Lanre Da Silva Ajayi: At 40, I Can’t Ask for More, Life Has Been Uniquely Fair to Me

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She forms ideas which often intrigue millions of fashion enthusiasts. This has been the lot of award-winning international fashion designer and founder of LDA fashion label, Lanre Da- Silva Ajayi, in the last 15 years. Lanre, as she is fondly called, is simply elegant. She is a perfect definition of all round beauty, blessed and favoured by God, man and nature, most especially in her calling. Even though most human beings are Oliver Twist, with insatiable desires, hers seems to be different as she says she cannot ask for more because life has been uniquely fair to her. The proud mother of two, who just clocked 40 takes Omolabake Fasogbon through her life’s journey in four decades, the fashion industry, motherhood, marriage and lots more

A journey to Lanre Da Silva Close situated in the Queens area of Dolphin Estate, Ikoyi, Lagos, was unlike the typical Lagos drive. With a free road, undisturbed by other hindering variables, a bright cool weather to crown it, were, perhaps, omens that speak favourably about this soon- to -be met personality. Her warm and humble reception buttresses the popular impression of her unassuming and gaiety nature.

Although, for a large number of her friends and well-wishers, it is all about her special day being August 6, as she clocks a milestone year, Lanre finds it hard to get drowned in the excitement of the moment. She is met on the job, giving directives and monitoring her staff to get the work done rightly and timely. For Lanre, who by virtue of her maiden name, Da Silva, is of Brazilian descent, there is no time to relax; otherwise, she wouldn’t have been reckoned with by those celebrating her today.

At 40, which of the goodness of God, is the globally sought-after designer still looking for? None! For her, it is a near perfect four decades on earth. In high spirit, she professes: “As you can see, I am a very happy person, no thanks to the support from my family, children, husband, and clients, who have become my family and friends as well as the media. I owe the media a lot of appreciation. I remember those days when we first started, the likes of City People and Encomium didn’t look down on small me. THISDAY Style, True Love and Genevieve Magazine have been particularly awesome. Looking back, I am grateful to God. I was determined to create a niche in the fashion market. God didn’t fail me and I didn’t fail myself also. I got more inspired by the positive feedbacks from clients and loved ones. Today, I am being addressed as a celebrity, in as much as I don’t see myself as one, I get marvelled when I read about myself in the tabloids being addressed as a celebrity. It’s just God.”

Life, they say, begins at 40. Does this apply to Lanre? Responding after a long smile, she said: “A lot of people have been calling me to say welcome to level four, and so on. What I will just say is that I’m happy to be a Nigerian. I love Nigerians because we face challenges, and yet we come out smiling. I will say that I look forward to the future and what the future holds for me.”

Has she any regrets so far? She struggles to arrive at one but she can’t recall any. Surprising, isn’t it? Regrets they say is inevitable as far as human beings are concerned. After further pestering, she still can’t tell of any but rather talks about why her life has been devoid of worries: “Sincerely, I can’t think of any, this is because most of the things that happen to me are those things that I look forward to positively. I got married at age 25, got pregnant two months after. My first son is now 14 years, my daughter is 10 going on 11. I have been able to carve a niche for myself in the industry and have influenced a lot of people in fashion. In the process of achieving all these, it has been awesome. You see, I’m a very funny individual, I don’t like people fighting, I always want to resolve problems and if I have issue with anyone, I forget and move on very quickly. That is why they call me saint in my house.”

Jokingly, I asked her when she plans to have her third child since her second child is 10, but her response is in the negative as she insisted that she was done with child bearing. Getting serious, she bares it: “The third child is not coming. Grooming a child in this economy doesn’t come so easy. Aside the economy, it is not an easy task nurturing and training a child. Let me quickly say here that the present day Nigeria doesn’t make allowances for full time wife. I cannot imagine doing nothing; life would have been so boring. Women need to work to support their husband, I have been able to go this far because I’ve chosen to work and not stay at home as house wife and together we can give our children a befitting life.”

Talking about managing careers with the home front, she is particularly thankful to her sister and family at large; most especially, her husband, who she says has been quite supportive. Other than that, it may have been a different story today. “I wouldn’t say my husband is perfect because nobody is perfect, but he has really helped my business through his support. It is not every man in Nigeria that does this. If I wasn’t married to him, maybe I won’t be known for who I am today. I probably might have taken fashion as a hobby. When I started, I wasn’t looking for fame, I was just doing what I love to do, but fame came over time, with the support of my husband, family and many others.”

Lanre sews most of her husband’s clothes and occasionally, for some of his friends: “Kunle is very very calm, he allows me to be what I want to be, even when I go for event, he gives me all the freedom, he doesn’t feel intimidated. I appreciate him a lot. We met in London; I love the fact that he is cute, supportive and patient.”

One would not but want to hear her speak over and over again about fashion. Lanre is indeed a master. Going back memory lane, her story is soul-stirring. The journey began in London when she opted for a part time course in fashion out of curiosity and passion; little did she know she will end up being an influencer in the field.

She merely learnt pattern, sewing and fixing of zip but before she knew it, she started making clothes for herself and even her friends. Over time, she became a whiz kid, constantly improving on her skills through trainings at home and abroad, as well as through on the job experience: “On getting back to Nigeria, I decided to take a job in a bank and possibly an oil company and then do fashion as a hobby. As fate would have it, I got pregnant around February or March when I was to start working in June. Perhaps, if I wasn’t pregnant, I might not have ended up with fashion as my focus, maybe a hobby. Unfortunately, I couldn’t defer the appointment. After the usual first trimester sickness, I got back on my feet and started making clothes. People fell in love with my uniqueness other than what they found in Nigeria. For me, that is the attraction to the brand and the more reasons why I advise people to strive to be unique. One can still follow trends by using a fabric that will give a design an extra touch.”

