I see challenges as stepping stones —Ejiro Amos Tafiri, E. A. T boss & Vlisco Ambassador

Ejiro Amos Tafiri, a graduate of Yaba College of Technology, Lagos State and the brain behind the E. A. T. (Ejiro Amos Tafiri) brand is one of the most sought after designers in Nigeria today. The young and talented designer has won many fashion awards and is the youngest ambassador of Vlisco, alongside Angelique Kidjo and seven other prominent African women. In this interview by TAYO GESINDE, she speaks on how she has been able to make her mark in the Nigerian fashion industry since her debut six years ago. 


Foray into fashion

Though I was a tomboy when I was growing up but anytime I had to wear a dress, I always make sure that everything matches. For instance, at Christmas, my mum always bought me matching dress, bag, hat and shoes. That was my early introduction to fashion. I kind of experimented with fashion and I also used to make dresses for my doll. However, I never thought I would study fashion design until when I was in SSS 1 and I left Agric class to join clothing and textile class because I was looking for a subject that would be easy for me to pass. The Agric teacher was pregnant and wasn’t teaching. She used to say that we should go and read. I thought since I had to contend with Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics that I had to read and so I needed something that I would have fun in the class and get A1 so I went for clothing and textile. My first day in the class, we went on excursion to Yabatech School of Art and I discovered fashion. I just knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It wasn’t easy at first because my parents didn’t want that for me, society didn’t want that for me, my family members didn’t want it for me. My teachers in secondary school thought something was wrong with me. Nobody understood the choice of fashion over medicine. But here I am today.


Role models

Number one is MUDI because he has taken the Nigerian dream beyond the shores of Nigeria. He started from a humble background and made his way to the top. He makes clothes for politicians and big shots in African countries like Ghana, Kenya and so on. He owns and runs a pan African business. Mrs.  Nike Ogunlesi has grown her business from scratch to employing about 250 people and having branches all over Nigeria. I have a dream similar to theirs so they are my role models.


Challenges faced

To enter fashion at the time I did, it was believed that you must have a lot of money. It was general knowledge that if you were not rich or married into an affluent family or have parents who are influential, who won’t be able to do fashion successfully as people were not making money as they should like celebrated fashion designers because they don’t have rich friends to patronise them. People may say that was a challenge but to me, it was a blessing. It made me work harder and think out of the box and find other ways to success as opposed to the laid down rule of having friends and inviting them to your launching or have your parents build you a shop or stuffs like that. I didn’t see them as challenges as they made me to find an alternative route. But the basic challenges are lack of infrastructure, lack of availability of technical knowhow. For most fashion houses before and even now, they make use of imported skilled labour, Senegalese tailor, Cotonou tailors and Pilipino tailors because Nigerian tailors are not very detailed, skilled or loyal. Since I was starting without huge capital, I had to train my staff and that is part of the thing that Ejiro Amos Tafiri is known for. I started my business in Ikotun Egbe and I took raw skills people who were “apprentice “and I imparted in them with what I had gone to fashion school to learn for five years  and what I learnt working in the industry for two years after that. So instead of going to import talents, I take the raw Nigerian talents and try to refine them. Also access to finance is another major challenge till today as most banks would say fashion is not one of the SMEs they can loan money to. The ban on foreign fabric is also part of it as we don’t have enough Nigerian fabric that is durable. Yes we have aso oke and adire but it is not every style you can sew with these fabrics. We don’t have technologies to improve the way our fabrics are being made. They are handmade but they should be mass produced because we are a country of over 180 million people and we mostly import our fabrics.


Inspiration for my designs

I am generally inspired by culture so I like to read, I like to watch films, travel and experience how people live their lives. The choices people make. How do women want to be seen, how they love to feel in their clothes. All these things put together inspire what I do.


The E. A. T. brand

Our brand mantra is; chic, elegant and for the upwardly mobile women. That is what we stick to. What we provide is a form of art and like every art and artist; it is unique to your DNA. So what I will create will be different from what another person will create.  What stands us out the most is that we are a very innovative brand, we have been known to bring up styles to change the way people wear clothes in Nigeria and we have produced clothes that have been widely copied by designers. One of it is the Oleku drape dress which totally revolutionised the way women wear their iro and bubas.


Secret of success

God. He is the one that orders our footstep. He is the one that guides and inspires. He is the beginning of the Ejiro Amos Tafiri and He’s the one who keeps us going and directs right people to us. Also, it has been nothing but hard work and dedication. And staying true to the dream and wanting it actualised.


Defining moment

There have been several ones. With each stage in life comes a very defining moment. For this year, it is opening this office in Ikeja which houses our second store where we have our school, production, atelier and a store. I was also named Vlisco ambassador alongside seven other amazing women from the rest of West Africa like Angelique Kidjo. To be the youngest woman to represent a brand that has been around for 170 years is a huge honour and the icing on the cake.  Last year, the most defining moment was winning designer of the year for retail award at LFDW at five awards; it shows that we’ve really impacted the industry.


Tips on how to succeed in the fashion industry

Think out of the box. You are not the same as every other person so first and foremost, know yourself, your strength and weaknesses and use your strength to your advantage and try to down play your weaknesses.


What government can do to assist the fashion industry

There should be legislation to help intellectual property theft, which is endemic in the fashion and arts generally. Legislation that will protect and grow the indigenous textile industry from the farmers that plant cotton to the people that spin wool and thread and, the leather people. Most of the leathers used by foreign designers are bought in Nigeria. Meanwhile, Nigerian designers don’t have access to this thing. They will buy it, treat it and we will still have to import it.  They should find a way to grow the industry. I am not the type to advocate that government should give us money but I am saying that if they put the right things on ground; like power. They can create manufacturing hubs where there will always be power since it is an industrial area where garments can be done. Fashion is a big business all around the world. The world’s largest apparel retailer, the owner of Zara makes and sells clothes. It is an industry that the country should look into.


Why most Nigerians still prefer to buy foreign things

I think it is our colonial mentality but it is gradually changing. Many people grew up with the mentality that anything that is imported is better. They even categorise it that things from London are better than the USA while they say anything from China is fake, not knowing that what they buy in America are made in China. It is just a mentality that is starting to change and the change starts with us. We should value what is ours. If we keep sending our monies abroad, we will be developing those countries at the detriment of our own.


Why made in Nigeria goods are more expensive

I think it is an unfair thing to say that Nigerian products are too expensive. More often than not, they are underpaid. The Nigerian manufacturer provides his own electricity, transportation and sometimes provides his own road or deals with the fact that he has to change  his vehicle every year or two years due to bad roads. It is a tough environment for Nigerian manufacturers and everybody goes into business to make profit so they are not going to sell themselves short. The alternatives in the so-called developed world are ten times more expensive. But they are willing to part with that money because it is made in UK.