She makes her life sound easy, but former beauty queen, Jane Boma Gam-Dede, is only getting close to the balance she hopes to strike with her many parts – a theatre artist, journalist-publisher, fashion designer and entrepreneur. At her Lekki Phase 1 studio and showroom, Nseobong Okon-Ekong discovers a fiery personality with a concern for communal issues that embrace the entire society
At first, she covers her avant-garde tendencies in sophisticated minutiae. She gives a deliberate verbose generosity in her response to my questions. My interaction with her is going just fine until a question about her roots sparks the fire of rebellion in her. Apparently, Jane Bomo Gam-Dede loves her people – the Izons (commonly called Ijaws) of Bayelsa State. This affection is not immediately manifest. Her journey to self-discovery only takes place in her adult life when a chance visit for an uncle’s funeral reveals the beauty of her homestead. Since then, the fondness has been enduring.
There is some kind of contradiction about Jane, much of her life has been spent in Lagos, Port Harcourt and abroad, but she is only just rediscovering Lagos again, after taking leave of it for a long while. She mentions to me the popular hangout, Bay Lounge, as a handle to find her new work place. It is tucked into the back of the house, but that does not signpost the surprise welcome. She makes me feel comfy in her showroom, donning fragile furniture. Graceful art pieces decorate the space in discrete places; even her work table is an eye-catching craft of woodwork in white. Visitors are welcome to the showroom, where there is an assortment of designs for both men and women. Few guests make it to her office on the far right of the building. Most customers (particularly women visit the other room to look in the mirror and confirm or express their reservations on how the dress fits).
I have no prejudices about her. She has a few beauty crowns on her head – Miss Surulere -Lagos, Miss Rivers State, Miss Carniriv, and Miss Nigeria Eastern Zone. However, Jane does not possess that kind of outward beauty that is arresting on the surface. Her splendour radiates from the inside. She holds an HND in Journalism from the International Institute of Journalism and also a Certificate in Theatre Arts from the University of Port Harcourt. Her skills as a Fashion Designer comes from spending time at the Shelton Institute of Fashion Design.
My strategy for this interaction is to allow her do much of the talking. I am lucky as she is not taciturn. She is not a haughty idol. She is not an overrated celebrity. She does not think she is overtly smart; or at least, pretends not to be. So; our communication is off to a good start without these strands of social or emotional inhibition which is often an obstacle to smooth conversation. We do not have to wait for the arrival of her publicist, Nelson NseAbasi, who set up the appointment.
Her presence relaxes. Her natural disposition is warm and very down-to-earth. She begins to talk immediately about the somewhat restrictive space that she is confined to in Lagos. Through the years and her handful of businesses, she has learnt to start small. “Start with what is in your hand and grow it. If I wait longer, I am going to spend the money I had and if I eventually find a bigger space, the money would have been gone. Mind you, I have made the major decision of closing shop in Port Harcourt and moving my entire business to Lagos.”
She is still talking when a customer who had gone to try a dress returns. She shifts attention momentarily from me and another lady who is giving her a few tips on how to fast track her presence in Lagos. When she refocuses on us, the conversation continues as if there was no break. Shortly, I excuse myself to take a call outside. As if she knows I crave to be with her alone, she has left the lady when I make my way back to the showroom. She is sitting behind her desk alone in her office.
To get her started again, all I have to do is probe gently about her trade name, ‘Twon by Jane’ and she opens up with the narrative. “I grew up in Lagos and when I tell people I am from Bayelsa, they say, ‘ah where is that?’ Then I start explaining where Bayelsa is. That kind of annoyed me. I actually didn’t know how to speak my language. My parents did not even bother because they were more English. I learned my language here in Lagos, a few years ago. When I first started, it wasn’t actually ‘Twon by Jane’. It was ‘Jazreel-Jador’. It was a combination of my sister’s name and mine. I wanted something that represents where I am from. People actually ask what is ‘Twon’, I tell them Twon is the name of my village. I take them back to Twon-Brass in Bayelsa. That was how I got the name ‘Twon by Jane’.”