Now that she is absorbed fully in the system, how has it been? Much unlike now that the industry has evolved with the social media making things happen so fast, the beginning, Lanre admitted, was quite challenging. Making these challenges so simple, she said: “When I started 14 years ago, we had issues with accessing quality fabrics. I remember how we struggled to get quality materials from abroad. It is much easier now; we have a lot of people today that deal in quality fabrics. We also had issue with Zipper. All these are now in the past. Designers today are in a better place. The fashion industry has really grown and I’m really excited about it. Another challenge is with training tailors. Getting them to learn doesn’t come so easy but it is what I want to do. It’s my own job to teach them what I want them to do for me, some pick so fast while some are slow learners.”

Speaking further on mastering the profession, she said that Nigeria presents the best environment to learn the skills: “When one learns the way they learn in Nigeria, one doesn’t have an option than to be a genius. Nigeria is the only country where they do freehand cutting. Freehand cutting is the only reason why somebody will go to a roadside tailor and get her dress done without a pattern. This is not done elsewhere. When one is exposed to that kind of sewing and support it with pattern, there is no way one won’t be perfect. That means one has gone through the crude and perfect way of learning .So, I will say experience has helped to refine and perfect my training. Regardless, I have been able to expand the industry because a lot of people under my tutelage have moved on to establish their own outfits.”

Part of Lanre’s initial challenges was getting her dad to support and bless her calling. This didn’t come so easy especially for her late father who expended so much resources on her education: “It was not difficult getting my mother convinced on my choice of career because she already saw the potential in me but my dad was firm on his decision. I really do not blame him because no one would ever believe entrepreneurship would grow this fast in the country and no parents would want their efforts on a child to be wasted. I am however glad that he gave his consent before he passed away and provided me with necessary support. “

While dwelling more on her dark days in the career, she recalled a moment when she considered quitting the profession as the only option. Reminiscing, she recounts: “Yes, I thought of giving it all up at a time my tailor disappointed me. There was this contract I got, which was to be executed within a limited time frame but at the same time, it was also important that I travelled. I didn’t want to reject the offer, so I entrusted it to the tailors working for me who are equal to the task. I of course put them through the whole process before I travelled. To my utmost surprise, when I returned, what I saw was a total knock and mess contrary to the choice of the client. I was destabilised and frustrated. At this juncture, we had to start all over again to suit the clients, but then I became tired of the job that I concluded within me that it was all over. But again, I got over it afterwards.”

The voice of the consumer is an essential input to the development of any fashion business. Does this apply to the LDA brand in the midst of stiff competition? Lanre agrees; but to her, there are more on the list that apply to her: “People usually say I am humble and I want to believe so, this is because I realised that I’m here today simply by the influence of the people around me. So, I will say humility, creativity, patience, hardwork, consistency and innovations are the key to keeping a fashion business going. Talk of collections being churned out, creativity and consistency. As it is, I don’t get tired of fashion and there is never a time to relax, I’m a very competitive person and I compete even with myself. Having followed these principles, backed up with prayers and having the right people around, the sky is the starting point.

“Relevance is very important and I do a lot to achieve it. Anyone starting the business today may not find it so easy because there are millions in the industry struggling to be relevant. This on the other hand shows that fashion is indeed a lucrative field that is rubbing off positively on the economy.”

For her, being the first African designer to have stock at Dolce & Gabbana multi concept store in Milan is an accomplishment that remains indelible. Relaying the experience, she said: “I wouldn’t have thought I would be able to do that when it happened because the social media had not gone this crazy. Yet, a lot of people in the fashion circle got to know of this. I mean, it’s a great privilege to be part of them being a Nigerian and African. Dolce & Gabbana is a brand that was relevant yesterday; it is relevant today and very relevant to the future.”

Lanre is looking forward to the day she would be able to sew for all categories of people. “I am looking at exploring the mass market in the nearest future. This is a market that is yet untapped. The mass is the clientele of this country and I will definitely want to have that. Nigerians love fashion and that is why a brand like mine continues to exist. I am in the process of collaborating with some people to establish a diffusion line where my design can go for between 15 and 25k. I want to break away from luxury only but definitely, I will still do my luxury brand.”

She said her most embarrassing moment was when she fell off the runway at the Arise Made in Africa Show in New York in 2011. She relays the experience thus: “I didn’t really show interest in the show; a lot of people encouraged me to go for the show including the Publishers of THISDAY Newspapers, Mr. Nduka Obaigbena. After I made up my mind to go, virtually all the papers reported it that ‘Lanre Goes to New York’ as they were looking forward to my performance. Right at the show, we had already displayed and the next thing for me was to take a bow and for people that know me, my own style of taking a bow is to do a walk around. But in the process, I went into the wrong pit simply because I was excited. A lot of people thought it was my shoe that fell off and became worried about my wellness. That was the general belief, but within me, I knew it wasn’t the shoe and that I only entered the wrong pit. After the fall, I insisted I was going to go back to do the walk, which I did to the surprise of many. It was at this juncture that I got a complete standing ovation. That was such a touching and glorious moment away from the embarrassing scene. In fact, since then, I no longer wear heels higher than the one I wore that day.”