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People think I’m bigger than I am

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Lanre Da-Silva Ajayi is one of Nigeria's top fashion designers. She read Business Administration at Coventry University and masters in Finance at Leicester University, United both in the Kingdom but her passion for fashion designing stems from childhood when her mother taught her how to make clothes. In this Interview with RONKE KEHINDE and ODUNAYO OREYENI met her.

What was your childhood dream?
I grew up in Nigeria before going away to United Kingdom to further my studies. I studied nothing about fashion. My first degree was Business Administration and my Masters was in Finance. I've always loved to make clothes. My mum taught me how to make clothes when I was very little. That was an additional bonus for me. When I moved back home, I got a job to work in a bank and I discovered that I was pregnant with my first child, I became very sick. Things were not that very easy for me and I said let me see what I can lay my hands on. Then vintage fashion was not as big as it is; now if you open the magazine you'll find vintage fashion. It's all coming back. But then it was what I really loved to be involved in. I used to shop in stores, and I was into accessories. In Nigeria I used to have some people who used to make my clothes for me when I come on holiday, but I wasn't that particular about what I used to get. And I said even I don't have many customers. People said me that do you think Nigerians are ready for this. I made my wedding dress some people liked it and they asked me to make something for them and I said okay let me start from this. People said I love your style. I started from my parents' house; it takes a while before I moved to my studio. By the grace of God today things have moved up for me, people picked up my style, 20 customers became 30, 40 then 50 and so on. It seems like a dream come true. My fashion background stems from when I was young and the fact that I used to go for fashion courses, but that was for fun. It was just short courses in the evening when I was in England. It was purely for me. It wasn't that I went to a fashion institute. It was a programme where women gathered. When it comes to fashion, the passion for it goes a long way more than the study of it. For me that has worked. I did some little things to better myself in the industry. The patterns and styles that I wanted are the main things that sustain me till today. I had my own dream for the way I wanted fashion to evolve under the line of Da-Silva Ajayi and that was what has really helped me. My style has its own significance. If you see my clothes you tend to know almost instantly. And there are some people that will not like it obviously; I didn't expect this number of people to like my style. Fashion has come of age, even in Nigeria today. People are more confident of the way they look. When I started, there were some clothes that I made and people were saying who is going to wear these. I'm talking about five years ago. Now people come to me to say 'Lanre, I want to stand out when I get there. I want to step out, I want something different. There are so many fashion magazines now.

When did that turning point come in your life, when you started getting international recognition?
There has been a lot of support from the media and a lot of people. The media, the customers and God have really supported me. It's about the time I did go in, I went in at the right time when people wanted something new in fashion. At that time, I was being approached to go for some events. They say Lanre you have to come to this and this events. Lots of people were celebrating me; they wear my clothes, and come to me for fashion spread of my clothes, so there was a lot of awareness for me. So when they write names of people they want to take out for international shows my name comes up. For me God and luck was on my side.

What is your family and educational background?
I went to Larade Nursery and Primary School. I went to Command Secondary School. I did my A/levels at Henley College, in England; my first degree in Business Administration at Coventry University, from there I did my masters degree in Finance at University of Leicester. I'm from Lagos State and the first child of three children.

What are the challenges involved in your profession?
I'll say it's the same challenges that affect Nigeria as a whole. The power challenge is a great one because of the equipment we used. Aside from that there's no serious challenge, Nigeria is trying. If eventually the government will come into this industry, they should realise that fashion industry is a booming industry. There is no focus from the government on the fashion segment which I think is a draw back for us as a country. I'm praying for things to get better. I'm very lucky with my customers; I tried my best not to disappoint. There are times you said you'll meet up with a particular time, then things happened and I tried my best to meet up, I won't call them challenges, it's a general process that people should understand and we will overcome it.

Share with us some of the memorable days in this profession?
Not every customer will be 100 per cent happy; at least we have over 50 per cent happy customers. There are times customers are not completely happy, but overall customers are happy with my work. As a designer it doesn't mean I'm in everybody's mind to know what they will like to wear. Such times, customer will call and tell me how they want it and I will do exactly what they want, so there is satisfaction at the end of the day. I can only give my opinion but I cannot make final judgment for them.