It is interesting that Jane is so fascinated by her heritage. Not minding her late re-awakening through a coincidental trip to her homeland. That journey changed her perspective of her people forever. She says, “I am one of those who had no privilege to go home as a child. Going back to Bayelsa was accidental. Going home was when an uncle died in 2005. That was the first time I went to my village, Twon in Brass. I saw how beautiful it is. I saw how the people are. I was intrigued. I decided to spend more time in Bayelsa. There is nowhere like home. Wherever you go, these are your people. In that process, I started a regional magazine, DipCreek. It was still about trying to represent my people. During the Alamieyeseigha (late former governor of Bayelsa State) time, everything was about corruption. There was really nothing positive about the Niger Delta. That actually hurt me. I was out to prove that there is more to the Niger Delta than poverty, restless young people and corrupt politicians. I wanted the whole world to see that we have brilliant young people. That’s what inspired me to start the magazine in 2007. I was actually still doing my clothing business on the side.”
Jane cannot still figure out what ignites that patriotic fire in her. Is it some of the relatives or the brilliant young people she encounters? Something about that expedition to Bayelsa cements her father’s longing that she would become wife to an Ijaw man. No longer does she see her father’s yearning as a bad wish that should be rejected with a vigorous snap of the finger, while swinging her hands around her head to flush away the evil desire. She knows better now. “I didn’t really get the image of who an Ijaw man is. I am more familiar with the Yorubas. I have more friends from other tribes. Then comes this opportunity to experience my own culture and environment and see how beautiful the ocean is. It changed my perception of who we really are. Earlier, when you talk about Niger Deltans, I was always comparing them to the Yorubas. That one visit changed everything.”
Jane’s understanding of media, culture and fashion helps to illuminate her present and the future. She describes how she got to this point. “These are the subjects that interest a lot of young people. Even in Port Harcourt where ‘Twon by Jane’ started, a lot of people do not know her by name. People who are not from that region are intrigued by the name and the fish in the logo. I’m never tired to explain that it represents the ocean and nature; it’s where I’m from. And if you go further, I will say that is where oil comes from. People relate to fashion. The media informs, so; if I can use these subjects that young people relate to easily, that is fine. I have a large social media community and I know that a lot of young people really get inspired. They inbox me, try to ask questions, so I’m even having friends who want to start a brand with a name that represents their locality. There’s a kind of an awareness now to reflect who you are with your brand.”
Compliments are pouring in from respected elders of Twon-Brass community like the insurance guru, Chief Ephraim Faloughi. She still glows from the honour of his visit to her shop to commend her love for Twon. “I am not ashamed of my language. I think it’s a good thing, she says.”
Her use of Twon as a brand as well as reflecting the environment in the logo is as far as she wants to keep communal goals. She explains her ambition to play on the world stage. “My designs are cosmopolitan. At the end of the day, I can go on a runway in Paris. The Parisian can wear my stuff; someone in New York can wear my stuff in the same way we wear Versace and make a reference to the fact that Versace is French. That’s the same way I want someone to wear my stuff but still reference it to Nigeria, to the Niger Delta. I don’t want it to be too traditional.”
Her marketing strategy is changing to remain in tune with the present times. More and more, she is creating awareness for her brand online. As her marketing experience grows in the digital space, the outlets in Port Harcourt and Abuja have receded into things that used to be. Is that good or bad? She says, “We were having a lot of issues with the outlets concerning proper accounting. They were not remitting on time. It is more complicated to deal with outlets. I had to let it rest for now. What we are looking at is to work with more e-platforms. When people order on our site, they have to pay N2,000 extra, then we deliver to them.”
Not many will disclose what they consider a trade secret. But Jane believes she is brimming with so much ideas that she does not mind sharing. “I’m a fashion designer. I don’t cut and I don’t sew. All I do is sketch my designs for a collection. We produce in Aba. We do our designs and send the fabrics to them. They sew it and send it back to us. I have always been creative. I always wanted to do something that will express my inner thoughts. Journalism is good for me because with writing I can express all those things that I feel. I do my own adverts; I do my own publicity. If there is a new collection, I can write about it on social media. I marry both perfectly. A lot of people keep asking me why I don’t go into acting. I don’t see myself as an actor. I see myself as a creative person. If I have to go into the theatre, it probably would be as a director. I won’t be in front of a camera. I have this creative flair; and media and fashion just does it for me.”
