VENTURES AFRICA – Passion to fashion. That phrase best describes Lisa Folawiyo, a Nigerian law school graduate turn fashionpreneur who took Africa’s fashion industry by storm by turning a hobby into a global enterprise while revolutionising the art of wearing Ankara (a traditional Indonesian batik formerly known as Dutch wax common in West Africa and widely used across the continent) in the process.
Inspired by fashion as a child, Lisa launched her signature jeweled Ankara wax print designs, Jewel by Lisa (JBL), into the fashion industry in 2005 without a formal training in fashion design and just two tailors. The first clothing she ever designed was a three-tiered Ankara skirt, hand decorated in March/April 2005.
“When I started Jewel by Lisa, I worked from home, by myself, and hired able-hands of one or two tailors, and it was very much a passion, just something I loved doing.”
Today, the trained lawyer turn fashion designer has about 30 employees with active showrooms in Lagos and New York.
Undoubtly one of the most popular fashion designers in her home country and Africa, Lisa is critically acclaimed as one of the first Fashionista to popularise the art of embellishing African native Ankara fabric into a fashionable outfit on the global scene. Apart from this, she pioneered the use of Ankara on fashion runway and her designs have since been sold in Nigeria, South Africa, the UK and the US markets.
Her attention to detail has earned her an enviable position in the fashion world as each JBL garment is handcrafted, individual and unique. In achieving a phenomenal piece, she uses the highest quality Ankara from the Vlisco-hollandais brand laced with Swarovski crystals, sequins, beads and other accessories.
In turning the Ankara fabric into a youthful and fashion forward chic style that cuts across different age groups, Lisa has managed to carve a niche for herself in Africa’s fashion industry.
On how she has been able to successfully incorporate beadwork in her designs, Lisa once said: “We started with Ankara from Nigeria. For me, it is a fabric that has been worn and used forever. I needed to see it differently. I’ve always liked beading, so I thought why don’t we jewel this and make it special (by) re-texturiz(ing) the Ankara fabric. I do feel like I just wanted something extra special. Something detailed that takes it from A to wherever.”
According to her, “When I first started using it, no one else was using it at all. I remembered Ankara from when I was growing up, my mother and her friends would wear it as wrappers, so I wanted to modernise it so that someone younger like me could wear it differently. I began making the skirts and dresses and embellishing the fabric to make it a bit cooler, and it really caught on. I’m glad that other designers have now discovered it, too, because that means my brand has staying power.”
Over the years, she has added a diffusion fashion line, the J-Label to offer customers the same taste of her original line (JBL) but at cheaper rates for low income earners. The J-Label is for the young, stylish, confident lady that wants to look chic but at the same time get a design that has the JBL DNA all over it. In the near future, she plans to release a coffee table book.
Inspirations for her designs come from anywhere and everywhere. She once admitted that phantomising what a JBL lady will wear has been one of the creative nugget that has helped her create unique designs.
Lisa though is sometimes inspired by her sister Karen, influential designers like Giovanna Battaglia, Shala Monroque, Miuccia Prada and Consuelo Castiglioni, designer of Marni have also help Lisa create luminous designs on the Ankara fabric.
Lisa’s work has been featured worldwide in magazines and blogs including Heritage1960, Arise Magazine, True Love Magazine, ThisDay Style, Genevieve, Style.com, Elan and have graced runways in London, New York, Lagos and Johannesburg. She has also been featured and interviewed on the Moments with Mo talk show in 2008.
In her seven years in the fashion industry, Lisa has been awarded a CIDA Certificate by the British Council after a successful course as a Mentor guiding a group of young entrepreneurs in preparation for their future in the creative world industry.
She is also one of the young talents selected this year by Vogue Italia to showcase a collection to Fidenza Village, a value retail chic outlet in Palazzo Morando, Milan. Prior to this time, JBL was one of only 3 designers chosen for the catwalk show at the M-net Face of Africa modeling competition in 2008. The label has also participated in the inaugural African Fashion Week in Johannesburg in June 2009 and has won the African fashion international designer of the year in 2011.
But Lisa hasn’t achieved all these without help. She attributes her company’s success to the way it imbues traditional clothing with a very modern look. She also thinks that a great deal of Jewel By Lisa’s achievements have to do with the people she works with. “I have a great team. That is how I have been able to make a good business out of this,” she once told BBC in an interview.
Lisa enjoys giving back. According to her, “the fact that through what I do, people are able to earn a living is so gratifying.”
The fashionpreneur who believes staying true to your fashion ideologies is one of the most indomitable criteria a fashion designer must have, has not only made a name for herself in the Africa fashion scene but she has also been able to penetrate the international fashion scene with the likes of Solange Knowles, Kendell Jenner and E! News correspondent, Catt Sandler, who wore her designs 3 times on air. Her designs have captivated people from Lagos to Cape Town, London, Paris, New York and Hollywood.
To upcoming fashion entrepreneur, Lisa says: “Because of my story I do know that you don’t have to go to a design school to be a good designer but I do think that you must have a good eye, you want to understand garment-making as opposed to wanting to be called a designer.”