10 April 2013

Nigeria: 'Nigeria's Fashion Industry Has a Global Voice'


Peju Babatunde is the Business Manager, ZonicMe, a Nigerian e-content company which owns My Hot Look Fashion portal, amongst other applications. In this interview with AYANDA NGWANE ODEY, she speaks about the potential of African fashion in general and Nigeria in particular.

Is ZonicMe solely dedicated to fashion or do you own other e-platforms?

Yes we do. The fashion portal is just one of the many other e-platforms we own. For instance, we have an online business directory called greenpagesng.com, a platform where quality businesses are listed. Another is healthmattersng.com which aims to increase awareness about common health conditions in Nigeria, thus helping Nigerians to live healthy lives. However, in addition to these three, we also have others in the pipeline, like educhatrooms.com.

Why did you choose e-platforms as your way mode of communication?

You will find that there has been a drastic change in mode of communication, marketing systems, customer relations, sales and other transactions worldwide, and Nigeria is not excluded. We have seen a change from the traditional stream to a more systematic and computerised style. More and more people now spend more time online than they do watching television, listening to the radio or reading print media.

If ZonicMe had been around 10 to 15 years ago, maybe we would have also been more traditional in our mode of communication. However, in order to stay relevant, we have had to also conform to the e-trend and leverage on using e-platforms to reach a broader audience as more people are increasingly turning to connected electronic devices for access to information and content. These devices now come in different forms, from laptops to hand-held devices like ipads, mobile phones, tablets and so on, which they make use of at anytime and anywhere. Thus, we believe that our choice of communicating through our e-platforms is the most effective and smart way to reach our target audience.

What would you like people to know about your portal, 'My Hot Look'?

The best way to understand 'My Hot Look' is to view it as a one-stop online application where you can see the works of established and upcoming fashion designers and contact them to do business. There are three main things we aim to achieve with My Hot Look. First, it is for the world to see the best Africa has to offer in a single spot and we hope this will lead to more brand visibility for our designers and, hopefully, business relationships from within and outside Nigeria. Second, if you do a basic calculation of an average spending of say $1000 per annum for a broad segment of young Nigerians, you will see that we spend billions of dollars importing fashion accessories into the country to the detriment of our own local market, even though we recognise that there are problems with power and skills. We believe in an upward surge in African fabric, and My Hot Look aims to support this surge and we hope the wardrobe share of African content will continue to increase as people start to substitute foreign fashion items with local fashion. Third, My Hot Look allows people to plug into ideas of how to pair things they currently own or intend to buy. And that is why you find that the portal is grouped into two broad categories - For Him and For Her, with sub-categories such as bridals, corporate outfits, casual, evening outfit and so on.

Why did you choose to ride the fashion bus for development and empowerment?

What you wear projects you; so fashion is a very powerful statement which is interpreted and expressed by people in several different ways. Fashion also cuts across all demographics, from age group, gender, size, race, income and so on. As a component of our capital flight, and we believe by our estimations that this is more significant than people realize, if we assume that five million Nigerians spend $100 per annum on average on imported fashion items, that is already half a billion dollars lubricating other economies. So we think promoting afro centric fashion, though not exclusively, claws back some of these funds into the Nigerian economy so that jobs can be created and supported in a sustainable manner.

How do you encourage creative minds to get involved in projects that advocate this mission?

We basically reach out to the fashion designers, photographers, models and so on and make them realise that having their brands and looks on the My Hot Look portal is a smart and cost effective way to reach out to both local and international audience.

Today we see African prints in high fashion - designers like Tom Ford, Burberry and the like use them for nice design pieces; would you say Africans are financially benefitting from this?

I honestly doubt this. The main risk I see is that our cultural hallmarks do not become marketed as African when in fact very little or nothing comes back to Africa. We need more jobs where artisan skills, local cotton farming and so on need to be reawakened to support large scale production to serve high quality products, which will in turn bring back revenue to Africa, and that's when we truly start benefitting.

I know the government has a big role to play in recognising the textile and fashion industry; how do we get them involved in this?

From all indications, the government is making efforts to rejuvenate the industry by intervening with N100 billion under the Textile Intervention Fund and some, almost 30 to 40 firms, benefitted from the fund which has supposedly supported some 800,000 jobs and created even more. However, we, as individuals, must also take responsibility by embracing our culture whilst the government deals with basic infrastructure like making power available. For example, there are organisations abroad selling Ankara print ties at up to £80. So maybe it is time we started supporting and ramping up our cultural outlook. So we are the proponents for our own culture and not foreigners.

We also have some powerful brand ambassadors like Obi Ezekwesili and Ngozi Okonjo Iweala who almost exclusively wear African fabric at home and even to formal events, thus promoting our fashion and culture. Like you rightly said, the government has a big role to play to bring the value chain back to Nigeria.

Do you intend to work with African designers in places like South Africa and Ghana? Or how do you get people outside Nigeria involved in 'My Hot Look'?

In the very near future, we intend to go beyond the shores of Nigeria with My Hot Look. Our plan is to reach out to countries like Angola, South Africa and Ghana which will see an infusion of fashion on a higher, more unique scale. We are sure that these countries also face the same problems as we do, thus, we are confident that our platform will be a welcome initiative to them.

How do you ensure customer satisfaction: Who do they contact if they have any complaints? Do they have direct communication with anyone in your office?

We do not sell on this platform; we merely provide a bridge between fashion designers and potential customers. In other words, there is a direct relationship between them, so we don't partake in any transactions between them. However, if people have problems with some of designers, we have them listed on our platform; this is where we come in.

You mentioned 'Post Your Look' earlier, what is this about?

Post Your Look is our way to get everyday people involved in the whole creative and expression process. It is quite simple: someone simply posts a picture of himself that they like or he thinks is glamorous and simply posts on our portal; we reward this by selecting the top three looks based on criteria like local content, poise and completeness of the look. Then at the end of the month we give out prizes which are worth tens and, at times, hundreds of thousands of naira. It is simply participative fashion, which makes people feel good by showing off their looks.

Are there any additional information and tips you would like to share?

At this point, I would just like to re-emphasize the need to step our game up significantly, not only to derive the cultural benefits, but also the critical and potentially huge economic advantages. Like I said earlier, fashion is a very powerful statement which can bring so many different benefits to us.

Thus, we are contributing our own quota to the empowerment story that we believe the African and Nigerian industry would become. Furthermore, through our platforms we aim to improve the employment value chain by encouraging upcoming fashion designers and getting them to understand that their designs can be promoted and showcased within and outside Nigeria and, most importantly, can lead them to gain recognition on the international stage as we have seen over the years with the current big names in the industry.

We also perceive that this platform will help to create an increased level of patronage of local fashion where we expect to see more Ankara designs in clothing and even products like iPad pouches, laptop bags, mobile phone cases and so on, which project our culture. African fashion is very pertinent on the international stage and most are even runway-worthy as has been seen recently at fashion weeks in London, Milan and New York. Therefore, we anticipate that Nigerians and Africans in general become more open to and even proud of our local fashion and not let other people appreciate and embrace it for us.

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