Relocating her business is a challenge she set for herself as Port Harcourt becomes a smaller pool to swim in. “I want more. I want to move further and the place I feel challenges my creativity and business is Lagos. Lagos will expose me. These are my reasons for choosing Lagos. A lot of people think I should go to Abuja but I am not afraid of the challenges in Lagos. The only thing is that I am somewhat restricted by capital in my move to Lagos. I would have loved to have a front view shop but if I don’t make do with what I have, I will never start. I may probably blow the money. I just took the bold step to start. I am doing best with what my money can get.”
The prevailing opinion in some quarters is that the fashion business is saturated. This hardly bothers Jane. “A few years ago when I started ready-to-wear, a lot of people thought I was crazy. They said, ‘Why can’t you just take fabric, get machines, get tailors and let them produce for you.’ That was never my vision. Today, I look at the social media and I see loads of people doing ready-to-wear. That’s where you have to stand out. You have to carve a niche for yourself, which is what I’m doing. My brand is easy, ready and affordable. That is what I want to be known for. I’m not going away from that. If I do something elaborate, the price will be over-bloated. That’s a niche I have carved for myself. It might take a lot of people a while to understand, but I know that some people are coming around. A lot of people are beginning to follow the fact that this is what she does. Don’t come here to look for elaborate dresses because you will not find it, but you will find something that is easy. I believe in comfort. The highest piece we have here now is N35, 000 and that is because it is embroidered.”
To those who may think her clothes are trashy because they are not expensive, Jane says, “When you see our finishing, then you will say, I’m even under paying. Our clothes are so excellently finished that people don’t think it’s made here. They are actually made here and are affordable. When you design on African print… how much is the print? How much is your production? Let’s face it! You are putting the price like three times over your production. Let’s say you buy the print at N6000; you are not using the whole six yards. You use six yards to get like three pieces. So? I don’t think it’s right. I think luxury should not cost that much. That’s just the basic truth. If something is luxurious, it should be affordable. I think you can make gain if there is volume. On rare occasions, I do limited pieces. You know that you can actually wear this for a long time. It’s quality, easy, nice design but it is also affordable. I’m just one of those who believe that luxury shouldn’t be that expensive. There are other ways you can actually make money if you are a serious business person. You have your shop and you are also giving stuff to other outlets; even with e-commerce you are not paying that much, they take stuff from you and they sell, then remit to you. Add that income to what you have from your shop, then I think that it is fine. You should be contented. Let’s say your production cost comes to like N5000, if you are selling the piece for N35, 000, that is actually too much. If your production is N5000 and you are selling at N25, 000, that is fair enough; because you may argue that you are paying electricity bills and various taxes. Once your price is above N25000, that’s too much for me. I just want people to be able to afford my pieces. If you follow our price through the years, it’s still the same. It has never changed.”
While Jane does not expect other fashion designers to badger her with a club for undercutting them, she admits that it is her radicalism that is finding expression. “I’m very stubborn. I have my own views about stuff. I don’t think I should get other people to tolerate things I cannot. I am a reasonable shopper. I’m not one of those who believe that it’s all about brands. The brand doesn’t really make who you are. If you buy a Louis Vuitton bag for $5,000 or $6,000, it still doesn’t make you. What makes you is the substance in you. Our logo is ‘Dress to achieve, not to impress’. That good look or poise that you achieve at the end of the day is not even about the label, it’s about how you wear the dress; the reason and purpose you wear that piece. My pieces don’t expose the sensitive parts of the female anatomy. We design to cover those areas. That’s the idea. You can still look sexy. It’s all about you. Clothes don’t define you. They only enhance you. It shouldn’t be all that revealing. A revealing dress will only get you into some beds, but that’s where it ends. Nothing more.”
Jane is not alone. In her work and walk as a fashion designer, she has compatriots in her younger sisters. There is Mabel, who trades under the name, House of May. Yet another sister of hers, Doris has a passion for the needle and thread craft. But it is Jane who gets them to strap a measuring tape around their neck and keep a keen watch on their sewing machine.