Isoken Ogiemwonyi is the co-founder of retail store L’Espace based in Lagos. She emerged winner of the MTN/British Council Young Creative Entrepreneur for 2012 at the MTN Lagos Fashion and Design Week held October 24th – 27th in Lagos. In this interview with AZUKA OGUJIUBA she shares her experience on the tour and her thoughts on the Nigerian fashion industry and related matters
What does the word fashion mean to you?
To put it succinctly, I’ll define style as expression. So, I’d say fashion is current expression.
How would you describe the Nigerian fashion industry as it is today?
Although the fashion industry in Nigeria has yet to reach its full potential, there is still a vast array of opportunities for designers to emerge and define their individual styles and overall expressions of fashion. In addition to designers, the industry is comprised of pattern cutters, machinists, vendors, retailers and several other key players who facilitate the delivery of the finished product to the customer. In Nigeria, in my opinion, these are the people whose skills need to be polished in order to fully support the designers and the industry in general.
Tell us a little about your background and how your career in the fashion business started?
I am a graduate of Law from the University of Nottingham. I also have a Post Graduate Diploma in Hospitality Administration from GIHE, Switzerland and an MSc in Management from BPP London. I have been in the business of fashion since 2006.
L’Espace is the name of your retail store, why L’Espace and what informed the choice of name?
When we were trying to come up with a name for the store, we envisioned a space that would carve out a unique niche for itself in Lagos and we wanted customers to feel like it was ‘the space’ in which they could acquire a wide array of not only products, but also services. So simply put, L’Espace is French for The Space.
What would you say inspires your work?
A plethora of things - periods in time, various forms of design, characters I admire - real or fictional, pop culture, music, movies etc. But I would have to say my main inspiration is whatever specific feeling I want to invoke in my customers.
What is your area of specialisation and why the focus on that aspect of fashion business?
Through the work we do at Le Petit Marche and L’Espace we are striving to find workable, innovative solutions to the myriad retail problems in Nigeria, in order to fulfill our brand mission: fashion infrastructure. We believe in simplifying the distribution process, freeing designers up to concentrate on creating and promoting their brand.
Who would you say are your target market and current clientele?
Our target market is young professionals (not exclusively women) who are looking for a place that fulfills not only their fashion needs, but also their lifestyle needs. We deliberately include other services that we feel will go hand in hand with the buying experience so as not to limit out clientele exclusively to the fashion forward.
Our current clientele is a good representation of this, although we hope to introduce a few new lifestyle options to L’Espace in the near future.
What are some of the challenges you face doing business in Nigeria and how do you deal with these challenges?
In addition to the myriad of problems that face Nigerian businesses in general, the poor infrastructure in Nigeria is an ever-present issue that we have to tackle on a daily basis. We also often encounter problems in the supply chain, including problems with manufacturing, planning, and effective marketing to name a few. We deal with these issues by making the most of what is available and constantly looking for ways to innovate and improve the overall process.
Is it profitable doing fashion business in Nigeria?
We strongly believe it will be in the long run. Just like any business at the initial stage profit making isn’t usually the only goal (not that if it comes you won’t take it) but to stay in business and grow and make a positive impact.
As the Nigerian fashion industry matures, there will be even greater opportunities to make profit, especially as Nigeria has the scale, customer wise. Hence the likes of Mango, Zara making forays into Nigeria. There are still untapped areas of the consumer market and as a result the industry has yet to become as profitable as other established ones.
Have you had or taken part in any fashion exhibitions or shows?
Presently L’Espace hasn’t taken part in any fashion exhibitions or shows but we are working towards it as a means of bringing our vendors (and us) closer to our customers and potential customers.
Your job must be very time consuming, how do you maintain a healthy work- life balance?
It is, believe me. I don’t know if that is 100% possible to attain; it’s something you define for yourself, but as a woman naturally I am a multi-tasker. I find a way of balancing everything by scheduling, prioritising and planning everything that I need to do. I break my day into manageable little chunks of L’Espace/Obsidian/LPM/Other. I also know my body and know when to take a break.
Now, let’s talk about your experience in the MTN Lagos Fashion and Design Week show. You also emerged the winner of the MTN/British Council Young Creative Entrepreneur for 2012. Why did you enter for this contest?
Since I consider myself an entrepreneur first, I wanted the opportunity to network internationally and meet with other industry experts as a means of learning from them and improving my approach to business.
Were you surprised when you were announced the winner and how exactly did you feel?
You just returned from a tour of the United Kingdom Fashion and Design industry and also witnessed the London Fashion Week. What was this experience like for you?
It was an exceptional experience…one I will never forget. I met so many talented individuals in various creative and cultural industries from all over the world. I learnt so many different creative techniques and got the opportunity to meet with Sir Paul Smith, who is a renowned Fashion Designer and Business Man.
What are some of the glaring similarities and differences between the UK fashion industry and the Nigerian fashion industry?
Of course the greatest differences are the presence of better infrastructure, established lines and support systems for creative businesses
Like the UK and the rest of the world, there is a heavy reliance on social media (Twitter, blogs etc.) to connect with potential consumers.
How important and useful was this tour for your budding career and business?
One of the main objectives of this programme is to sensitize the UK creative sector to the opportunities that come from working with other creative entrepreneurs in emerging economies and I believe that this kind of exposure will always be advantageous to a budding business such as L’Espace.
What message do you have for MTN, British Council and the other sponsors and organizers of the MTN Lagos Fashion and Design Week?
Thank you for supporting the creative industry in Africa.
You also run an online store, now how is this working out for you?
It isn’t fully functional at the moment, but it will be soon. In the interim, we are leveraging partnerships like the L’Espace x Kamdora initiative to give our vendors a ‘clicks and mortar’ advantage.
An online presence and social media marketing is becoming more of a prerequisite – even more so in our line of work. We will continue to leverage the Internet as part of our overall marketing strategy. Although Internet penetration levels are not monumental, specifically in the e-commerce sector, we hope this will develop as a part of our growth strategy.
What are your dreams and aspirations are for L’Espace are?
Firstly, to be a global fixture- global and local wherever we are present. Secondly, to continue to refine and develop our distinct DNA and to be an established brand with an innovative ethos.