The Amazon of couture, Aisha Abubakar-Achonu in her resplendent dress and glittery smile is a symbol of fashion fused into passion. In an interview with Adedayo Adejobi, the delightful designer talks about her incursion into the fashion industry and what she has been able to achieve
You can call her the couture Amazon; or the flickering spark that is lightning up the fashion firmament. To many people beauty is in the eye of the beholder; yet, when you see the couture queen, Aisha Abubakar-Achonu, what you see is the beauty only she can engender. In her case, she inspires beauty. Fashionable in every sense of the word, the comely woman of substance has made herself one of Nigeria’s finest fashion designers. She has conquered hearts and pockets – and earned a pride of place in the fashion industry. Quintessential Abubakar-Achonu is the creative director of Aisha Abubakar Luxury Designs, a frontline bespoke fashion label in the heart of Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.
Before venturing into the world of fashion, she had been a journalist; working as a reporter with the Leadership Newspaper – covering politics, business and features. She also had a stint at a fashion and lifestyle magazine, LaVogue.
“I grow up wanting to be an investigative journalist, but I’ve always been in science class. The time I wanted to be a journalist my parents didn’t think it was a good career choice. Lots of journalists were being imprisoned at that time. So, I was asked to study engineering or medicine. But that was what I wanted to do. I was pressured while going to the university to make sure I didn’t into journalism. But when I graduated, I went straight to Leadership Newspapers and there was little or nothing they could do about,” Abubakar-Achonu narrates.
From fashion to journalism
“When I do something and I see results, so I said this is something more than a hobby I should really look into it and that’s how it was birthed. Everything helped the fashion itself because it makes me do a lot of research. My science and journalism background has equipped me to be curious and do a lot of research; because as a purveyor of creativity, we sometimes we can go off board so we need some checks and balance,” she continues.
The Aisha Abu-Bakr brand
Reflecting on her brand, Abubakar-Achonu notes: “Our aesthetic is more classic. We do a lot of classic looks with a little quirkiness but the brand itself designs for people who already know themselves and want to feel in control of their lives and their environment. So they just pick the pieces that suit them. For women’s wear, a powerful woman would be our ideal woman. Power may not mean being political or financial. Powerful is in being a woman Womanhood is a tough a job, there’s a lot involved becoming a woman. As a wife, mother and daughter you have to be a role model. To power our individuality as women, sometimes you need to be genuine and provocative. With your brand, you’ll see that.”
Her fashion and national rebirth
Drawing from the Efik extraction where her mother hails from, the designer’s new collections, ‘Emana’ – meaning rebirth – tells Nigeria’s story of pain and healing. This, according to her, spurs creativity. “Nigerians have gone through a lot recently. But I found out that in all of the socio-economic hardship, we’ve remained resilient. When you look at the cloths they tell the story of Nigeria’s trouble, turmoil and light at the end of the tunnel,” says the designer with a taint of philosophy.
Her design ethos borders on evolution as she explains: “It has not really changed. It remains classic, trendy and modern. The evolution I would say is relevant to the country’s economic situation. Things were great economically. There were elaborate parties, events and people spent a lot (of money) on what they’d wear. But now, we have to cut back on a lot of things – even with the cloths we make we try to minimize their components so that it is affordable for the wearer. I think the evolution is based on our surroundings and the trends going on in our society.”
Walking the tight rope of creativity and commerce
Striking the balance between creativity and commerce can be tough. How does she as a creative artist make her business commercially viable while ensuring creative? “It’s a tough one and I don’t have the advantage of a partner. When I started, I had done garment construction and fashion design and I didn’t read fashion business. If I had that education in fashion business I would have had a fashion partner from day one so that I can focus on creativity and the other person (can focus) on commerce. Now we have a business development manager. But because our industry is not standardized, it takes a huge toll on my creativity. So a lot of times I just take a step back and let the manger do his job allowing me to focus on the brand and still deliver to clients what they expect.”
Her mark of quality
“Because of our quality, I would not want to blow my trumpet. But our ethos is quality of international standard. So if you’re to buy our dress and turn it inside out it’ll look like it was made in a very nice place where they’ve been making dresses during the Victorian times. I can’t hang on the rack what I cannot wear. So quality, customer service delivery and right-sizing are big to us. Our clients are sensitive and they are really happy if they can get such services here,” she adds. She has few designers she looks up to. “Internationally, Carolina Herrera is someone I look up to and then locally Deola Sagoe – even though I don’t think she’s a local designer. I think she’s an international designer; and Matt field of Lagos.
