#SuzyLFWNG: Tiffany Amber Secures Her Place In Nigeria’s Fashion Universe

“Tiffany Amber” is just shy of 20 years old, but she holds a chic, unique position in the fashion industry.

The imaginary, international name was dreamed up by Creative Director Folake Folarin-Coker, who has built such a successful clothing business that she is something of a star in Lagos, Nigeria, where she will show her latest collection on Friday, during Lagos Fashion Week.

Born in Nigeria’s most dynamic city, and educated in Switzerland, England, and Scotland, Folake graduated with a Masters in Petroleum Law. But, drawn as much to fashion as to legal work, the incipient designer decided to found a sophisticated clothing business in November 1998.

Now, having won international awards and acclaim, Folake explained how she seeded Tiffany Amber – and made it grow.

Suzy Menkes: How did you build this fashion and lifestyle brand? And how do you divide your time between creativity and management?

Folake Folarin-Coker for Tiffany Amber: It’s a balance between the two now. I brought in a partner about three years ago to handle the business side, because for 17 years I did everything on my own. It was a little daunting as I was working up to 19 hours a day. Now I work 60:40, fashion and management. I still have a lot of say in running the business because there really isn’t an industry here – there’s no structure.

But, we are trying to put the structure in place. If I’m not involved in production, it just doesn’t happen and I don’t want to send production out of Nigeria. At the moment we have a workshop of 50 tailors, but we are building our own factory and expanding to accommodate 250 tailors because we have just launched a diffusion line.

Suzy: A lot of people in your country think there are more important things than fashion. It sounds as though you are on top of it, though. You’ve kept your company going through that period, which is really very impressive.

Folake: I think it’s changing slowly. A lot of banks are taking interest in the fashion industry now, but they are still asking for an arm and a leg to finance it! There are lots of people in the industry who actually prefer the fame over the business, so they bring in collections every season and don’t mind that they sell only three or four pieces. Those people are wrecking the industry, as far as I am concerned.

Our business is doing very, very well. If we didn’t want to grow, we would be extremely comfortable where we are. But we want to grow. We want to be all over the continent. We want to have a presence in so many cities.

Suzy: Do you consider yourself a small- or medium-sized company?

Folake: In terms of staff, it’s medium sized. In terms of finances, we’re coming along nicely but a lot of it goes right back into the company. In Nigeria we don’t have a marketing or magazine industry. Instagram has been a blessing and a curse. So many people post stories that are not true, which affects others that do have a proper business.

The message I’d like to send out is that, as much as African designers say we don’t need anything, we really do! We need to teach designers how to be designers. Fashion schools don’t really exist here, and I think the global fashion industry needs to work more with the African fashion industry, to help it grow.

Suzy: If an investor approached you, what are the things you absolutely feel would make a big change?

Folake: We are selling equity in the business right now. Our “growth machinery” is a diffusion line. For the first two or three years we are only selling 30%, just to raise capital to fund everything I want to do. The ideal thing would be for someone to say, “I want to invest some capital into your business and I’m going to bring foreign expertise to train your people.”

Suzy: And what would that expertise be? Financial, management, or helping you find other people to work in the design studios?

Folake: It would be great to say “Everything!” The biggest problem now is that financial people come into the fashion industry and don’t understand that in this profession a lot of money gets thrown out the window. But if it lands in the right place, it walks right back in through the door. The first fashion show I had in Nigeria, people thought I was crazy because of the amount we spent on the show. But guess what? Our concept, and the images of that concept, stayed in everybody’s mind for so long afterwards.

Tiffany Amber was the first ready-to-wear brand in Nigeria. We were the first of the so-called “rock star” fashion designers. Before us, if you came from a particular background, it was taboo to enter the fashion industry. Fashion was seen as tailoring.

Suzy: You are very highly educated yourself; you aren’t someone who has just come out of college having learned how to cut a dress.

Folake: I qualified as a lawyer. I come from a big family – nine girls and two boys – and I’ve always been fascinated with fashion. But I did not dare tell my parents that I wanted to be a designer! So, secretly, I launched Tiffany Amber. I told the press, “Never say Folake Folarin-Coker, always say Tiffany Amber.” The name made people think it was a foreign brand, so they bought into it.

Five years later I told my parents, “You know what? Tiffany Amber is actually me.” For ten years, I literally had no competition in the country. Then other designers started thinking they could do it, and then parents started allowing their kids to do it, and now there’s a fashion designer in almost every family!

Suzy: So are there fashion schools in Nigeria?

Folake: They are not anywhere near sophisticated enough. A graduate from a Nigerian fashion school doesn’t have the same knowledge as a first-year student, say, in a British or American fashion school.

After twenty years, there’s nothing that I haven’t seen. But I would really love to intern with a very established fashion house to learn what I haven’t experienced because I have had to make the rules for myself all these years. Even in South Africa they have a pretty structured industry, but something is missing.

