August Edition was edifying. What started out as a routine session evolved into a major pilot.
Wanger Ayu is a renowned fashion designer and founder/CEO of Designers Marketplace (DMP), a monthly trade fair which takes place on the first Saturday of every month. A graduate of the University of Exeter, with a diploma in Fashion Design from the prestigious French Fashion University (ESMOD) Dubai, Wanger has always had an innate sense of style expressed through artistic sketches. A Law degree and Call to Bar under her belt, Miss Ayu decided to pursue her passion and establish a name for herself in the fashion industry showcasing her designs on the prominent and prestigious “Runway”. Wanger has styled and styles the creme de la creme in the entertainment industry such as Nse Ikpe- Itim, Omawunmi and many others. It is in the course of this that she saw a niche in the business services provision sector, and developed what is popularly known today as DMP. Designers’ Marketplace is not just a fad, but a growing social culture, and Wanger Ayu has proven that she has what it takes to tango at the top, being the Abuja Young Entrepreneur of the year 2013, and a 2013 Future Awards nominee for Fashion and Style.
The excerpts below are the much we could pack into this bulletin. It was engaging, as much as it was entertaining and insightful. Enjoy.
You are running Designer’s market place? Tell us about that?
Designers’ Market Place (DMP) is a monthly trade fair that holds on the first Saturday of every month. The idea behind that is to give smaller medium scale enterprises an opportunity to reach their target market, connect with their target market, network and grow.
How did you come about that idea?
I am a small business owner myself, I have a clothing line and I started with that. A little history behind my clothing line- I had been making clothes from school, like literally right from secondary school because I went to secondary school where you were given the fabric and you are allowed to make whatever. I guess because it was a missionary school it was also an attempt at getting you creative. I would design for myself and for my friends as early as JSS 1. Before that, I always made paper dolls, make their clothes, I learnt how to knit, I have always had that artistic flair. I knew I would want to do something with that eventually. By the time I got into university, during my holidays I would work, in England, I worked for companies like Debenhams, DFS… When I would come back to Nigeria- I found we didn’t have similar opportunities for young people; even as young as 16yrs abroad? You are employed and you don’t have those opportunities available here.
You have graduates shouting, “oh we don’t have jobs” (in Nigeria) who is meant to employ you? I thought well I want to do something not sit at home idle, and I want something that I will have fun doing and I could make some extra money to spend… because with Nigerian parents once you are out of school? Your pocket money gets compromised. So I started making clothes for friends, for family members and then in my second year at university I had the opportunity to make my first red carpet gown for the movie “Games men play: RELOADED” for the actress Nse Ikpe-Etim and everybody loved the dress, they were like “oh why aren’t you doing this” and I said well I am still in school so this is just “by the way”… part time so to speak.
After university I went to do a short course at the French fashion university in Dubai in Fashion designing, when I came back- Nigerian parents of course, said “you have to go to law school, have to get called to the bar, that’s what we sent you to school for”- so I thought ok fine. While I was in law school I was setting up shop, I was using my pocket money to actually get my machines and do up my mother’s garage actually, so straight after law school- the day I was called to the bar? Mum, Dad? I was like here’s your certificate… I am moving on to business. On doing that I was fortunate enough because I started early and because of the passion, because I have always pushed it, I was fortunate enough to meet other people, do jobs for people like Omawumi, celebrities like that. I realized that everyone asked, “where is my shop? How can we reach you?” and well I was thinking to myself “well I am in my mum’s garage. Do you want to come there? It’s not so bad. Your dress will come out ok, you know, fear not” but that doesn’t always translate well in conversation. Someone told me about a trade fair and they did it ever so often and then I started producing (in order to sell at that trade fair). Now my production costs were quite high, because I don’t compromise on quality, I am very particular about fabric choices, the finishing; so my production costs ran quite high and I did have to pay for the space. I did sell, a lot of people did like my stuff; then you have to consider that you need to put together your business cards, your bags, all the branding and all of that and that cost money as well… by the time all that was done? I was pushing a million naira (N1, 000,000.00) and I thought what would I sell here that will actually make me back that money? It just seemed ridiculous and though I sold… It wasn’t enough to cover anything. It was enough to maybe cover the space I paid for, you know one or two outfits, so I just felt a lot of dissatisfaction and discontent within myself- I thought well this is a fantastic idea but it needs to be open to more people, it needs to be more affordable, we need for people to be out there constantly so that people know if I come here at this point, I will find the things I am looking for, I will find this person or if I reach out to this person I will be able to get what I want- references, contact information and based on that I was like ok well- I don’t have a lot of money, not a lot of it, I don’t have any space so why not use my garden at home (to attain this). I sent messages out to a few of my friends, colleagues from law school who were also going into the creative and I said “do you guys want to come around? I want to do a garden party, like a sale party. “ I knew of my friends who had just started cocktails so I thought ok great you guys can come and sell some drinks- let people buy because they used to do something like that anyway at Silverbird and they stopped.
