By Eric Elezuo
He needs no introduction in the fashion world. With over 27 years of experience designing and styling some of the nation’s finest women, from first ladies of president and governors, to political bigwigs, Ade Bakere is a success when it comes to couture and regular fashion designing.
In this exclusive interview, the University of Lagos History graduate bares his mind on how Ade Bakare Couture began, the challenges faced and overcame, and his plans for the nearest future. Excerpts:
Ade Bakare is known as both an individual and a brand. Who is Ade Bakare the individual?
I was born in England but relocated to Nigeria with my parents where I had my secondary school education. I attended Federal Government College, Lagos then I went to the University of Lagos where I studied History.
However, I had always wanted to study fashion from an early age, so once I finished my degree I went to England, precisely at Southford University College, Manchester, to study fashion because my parents always insisted that if you are going to do anything, you must do it well; so if you want to be a fashion designer, you have to get the proper training. A year after I completed the training I established my fashion outfit after having employment stints with some of the big names in the fashion industry, this was in the 1990s when the country was going through recession and getting a job was difficult. A lot of businesses were closing down as the economy was rough, that was when I stumbled on an article in the Evening Standard about starting your own fashion…
You went to school to study history, at what point did you realize that fashion was the thing for you? Had it always been there or the University brought it out?
Its innate, it had always been there, I just had to nurture and bring it out.
Was there anybody into fashion designing in your family before you?
My father was an Accountant and my Mom was a Caterer. However, in my Mom’s family were many very educated persons and they believe that if you want to do anything, it has to be professional, especially as most of them were doctors and professors and all that. My situation is quite similar to Fela Anikulapo-Kuti who went outside the country to study Music and I think that is what education does, it shows you that these things that you see as hobbies or passion are actually professions and one can do well with them.
During the period you went to study fashion, professions like Law, Medicine among others were in vogue. How easy was it for your parents to give you a go-ahead to study fashion designing?
Well, my Dad had a policy that once you are 21, you could decide for yourself and my Mum had nurtured me in the art of fashion through magazines and it was only natural that she would support me when I decided to go that part, but she stipulated one condition, that because of the Nigerian mentality that if you do not go to school, you are a drop out and would not be taken seriously, I must go to the University and graduate. However, I always think that if I was in England and had finished my secondary school there, she wouldn’t have minded me going from Secondary school to a fashion school. Interestingly, when I got there, I was like the only adult student as majority of the other students were fresh out of the English equivalent of Secondary school and when I said I had a degree, everyone was like, if this was what you want to do, why did you go to study History and I had to explain the Nigeria narrative to them but it was hard for them to understand because fashion designing had been appointed a degree status as early as the 1960s in England.
For them, a lawyer or doctor was not any bigger than a fashion designer, cook or chef but interestingly, a lot of people are now going into those kinds of professions. My parents did not object to my studying fashion designing so I am a product of two minds that had seen beyond all of what I earlier said and I think my case has been a success story because over there, I was seen as a spectacular student and was always called upon to lecture, and from lecturing, I was also called to handle some workshops and even now I am always called upon to teach. I think it is because of my History degree so it has not been all together a waste.
What does your fashion outfit cater for?
We dabble into a bit of everything, we do wedding outfits. For example, when Virgin Airline began, we won the bid to design the uniforms for them and although we always like to cater for other kind of clothing but having had the training in fashion, Ade Bakare Couture just knew what to do because in school you are taught how to do everything, from children’s wear, to wedding and what have you. You finally specialize in your final year.
At what stage did you know that you’ve finally made a breakthrough?
A lot of activities set my path to breakthrough. In the first place, Dele Momodu wrote about me, and portrayed me to the world in his Ovation Magazine. Then it was followed by my invitation to Nigeria by Sammy Ogbodu. Those aside, I was the official designer for late Mrs. Stella Obasanjo. More so, I have been fortunate to be discovered very early because when I started, there were not too many black designers in England. I was a novelty so people were interested in this black designer. People were intrigued, asking who is this black guy?
So your race gave you the breakthrough?
Yes, people wanted to know and work with this black person. They were quite surprised, and again, I was quite young, around 23, 24, just like how you have the musicians today. In reality, people wanted to see me work and what I could do. So, I had a lot of attention and I was able to capitalize on them but it was a two-way thing because I also faced a lot of rejection.
Who are your clients? What group of people do you style?
I like to say we cater and make things for everyone because everyone likes to look good, and we are committed to doing just that; things that stand out, that are beautifully cut and of course have good life span. Classical pieces but with a modern touch and for example, I still have ladies that have bought things from us 10-15 years ago and they still wear them.
What’s the process of making or styling a high profile client, and how long does it take?