Share with us some of the memorable days in your life?
The day I got married is a memorable day for me. Also when I had my first child was a very memorable and happy day for me. The day I opened this studio last year in April, I was very happy, a lot of people came here and bought some ready to wear stuffs, that day is memorable for me.

How many years have you spent so far in the industry?
It's my fifth year.

Describe Lanre Da-Silva Ajayi?
I can be a very quiet person, I'm easy going, friendly and obviously I love fashion. I'm a family person and I love my work.

In the course of your work what has been the most difficult experience for you so far?
I can't say precisely any difficult experience, if anything comes up and it's challenging if I have to work into the night, I'll work into the night. Sometimes I'll be relaxing. I'm very lucky I don't have difficult customers. Most people that come to me always have someone that refers them to me. There are difficult challenges whereby the fabric doesn't go with the style a customer wants. I, as a designer will look for how to get it together, if the fabric is not going to fit in at all I'll let the customer know.

I'll like you to share with us how you met the love of your life?
I met him in England. He had been to my house before, but I couldn't really recollect. Later I met him at a friend's 21st get together birthday, we got talking and he was cool. I found out that we were compatible; we were married today with two children.

What was the attraction?
When I got to know him, I found out that he was a very likeable loving person, very easy going, and no stress. We are compatible together, I'm happy with him.

When did you get married and how do you cope with being a mother, wife and fashion designer?
I got married in December 2003. It's actually not very easy but I tried to find time. Lucky for me, my kids go to school nearby and their grand parents are also close by; they too also do a lot of assistance for me. I tried as much as possible to do their homework with them. My husband is very supportive of my work and that is what helps. With these entire things combined together, it may not be that easy, there are days I spent more time at work so I tried to balance it out.

Share with us your low moments?
My low moments could stem from many things; it could be if the outfits are not ready. It's a moment you know that if the outfits are not ready you're going to upset somebody. Sometimes it could be very stressful that is why I try not to take more than I can chew.

Who influenced you in this industry?
My major influence stems from the Victorian era. It's being simplified and modified for today's woman. When people see my items I want them to understand that it's not only Victorian pieces she does. Now I like Vivienne Westwood very much and John Galliano and Alexander McQueen who passed on recently.

What are you planning to do this year as regards organising shows for your collection?
I want to do some pieces for summer, as time goes on I'll decide what I want to do. Surely there will be viewing of my pieces.

So far what will you consider your biggest achievement?
I thank God for my Nigerian customers and the international exposure. If no one is wearing my clothes I'll be no where. It's those people wearing my clothes that are selling me. They are the ones that are taking me internationally. When someone walk up to me to say Lanre, I like this shirt that you made is something. Getting to this level I am today is a big achievement.

How do you unwind after the day's work?
I try to relax. I do a little bit of jogging on the spot, just in the compound. I'm actually not a big person. When people see me they think I'm bigger than I am, especially when they see my picture they think I look bigger. I go to the gym once in a while.

If you have the chance what will you like to change about yourself?
I like the way I am. We wear clothes to suit ourselves in different ways; I wear high shoes to look taller. I think I'm fine.

Will you encourage your daughter to take up your profession if she's interested?
That depends on her; she might like fashion and not like my own style. She's young now, I'll try to put her in things that I can put her in; but it's only God that can tell. Her education is still very important. If she wants to study fashion later it's okay. For me I still have my degrees, I can fall back on it if I want to but the truth of the matter is that I'm very happy doing my own thing. Fashion is actually a great and booming industry. Nigerians need to wake up to it. Fashion industry is big. Abroad, there is a lot of respect for fashion designers. It's a big multi-billion dollar project. How parents view fashion will definitely change as time goes on, even right now it's changing because my parents are happy with me.

How do you see fashion in Nigeria in the next five years?
There's great room for improvement. We are doing quite well. People that want to go into it need to be encouraged.

Story by nollywoodgists.com