INTERVIEW (Omonigho Aito-Imonah, CEO/Founder, Naijafashionista Illustrations)
Funding A Fashion Business in Nigeria: Insights from Naijafashionista Illustrations
The Fidelity SME Forum is a weekly radio programme organized by Fidelity Bank Plc to educate, inform, advise and inspire budding entrepreneurs in Nigeria with knowledge and expertise that will enable them build sustainable and successful businesses. The interactive radio programme features subject matter experts and model entrepreneurs as guests on a weekly basis to share their insight and unique success stories. In this interview, Omonigho Aito-Imonah, CEO/Founder, Naijafashionista Illustrations gives valuable insights on “Funding A Fashion Business in Nigeria: Insights from Naijafashionista Illustrations”.
Q: CONGRATULATIONS ON MAKING IT TO THE TOP 12 OF THE FIDELITY SME FUNDING GRANTS COMPETITION. HOW DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE EVENT AND WALK US THROUGH THE WHOLE PROCESS?
Omonigho: Thank you so much. I happen to follow someone on Social Media who advertised the event on her page and I applied the through the provided link. Filling the form and applying was very easy and simple, so commendations to Fidelity Bank for that. After the application, I was waiting with bated breath and, thankfully, I was selected to be part of the Top 50. The bootcamp was an amazing process at PwC and for once in my life, I learnt how to write a business plan. We had a really intense and insightful process at PwC and I came out with a clear head and direction for my business.
Q: DID YOU KNOW YOU WERE GOING TO BE PART OF THE TOP 50?
Omonigho: I knew it was going to be a very competitive process, as it was for a grant, and not a loan. But I knew my business was unique and I knew what I represent as a person, as I had been in the business for a while. I just felt it was a 50/50 chance and I am glad I was chosen.
Q: TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF?
Omonigho: You already know my name (laughs), but contrary to what most people believe, which is, that I am an artist or someone with an art background, I am actually a science-based student who is quite logical and analytical. However, I always drew as a child and my recollection of my first drawing at 8 years was of a girl in a dress. That’s what I mostly drew – girls in dresses and this took my time till my secondary school days where it became a part of my identity. I found out about being a fashion designer when I graduated from school and as at then, did not have any idea what being a fashion illustrator consisted of, as I felt a fashion designer is supposed to know how to put their designs to paper. I decided after my first degree in Computer Science from the University to pursue a career in fashion and I got support from my dad to start. At that time, it was known as tailoring, so my dad suggested I move to Lagos to learn and set up properly.
Q: CAN YOU SHED MORE LIGHT ON THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN A FASHION DESIGNER AND A FASHION ILLUSTRATOR?
Omonigho: I think a fashion designer is able to conceptualize designs from abstract and not necessarily be able to put these designs to paper. He must be able to be at least inspired to create new designs. On the other hand, a fashion illustrator is able to sketch out on paper the designs from a fashion designer. A fashion illustrator can be both an illustrator and a designer, but a fashion designer does not necessarily need to know how to illustrate, but must be able to conceptualize designs. So a designer can engage and employ the services of an illustrator to bring their ideas to life.
Q: WHAT IS NAIJAFASHIONISTA ILLUSTRATIONS ALL ABOUT?
Omonigho: The Nigerian fashion scene and industry is quite peculiar and, over time, our fashion courses have edged out the niche of fashion illustration. Previously, the courses focused more on garment construction and pattern-making, so graduates who had to consult for clients, usually just gave fashion magazines to these clients to get styles from there. However, the Nigerian client has become savvier and more evolved; he needs more value for what he pays. These clients demand a variety of options and sometimes are in their own rights designers who need somebody to sketch out their concepts, especially if the designer is unable to. So that’s how fashion illustration became a thing, if you as the designer could not sketch out the designs yourself, then you could employ an in-house illustrator that would be able to accomplish this. This is how Naijafashionista Illustrations came about. I initially wanted to become a fashion designer, but then, because of the saturation of the market, I decided to just focus on my strengths of illustrations.
Q: HOW DO ILLUSTRATIONS PRACTICALLY WORK?
Omonigho: My business, Naijafashionista Illustrations, is actually in two facets: the training arm, where I get to train and mentor students on illustrations, and the second arm, where I actually draw and illustrate for clients. Thanks to the multiple social media streams, people either stumble on my page or get across to me through referrals. I also have designers who employ me to sketch out their designs or some designers that just give me the concept of their designs and ask me to create the whole collections using their design briefs and inspirations. Most would probably argue that a designer is supposed to come up with their own designs themselves, but the Nigerian market is a bit too stressful and not conducive for designs inspiration. So I create and illustrate and most times just illustrate for business and personal clients.
Q: WHAT SKILLS ARE NEEDED TO BECOME A FASHION ILLUSTRATOR?
Omonigho: I would say it is compulsory for the individual to be artistically inclined and also have a certain amount of knowledge in garment construction. If as just an artist, you want to go into Fashion Illustration, you may create these outrageously beautiful sketches that may not work realistically because of garment placement. So the individual has to have a basic knowledge of garment construction that will make it possible for illustrated sketches to be turned into actual design pieces.