Before I knew it, literally within a few days I was getting calls, I was getting messages everybody wanted to know where is it, what’s going on and what’s happening and within a week I had a list of over 30 businesses and I thought ok- there is definitely a need, there is a niche here that needs to be filled. It was scary for me cause I thought ok- I don’t know that I can handle this. I thought of using my family garden and how my mum would probably chop my head off cause everybody is all about security you don’t want to let the whole world into your private space. I just thought I need to get up and do something, I need to talk to someone- somebody must be willing to help because this is what we are trying to do to encourage young people, encourage small businesses because people don’t just want to sit at home, you know if you are lacking opportunities, you can get up and create an opportunity for yourself and then surely someone should be willing to support that; so I just started asking around.
I thought of a few places- gardens and what not. I had been to El Amin, the school, and I can’t remember what for and I remember they had stadium like pavilion space then I thought well go to a school if it’s not really being used for much (why not approach them), I haven’t known anything to go on there, so go approach them and see how it goes and I kept on going there everyday in search of support, first of all I had met the receptionist, was then passed on to another teacher and then another, I would sit down and wait for hours. Some days I would go there and sit down they would say “Oh the director is not around” I would say “no problem”- I would leave notes. Eventually, the lady said “o.k fine madam is around” then I started talking to her. Initially we had a plan to start in March just do it as a garden thing but because of the long list and looking for the space, we got all the contact information, we sent out messages to people. So I thought while all these people are waiting there should be a way to be updated, there should be a way for them to sign up. I don’t like the idea of sending word documents, telling them type out then try to upload it and send it back, this is a technological age… there should be a more efficient way to do this. So I said to a friend who then was just experimenting with web design, it doesn’t have to be complicated just help me do this thing and that was it. We got people to register online, give us your contact information, your business details and we will get back to you.
In April there was a general election so that was a no go. So we fixed it for May which eventually worked because the Director at El Amin said she is really impressed with what we were trying to do and she will support then gave me the space for N50,000. We started off charging people N5000 for a stand. We didn’t want to make it too expensive- they offered us tables and chairs; we had to rent a few others. It just worked out. We then had to think about publicity, and then we all know how expensive radio can be, advertising in magazines that was a no go, no one had the money for it. Then I thought what’s the big thing now? Social media lets get to tweeting. Our friends who have a large following- let’s talk to them! Then people will be willing to help. We started talking to people like Amara Nwankpa, Blaze Otokpa and other people. We were like please we need you to just tweet this thing for us and I was really surprised because these aren’t people that I knew that well, they were people that I had met maybe in a span of three months its not like these were tight friends who were willing to lay down their lives for you. They were willing to send out a tweet, that was it and people wanted to know what was going on and even more calls for spaces and we had to say “Guys this is the first one. We will fit in as many as possible and we will take it from there”. Long and short, by the time we turned up in May 2011 a lot of people were coming in with their goods, I was confused and I had my brother running up and down the place. I had our late friend as well helping- the whole family was chipping in, was doing something, my brother was the one driving the trucks to carry tables. I said to myself “what if no one shows?” Then I just said to myself “well you guys only paid N5,000… you’ll get over it” then people started turning up and turning up and turning up. One lady notably sold N300,000 that day, then she came, met me and asked “can we have another day” and then I said “I didn’t budget for it”… And it just grew from there, how it has grown and expanded within Abuja? I can’t even take credit for it to be honest, cause half of the time I am even confused. I turn up there and I wonder why are there this many people.
