The Sleeping Giant: Nigeria’s Flourishing Fashion Industry

Though it is more commonly known for its oil riches, Nigeria is gaining a reputation as a creative hotspot

Leading Africa’s contemporary music scene is a new generation of Nigerian artists redefining the continent’s creative landscape and crafting songs with international appeal. Nigeria’s film industry, colloquially known as Nollywood, is the second largest film industry after India, in terms of films produced annually. 

Equally, Nigeria’s burgeoning fashion sector is enjoying an unprecedented level of exposure that translates into a unique opportunity for designers. Nigerian designers are becoming regular features on some of the world’s runways and gaining footholds with celebrities including Michelle Obama and Beyoncé to name a few. Today the question “Who are you wearing?” might just bring up names such as Duro Olowu, Maki Oh, or Jewel by Lisa. 

Driven by fashion weeks and an explosion of print and online media, a growing number of platforms are emerging in Nigeria for designers to promote their brands to a mass market. New trends in fashion retail are developing, with increasing numbers of local multi-brand boutiques and online shops looking to carry Nigerian designers. Additionally, the country’s fashion weeks are attracting the attention of international retailers. Selfridges, and Browns UK are among the international buyers that have attended Lagos Fashion and Design Week (LFDW).    

The growth of online retailing is also on the rise and offering new sales avenues for fashion and other consumer goods. With 56 million internet subscribers and 120 million active cell phone lines in September 2013, e-commerce has witnessed an impressive growth in Nigeria over the past few years, and will continue to grow as infrastructure and confidence in online retail both grow. Local e-tailers Jumia and Konga are aggressively rolling out, and British online fashion store ASOS now delivers to Nigeria.

But beyond the glitz and glamour, designers within Nigeria struggle to find a sustainable market locally and to keep up with the international fashion industry. The Nigerian fashion industry remains largely fragmented, suffering from a lack of internal and external patronage and a myriad of structural issues. 

A lack of formal fashion training facilities creates weaknesses in all aspects of the industry, from pattern cutting and styling, to marketing and PR. No nationwide official body exists to encourage funding for designers, while poor infrastructure slows down production and raises costs. Nigeria’s textiles market, once the third largest in Africa, is virtually defunct and dependent on cheap imports from China. 

Rarely viewed as an integrated sector of the economy, the potential of creativity as an economic force has been slow to find recognition in Nigeria. As a consequence, while rich in talent, Nigeria lacks the infrastructure and capacity to commercialise its creative talent and reap its vast rewards. In comparison, the South African fashion industry, including all its different sectors (manufacturing, retail, media and recruitment sectors), is the fifth largest employment sector in the country, generating an annual income of several billion South African Rand.

Despite the challenges facing the industry, fashion is arguably the next big thing in Nigeria. With a population of 160 million, Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation, and its powerful demographics position it firmly in the centre of Africa’s fashion scene. The growth in particular of the urban population, positive macro-economic growth, an increase in disposable income from an emerging middle class, and a strong appetite for consumer goods offer a potent recipe for a lively fashion scene with real economic traction.

Leading the way in this endeavour is Lagos Fashion and Design Week. Now in its third year, the showcase is focussed on creating an event that highlights the commercial value of fashion. With partnerships with the British Council for the most outstanding ‘young creative entrepreneur’ award, and a Fashion Business Series to help designers learn about matters such as raising funding and running businesses, LFDW is working to position fashion as an industry in its own right. 

According to LFDW founder Yemi Akerele, “Nigerian fashion is being positioned as a key driver for the Nigerian economy. Put more simply, the number of Nigerians wearing Nigerians has increased significantly, and I know that once all that’s missing is in place, fashion is going to thrive. Greater Africa’s consumer-facing industries are expected to grow by $410 billion by 2020, with apparel playing a major role.”

Fashion provides an important opportunity to diversify the Nigerian economy, and promote employment, particularly among youth. New entrants into the Nigerian fashion market, from international luxury brand Ermenegildo Zegna to high-street brands Zara and Mango, point to rising confidence in fashion retail in Nigeria, and a bid to capitalise on the benefits presented by an emerging middle class with an increasing disposable income and a strong appetite for consumer goods. With sound policies, targeted investment and global partnerships, the fashion industry can have a significant impact on Nigeria’s economy. 

Veteran fashion promoter Lexy Mojo-Eyes, founder of Nigeria Fashion Week, believes that, “The fashion industry can become a big business in Africa. It could contribute to the development of industrial fabric, infrastructures and even more with the support of governments. Fashion can create jobs.”

As Nigeria enters its fifteenth year of democratic rule and marks its centenary year in 2014, there is a sense of vigour and renewal that makes the country’s prospects very appealing. The successes of its film and music sectors present a strong case for taking its fashion sector seriously and developing a strategy for doing so. If the institutional weaknesses in the industry are corrected then fashion can contribute to economic growth and position Nigeria as a major player in the international fashion market, in the way it has the potential to.