Q: HOW EASY IS IT TO MONETIZE THESE SKILLS?
Omonigho: To be truthful, it is quite tough. At the initial stage, you have to do a lot of freebies to designers for them to be aware of the work you do and also of your style, especially because the industry is quite new. With time, we will make our money, but right now we are still trying to break into the market. I had to do a lot of convincing, walking the streets of Lagos, from fashion school to fashion school trying to convince designers. Most times you are forced to sell your talent for almost next to nothing to be able to get some business traction. Now, the industry is growing, becoming better and bigger, to the extent whereby people are beginning to see the benefits of having the fashion illustrator. Fashion Illustrators have launched awareness campaigns that are even exceeding the fashion industry and illustrators are now used to illustrate all kinds of things.
Q: IN YOUR OPINION, HOW BIG IS THE FASHION ILLUSTRATION MARKET?
Omonigho: It is actually quite huge. Abroad, designers are required to know how to draw and before most can get into fashion schools, you have to have your portfolio. In Nigeria, it’s a different scenario we have playing out whereby once a person can afford to, they enter these fashion schools. Therefore, you have a huge backlog of students who cannot draw, while you have the clients who are refusing to have the mundane magazine designs. However, fashion illustration is being introduced into the curriculum, so more people are learning. However, I do not think there will ever be a time when fashion illustration will not be needed.
Q: WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES TO YOU AS AN SME FASHION ILLUSTRATOR?
Omonigho: It’s been 6 years since I started Naijafashionista Illustrations and, because of how my business is structured (training and illustrating), I had to do a lot of begging to fashion school owners for them to allow me render my services. However, now it is a bit better because fashion illustration is used as a bait to bring students into fashion schools, as more students are becoming interested in that aspect. The fashion curriculum in Nigeria needs a serious overhaul and major changes need to be effected for there to be growth. For me, it has not been easy, especially as a pioneer in the industry. It has really been difficult, but a drive for me is to have these tech-savvy youth incorporate fashion illustration as part of their ways to earn a living.
Q: WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES THAT THE NIGERIAN FASHION INDUSTRY PRESENTLY FACES?
Omonigho: A major one is finance, like in most industries. However, peculiar to my business, and why it is financially intensive, is that I have to get devices to train students. That is, for my business, I want to be able to provide these technological devices – laptops, tablets and digital training tools – such that students who want to learn are able to learn even if they do not personally have these devices. Structure is also a challenge as a business needs structure to be able to grow, and, most times, the entrepreneur cannot do this on their own.
Q: DO YOU TEACH HANDS-ON SKETCHES AS WELL?
Omonigho: Yes we do, as the student has to start from that stage. Most people are confused and think that because it’s digital illustration, you just start going digital. It is not a matter of tapping some buttons and the sketches appear. It is actually a tough process and one needs to know how to draw with pencil on paper to be able to transit to digital illustrations.
Q: WHAT IS YOUR BIGGEST TAKEAWAY FROM THE FIDELITY SME FUNDING GRANTS COMPETITION?
Omonigho: Besides the whole experience, it was mostly being able to put together a concise business plan for my business. If I had done that externally, it can be priced at tens of thousands of naira. Also the platform helped me prepare a structure for my business to make it more visible and investor-ready.
Q: WHAT IS YOUR ADVICE TO PEOPLE OUT THERE WHO MAY BE INTERESTED IN VENTURING INTO FASHION ILLUSTRATION?
Omonigho: My biggest advice is that you do not wait until you think you are ready. Just start doing something with your illustrations; we are in a fast-paced business as it is along the lines of technology and technology changes every day. I am still learning and I try my best to keep abreast of technology. Also, try to attach yourself to a designer who, at the beginning, you can be doing a lot of freebies or minimally charged illustrations for before you begin to charge. You will know when to begin to charge and monetize as people will begin to reference your work and you will start seeing your work everywhere. As you grow with your skills, especially when you are constant and active with your illustration, you will observe the growth and subsequent demand of and for your work.
Q: WHERE DO YOU SEE YOUR BUSINESS IN 4 YEARS?
Omonigho: I want to be a one-stop shop for designers – illustrating designs, pattern-producing and even mass-producing. As we work with designers on their collections, we notice that they are always looking for pattern designers that would help them in creating another aspect of their designs. So we end up doing a lot of outsourcing, and now we want to tap into that market niche.
Q: HOW LONG IS THE SCHOOL CLASS CURRICULUM?
Omonigho: I have two time frames for my courses. There is the one of 4-weeks, which is a technical flat drawing course that enables designers to be able to clearly and simply illustrate their designs to people they outsource manufacturing to. This is typically for people in the ready-to-wear market sector who do not necessarily have to have prior illustration knowledge. Then there is the one for people who want intensive knowledge on digital illustration and that course is about 8 weeks long. I have a mandate that requires that a student must consistently practice and also do assignments I give to help them grow and learn faster. Majority of my students are women, but I have had a few men who learn too.
Q: HOW CAN PEOPLE CONTACT YOU ON SOCIAL MEDIA?
Omonigho: My personal handle is @omonighoimonah and my business handle is @Naijafashionistaillustrations.