Suzy: What does your part of Africa have to offer the fashion world?

Folake: Years ago, when the concept of “tribal” came into fashion, everybody thought it was just a fad. But season after season, established designers are working with the concept of tribal. What this continent has to offer in terms of fabrication, weaves, or even concepts, has been seen already on all the major runways. I saw the Valentino Spring/Summer 2016 collection, the one inspired by Africa, and I kicked myself! I thought, “Why didn’t I ever do that?” They took the best of the continent and made it so sophisticated and globally appealing.

I got to thinking, “What is it that makes African fashion stand out?” It’s different today because the average African woman is well travelled. And she is no longer afraid to experiment with her culture. We carry our culture with so much more confidence now. In terms of the fabric we wear, the style, the jewellery – we’ve come up with a new concept of style that can only be described as an attitude.

Twenty years ago, you would not catch an African woman wearing a wax-print fabric coat. She would think everyone would laugh at her. But now she will gladly wear her African coat, her fashionable bag, and her jewellery.

Suzy: A lot of jewellery is coming out of Africa now.

Folake: It is, and countries are realising we have so many natural stones, so many things we can play with… That’s why I called my collection “Made in Africa, Made for Now”. I’m going to go with this concept for the next few years, because it keeps changing. Do you agree with me when I say there’s nothing to be explored on the continent anymore in terms of fabrication?

Suzy: I don’t think I’m as knowledgeable as you are. If you are running a business, do you want to factory-produce things or have some special decorations made by hand? Do you want to support the craft sector or heritage? Doesn’t it depend on your customers?

Folake: At Tiffany Amber, we probably have the largest clientele of African first ladies. I honestly believe that nobody can dress an African better than another African. Every other upper-class woman in Nigeria has a Chanel bag, but I can tell you that out of 200 women, maybe only two buy Chanel clothes.

Suzy: It is generally the case that women buy designer accessories more than they buy designer clothes.

Folake: And in Nigeria, every other street has a tailor!

Suzy: So what is the message you would like to share?

Folake: I want the world to know that we are capable of becoming a heritage brand on the African continent. That’s what I’m working very hard to achieve. In Africa, there is no fashion brand that transcends the whole continent. Every country has its own star.

Suzy: Who do you feel is on the same wavelength as you?

Folake: Business-wise, I like the way Tory Burch thinks. But I don’t think the fashion industry is focussed enough in Africa. For example, Zara is all over the world, so why are there only one or two Zara boutiques on the entire African continent? It’s an untapped market.

I would invest in the brand with the most potential; the most bankable brand on the continent.

Suzy: And that’s you?

Folake: Yes!

Suzy: That’s good, speak up for yourself!

Folake: Let the world see – once one brand is successful, it opens a huge market. For everyone. Why is there no high street anywhere in Nigeria? How can that be?

I’ve come to realise that my biggest market is in Africa but the market is stronger when the foreign market accepts you. We are doing a lot of business and would like to find a concession in London, Paris, or New York. Do you think it’s a pipe dream to think a foreign investment company would invest in my brand?

Suzy: I just don’t know the answer to that, but you are obviously very organised, you’ve got a proper business, and you know what you are doing. So, I think they definitely should.

Folake: There are enough people in the country who could invest in us but in Nigeria they like to see an immediate return on their investment. It’s easier to invest in an oil company that’s about to fail than in a fashion brand that’s about to blow up all over the world.

Fashion is an industry that a lot of people do not understand. Acceptance is coming slowly. The fact that we’ve been able to sell 30%, even to angel investors, is a big deal. Tiffany Amber’s brand DNA is very strong – if anything happened to me, it would be easy for someone to step in.

Suzy: Well, I hope that you will stay here for a long time! Now, show me some of your clothes…

Folake: This dress is from our “Made in Africa, Made for Now” collection – it’s all silk, all hand made, all tie dye and batik. Everything was made in Nigeria, but we had to import the silk.

Then there’s our more traditional line. In Nigeria, we wear a lot of “lappas” or “pagnes” – a wrapper worn with a top. Because women tend to be quite hippy, the top is always very fitted and the wrap makes it easier for the women to dress. This has become one of our best sellers in Nigeria.

I don’t think I’d be able to sell many of these in Europe but in Nigeria we can’t keep them on the rack!

Suzy: I think many people are much more adventurous these days. The drape is very clever. Who would typically buy that in Nigeria?

Folake: The brand is multi-generational. We have a lot of very young clients and we also have women who are turning 80 who say, “I need a special dress for a party.”

Suzy: When I arrive in Lagos, where do I go if I want to buy your clothes?

Folake: We have two stores in Lagos and one in Abuja, and we have two concessions in Lagos – one at the Alara boutique, and one at Temple Muse.

Suzy: Thank you so much for giving me this preview of your collection. See you in Lagos!

The seventh edition of Lagos Fashion Week takes place from the 24th-27th October (lagosfashionweek.ng)