Torlowei: Redefining High-End Fashion in Africa (Part One)
Patience Torlowei describes herself as an artist who uses fashion as her canvas. Well-renowned for her pioneering work in high-end lingerie, she employs unconventional materials to create meaning and style. In many ways, Torlowei redefines the story of fashion in Africa, refusing to glamorise her work as “exotic,” as is often done with anything from Africa. Her work Esther, part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, is the first piece of haute couture ever to have been accepted by the museum—a deserving milestone for the artist. In this first part of her two part interview, Torlowei shares her passion to make Nigeria a design and manufacturing powerhouse in the undergarment industry.
You have built an excellent reputation in the fashion industry on the domestic scene and internationally. How are you able to navigate these spaces and their unique challenges?
Well, I’ve found that it’s all come quite naturally to me. Of course there have been challenges but as they say, if you’re not facing any obstacle, then you’re doing something wrong. What I have also found however, is that for every obstacle or problem there has to be a solution.
The biggest challenge I’ve faced here has been finding qualified, dedicated staff. I came back to Nigeria fully aware that I would have to train people, however, I was shocked to find how low the average standards of tailoring were. The preconceived notions of what made up good sewing skills did not agree with me at all. The total disregard and lack of attention to good finishing has been shocking. I would find myself teaching my staff everything from scratch, but after only scratching the surface with them their sense of entitlement would see them up and go, having thought they’d learned everything. Nor do they take correction; you teach them something, and even if you make them repeat it a hundred times so they perfect that little step, most times it would still be wrong the next time you inspect it.
In short, you may have expected me to answer that power supply has been my biggest problem. It hasn’t, access to reliable, dedicated tailors has been.
How have you been able to overcome this major challenge?
Overcoming this challenge is a continuous thing—I give them an education beyond the actual sewing. Every Monday I have a meeting where we talk for about an hour about life. I instil in them the power of putting others first. I also instil in them that they deserve more than whatever they are earning today but the only way we can have more is that if we earn it together.
In addition, I show them love, which they do not understand: I feed them; I accommodate them and ensure they are in good health; I engage them; allow them play football after work in the company garden. It is a way of engaging their psyche, not to manipulate them, but to show we care. I give them breaks and holidays. I give them entitlements that you get only in the corporate world. Most of all, I make them know they have entitlements and salary increases every so often. We also pray in this company. If there is entertainment, I don’t isolate them. Access Bank recently invited me to showcase at an event they organised, and I gave all my staff VIP tickets to enjoy the concert, an experience I know they won’t be quick to forget. I’m like a mother to my workers. I think that is how I overcome this challenge with them—by showing love.
Most of my staff have worked in places where their madams are very mean. When they spoil something, the madams deduct it from their wages. How much are their wages anyway? You scold a child, talk to and correct him or her. If the person refuses to learn, you know that the person’s capability is not sufficient for your work. Then you ease the person out, or find something easier for him or her to do.
Earlier, you spoke about the time you spent in Belgium. How long was it, what was the experience like, and how do you think it prepared you for what you’re now doing in Lagos?
I feel my life has been in three stages. The first was being born and raised in Nigeria. The second phase of my life was schooling; I started at Auchi Polytechnic and finished from Yaba College of Technology. Then I graduated and did my youth service. I got married as I was serving in Jos. My husband was living in Europe at the time, but we met while he was visiting Nigeria. So I joined him in Europe, and we got married in Belgium in 1990.
I was privileged because he didn’t want me to work. In this situation I found myself bored. I also felt trapped, because I was in a country where English was not the first language. I started attending fellowship at a church with other expatriate wives who were not working and decided to learn how to sew. One of them brought a machine and taught me how to read a pattern. The following week, I made myself a dress, and my enthusiasm for the craft just grew from there. In two months someone commissioned me to make a dress. From there, I started using domestic machines to make dresses for my fellow house wives.