It’s a collaborative effort and process; you meet with the client, you draw your sketch, you show them to the client, they tell you their likes and dislikes. Like the late Mrs. Obasanjo, she liked silk and soft chiffon, beautiful colors, and things neatly cut and getting all the way to the floor. Different clients like different things so you don’t always have to dictate, and because you are dealing on a one-to-one level, it takes different time to make an outfit. There are always ready to wear clothes and that doesn’t take time because the customer can just come and pick them off the shelf.
How many fashion lines do you have?
We’ve got the Ade Bakare Couture, which is the high end and what we are known for, and then we’ve got the ready to wear lines and they are quite affordable because we’ve got dresses that go for 25 thousand Naira, we’ve got jackets starting from 20 thousand naira, trousers starting from 15 thousand naira, so you could get a good outfit for 30 thousand naira with the same principles of Couture and we have generated quite a lot of success with the ready-to-wear outfits because people come for the ready to wear as they affordable.
Couture is usually expensive because you are using the best of everything but with the introduction of our ready-to-wear lines we have been able to reach a good number of our customers.
What is the major reason why you are concentrated on ladies?
Well, ladies can be very creative. The saying goes that a woman can wear everything a man can and more, she can wear jackets, trousers, shirts and the others. So, for a woman you can be more creative unlike a man, it is always a shirt or a trouser, a shorts and maybe a bit more but a woman offers variety and this allows for creativity. But note that we also run men’s wear line as well. We make desirable cloths for men too.
It was once reported that you were commissioned to do the interior decoration of a flat. Can you please shed more light on that?
Okay, when I came back from England and decided to open an outlet of the business here, we basically had to go to the client’s homes to discuss the designs with them and while there I usually comment on the interior of the house as a creative person. And you know, fashion is an arm of design. The client would then say I like your taste and we are looking to purchase another home, would you like to do the interior designs? And that was how we began, choosing and combining colors to give them the brilliant taste they desired.
As a result, we began getting more requests from clients to do more interior designing for flats, houses and all that. We do soft furnishing; bed, tables, furniture basically, kitchen and more.
Well, if you can dabble into the waters of interior designing being a fashion designer, one can guess that you do other things, so what other areas does Ade Bakare have interest in?
I have always liked to do interior designing but I also engage in costume designs and we’ve done quite a number of that for movies, we did it for ‘A Place in the Stars’, then we also got approached to do something for the cast of the series, ‘Lekki Wives’ and we did something for them. Currently, we are designing for ‘Battleground’ which is a series in its second year. So, that’s another angle to me. We are also in talks with another movie producer to design for one of his projects and I like projects. Designing is usually twice in a year, you do your autumn and spring collection so projects keeps one busy all year round.
What’s the next thing for Ade Bakare Couture?
The goal is to go global, we already have outlets in Lagos, Abuja, New York and London but we would to go global, and I am not just talking of Europe and North America, I mean West Africa. I would want that we have outlets in Ghana, Rwanda, Senegal and other places because I think it kind of unifies us when people know what we are doing then also, we are looking to get investors in the business, people who would own shares.
There are quite a large number of persons who want to go into designing and Couture, what experiences do you want to share and relate to them?
It’s actually funny you should say that. We opened this place in 2006 and that same year, I started the Young Designers Creative Competition, YDCC to support and encourage young designers in the country. With the support and sponsorship of Mrs. Ovia, Mrs. Tinubu, MTN and others we were able to get the Civic Centre. We selected 10 best entries and began working with them, though we couldn’t continue after 2 years. This was due to lack of sponsorship, but not to be deterred we set up the Fashion academy last year to train and teach students the rudiments of fashion designing, the designs, pattern cutting and tailoring.
We also talk to them about the art of designing, how to set up a business and the need to speak a second language because I think one of the things that hold young Africans back from making progress is the inability to speak a second language. We are surrounded by French speaking countries and it would be necessary to learn this language so we can work well and make progress, just like how the world is ‘giddying’ up to learn Chinese. I think for Africans, ours should be French so that when you go anywhere you won’t be limited.
We are also looking to set up academies in the major cities of the country – Abuja, Port Harcourt and others.
So, this is part of your CSR?
Yes and even from the 10th – 16th of November, we would be having an event; a retrospective on my work at Terra Kulture and we would be bringing in secondary school students on the island and mainland providing transportation and giving them an idea of what creativity is and means. It is a way to spark up their mindset at a young age. If a child wants to study music today, he might not get in touch with Wizkid but through exhibitions, concerts and auditions, he might be given a platform.
What people don’t realize is that the Western world usually start grooming their kids from a young age; look at Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Beyoncé, and that’s what we are trying to do – provide a platform for the young ones. We’ve actually done the retrospective thing before, we did it when we were celebrating our 10th anniversary. I am not sure how well people are going to respond to it but so far the feedbacks have been encouraging. For example, sometime at a restaurant, a lady walked up to me and said she remembers me and I was like, oh that’s interesting. She said she had been part of those people who had been selected one time to attend our exhibition and what she took from it was that if you could draw and had a creative side, you could find yourself in this line of work. And a lot of kids are this creative; you see them drawing comics, creating interesting content. Parents of yesteryears might have frowned at that but with the way our artistes are making money, they are persuaded to encourage them, so the key is to discover the talent and support them at a young age.
