By Fransesca Uriri
Lisa Folawiyo started the eponymous Jewel By Lisa Brand with the sole aim of transforming the idea of ready-to-wear African fashion. Has she achieved that feat? You bet she has! Over 10 years into the business the JBL brand has expanded from just being a fashion label, to being a globally recognized lifestyle brand – extending to an affordable diffusion label, household accessories and even nail polish and lipstick. She sat with Francesca Uriri to share what has become an inspiring and fulfilling journey.
How did the JBL label start and what were you doing before then?
I started the label in 2005 after practicing as a barrister for a year or thereabouts. As a lawyer, I found no career or job satisfaction. I wasn’t excited about going to work. To be honest, I was bored. It didn’t help matters that I fell pregnant with my first child around that period.
On leaving my job, I decided with a friend of mine to dip my foot into the fashion industry. The idea was to create a ready-to-wear womenswear brand that transformed and redefined the idea of African Fashion. I took the popular Ankara cloth loved and used by most of West Africa and retextured it with intricate hand embellishment; with the use of crystals, beads and embroidery. With that, I believe I was able to create a luxury label, in a clean and modern palette for the modern woman.
Did you feel any fear or hesitancy when you first started out?
Lol! Of course, there were the moments of doubt. I asked myself over and over again why? What? If? When? How? About everything. But even with all of this, I must say, there was a fearlessness. Something that even now after several years as a designer, I still try to muster up. Some may call it naïveté. I was stepping into land unknown. But for my love for fashion and a passion for what I was about to venture into, I really knew nothing. I had no formal training or experience in the industry. It was my love for it, my determination to see it through and I guess my ‘naïveté’ that spurred me on. I must add, and maybe this sounds generic now, but I believe it was a God ordained purpose I was called for/into(for those that understand).
How were you able to raise initial capital to fund your business?
I started off with the first N20, 000 I had. I had to. With that I was able to buy 12 yards of fabric, and as luck would have it, my mother’s seamstress was willing to help me out by making my first two pieces, skirts, for a very fair few. Jewel by Lisa has continued to be privately funded. At this point, I must make mention of the angels I’ve met along the way most especially in the early years. The magazine editors, stylist friends, those behind fashion platforms, who, for no cost at all, helped push the brand into the limelight. That has been such great investment in the business.
At the end of the day, you’ve got to create the product. For it to be in demand… And for you to make a success out of it, you’ve got to meet the demand. It’s all about numbers, in the world today, fast fashion sells. The price point is key. Fast fashion attracts a more attractive price point. And this is what people want. The affordability. We are a luxury brand and we know that as such, we have high price points…
The JBL brand is known internationally; from Milan to Paris, from Lagos to New York, from London to Johannesburg. You’ve grown from producing just clothes to accessories, and even nail polish I think. Why is it important to keep growing and evolving?
My vision, which is exactly what it is, a vision, is to take the brand as far as I can. I only ever saw Jewel by Lisa as a global brand. To do this, I have to stay creative, learn to explore new ideas and opportunities that come my way. I have to keep up with the both the Nigerian and international fashion scene as best as I can with what I have.
It has seen me collaborate with global brands, show on international runways, be accessible to the international market and clients, create my own prints, define and redefine the brand’s aesthetic. As an individual first, I have evolved. We must. Life experiences, my age, my outlook on life, my constant changing needs and wants have seen me do just that. And of course it reflects in everything I do. In addition to this, as a designer, I must move with the times and society’s ever changing fashion needs and desires.
Beyond the fabulousity and amazing outfits, how challenging is it to run a fashion business, especially one that has its roots in Nigeria?
It goes without saying that running any type of business in Nigeria is very challenging. However, I believe it is particularly so with the business of fashion. Nigeria is still warming up to the fashion industry being a significant and essential part of the economy. And because of this fact, the things that need to be in place for a fashion business to thrive do not exist or are extremely difficult to cope with.
The usual suspects being: a lack of infrastructure; no governmental financial support; extremely high cost of resources, difficulty in finding highly efficient workers, amongst many others. But as challenging as it proves to be, with the passion for what I do, I roll with the punches and continue to push forward.
