Sola Oyebade: The Fashion Impresario 

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Sola Oyebade

With over 27 national and international awards to his credit, Nigerian UK-born internationally acclaimed fashion icon, Sola Oyebade, recently brought Fashion Finest Africa from the UK to Nigeria. In this interview with Rebecca Ejifoma, he shares his 37 years wealth of experience in fashion and his aspiration for emerging designers in Africa by giving them a chance to showcase their designs

Sola Oyebade, popularly known as Mr. Mahogany, is a major player in the global fashion sector. He is the CEO and Executive Director of Fashion Finest Africa (FFA). Although born in London, England, where he began modelling at 16, he studied Sociology at the University of Lagos.

Oyebade’s portfolio makes no noise. He is a show producer, choreographer, fashion icon, multiple award-winner and CEO of his modelling agency, Mahogany Model Management, which started in 1996. He remains an eager beaver after numerous awards.

Fashion Finest Africa 

At first, it was a conversation about his life, then he  switched to his latest show, Fashion Finest Africa (FFA) produced by Mahogany International. The show held from Friday, May 24 to Saturday, May 25, at the Balmoral Conventional Centre, Federal Palace Hotel in Victoria Island, Lagos.

Although the show debuted last May in Lagos, providing a platform for fashion connoisseurs, designers, entrepreneurs and brands all around Africa to ripen, Oyebade said, “What we intend to do here with Fashion Finest Africa is bring what we started in the UK in 2007 with my business partner Ms. Debra St. Luwi”.

Owing to the pricey criteria to display in the London Fashion Week, the fashion connoisseur gave an estimate. “To get into the London Fashion Week, as an example, it’s going to cost you a minimum of £50,000. You are going to need to be in shoots with top magazines and client based. Most people can’t do that and will never be able to fit into these kind of events”.

Consequently, trailing the blaze of American Costume Designer, Edith Head, ‘You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it’, Mr. Mahogany said, “When I moved back to Nigeria, even though we were still doing Fashion Finest in the UK, I looked round all the shows here and all I saw were events for the big designers.

 “I saw nothing which literally looked at the thousands of these designers out there.  But they are not just new. When we look at some of our budding designers that are taking place in FFA, they have been in business for a decade but nobody knows them.”

While FFA came to light to cater to that niche, these talented designers stand an enviable chance to be part of a show that is of international standard with a top producer and a top fashion production company, which they might never have had the opportunity of being part of.

On how to select the participants, the Nigerian UK-born entrepreneur frowned at discrimination. “We, definitely don’t want to discriminate. However, we intend to go through their look book, check out either their websites or Instagram pages, request for some samples and likely send stylists down”.

His Journey to Nigerian fashion world

This graduate of Sociology could have continued Fashion Finest in the UK but he looked back home. His move was however successful. “I moved back to Nigeria in 2013. I needed to get Mahogany productions up and running for the event management side of our company.

“Nigerians are enlightened. If no one knew me and I suddenly came out of nowhere, people would neither come out nor put their money. So, when I set up a show in Nigeria, a lot of people did know me. It was a easy to break into the system,” he said gladly.

His Worries

He said: “What worries me in Nigeria is sometimes there is this feeling of ownership that if they have done FFA that means they are FF designers. That’s not how the firm works. You just have to start with a step and another until you play in the global arena in Milan, New York and London.”

With fashion, being one of the most profitable industries in the world, “we are determined to play a critical and catalytic role in bringing Africa into full participation in the world fashion industry”, he posited.

Truly, his primary company, Mahogany International is an event management firm that has done a lot of big shows like the GT Bank Fashion Weekend, Africa Fashion Week London/Nigeria, 93 days Movie, London Fashion Week as well as theatre productions like Saro, Waka The Musical and the Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards among others across continents.

Boost for Nigerian Fashion Industry  

According to the soft-spoken fashion boss, South Africa was the leading country in Africa when he first started. Adding, he said SA fashion week had been going on for many years.

But the narrative has changed. “However, in the last five years, we have turned that around. I have to give  credit to Omoyemi for Lagos Fashion Week and to the Chairman/Publisher of THISDAY, Nduka Obaigbena for Arise Fashion Week and of course GT Bank for what they did with their fashion shows. They really brought the Nigerian fashion industry to life”.

