Wanger Ayu isn’t your average fashion entrepreneur; she is smart, driven, ambitious and a woman who knows what it means to sacrificially follow one’s passion. Wanger is a ‘shining light’ of the fashion industry and one whose work continues to surpass expectation.
Wanger Ayu is the Creative Director and Founder of the Wanger Ayu fashion label. In this interview with Whoot Africa’s Inspiration Africa, she shares her journey to Wanger Ayu, the sacrifices, and the price of taking bold steps towards her dreams against all odds.
A little about Wanger Ayu and the Wanger Ayu Brand?
I am a fashion designer, and I am passionate about fashion.
I am a law graduate from the University of Exeter. I got called to the Bar in 2010, I am also a fashion certificate holder from the French Fashion University in Dubai. I studied law as a result of parental influence, and went on to law school because my parents felt it was important to attend law school after I left the University of Exeter. After law school, I felt the need to take matters into my own hands and sacrificially follow my passion for fashion; I saved up, bought my first set of sewing machines, recruited staff and decided to officially kickstart my fashion place. My parents weren’t too optimistic about the fashion industry for me, like they did with the law profession, so I knew I had to do it at that point if I really wanted to.
What inspires a woman like Wanger Ayu?
I am inspired by the people I meet, the stories I hear and by world events. My latest collection is titled “Brave.” It is about strong women and the power in embracing our womanhood. It is also heavily influenced by recent world political events; like the US general elections, BREXIT and Theresa May emerging as the Prime Minister of Britain.
I am inspired by this season of powerful women; what it means to be a woman, breaking boundaries fearlessly, embracing our femininity and sexuality and being open about the issues that influence us. These things greatly inspire me.
Creative Muse? What do you think about when you look at fabrics and the creativity it can unfold?
The ideal woman is my ultimate creative muse and inspiration. “I think about who is the Wanger Ayu woman?” She is strong and fearless, one who is about her ambition and what she wants out of life. She is a woman who embraces life and who isn’t afraid to try. When I look at a fabric, my ideal woman comes to mind. Who is she? Where is she going to wear this piece that I am about to create to? And what message will her outfit send out when she wears one of my pieces?
Thinking about the business side of fashion, there is no better time for local patronage like the times we are in right now, but a lot of Nigerians still can’t afford to walk into some of our fashion houses to pick up dresses especially with how pricey they are.
The truth is, it is difficult to create simplistic fashion pieces and still be able to price them at the level of Zara basics and Topshop.
An example I would normally give when I teach my fashion business classes is that; the likes of Zara have over 2100 stores in over 80 countries and the economies of scale are very different. When a fashion label like Zara announces a new item, you expect that new item in 2100 stores. Now when you do the maths of say maybe 5pieces per design across 2100 stores, that is a lot in terms of numbers and in terms of production, it means they are producing on a very massive scale and obviously they are not stocking in small quantities.
Now, let’s come down to the average Nigerian designer. It is an uphill battle, we want to be able to create wearable pieces, but the growth of the ready to wear sector within Nigerian is still very limited because it is hard to find a designer who is in the mass market like the Zara’s, New look and co. We don’t have production hubs, these are only just emerging within Abuja. There are maybe two cottage industries; and no full option production houses. When you consider things like our transportation system and the difficulty of moving goods around, you understand just how much difficulty it is to mass produce fashion out here.
In more developed countries, when productions are ready it’s on a freight train and going to where it needs to be. We are still importing our fabrics and there are plenty of bottlenecks to these things. You find out that in more developed nations, fashion labels tend to produce where it is more efficient and cost effective for them.
There is also the china effect where our markets are flooded with substandard products, the issue of fluctuating foreign exchange and the economic instability. The prices of production factors are on the higher side and by the time you take into account the number of factors and challenges the average Nigerian entrepreneur and designer has to go through, you just have to factor it into the selling price.
That being said, I don’t think it is impossible for us to get there, I think it is about awareness which clearly is growing. The Bank of Industry Fashion Fund, is a recognition of the viability of the fashion industry towards Nigeria’s economic growth and GDP, this fund tells me, it isn’t just about money being given to fashion entrepreneurs, but about recognising us and our power of potential growth as fashion designers and the industry.
Lastly, made in Nigeria and buying Nigerian is a choice, it is not something you do for us as entrepreneurs who are producing within Nigeria, but it is a statement that you are making about who you are as well and what you believe in, it is also a stand for the future, if we don’t start now, at what point do we start?
What are your parents’ reaction to your work so far?
