TEMITOPE ABODERIN-ALAO: Plus-size and Loving it

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Nseobong Okon-Ekong writes that Temitope Aboderin-Alao whose late father founded a popular newspaper has overcome the negativity of her weight and transformed it to a growing concern.

A few ground rules were established before the interview began. This became necessary when someone unwittingly called another ‘orobo’, a Lagos lingo describing fat persons. Such a language is a taboo around Temitope Aboderin-Alao, daughter of the later founder of Punch Newspapers, James Olubunmi Aboderin. She is very sensitive to wisecracks centred on people who are fat or overweight. Regardless of what anybody thinks, Temi, as she is fondly called, by friends and associates is proudly from a lineage of ‘big’ people and she is unapologetic about it.

“I’ve always grown up being plus-size. And my father used to call us princess,” she said, explaining how she came about her initial brand name, James Princess Kingdom. Her clarification also touches on another domestic factor fired her fashion imagination. “My mother has also been quite fashionable so I’ve always had that stylish feel. Obviously, growing older and becoming a mother, I haven’t really kept up with the way I used to be. But I’ve always had that love for fashion.”

Temi looked every inch like she was very prepared for the meeting with journalists. She answered every question sincerely and even displayed some naivety handling issues around the history of plus-size fashion initiative that became a bit controversial in recent times. Though she was not tip-toeing, controversy was not her game. And even now, she was contented to state her case in the most simple, but persuasive manner. “When I started in 2012, there was almost nothing about plus-size. We kept going, even when we got laughed at. At shows, you’ll hear people saying, ‘what are these people going to do?’, ‘they’re going to fall’.”

The fact that some of those comments were mischievous or bullish did not deter her. She concentrated on the issue at hand, which was to change public perception about plus-sized women. As she hinted in her reply, “When we started, there was the hostility because people will think ‘oh, you’re promoting obesity’. That’s the primary thing you will always hear. Or ‘can these fat girls walk?’ or ‘will they runway break?’ Over the years it has improved because of our persistence in doing plus-size.”

You can never predict Temi’s emotion when she is discussing plus-sized issues. For instance, there was a heated moment when she let her guard down and lashed out at those who are trying to re-write the history of plus-sized fashion in Nigeria, “Around 2015, everybody and their grandmother started doing plus-size. By 2016, it was everywhere and then other people decided that’s what they wanted to do and they now want to say they are the ones that started it, which is not the case.”

She may not want to challenge those who are making a claim to pioneering plus-sized fashion. Confident that her track record and scores of friends who are willing to testify will validate her status, she recalled an instance. “It was one of my friends in England that told me, back when we were still there, that ‘you need to show people that they can be stylish and plus-size’. That was what gave birth to the JP Kingdom. I was still very much UK-based then. So 2012 was when we did a physical launch over here. The truth is when we started, nothing like that was around. When I was in secondary school in Nigeria, I remember that I could never buy anything from here. I would have to find something from abroad and even then, it was still limited. It really isn’t the case now. Now, it’s everywhere. Almost every high street store abroad has a plus-size section now.”

Temi is learning, rather late in the day, that the game she is in is not for recluse. Coming from a background where professionalism spoke volumes, she has been forced to reconsider her approach. “I’m an introvert. I’m not a person that goes out and networks. I’m also very reserved. Permit me to say, in Nigeria, we brag a lot. People brag a lot and even those that don’t have brag. I don’t believe in that. I believe that substance is quiet. I’ve been in England all my life, and having that upbringing is very different to how things are here. In the UK, nine out of 10 times, your work will speak for itself; end of story. But in Nigeria, one out of 10 times, your work speaks for itself. The rest of it is noise and plagiarism. I believe that what I do speaks for itself but I can see in this environment, it is not enough.”

Temi’s deliberate campaign to make a mark in the plus-sixe fashion world began when she established the platform called, Plus-size Fashion Week Africa. She said it is a place where all plus-size designers can showcase their work. “Both designers here and even the ones internationally that want to expand their brand can come and showcase. So it is for both international and designers who would not be known if they didn’t have this platform. That’s the aim of the platform and it has also inspired a new generation of plus-size designers and another thing I liked about our show is that designers who do normal standard sizes — when they saw Plus-size Fashion Week Africa — were excited and they extended their range to the plus-size market. It is important because it is not just about my brand it is about the plus-size community. “

It is pertinent to note here that there were days when she was so downcast, she felt like throwing in the towel. “It was like I wasn’t getting any recognition for what I’ve been doing. That was when I felt like ‘oh I don’t even live here, this is not my country’. It was very bad last year. It was a lot of work to put the show together. It wasn’t smooth sailing. The fact that the event happened and it happened successfully was by God’s grace. I was confused as to how people were easily manipulated to absorb the negative as opposed to the positive. I also felt like I had wasted my time coming back to Lagos. I think that was the breaking point for me.” However, when the anger subsided, she cleared her head and began to think straight. That was when she began to see other things that were not too clear because she allowed emotion to overwhelm her.

“I found out when I came back to Lagos is everybody was saying ‘oh yeah if you’re not on the island then it’s not happening’. That kind of mentality also shocked me a bit. Because as a kid, people lived on the mainland, island and it wasn’t a problem. And then certain people will send spies to come here to try and understand what our training program is like and our to copy our designs. Then I thought to myself that if they keep sending people here, it means there is some value here that even I am not seeing.”

She then took a major decision. “I have no other choice but to keep to keep going because there must be something here. Instead of backing away, we’re now standing our ground so I’m practising what I preach!”

Now she is ready to address her evolving contribution to the plus-size fashion scene. “A lot of standard size designers are also opening their doorway into the plus-size market. Another standard size designer who just travelled was saying that someone in the US ordered her piece off the runway at Plus-Size Fashion Week Africa.”

She made a self-convincing summation saying, “So the truth is; it is working. Even if some plus-size people want to be petty and do whatever they are doing, the truth is, it’s going to open the doorway for all the standard size people who want to expand.”

One of her proud influences to plus-size fashion is training models. She challenges anyone who has done better. “I’ll try and say this with all humility nobody trains plus size models like me. That is a fact. Take it and pay into an account I am the best when it comes to training plus size models because it was something I wanted to do myself and because I’m a perfectionist there’s a way that I have mastered that craft. I don’t shy away from any challenges. At a recent plus-size fashion show, it was only the models trained by my agency that the crowd clapped for on the runway. Not my show, this is another show. There is a difference in how we train our models and how other people do.”

Regarding her background in fashion, Temi disclosed that she went to the London College of Fashion for courses in couture and how to put pieces together. Her designs which were neatly arranged in her showroom at Ikeja-Lagos were largely flamboyant and shiny. She explained her inspiration. “I like things being shiny. This is like my hobby. I’m not actually looking at what is in demand. When it comes to JP Kouture, for me it’s living vicariously through fashion. It’s just me doing what I like. I can turn around and keep doing Ankara which I tried to do but as you can see, I still threw shiny stuff on it. I’ve been told that I need to think like other people but like I said, it’s a hobby. If I was thinking along the lines of it being wearable, then maybe I would do the other stuff that people want to wear. But for me, it’s just having fun.”

She signed off on the issue of intellectual property. “I trademark everything. I’m British. Everything is trademarked and copyrighted. You can’t do it for every single piece that you have. It will be too expensive. That is not my primary focus and that is the British person in me talking. It is for me to have fun. Even though people are telling me I need to re-programme my thinking when it comes to fashion but what I see as the business is this Plus-size Fashion Week Africa.”