“With these kind of fashion events, they’ve enabled the artistes to get exposure. They’ve created a wellness internationally in the Nigerian fashion space. Now I can confidently say that Nigeria is, if not bigger than SA, or at par with SA.”

Mr. Mahogany also reminisced about his first entrance into the industry. “When I started 37 years ago, it’s not how it is now. There were neither black people doing any events nor designers. There were two African American models  – Naomi Campbell and Iman. Africans frowned upon using Africans.”

However, he heaved a deep sigh of relieve. “Things have progressed. People have started to recognise that fashion will become the biggest industry in terms of income generation over the next few years. I mean, it will become bigger than music and movies. After oil and agriculture, fashion will become the next largest sector according to CNN.”

From Catwalk to Retail 

Obviously, the usual norm on the runway are sights of weird sample clothes that usually begin and end on the walkway. But FFA has a better idea. So, it is from catwalk to retail.

“Our biggest aim – one of the things we will look at as part of our growth – is to do more education. FFA isn’t just about coming and having shows. We have our conference titled, ‘How to get your clothes from the catwalk to retail’. What next after the catwalk?,” he added. Thus, he plans to hold workshops and seminars.

This year, we have sponsors like Zaron, Mixta Africa, Lasaa. We also have partners like AE Distincts, Fuerte Hands, Yemi Lights, Zubby Definition, Wonder Works, Artisan lounge, Xqiwitz Solutions, KFA and Homdiggy.

Awards to his Credit

“I like to operate under the radar. I keep saying to my team, ‘Nobody knows me’ he whispered. And they say, ‘Oh Mr. Mahogany, everybody knows you’. I don’t see myself as popular as the other people out there even though people say they quietly recognise me.”

Having received over 27 national and international awards over the years, he has lost count of his trophies. He was named the Icon of the Decade awards in the UK; CA Award, ICON of the Decade 2017; Mr. Tourism, Fashion Personality of the Year, 2017; Lagos Fashion Awards – Fashion Icon of the Decade 2016.

Others are: 2014 – West African Fashion Award – Nominee for Best Modelling Agency (Mahogany Models); 2014 – BEFFTA Awards – Nominee for Best Modelling Agency (Mahogany Models); 2014 – BEFFTA Awards – Nominee for Best Fashion Show Choreographer (Sola Oyebade); 2014 – BEFFTA Awards – Nominee for Best Events Promoter (Mahogany Bridal).

Mentees
Indeed, the fashion boss is generous with knowledge. “I get numerous request to mentor people. It’s so difficult. It means my door has to be open 24 hours daily so you can ask questions. Most of the people I mentor are between ages 18 and 28”.

Fondly labelled ‘accessible’ the CEO said, “One of the things a lot of people do say about me is that I’m very accessible. A lot of people come to me even via WhatsApp asking questions and seeking advice. I answer every message and email, however, it can be time-consuming”.

Plans for Fashion School

Accordingly, Oyebade went on, “People do ask me that question. I have to be honest. I think it boils down to my passion, which has always been solely production, doing what they call the Nigerian event.

“I’m not an event planner. I’m a show producer. I can work 24 hours a day and seven days a week without getting drained when I’m producing shows and stuffs like that. Schooling is completely different and it can be quite expensive.”

Interestingly, one of the things the fashion figure mulls over is how to make such a school affordable. “This is the sort of thing the government needs to come and talk to people like us about and do a partnership deal. I think government role is to provide money and assistance but not to manage it”.

Away from Work

While it is good to roll up one’s sleeves, it is ideal to roll them down too. This executive director  spends his time travelling, listening to music of all genres, reading, watching movies or attending events away from work.

Mr. Mahogany is married to the gorgeous Mrs. Aderinola Oyebade. The union is honoured with two children, who are now adults.

Today, Oyebade, your favourite fashion artiste, has designed more dreams than clothes. Having carried on with the second edition of the Fashion Finest Africa, the father of two awaits to see these hundreds of rising designers participate in global fashion shows. What a sweet dream to have!