Later, when I found out I was pregnant, I sewed myself a maternity dress and went to visit my husband (he was in America at the time). The way he received me at the airport was amazing; he was so proud of me. He couldn’t stop talking about my achievement, since he knew I hadn’t attended fashion school. (I studied textile design at Yaba College of Technology, not fashion design; I’m completely self-taught.) I kept on sewing even after I had kids. I used to drop them off in kindergarten and continue sewing, because I would be bored otherwise. I kept telling myself, ‘Learn this well and take it home.’ So that’s how I started.
I had always wanted to learn how to make lingerie, but it was extremely difficult. The fabric was neither cotton nor wool nor stiff silk; it had elasticity, and I didn’t know how to go about that. After about two years of doing simple things, my friends organised a fashion show amongst us bored women.
Then the European School of Brussels somehow reached out to me after dabbling with tie-dye on T-shirts for a while. I began with three shirts, then 15, and moved to 25 and sold them all. I took some to the hippie store, and the store manager ordered a hundred pieces and needed them in three days. Somehow I got it to work. It started to piss off my husband, as I was stubbornly delving into business. I then moved on to designing for festivals. It got to a point where I was worried because I didn’t have a business plan despite being busy.
By then I could speak French and Dutch fluently, I soon applied to one of the government learning centres; it was a Dutch school. There I completed six months learning how to use industrial sewing machines and ironing, another six months of pattern cutting, six months of interior decorating, and six months of computer-adapted design. So basically, I crashed what one learns at the university into two years and got certified.
I was so good they contacted an atelier that sewed for the royal family in Belgium to give me more intensive, hands-on training. I was supposed to be there for six months, but within one week the lady said I would have to stay because I was too good. I was over the moon, not because I needed the employment, but because I would learn more if I stayed longer. However, staying created a problem. I was the first Black person to work in that part of Belgium, which was a bit racist. In addition, I was the only one arriving at work in a Mercedes Benz while most of my fellow colleagues came to work by bus, resulting in growing resentment against me. They ganged up and tried to cause problems for me in the company, so I opted out. I had learnt what I needed and seen how to deal with intricate things. I learn with my eyes.
After that I got to know Madam Devos, a 60-year old second-generation lingerie manufacturer. Someone introduced me to her knowing it had been my long-time dream to make lingerie. When I arrived, I felt I had died and resurrected into lingerie heaven. It was a huge warehouse stocked to the roof with rolls of fabric, laces, trimmings, bolts, notches—anything you can think of. Here, I saw some major names in the fashion industry, like Chanel. There were patterns belonging to these leading brands, and I was astonished that I was here with this woman who was working for all of them. The atelier had only three tailors, but they were working for the biggest names you could think of, such as Natan, one of the biggest fashion labels in Belgium and dressmakers to the Belgian aristocracy. I was like a child who had just been dumped on a play court. The woman was so patient and just kept teaching me.
I did not need to be taken by the hand and taught; I was just observing with my eyes. I would sit by someone’s machine all day and watch them sew a lot of variety. At some point, I’d ask if I could try, and she would let me pick up the scraps and take home to practice. I wouldn’t sleep. I would bore my husband silly with excitement about sewing, and he supported me with whatever I wanted. He was excited for me because I was so happy. It was the beginning of my lingerie journey. I had finally found what I was looking for: I was learning, making, and wearing my own creations.
Later, I heard of this woman called Carine Gilson. When I entered her atelier I knew it was a particular brand of lingerie that I owned. They were so exquisite, so delicate, and looked fragile. One question she asked me was, “Why are you interested in learning?” I replied, “Because I was about to enter the third stage of my life.” She asked what I meant by that. And I responded, “I want to take back something to my continent.” She was reassured but after three days, they refused to allow me try things. Despite being denied access to their kind of machines, I would go home to attempt to reproduce what I had seen at the atelier, with my domestic machine. Eventually, I made friends with one of Godson’s staff. Though there were strict rules against talking to me about what they do, after hearing my vision, this staff decided to share expertise, telling me about the machines and special sewing techniques employed by the company.
At some point, someone gave me some T-strings to sew. I was able to do 35 pieces in a day, and they were all perfect. That worried the owner, and she called me to her office to find out my intentions. I told her I intended to go back to Africa. She asked me to sign an agreement that I would not be competiting with her in Europe by setting up a business in Belgium. It wasn’t any of her business, but I signed to appease her. Three days later, I was asked not to come back.