My mum dropped me there for the first time in March 2012 and it was a lot of traffic to get in, then she looks at me and she doesn’t say anything. She looks forward and then we get home after the whole thing, I’m exhausted and tired and she called me and said “I am very proud of you” because when we got there she had wondered “is this my child?” It’s great to hear those things.
It makes me happy because it’s positively impacting people, it’s turning around businesses, we aren’t as far as we want to go definitely! Not by a long mile, not yet, but we are doing something where we are trying to impact positively, trying to ensure we fulfill our corporate responsibility by giving back, we let charities participate for free, we try to raise money, we raise awareness for businesses even when the fairs aren’t going on, through our website and social media, and we are exploring other media through which we can further promote our businesses. It’s been a blessing. I cannot say I planned for it definitely but we are on the right track.
Does this mean that DMP is taking prime place over your fashion interest?
I think it has taken center stage since it started for the past two years because I was willing to put self aside and focus on the needs of other people. Now at the end of the day, I am thankful for what it is but it started because I had passion for something else, I can’t let that die, if not I will lose my focus and I will forget what it’s about. So I keep going back to my fashion line, currently because it’s grown to a point where technically it can run itself, drive itself, I am taking a step back now and focusing my resources on fashion again. I am currently working on a new line (what’s your new line called?) it’s not public yet, sorry. This is the second time. The first one I put out was shown on “Runway Abuja”, on a few blogs and carried in newspapers.
But fashion-wise, don’t you think that the whole fashion industry has become saturated? What makes your brand stand out?
I get that question a lot. I am of the opinion that if someone doesn’t give you an opportunity? Create one. So, that everybody is picking up a needle and a thread and calling themselves designer, I don’t necessarily see it has a bad thing. Now those with genuine passion for it will stay… and those who are just doing it for the wrong reasons, will fall by the side. It’s the same with any industry, it will get saturated and then it becomes survival of the fittest… who will get to the top? Other people will fall off, it is what it is.
You need for it to be saturated so you get the best! Those who are really determined, those who are serious, and are passionate about this thing will stick. When it’s saturated, the competition is set and you are forced to distinguish yourself from the rest. So I don’t really see it as a bad thing. I read the other day there is a difference between a tailor and a designer- a tailor can make you tie wrapa for your event because they didn’t sow your clothes, they will not answer your calls and they’ll not have any conscience about it. There is no visible style to what has been made. But designing…it is an expression, it’s an art form… you pour yourself into it. I was explaining to a friend about my new collection, I plan on putting out all my processes from conception to development to production- I plan to take people through the process because a lot of it is missing. Like a painter would tell you – you find that there are artists that find it difficult to let go of certain pieces because it is personal, a lot has gone into it. Like Van Gogh cut off his ear (for his art), you are pouring out your pain, your pleasure, you are putting yourself out there and telling people “this is me” accept it but if you don’t? Life goes on. It’s a scary thing to do. We’ve all been to blogs like Linda Ikeji and Bella Naija- Nigerians are harsh- you just have to overcome the criticisms.
You’ve talked about dressing celebrities? Speaking of evolving personal style what really inspires that? If you would want to create a personal look for someone like me? Where would we start?
First of all, I would pick on your smile I think its lovely. Personal style with “personal” being the keyword comes from knowing yourself. That’s why when you see the pictures of yourself as a teenager, with the clothes, you think, “what was I thinking?” you go to the next stage of your life and it’s a totally different thing. Then you find that women in their 30s, 40s, 50s they kind of stabilize- so it comes from knowing yourself- you need to know what works for you and what doesn’t work for you. Principles matter- are you the type to be ok with over exposure or are you conservative, what’s your line of business, what are you into, what message are you trying to pass across, who are you trying to inspire. Personal style is a combination of things but essentially embraces fashion. A lot of people will tell you “I’m not really into fashion” but I’m like well… we are all inspired by fashion but you need to make it your own, and you can only do that when you know yourself.
How many stalls did you start with? And how many stalls have you had now?
I’ll give you three. My very first event had 36 stalls, we averaged at about 70 stalls in 2012. We are currently at about 90 and our peak periods, which are festive periods (Christmas etc.) we are close to 120. We try as much as possible to accommodate people. 120 is pushing it though.