It doesn’t mean that they don’t read their books and choose to go into the academics but with that talent they can carve a name for themselves and that can become their breakthrough, but that can only happen if we identify and discover these talents.
What would you have been if you were not a fashion designer?
I think I would have been in the Foreign affairs, an ambassador but at the same time, I think what I do is a form of diplomacy, promoting the Nigerian culture and the African culture because I believe a lot of problem comes from misinformation. when I am outside the country and I say I want to do this design, I can do this design, people are always like – an African, are you sure you can do this? All that is because of ignorance and I think that as Africans, we must promote our brand and the best of our ability. I have been invited by FIMA for an exhibition scheduled for 29th of November in Morocco where I would be representing Nigeria so I would be showcasing Africa fashion at that event.
In 27 years of Ade Bakare Couture, there must have been awards, please do list them?
It started from when I was in design school, I won an award at the National Student Bridal Competition, I came second of all the design schools in England. Subsequently, I was selected by Bride magazine as one of London’s most influential designers. I won Business man of the year for Northwest Bank and Western Union, and now, I just recollect something funny, I never like staying out late at events and this particular event Dele Momodu was present and he saw me get up, he asked, where are you going? and I said home, the event is taking longer than I expected and he said you are going nowhere. Lo and behold, my name was called, I don’t know if he had inside information. I also won the Nigeria City People Award on two occasions and a lot more but I like to look ahead and see what the future holds. We’ve also gotten invitations to show our work in various parts of the words, Vienna, Mozambique, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban and even the AMAA awards which happened recently, we were flown down and the Rwanda government sponsored the show, so I find it quite interesting because it’s a way of unifying Africans and showing us the meaning of brotherhood.
While in the plane to Kigali, I met a friend of mine who I introduced to Peace Anyiam, the organiser of the Kigali event, and I thought she was on her way to Rwanda but she said no, she was going to Gambia as she had been invited and she had been invited to Dubai also to show her collection, so I think the rest of the world are becoming interested in what Africans are doing and we ourselves must not be in the back line.
We know you are based more in England than Nigeria but is there any challenge or are there challenges on the way to becoming a successful designer?
Oh yes! And one of them is finance; people often think you just need your creativity to function in this kind of business but not so. When you read about some of the top fashion houses, you would realize that they had astute business men behind them and that keeps them moving and going forward. I think the reason most fashion businesses in Nigeria are the way they are is though no fault of the owners, sole trade business and not fashion entities because of lack of foreign investors and the pressure is borne by them.
And when people invest in your business, you are blessed with sound financial advice which you can bring into your business. For example, my very good but now late friend, Remi Lagos, she had said before she passed on that she wouldn’t mind that if the business stops but close to her end, she said she would want the business to continue but how possible would that be, seeing she had not brought in investors. Hopefully, her sister might sell the rights of the business to a financial investor who would resurrect the business. It’s the same thing when you look at big English fashion houses, the owners are long dead, say 1950s, 1960s and someone comes and is willing to pay and resurrect the business.
I’ve really begun to understand the usefulness of investors; you have the creativity and they have the finances and the financial advice to give, so you must be willing to work with them. It’s a double-edged sword because the investors can bring about your downfall but no one comes into a business to see it crumble or make a loss and most business success stories are based on investment.
What can you say is the secret to the success of your business?
Tenacity; I put in 100% and I believe if you can make any success in business you must put all your effort and that has been my driving force. There is no option to it. That’s why I said if I wanted to do anything, it would have been fashion designing and that for me is the way to make things happen if you want to be successful. Here in Nigeria, we see fashion not as a business but as a hobby, someone can say I like playing with colours and patterns and that’s why they want to do it but it’s much more than that, you must concentrate and give it your all.
Do you have any competitor in business?
I compete with myself. I strive to do better than I’ve done yesterday but we have other wonderful designers, no doubt. However, I always see myself as a person of two ways, when I am in Nigeria, I am there and when in England, it’s another ball game. Initially, when we set up here, we were importing a good deal of the outfits and it wasn’t selling that much. We began to make clothes in Nigeria and we saw that it was moving. Nigerians like a bit of their own stuff. For example, when I began the silk adire, I saw that immediately we put them on the rail, they are bought. I asked them why at a point, and one of the ladies said, this is us, this is who we are and we can really relate with these.
With how tedious the business can be, how do you relax?
I listen to music, read books then do a little bit of going out. I also do a bit of swimming.