

Settling into a new role as the Head of Fashion & Beauty at a large e-commerce firm, my early days were spent with these designers. Yet, as time passed, it became clear that the answers to many of our commercial quandaries would not be found in the snazzy window displays on Allen Avenue, but in the corridors of Lagos’ many markets and the buzzing activity on its physical and digital highways.

Like most things in Nigeria, the aesthetic exterior of the Lagos fashion scene conceals a roughness shaped by struggle. A modern industry steered by the creative minds of a talented crop of designers is also being propped by the sweat of thousands of Lagosians littered across the value chain. These people—tailors, fabric merchants, and so on—may not feed the city its breakfast, but they put the clothes on the back of many of its 20 million residents.

Understanding the nuances of each major actor, and unraveling the opportunities and threats they face gives the best view of the likely future of fashion in Lagos. And, most excitingly, it tells a powerful story of how and why the Lagos fashion industry works.


Tailors: The poor foot soldiers of the industry

A 32°C day in the Balogun/Oke-Arin market in Western Lagos feels hotter. In time, you realise it’s the all the noise—Yoruba highlife music blaring from mounted speakers, the metronomic calls of food vendors, and more, all mingling to create an urgency that accentuates the heat.

There was no urgency on this trip. For the four of us, it was business, but also personal. In 2012, my brother, Gbenga, and I, had set up a small tailoring shop, extending our father’s legacy, who had died in 2002, a young, gifted, and poor tailor. Lanre was the creative in the group, a fact reinforced as much by his drawing skills as his choice of spouse—a fashion designer in Paris. His grandfather, too, had died an old, gifted, and poor tailor. Jide was the last member of this group, a Surulere thoroughbred who regularly hooked us up with tailors during our university days.

These tailors were the focus of our trip. Initial surveys had shown just how poor they were; our informal estimates suggested they took home as little as ₦21,000 a month. Most traditional tailors leave formal education to become teenage apprentices, and this training could take two to four years, depending on how quickly they learn and gain their "freedom." They are trained to manage the entire apparel production process, and for many, the dream is to own a small dress-making factory.


A mobile tailor on the streets of Lagos 

Source: Sebastian Contrary via Flickr


The road to that dream is a long one.

We first meet Nelson, a men’s suit tailor, in a first-floor shop in Balogun, the floor is littered with trousers, kaftans, and jackets in various stages of completion. Other garments flail from a makeshift hanger in the rafters of the shop’s balcony, overlooking the ruckus on Sanusi Olusi Street. The doors of the neighbouring shops are barely two feet away and the walls have lost colour, having not seen paint in years. Four worktables divide the 10 by 12 foot shop into four corners, one of which Nelson rents for ₦5,000 a month. The infrastructure here is stretched thin.

Nelson’s suits sell for between ₦12,000 and ₦18,000 in forty-eight possible combinations of fittings and styles. He guarantees he can make anything I want. Save for the use of industrial sewing machines when power was available, his process is mostly manual. Patterns are cut from memory with a rusty pair of scissors and tailor’s chalk that have filmed his fingers blue. Cut-out fabric lay on the well-worn table on which we lean as we speak, surrounded by a crowd of sweating tailors with their guard raised, suspicious of our friction pidgin accent. They recognise us as tourists in their world.     

Nelson lays no claim to being a designer. His craft is tailoring, and his specialty is suits. He relies on other players in the value chain to describe any special features the customer wants, provide the customer’s measurement, as well as the fabrics. After that, he goes to work, churning out a two-piece suit in four days, a three-piece suit in five, and a special wedding suit in a week. When more than four suits are due, he spends weekend nights at his shop to take advantage of power availability—that way, he can spend more time working with the industrial sewing machines and iron his seams as he sews. The small generating unit, which he fuels for ₦4,000 a week, only lights his quarter of the shop and powers one machine. If power fails for longer, he falls back on the foot-pedaled Singer sewing machine and the coal iron parked behind his worktable. 

Ideally, he would work on multiple orders at once as that allows him to pay his share of monthly rent on time, his ₦4,000 association dues, feed his family of four, and save for his children’s school fees. He can also make up to twenty suits in a month if he hires an extra hand for ₦2,000 per job, but he averages only ten suits a month. Supplies cost roughly ₦4,000 per suit, and he collects this upfront before starting any job he hopes to deliver on time. Lagos Island is a three-hour commute from his home in Ikotun, 36 kilometres away, so he spends about ₦10,000 per month on transport. Ultimately, Nelson nets a little under ₦35,000 each month, about a fifth of his monthly revenue. 

The money is not his only desire, Nelson hopes he and his fellow tailors will one day get recognition for their work. “Na we dey do the real work, na we make these designers who dem be today,” he brags. And in these modest conditions, he harbours a distant dream: to expand his corner workshop into a proper factory. To do so, he would need to find wealthier clients or willing investors. Unfortunately, tailors like Nelson are rarely taught how to secure either of these.

Despite the hard work of Nelson and his colleagues, tailors-customer relations often get tense in Lagos. Now, a crop of young well-educated fashion enthusiasts have emerged with a promise to rid Nigerian tailors of their reputation for unreliability.