Do you have an idea of footprints that walk through there with all the traffic you cause every first Saturday of the month?
We’ve actually had to physically stand there and do a count, a head count of people coming in that is. In March 2012 it came to 3,500+ people. It’s a lot of people and that number is excluding children… And that was during the day. We open from 12 noon but we found that people come at 11am to look around, maybe they have other places they want to be, so they come around do their shopping while vendors are still trying to set up and then they’ll go away. We are kind of working to close to 5000 +/- people each month.
How old were you when you started? People always say Abuja is really known mostly for the public sector, government based community and Lagos is for “the youth” but when you come out on that first Saturday of the month, you are stunned by the global youth in Abuja and if anyone told you that would happen in Abuja years ago, you would have disagreed. I asked your age because I want to find out if that has a role to play in pulling the youth out.
Age-wise, I just turned 27yrs but when I started I was 24yrs then turned 25yrs in the course of it. When I started my fashion line like proper I was 23yrs. Oddly enough my friends are much older than me and my parents have not failed to compliment me on the fact that I have very mature friends. Most of my friends are in their late 30s. Oddly enough I have made more young friends since I started the DMP (Designer’s Market Place). It’s very weird because I know for a fact it’s not me that pulled those people, it’s the need, it’s the energy in what I’m doing. You have a lot of young people, based on the numbers you asked me about? If you can consider that most small and medium scale businesses are run and owned by youth and women usually and in terms of fashion, especially fast fashion? The demographic its about 16-35yrs except you have the real money to spend but generally we all kind of fall in the middle class, fast fashion is kind of the way to go… I mean you don’t want to spend millions on something that will be out of style in the next 2 months anyway… if you consider that there are about 70 stalls run by youth and women? And these people draw their various crowds? (then it explains the inflow of youth). We’ve had people come from Ghana, the UK, Cameroun… we’ve had people come from all over and if I didn’t see this myself, I wouldn’t believe it but they pull people together and it’s become like a sort of networking ground suddenly. What I find when you’re there, when you visit a DMP event, if you see all that activity and you feel that energy you start to think- “oh I want to do something! What business can I go into so I can sign up for next month” its very inspirational. It’s not one person that drew the crowd. Word of mouth publicity also helps, so it draws more and more people.
Find the most important useful fact that you would want to share with anyone out there who is within the fashion industry?
The most useful fact I would offer to any creative person out there is- Don’t lose yourself. It’s the essence of what you do, it’s the reason you started whatever it is you started… don’t lose yourself- the minute you lose yourself, it’s kind of downhill from there and I mean that in two ways- First, for some people for example, you start something and then you lose focus talking about the desire for “celebrity”. The minute you start forgetting your purpose, the minute you start forgetting what you are about, nothing you do will make sense anymore, it will affect everything else that you do. That’s in one way. The second is drawing the line between your creativity and your life. For creativity, because you pour yourself into what you do, you don’t know how to separate yourself from what is out there, it affects a lot of things like interpersonal relationship. I am a victim. All else will suffer, even your ability to do your best work suffers, you get too attached and you are no longer objective. It is very important to keep sight of your purpose; once you have that in view, you’ll be fine.
If you had the platform to change one thing about Nigeria? What would you go for?
Well for me because my passion is supporting small businesses? I would increase support for small-medium scale businesses. The reason I say this is because in any developing economy small and medium scale enterprises account for the employment of majority of the labour force. If we walk down the street now, we can find a million small businesses, these are the people employing others, they are the ones contributing to GDP (Gross Domestic Product), it is not the big companies. They are there quite all right but in a developing economy/country, Small and medium scale enterprises are very essential for growth and if you do not support those, then you have a crisis. When small business owners start talking about “I have to pay for electricity or petrol to fuel gen” their overhead costs go up. Abuja rent is a killer… eventually you start to lose interest in what you are doing, you start getting tired and you want to give up. Once these small businesses give up, there will be a major crisis on our hands. So I would say, better support for small medium enterprises.
Thank you very much you are very inspiring and so full of energy. I don’t know what fashion and DMP is doing for you but I think you should consider a career in public speaking and mentoring.
We had a group cutting on their behalf, with more than enough cake for second helpings!
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