UP AND CLOSE WITH OMOBOLAJI ONAOLAPO
Omobolaji Onaolapo was born in 1981, in Ibadan, Oyo State. While growing up, she recognized her passion for the creative arts and was greatly influenced by her siblings who were either performing music at every opportunity or making pencil sketches. She also watched her mother on the sewing machine putting together window blinds, beddings or making iro and buba outfits for family occasions. As early as her first year at university while studying chemical engineering, she started making clothes for herself and friends and modelling to earn extra income. She later launched her women’s wear line NIIFFE in 2010 as a bespoke brand catering to special and red carpet events after completing a Masters degree in Advanced Chemical Engineering in Manchester, United Kingdom. In 2012, she launched the ready to wear line. Onaolapo returned to Nigeria and worked in the oil and gas industry for a few years then resigned to turn her attention to fashion brand squarely. She has since participated in several fashion events within and outside Nigeria. NIIFFE is a luxury clothing brand registered in the United Kingdom and Nigeria with local and global supply outreach. The label has dressed several celebrities from musicians and TV presenters to international girl groups, lifestyle models and fitness instructors. Recently, she showed her Summer 2017 City Chic collection at the African Fashion Week Nigeria (AFWN) at Eko Hotels and suites. She tells us more about her journey.
From chemical engineering to fashion design. Is there any connection and why have you decided to go fully into apparel production?
For me both are very similar. It’s all about creativity; taking ideas from nothing to something. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as one has the capacity to explore and experience new things—there will always be that.
Did you always want to be a fashion designer?
I never thought of going fully commercial with the fashion designing, hence all the degrees in engineering. However, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I would always end up expressing my innate creativity and love for fashion in some way or the other. The commercial integration came up naturally once the creativity part started getting noticed.
You resigned from your job in the oil and gas industry to become an enterpreneur. How fulfilling has it been?
It all depends on one’s interpretation of fulfillment. As I mentioned earlier, I am fulfilled once I am able to birth my ideas and bring them to fruition. There is a kind of high you get when you dare yourself to do something you have never done before and somehow you pull it off. Being able to make a living from that is simply an added bonus.
While doing your Masters in the United Kingdom, you made clothes for friends. What are your memorable design moments?
I had about three different jobs while doing my Masters and fashion and designing was not one of them; it was just simply something I loved and couldn’t part from. I guess that was what primarily started drawing people’s attention to NIIFFE and possibly also because I could turn work around for them in a really short time (laughs!). About memorable moments, I am not sure I can pick one, but the one that stands out the most would be the first wedding dress I ever made. It was for a Polish lady who refused all my attempts to reject the job because I was petrified. Everything I know about fashion, designing, sketching, pattern drafting, is self-taught and I wasn’t going to use someone’s wedding as a tutorial class. However she insisted and I am glad she did. The dress was amazing!
What inspires your designs and do you have favourite textiles and trimmings you work with?
Life inspires my designs, I don’t allow myself to be boxed in by one singular concept, trend or mood. I try to explore all possibilities and just generally flow with them, focusing entirely on amplifying the inherent beauty we all have. All textiles are fun to work with and have their nuances. Whatever silhouette or collection I am working on determines the textiles and trimmings that I source from all over—from Vietnam to Lagos and the United States and everywhere in between. Clothes are meant to accentuate one’s figure and features and not the other way around.
What is your design aesthetic?
My aesthetic is a happy mix of easy sophistication and individuality—it is a city girl chic. Very elegant, sexy but not vulgar, very confident with full understanding of self, smart and generally alive. There is an edginess in the way that I dress, but I make it feminine at the same time. I use prints sometimes but I mostly enjoy easy clean lines.
Who is the NIIFFE woman and why that name?
NIIFFE means ‘have love’ in Yoruba. I love art and fashion and that is why I chose that name. Our primary target customer, Fola is a young independent, career-driven, zumba dancing, city living, free thinking and fashion loving woman between the ages of 25 and 40. She is a go-getter who can be found in the corporate offices, on movie sets and at conferences and workshops for entrepreneurs.
You recently showed your Summer 2017 Ready-to-Wear collection at the African Fashion Week Nigeria (AFWN). How were you selected and what was the experience like?
I heard about AFWN in 2015. It was my first year after returning to Lagos and I was just settling down, so we obviously weren’t ready. When the press came out for AFWN 2016, we got in touch with the organizers and the rest is history. It was an amazing experience, getting a feel for people’s understanding of fashion and here and how they interpret that in their day to day style.
Can you tell us a bit about the collection?
The City Chic collection takes its inspiration from the city, which is filled with expressions, drive, determination, gracefulness, luxury, power and most importantly, style. The collection starts with the soft hues of nude coupled with structured, classy and elegant lines, then gradually brings forward with each step, excitement and adventure in terms of colours and lines, patterns and shapes. There is a soft but powerful start to the day. In the life of a City Chic, this softness grows as the day progresses into individuality and drive, sophistication and power.
You are also interested in perfumery, are you working on your fragrances already?
Yes I am very interested in fragrances, but that will come later; right now, I’m first focused on building and expanding the clothing arm of NIIFFE and will take it from there.
What improvements will you like to see in the Nigerian fashion industry?
If people would just take a step back to understand that African fashion is not just about prints and bright colours, but that it is about the stories being told as a result of all our experiences, I think there will be changes. We should be able to approach the industry, be it the manufacturing or retailing section to shape and mould it the way that tells our stories best, and not just simply following what everyone else is doing.
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