Strikers & Fabric Merchants: A tribute to Nigeria’s middle-man culture

Strikers, as they have been nicknamed by the Lagos Island tailoring community, are the middlemen that connect the grimy underbelly of the Lagos fashion scene to the shiny brands seen at red carpet events, weddings, and occasionally, in offices. Strikers are essentially demand aggregators; they take orders from customers, propose styles, negotiate prices, and outsource production to the Nelsons of Lagos Island. Many of them are university graduates with aspirations of becoming renowned fashion designers, following the path charted by Yomi Casual, a fashion designer who spent his formative years in the industry connecting celebrities to tailors before launching his label in 2007.

It is easy to spot a striker in Lagos Island—brows permanently furrowed as they animatedly talk on the phone, walking with an urgency of purpose at odds with the laxness of the tailors they visit. You see, a striker’s real business is trust; they are less style consultants and more trust brokers. By providing funds upfront for supplies and diligently doting over the tailors they work with, strikers minimise delivery delays and make customers happy. Across the room from Nelson, a tailor is earnestly trying to pacify a striker whose kaftan order is days overdue. Before we leave, the striker seizes the head of the tailor’s sewing machine.  

The savviest strikers generate revenues in multiples of the production costs of each outfit. The size of their margin depends on the timeliness of their delivery and bargaining power over the tailors. As they scale, strikers can evolve into proper fashion labels, gradually integrating in-house production. Examples include Seyi Vodi, of Vodi Tailors, who started his business as a Youth Corps member in 2002 and built it into a top Nigerian brand with a thriving in-house production unit.

For Lawal, in his fourth year as a striker, this is an immediate aspiration. After graduating with an economics degree from the University of Ado Ekiti, he supplemented his banking job with weekend gigs as a striker. A year later, he quit his job at the bank to focus on being a striker. Now, he hits monthly revenues of ₦600,000 from twenty orders, with roughly half of that intake going to the tailors and another quarter covering other costs. For example, Lawal racks up a transport bill of ₦2,000 each weekday and nearly ₦10,000 on weekends as he canvasses the breadth of Lagos on client consultations, production follow-ups, refitting trips, and delivery runs. He has a cab guy on speed dial for his high-profile consultations and deliveries, which he prefers to do outside rush hour. Otherwise, bikes are faster. 

Talk is expensive. He spends an average of ₦20,000 a month on data and voice packages. Other items like rent, packaging costs, and special supplies make up the rest of his expenses. Even at 25% net earnings, Lawal outpaces his peers in some banking jobs, and has more control over his schedule.  

Lawal’s bigger concerns centered around the quality of fabrics on the market. His customers’ clothes often wore out quickly and he struggled to convince them that he was limited by market dynamics. As a result, his churn rates were high—he had over a hundred customers, but less than twenty had been with him for a year, and only ten had stayed from two years prior. Frustrated, he harbours ambitions of entering the fabric business, shirts and kaftans, in particular. If anything, vertical integration would help him capture more value.


Fabric shops are popular in Nigeria and across the continent 

Source: Barbara Fischer Via Flickr


Nigeria’s textile industry has seen better days. Textile manufacturers have long since been replaced by fabric merchants who import fabrics from Asia and Europe.  

Ifeanyi’s kiosk is one of many that line the fabric stretch of Balogun market. Ifeanyi deals in cashmere fabrics for kaftans and suits, and he reserves his high-quality fabric for the big names in the industry willing to pay a premium. Strikers like Lawal settle for fair-quality material. Fabric merchants actually prefer dealing in cheaper fair-quality fabrics from China which are less likely to tie up their capital in inventory. Trends change fast and an adventurous merchant can find himself stuck with bundles of obsolete fabric. Cheap bets seemed safer. 

Until Nigeria’s leadership figures out a sustainable way to revive the textile industry, the domestic fashion chain will keep relying on fabric importers and their fair-quality products. To counter this, top designers like Kola Kuddus and Seyi Vodi integrate fabric merchandising into their operations, ensuring they retain control over the quality of the material they use.


The future of Nigerian fashion

The Lagos fashion industry is gradually embracing specialisation by moving away from the traditional model where a tailor is the designer, manufacturer, salesperson, delivery agent, and customer care representative. This specialisation—a positive economic phenomenon—ought to happen quicker. The emergence of strikers in the value chain increased demand for locally-produced apparel by reaching consumers who would not normally patronise local tailors due to their unreliability. Likewise, many local designers have built powerful brands on the back of consistent showings at domestic and international fashion shows.  

What the industry needs next is scale, starting from the bottom. Nigeria can learn from a few success stories of budding apparel manufacturing in Sub-Saharan Africa. Mauritius exports $760 million worth of apparel each year, making it the leading African apparel export nation, with textile & apparel manufacturing accounting for two-thirds of all manufacturing jobs in the country. On the mainland, Kenya and Ethiopia have made significant strides in textile production in recent years, with the latter benefitting from Chinese-led national industrialisation. The Bank of Industry in Nigeria launched a Fashion Fund that can help tailors like Nelson scale, if implemented correctly. Of course, access to finance and training are not the only obstacles to rebuilding Nigeria’s fashion industry.

Further along the value chain, the striker model is ripe for technological disruption, perhaps through a platform that aggregates demand and matches customers and tailors. And following the global trend, virtual retail is likely the future. In an already-clustered Lagos, there is a huge opportunity for e-commerce, as seen with the rise of instapreneurs and other e-commerce platforms. Nigeria’s premier designers have lifted the fashion industry to the cusp of a new golden age, but other parts of the value chain risk getting left behind. To go far, everyone must go together.  

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