My parents are super proud of me being a Fashion designer right now. My mom’s friends share with my mom whenever they watch me on TV or find my work in the magazines, same goes for my aunts and other family members. They can’t stop talking about me being a Fashion designer and my work in general, even better, is my dad sharing about my work with everyone that cares to listen; considering he insisted I be a lawyer for years. Hearing my dad tell me, “this is what I am really good at” means the world, and the little regrets of him not being supportive earlier than he should have.
The Seamstress Vs Designer argument?
I can’t get on machine to make a dress; that is not the major function of a designer, but that is the misconception people have, it’s a waste of your time. If you love to get on the machine, that is absolutely great, but as the designer, you are the creative director of your brand.
I draw, sketch, flat drawings, and technicalities, I control every single thing. I just do not sit on a machine to sew; it is a waste of my time because I have to think about PR, marketing, staff, payments, and logistics that help the chain function properly. If I have to do all these, at what point do I sit down to get on a machine to sew? People automatically assume a designer is a tailor, but there are machinists who operate the machines; that is what they are there for. That you cannot do that, doesn’t make you any less qualified, as long as you have strong creative visions and you are certain of your direction. The creative industry is about breaking free from any constraints to your creativity.
High moments as a Fashion Designer?
I actually don’t have any high moments just yet, and it is not that there haven’t been really good moments, I am just the kind of person who counts each blessing. I celebrate my processes, and I can’t and refuse to separate my moments. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a pessimist, but I tend to think more on the ways I haven’t done well when I haven’t reached my mark. That is where I get my lessons, and I focus more on those for some reasons.
In the last 11years unofficially and 7 years officially as a label, I have had to fall and fail to know how I don’t want to do it again. That is what is important to me, because I think about that and I am inspired to put in the work. I count all my blessings and appreciate all my moments.
What has been the price of entrepreneurship for you? The price, The Lessons and Words of Wisdom to your younger self?
There were points in my business journey where I fell out with loved ones over my career choice. I have been totally broke; I had to give up my house, my car and just put that money into growing my business when things were slow. The entrepreneurship journey gives everyone its own badge of honour, when we all sit down to share our stories, you find out every one has a story to share.
I was invited to a radio show to talk about my journey, and someone called in and almost changed the narrative to focus on who my parents are and their influence in society, and trying to discount my effort and hardwork. like I mentioned earlier, my parents wanted me to study law, and be a practicing lawyer, but what I do right now, took a lot of perseverance and hardwork. I had to prove myself extra at what I do and I was doing it alone for a long time before my parents realized this is what I am really good at and fully supported me.
Entrepreneurship has come with a price, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The goal for me is to ensure that I continue to break boundaries and push myself to be better and better every day. I wouldn’t give up what I do right now for anything in the world and that is the price of entrepreneurship for me.
To my younger self? When I look back, one of the biggest lessons for me is knowing when to say no to people and when to know enough is enough and never to let anything tarnish my image and integrity.
Advice for someone who has been following your work and would like to go into the fashion industry?
To younger designers; I would say, study your craft and master it. It doesn’t happen overnight. I was looking at old pictures of my work just before this interview and I was absolutely shocked with some of my earliest works, which leaves me completely humbled about my journey and how much I have grown creatively.
Now, I seem to know what I am doing. Back in the day, I just went with what made me feel good in my creative process, but this is a business now and the processes are different. So, to my younger self; I would say, you don’t know anything, put your head down, be humble and learn. That is the same advice I would give to any upcoming designer who is passionate about fashion.
I am so keen about reading; I read at least an article everyday about my industry and fields related to my work, I make sure I read something before I go to sleep. The world is changing by the minute and technological advancement is changing everything we do, so you need to keep up and the fashion industry isn’t isolated from that.
Lastly, master your craft, everyday should be a learning experience for you.
Women who inspire you in the fashion world?
In Nigeria – I am inspired by Omoyemi Akerele, the brain behind Style House Files, which is a support system for emerging fashion designers. She also birthed the Lagos Fashion and Design Week, which is one of the most successful fashion events in Africa. She is diligent, dedicated, unwavering and firm but kind. I don’t know her personally, but I have had one or two few minute conversations with her intermittently and it was inspiring and I hope to one day have a closer working relationship with her, her drive inspires me.
Internationally, I would say, Victoria Beckham. She carved her niche in spite of the naysayers’ perceptions of what she was supposed to be, she’s a fashion designers delight and literally goes from strength to strength.
Lastly, 30-50years from now, when your work is being talked about, what would you want the world to say about you?
I would like to be seen as someone who has broken boundaries, who challenged the stereotype and someone who basically did it her way. I would also like to have contributed sizeably to the growth of the fashion industry within Nigeria because it is still uncharted territory right now and you need people who are curious, knowledgeable and excited by what it could be.
In 30-40 years, I hope my work and name would be on that list of people who have shaped and influenced fashion in Nigeria.