Torlowei: Redefining High-End Fashion in Africa (Part two)
We present the concluding part of the interview with well-renowned high-end lingerie designer Patience Torlowei. First published on Friday, August 30, 2019.
Can you tell us about your time as the AGOA consultant to Nigeria?
I was made the AGOA (African Growth and Opportunity Act) consultant in Nigeria, and insisted we use that opportunity to fast track the lingerie vision. In starting small, I recommended the sale of 176 random sewing machines, which I inherited and purchase of 50 appropriate machines. To compete with the world, we must use with the right tools. I was attacked physically, chemically, and spiritually.
I was asked to represent AGOA and Nigeria in Addis Ababa at the African Union (AU) Summit during Olusegun Aganga’s tenure as the Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment. An interviewer popped a question at me (being Nigeria’s representative), when the ministers were doing the tour of all the country stands. I replied we had perfected our game in lingerie manufacturing, and that we have not been exporting garments because we were quietly preparing ourselves to surprise the world. I also displayed lot of lingerie I had made to my country’s shame.
Aganga and the rest all nodded their heads and applauded me. He asked me to come to his office as soon as we returned to Nigeria, so we can swing into action. I didn’t know they were all words and no action. So after two years of trying my best, I resigned.
What is the significance of the gifting of your dress, Esther to the Smithsonian Institution?
Esther came about by God’s special design. She was born out of a technique I was perfecting, called “the pieces,” through which I make clothes from waste pieces of material.
On the day of the fashion show at the Smithsonian Institution, I showed Esther and 6 other pieces. When Esther finally went on stage, there was a standing ovation. People got up, including the ambassadors for the other countries. The next day, the institution said they wanted to buy the dress. I had a figure of about $40,000 in my head, but in the end I didn’t want to put a cash value on it, because Esther was personal. It had come about during the period I lost my mum. If I sold it, I was selling my mother. So I told them I would prefer to simply donate it, free of charge.
The director was surprised, because she knew I didn’t have much at the time. It was at that point they decided the dress would enter the Smithsonian Institution’s permanent collection, allowing it go down in the history books. I was given a deed of gift that will be passed down to my children and my children’s children, lasting from generation to generation. The museum wrote recently that the dress is the first of its kind to be acquired by the entire institution. It’s much bigger than I thought. In June 2019, they will unveil her to the world.
Let us talk a little bit about your signature style, which fuses art and fashion and other unconventional materials, like peacock feathers. How do you draw your inspiration, how does Patience Torlowei define style?
I like nature. I like the woods. I go around documenting the story of a bee with my camera. I am fascinated by the cooing of birds, trying to understand the message they are passing to themselves. I can use the leaves from my garden to make a dress that will not decay. I see all kinds of things in my head. I don’t like to be called a fashion designer. I’m an artist who happens to practice her art with textiles, and loves to do unconventional things. There is enough of every other thing in the world.
If you are an artist, you’re an artist—you can’t learn it. It is either you have it or not. When I find peace and tranquillity—which are the only things I’m fighting for—I can create endlessly. I love my work. It makes me so happy—and also makes me cry. I am a frustrated artist, so I find joy in my work.
My vision is to one day have a stand-alone show of the same grandeur as Victoria’s Secret’s, but better. The world will see things they haven’t seen before—and I will use raw materials from Nigeria.
One of your brands is called Patience Please. Considering the nature of the undergarment, is there a humorous side to it?
On that trip before I moved to Nigeria, I was taken to the Corporate Affairs Commission office in Abuja, where one registers a company. At that point, I had no name, so I started playing with some in my head. When the officer asked what name I wanted, I hurriedly replied, ‘Patience Please!’ He said, “Yes, I’m waiting.” I replied, ‘No, actually, that’s the name.’ He paused and asked, “What product did you say you want to do?” I said, “Underwear.” He laughed and said, ‘Brassiere and pant?’
It was like God just spoke to me. The name Patience Please was divinely given. The officer agreed with me that it was indeed a good name. He gave me a seal of approval, and on record mentioned that we were the first lingerie manufacturing business to be registered in Nigeria. This was 2008 and we launched in 2009. That is how Patience Please was born.
With all of these experiences, how would you advise the young designers coming up after you?
Well, not everyone will go through the challenges I encounted. The biggest problem for me was not having a support structure. The fact that I had been away for twenty years was a problem, as I had become a stranger in my own land.
The biggest problem young Nigerian designers have is that they think they know it all. They think because they have sewn one thing they are therefore designers. They are quick to give themselves labels “couture,” which is deep. You are not “couture” unless you are qualified. You have no right to give yourself that acclamation. You must have passed certain steps in depth, but Nigerian designers are not ready. Eighty per cent of the designers here do not know anything about design. Its fine to call yourself a tailor but don’t call yourself a designer. If you want to be one, learn properly. Ninety per cent of what they do in Nigeria is copying. They are in the business of copying from one another and laying ambushes. I am being from copied left, right, and centre, but they can’t copy my lingerie. Why would anyone invest in an environment where everyone copies everything?
When I was moving here I didn’t want anyone to work for me for more than five years. After you have worked for me for five years, you could stay or leave. However, if you choose to stay, I will help you set up a company, with you having 70% as your own boss. We would send sub-contracts your way, as lingerie making has thirteen steps. Your company can be producing thousands of just the back of the bra, or you could prepare all the thousands of cups, or only assemble these pieces together. You would invoice us, while we pay for your service. How many Nigerian designers have that kind of vision for their employees?
What is your 2020 vision?
Beginning from this year, the vision is to get our products into stores around the world, starting with one store. But things have to be done properly. People have shown interest from as far away as Brazil and New York, but I knew we couldn’t deliver because we had no workforce. Now, we are ready, so I will be going to Europe soon. I have some meetings with a senior buyer who used to work with Burberry. I am also meeting with the company that supplies the most expensive fabric in the world. They supply Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Marc Jacobs and so on . We also have an Italian company that wants us to be their rep in Nigeria. There is also a French lady who has approached me to go into fabric with her. So I have the connections to bring all the best brands to the store, but I don’t want to be the one dealing with the business side of things. Whatever does not involve creativity is not my cup of tea. What is rewarding is seeing a woman looking beautiful in my piece. I just beam from cheek to cheek. My daughter, seeing my passion and how far this company and vision has come, will be joining Torlowei in an official capacity as CEO from June 1. I can’t wait to see what we will achieve.
March 25, 2021