A changing narrative of female designers
“Fashion plays a major role at all times and trends are generated by fashion designers. It’s the job of fashion designers to put out nice, modest and good jobs. A woman can be quite provocative and modest outfit. We want people to be able to relate to women intellectually so even the way a woman wants her intellects to be approached. You can tell the difference from someone who wants to be approached based on what she looks like. The ideal role of the female designer is to change the narrative for every woman out there,” she argues.
Designs and rewards
With a flair for style, she shares the rewards of chasing a career as a fashion designer. “When I start something from a piece of paper, put it together and a woman wears it and transforms them and they are happy, it’s a great feeling for me. Once they are happy, I have powered that individual and they can achieve anything they want. If they feel so amazing about themselves, they make amazing decisions,” Abubakar-Achonu reasons.
Quality fabrics are a cornerstone of her pieces, searching for them in and outside of Africa, the Middle East, the United Kingdom, India, Egypt, North Africa, and Switzerland. But I haven’t been to India. I really need to go and see the place and pick something myself – that’s my destination. We have launched our men’s wear and it’s up to par. We’ve also released our bridal collection.
Letting out steam in Seychelles
It’s not all work for the intrepid designer as she takes out time to let out some steam. “I had researched before I went to Seychelles because it was humid. I had packed a couple of flip-flops and shorts – these I thought were appropriate. But I didn’t pack a couple of evening wear because I felt we’d have a lot of dinner since it was a holiday. When I got to Seychelles, the heat alone was an amazing experience. The natural luxury, lush greenery, clean fresh air, fish in the ocean and nice and soft sand speaks of God’s Almightiness. I asked myself why I’m stressing. I saw people in flip-flops and easy-breezy pieces enjoying quality life at its best. We went out with a small boat from the hut and we caught fish because they have areas you can fish. We got some fish and we roasted and ate it right there. It was such an amazing experience. I’ve never had such luxury. I’ve been to lots of places in the world. I’ve been to fashion capital, nice places like Paris, London, and Dubai among others, but Seychelles was something else,” she reveals.
A designer’s love for red and kimono
Her favourite place for shopping is – surprisingly – her studio. ‘”When I travel, I shop. But most of the shopping I do is in my studio and my manager makes sure I pay – so that’s why I’m saying shopping. It’s not like I can sit down and order a dress. I get a discount but I still have to pay,” she enthuses.
On her love for red, Abubakar-Achonu says: “My love for red was influenced by the Seychelles trip. There was a dinner where people who play with fire came around. It was very nice and cosy and immediately we walked in, there was a lady who was wearing a red dress and you could see her skin and feel a superhuman standing there in a red dress. I said to myself where did this lady come from? Red has never looked so good and that inspired me. And I thought to myself every woman should have a red dress because no matter the skin tone you have, it will always flatter you.”
If there is anything she considers her biggest accomplishment, it is impacting others’ lives. “I have a few young designers and seeing them work under me just makes me really happy,” she states. “There are quite a number of women I like how they dress. And because I’m a designer I don’t have a favourite. I like Toyin Saraki. Her style is very simple, elegant and very easy to understate. But if you know, you know.”
“My family: I rely on the approval of my immediate family a lot and because they are very supportive, there are no barriers. I don’t feel like I have any limits because that’s how I was raised. There were no glass ceilings as they call it for me and I got married to someone who doesn’t think there should be a ceiling so it gives me great joy,” she tells THISDAY.
A typical, off-duty weekend
Busy as a busy, the designer understands the essence of getting away from work as best as she can. “I wake up, wear a pair of joggers and play with my son. Usually, we have a big family breakfast during the weekend where we talk about everything and we have our play times. Sometimes we drive out to get a few things the kids want. Since I’ve had with my son, I’ve not really had time with my husband but now I’m thinking about it. But family time is what the weekend looks like,” she reveals.
A designer’s dream for her brand
“I see the brand owning its own factory and able to produce 10,000 pieces a day. I see us having our own textile where we can produce our own custom. We’ll definitely be in a lot of stores across the world. We’ll be taking African fashion global,” she says about what her brand will be like in five years’ time.