For someone who is quite hesitant to do interviews, Omoyemi Akerele exudes an aura that puts those around her at ease. Akerele, a woman widely regarded as a driving force behind the burgeoning Nigerian fashion industry, is the founder and artistic director of Style House Files (SHF), a creative development agency for Nigerian and African designers.
With the belief that “some of the most important things in life are purpose and passion-driven, combined with a deeper need to contribute to something meaningful”, Akerele made the decision to revisit what she felt most passionate about.
Her career in fashion started about 15 years ago, with the need to contribute to something meaningfully, beyond the daily demands of her job. This came after two degrees in Law (BL, LLB), starting a third (LLM) while contemplating a fourth (PhD) — an interest she insists “was probably largely influenced by addiction to Ally McBeal, an American legal comedy-drama television series. She also worked at prestigious Nigerian law firm, Olaniwun Ajayi & Co, from 2000 to 2003.
The fashion pioneer started as a stylist assistant with popular fashion magazine True Love, eventually becoming the senior style editor. She then ran an exclusive styling and imaging consulting agency with PR powerhouse and content producer, Bola Balogun, before realising that there was much more to be done in the industry, which she felt wasn’t growing.
“I realised that there was a huge gap that needed to be filled and, for the industry to grow, it was important to think of a platform that would act as a catalyst on the scene to spearhead change and work towards positioning fashion properly in Nigeria, and of course in Africa, as a business.͟She was inspired by the abundance ͞of the talent we have͟ and ͞the sheer size of Nigeria’s population and an understanding of the potential that having clearly defined structure, infrastructure and a vision to position ‘fashion’ retail as a key contributor to Nigeria’s economy can have on the Nigerian economy.
Through the pioneering agency in image consultancy and creative direction within West African countries, SHF, Akerele works with Nigerian brands on brand positioning and retail strategies. The mother also helps brands gain essential international exposure through presenting showcases at Pitti Immagine in Italy and through the Lagos Fashion Week (LFW), which was founded in 2011. “For us, it’s always been beyond fashion week. It’s not just an event; it’s a platform. [SHF] has developed and executed strategic initiatives to support and strengthen the industry. Lagos Fashion Week is one of them.
LFW runs a four-day schedule, featuring a select list of talented up and coming designers and fashion entrepreneurs. The show has been instrumental in raising the profile of the Nigerian fashion industry and has drawn international attention and acclaim from renowned journalists and attracted a host of international buyers. An enthusiastic Akerele eagerly mentions the activities her platform uses to help develop the industry, including the Fashion Focus (formerly Young Designer of the Year), Fashion Business Series. LFW Autumn/Winter Presentation and Style House Files Train in partnership with the Nigerian Export Promotion Council.
“With Fashion Focus, for the growth and promotion of creatives in the fashion industry, we present unique opportunities for emerging talents to harness their skills through business development workshops, creative workshops and a mentorship or internship. We further support emerging designers with business mentoring sessions. Last year we worked with Gozel Green, Sisiano, Onalaja, Titi Belo and Deji Eniola, several of whom were selected to present their work at Tranoi Trade Show, Paris and Pitti Super, a trade show in Milan.
“At SHF, we believe that, by creating an agenda of the most pressing issues faced by the fashion industry and then inviting thought leaders to share their perspectives, we can gradually begin to develop a semblance of structure for creating sustainable change in the industry. Our goal is to effectively capture, engage and connect with a diverse demographic of industry players, contributors, stakeholders, fashion cognoscenti, policymakers and potential investors. We achieve this through [the] Fashion Business Series.
She continues, “Our vision for SHF Trains is to increase the number of skilled workers in the garment manufacturing sector, positively impact job creation and generate additional sources of income. We are very passionate and committed to education. We train people around the clock. Part of the goals is to ensure that in the apparel and garment-manufacturing sector in Nigeria, people have access to a pool of people or a workforce that they can hire, employ and work with. For a country of Nigeria’s size with such a huge youth and women population, providing demonstrable and employable skills has become critically important.
The apparel and textile sector in Nigeria when combined, have the capacity to provide wage and self-employment to millions of people; as well as the ability to transform rural economies if properly linked.͟The Nigerian fashion industry faces a lot of challenges today, which range from challenges with infrastructure and production to access to funding, education and skills development. Akerele is well aware of these problems and the negative impacts they foist on the industry. “We have lack of access to textiles, lack of access to even something as basic as information—research and data. We don’t have access to that to help educate the investors on what the potential of the industry is. So, we have a myriad of problems.”
“The industry is so fragmented [that] there is no connection between the textile industry, the retailers and the production companies. Everything is just in bits and there has to be an understanding that it takes all of those tiny elements working together properly for us to survive and for us to actually make a success of this.” However, Akerele is positive that the fashion industry can outlast its problems and become more profitable. The task of repositioning, she insists, must be done collectively by all stakeholders.
“They are all issues that can be solved but the question is when? If we wait for a perfect enabling environment for the industry to thrive before we jump in, we might be here for a long time,” she says, adding that “It starts with a commitment and it starts with everyone wanting to be an agent of change.”
That commitment, she acknowledges will reposition African fashion brands to be able to compete with other brands on a global scale. She says, the ͞The world has become a global village and African fashion brands must strive to create brands that can compete globally from Lagos, Nigeria.͟Like many women who are pushing boundaries, Akerele tries to pull herself out of the box of limitations society has tried to put her in.
In a world where gender parity is currently still decades away, Akerele is purposeful about ensuring that being female does not stop her from achieving her goals. “I’m incredibly blessed to be married to a man who shares the same beliefs. My husband, Tokunbo, and I are very deliberate about how we raise our daughters. We raise them to believe they can achieve everything they set their hearts to do regardless of their gender.
It’s very important to us that they live fearlessly female but consciously determine to soar above barriers and restrictions that being female can sometimes impose.” Using her platform, SHF, Akerele is an advocate for social issues regarding women and children. SHF has constantly supported Bethesda, the Freedom Foundation-owned child support development agency. “Supporting the foundation comes naturally to us because education is fundamental to the work we do at SHF. Bethesda schools provide opportunities for children in lower income communities to have access to both primary and secondary school education. Last year, we lent our voice to the Warif Initiative (Women at Risk International Foundation) targeted at ensuring that young girls and women live in a society free of rape and sexual violence.”