I continued with Madam Devos but registered, and started my own limited liability company in Belgium. It was called Patience Torlowei BVBA. Then I came to Nigeria with this little knowledge from all these people to set up the company.
Before setting up, I was working for the Belgian franchise of Pronuptia, which was the biggest French bridal company. This was my first and only job. Seeing that I was very gifted, my boss quickly made me the head of design. I was the only Black African working there. I was also the only one who could speak all the Belgian languages, and so was able to oversee all the stores in Belgium.
At some point, my boss asked me what my plans were. I told him my plan was not to work for anybody, but to do my own thing. I told him I wanted to bring my vision to life. He asked me how much I needed. I replied €5,000, and he handed me the money and told me that he was my first client.
So I registered my bridal company called Patience Torlowei and started it. I bought industrial machines and I employed two staff; one full-time and one part-time making us a three-man workforce. We started doing wedding dresses and bridal lingerie and supplied to all five Pronuptia stores in Belgium. Within a year of starting my company (with just €8,600), we made €134,000. Consequently, I had a big problem at that point, because I was supplying to four stores in Switzerland, and to Austria, Germany, Luxembourg, France, and Belgium—all in one year.
I grew too fast. I now had a major problem of meeting demand, and in addition, paying high taxes in Belgium. I needed to earn €30 every hour to stay in the black making my profit margin very small, as I was selling wholesale, and the brands I was competing with were all made in China. Bridal stores could buy Chinese wedding dresses for the equivalent of €50. It was €150 to make my cheapest wedding dress and that was just a bustier, while a full dress cost as much as €700. The dress would have to be sold for about €3,000 in the store. By the time we sold it, other bridal stores would have sold ten €1,000 dresses. Despite that, there were people that still went for quality, so there was business for me though I couldn’t meet the demand.
I was then approached in 2007 by a venture capitalist who was willing to invest up to a million dollars in my company. I told him I didn’t want to produce in China, but in Nigeria. My Nigerian company would sell to my Belgian company, which would have the licence to sell in Europe. (Selling from Nigeria to Europe is complicated; you need to have a handling company in Europe.)
So in 2008, I came to survey the market. I went to the Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission in Abuja with my business plan: to start with lingerie and add wedding dresses later. They took me to the World Bank office, because they so loved my idea. They insisted on funding my vision to make mass production lingerie. So I went back to Europe and started my preparation. In 2009, I shipped in 2 x 40-feet containers of raw materials for lingerie making, enough to feed a production line for a minimum of nine months.
Did the funds come from the World Bank?
No, that investor and I funded it. My containers arrived at the port, but they were impounded for three months, even though Abuja had sent me a letter in Belgium saying that they had removed every raw material needed for lingerie making from the banned list because of me. They wanted me to have freedom to bring all my raw materials (you know we don’t produce anything for making lingerie). My debt grew because my goods sat in demurrage. I was also duped by agents while trying to clear my containers.
I almost gave up three times. Each time, I wanted to say, ‘I can’t kill myself trying. I can go back to Europe, start from zero and will be fine.’ But each time I tried, God would put something in the way to block me. The last time was in 2014. I had fixed a date on which I planned to abandon everything and just walk away. A week to it, I received a letter from the Smithsonian saying they wanted me to be in something called Earth Matters, and the fact I was living in Africa was the number-one selling point.
Back to the question of what prepared me! My life is in three stages: being born, acquiring a skill, bringing it back. And the purpose of bringing it back is because I want Nigeria to be a hub in lingerie manufacturing. I am ready to do whatever I can to make Nigeria a name in the lingerie industry. I know I have to stand next to any big name you can think of in the world. A lack of creative ideas is not my problem.
Nigeria will be a name in the world in perfect lingerie manufacturing. Lingerie fit for the bank MD and the bread seller, all done in non-poisonous materials safe for use, edging out the cheap and nasty undergarments from China that have flooded markets across Nigeria. Lots of poisonous materials are in those bras and knickers. I’ve had them tested.
Look out for part two on September 4, 2019
June 17, 2021
March 25, 2021