How would you measure the impact of indigenous initiatives like the Omoyemi Akerele-led Lagos Fashion and Design Week? What do you think it does for the fashion industry?
Omoyemi Akerele is giving the Nigerian fashion industry its place on the global scene. She has successfully carved the path for designers to have the opportunity to not only show their collections in Nigeria but to the world at large. Designers and creative, are able to leverage on platforms such as this to sharpen their skill and knowledge. I must add that initiatives such as this, continue to inject into the heart of society, a warm enthusiasm and love for the creative industry as a whole.
The fashion industry is known to be notoriously fickle and populated with shallow people. Knowing you personally, I know you’re not, but how do you maintain balance and stay true to yourself? Two things. My love for Christ, and family.
Were there moments when you felt like throwing in the towel and how did you come out of those periods?
At this point,I might need to belt out the popular Destiny’s Child song ‘I’m a Survivor’ LOL!! Of course I’ve felt like throwing in the towel times without number. Are you kidding? But when you know your vision is not seen through, when there is so much to achieve, when inspiration catches you unawares sometimes, when you know those that rely on the success of the business, when you know what gives you an adrenalin rush more than many other things, how do you stop? You can’t. My passion drives me. My team and my staff drive me. The need to continue to influence fashion drives me. My dreams drive me. Fashion is a commitment! You are either in or out. That’s the (sometimes) painful truth
Where are your top 3 travel destinations and why?
Ooh time for the fun questions…Yay!! Mexico!!! I love the people and the food. New York!! Fashion and shopping destination for me…The vibe is electric. It is so fast paced, it could be Lagos city. I feel quite at home whenever I’m there. London!! It’s become a second home. And there’s always so much to do and lots to see. Great restaurants too. I must throw in Dubai.. It’s one of those ‘you either love it or hate it’ places. I love it!! I go there to relax. To be pampered. To eat.
Who are your top 3 fashion icons?
From your Instagram page, it’s pretty obvious that you’ve got MAD shoe game; any plans to start to produce your own line of shoes?
No, let’s leave that to the shoe designers. I must say however, that I have made somewhat successful attempts at designing shoes for two of my collections. Lol! But we shall leave it there for now.
In fashion; there’s the creative side, and there’s the business side. Which is the most important element? And how do you merge the two?
To be honest, I have come to realize the importance of both. As a designer, the need to be constantly creatively wired goes without saying. And to be successful, you’ve got to master the business side. I think this also comes with the growth of your brand and maturity as a designer. At the end of the day, you’ve got to create the product. For it to be in demand, it’s got to be an amazing product. And for you to make a success out of it, you’ve got to meet the demand. It’s all about numbers, in the world today, fast fashion sells.
The price point is key. Fast fashion attracts a more attractive price point. And this is what people want. The affordability. We are a luxury brand and we know that as such, we have high price points. But with our diffusion line, the Jlabel, we have successfully been able to merge creativity and business by keeping to the Jewel by Lisa aesthetic and producing the numbers to meet the demand.
Let’s talk about the J Label diffusion line, what’s the idea behind that?
In addition to the above answer, the J label was created to meet the demands of young, upwardly mobile and fashion loving women. I was so excited designing the prints and each piece. And even more so because I knew how accessible it would be.
Who are your favourite African and international designers?
Maki Oh has a very strong point of view. I like that. Tzar is an upcoming designer I believe has that special something . Meena is great too. I love Miuccia, Prada and Delpozo is quite amazing.
What are your thoughts on young Nigerian designers? Is this an industry we can all be proud of?
Young designers like me? I think we are doing great! Lol! I think there a few who have a true and strong point of view in their design aesthetic. And you see the passion in their work and the fire in their eyes. They are taking advantage of initiatives and platforms made available to them and gaining the exposure and mileage needed in this industry. They will be instrumental in putting Nigeria on the fashion map.
Last words for young, burgeoning female fashion entrepreneurs?
Have your vision, know your truth, stick to it and run with it.