Interviewing Ugonna Omeruo of Nigerian fashion brand House of Nwocha was a delight. She is the face behind some of the loveliest pieces we have seen on African celebrities such as Waje, Vimbai, Toni Tones, Toke Makinwa, Eku Edewor, Stephanie Linue, Rita Dominic, Eva Alordiah and more.
She came into the FABoSphere in one of her creations, a gorgeous yellow dress paired with blue pumps.
Ugonna talked extensively about fashion – her decision to go into fashion, her journey, frustrations from the Nigerian fashion scene and much more. We chatted for much more than an hour and got lost in the interview because it was so easy to talk to her. Read our FAB interview with her below:
What shaped your decision to go into fashion?
My decision to go into fashion was – it was almost like I had to go to school, get my degree because if there was a fashion school inside Nigeria I probably would have gone there straight up right after secondary school. But my parent wouldn’t have any of that because my sisters are accountants, doctors and nurses and things like that and they are like “You wanna do fashion? Really?” So if there was a fashion school inside Nigeria I probably would have gone there but there wasn’t any decent fashion school at the time so of course I had to go to school and get a proper degree in International Relations and then right after that I just went head on into fashion because that’s what I really really wanted to do.
What year was that? When did you start?
I always never say that I started here or I started there. I officially launched my label in 2008 but before then I was doing aso-ebi’s for my sisters as they got married, I was always in charge of the clothes. Because I have a large family they always just say “Oh you know what, go to the market and pick fabric. Let Ugonna just deal with that!”. So I always just did that.
Growing up for me was so much fun. I have a big family and we are like 8 kids, and of course my parents so that’s like 10 of us. We were these groups of people who would always have to go to the village in two cars and go to Church on Sunday in two cars. So in the mornings on Sundays you think “Do I want to go with daddy?”, because my dad on Sundays he’s very on time, he is a military guy so he is always on time for everything. But my mum would always delay so you’re like “I’ll go with daddy early and then come back with mummy because she will have Sunday church meetings so I will come back late so I can gist with my friends”. So it was so much fun growing up in my family. It was really fun and I had too many sisters and they are pretty much still my backbone till today.
These days everyone thinks they are creative enough to be designers so what makes your work stand out?
We stand out because we do amazing dresses. We cater to African women with African bodies and curves and hips and we treat everyone individually. We don’t try to group anyone into groups and we try to cater to women as you are. That’s what makes us different because we are dealing with you as a person, we are trying to get you into – A lot of people were not really into styling and how they looked or presentation of themselves. No matter how simple we are actually speaking with our clients and we try to make them realize that their appearance at any given time is absolutely important. So we are not just selling clothes, we are selling a lifestyle, we are selling a character, we are selling a behavior. We are selling a person who is well put together.
What is your clientele like? Who do you dress?
We cater to women; from young to old women. We speak to women in their high school periods; we do a lot of prom dresses. We do convocation dresses – we do all these periods in one’s life up until you become a married woman. So we cater to probably from 16 year olds to maybe 55 or 60 year olds.
You’ve done quite a number of African celebrities so who are some of your best clients?
Oh wow! That’s a tough one because when you say someone’s name and someone else doesn’t here their name they are like “Ehn! Ugonna!”. But I would term my best clients – I have clients who tell me this is what they like, this is how they like to look and we understand that and we work together. I also like switching up things every now and then so my best clients would be people who allow me switch them up. Rita [Dominic] is one of those people; she doesn’t like to be in a box. If you think she is this the next time you see her she is totally different so Rita Dominic is one of my favourite clients. We sit down, we go over designs and sketches and she’s like “Ok let’s try that”. I have worked with several people, Nse Etim is one of those people – She’s an amazing person as well as our client. I can go on and on and on; from Eva to Omowunmi Akinnifesi. The list goes on and we are happy to have worked with everyone we have worked with. We are grateful for all our clients.
My inspiration most time comes from something – it’s usually just one thing and then we domino it into so many things but I is usually just one theme. It could be a flower or it could be a trip. I remember my trip to Barcelona was one of my biggest influences into my collection after that trip. Sometimes it could be architecture; something you see in the course of your day inspires you in terms of colour, in terms of structure, in terms of the way you want it to lay. Different things – I hardly can say one particular thing inspires me.
Ok, what inspired your last collection?
My last collection was inspired by a butterfly. It was pretty much the transition from a caterpillar to an actual butterfly. I saw a documentary and no kidding I was like “No way!” It was a documentary on a kiddies channel or KTV or something like that of how caterpillars turn into butterflies and that was it. My collection was titled Cocoon and it was a process of getting you from this ugly type looking thing to this beautiful thing. In our lives we need that moment where you go away and then you transition – I think that is pretty much the message in that collection.
We did 8 looks.
How were you able to fit everything on her?
We kept fitting that collection over and over and over and over until we got it perfect.
Which designers do you look up to? Both internationally and on the African scene?
I’ve always had a big thing for Nigerian designers because at the time when I started fashion it didn’t seem like what it is today. It didn’t seem like this was how big it was going to be. There were just pockets of women who made clothes in their homes. When I was growing up fashion was just…you do it because you have extra time to do it. It was never like “I’m going to do it and I’m going to make money from it” or “I’m going to do it and I’m going to make a living from it”. So for me, I stuck with the women who were doing it before me because they were the reasons I got into it in the first place. Zizi Cardow lived right next to me in Ikoyi so I always used to go to her store right after school and just try to hang out there are just see how she did what she did. Of course there are the Deola Sagoes of this world and the Lanre DaSilvas who are women I looked up to when I was starting out. Internationally I’m a huge fan of Oscar De la Renta – he’s an amazing guy and he has an amazing personality as well, as well as his clothes. There are so many; Donatella Versace and more.
In terms of show productions in Nigeria and Internationally it’s not the same thing. We are getting there but it is not quite the same thing. It cuts across everything from types of models, the looks – every season has a look but a lot of people don’t even know this. Every Season has a type of model they are trying to sell like are we trying to sell the albinos this season or are we trying to sell the thinner girls? Internationally there is so much detail. Locally, here, we have models who are just modeling because they are in school and they have extra time and they just think they can model. There’s a lot to do in terms of fashion production, a lot, if I was to start with production problems in Nigeria it would never end. We don’t even have a proper fashion tent, if I can call it that, somewhere where it is laid out just for fashion shows. Fashion is a very interesting business it’s just that Nigerians we haven’t taken it as serious as it ought to be.
So what are some of the frustrations you’ve experienced in the Nigerian fashion scene?
I would start with maybe staffing. Staffing for your work is very challenging for a Nigerian business because a lot of the people are just tailors and they don’t understand aesthetics, they don’t understand the detailing that you require them to know. Staffing is a challenge. Sourcing of fabric as well and the economy in general is not very fashion friendly. People want to shop locally but the government is not making it easy for us so we create these things and they are quite expensive and people complain about it.
Where do you source and get your fabric?
We source fabrics locally and we get fabrics internationally. We pretty much travel a lot and we see, and we purchase and we have them brought in. We do quite a bit of fabrics coming from Dubai, Turkey, we try to have a variety so that our clients have an even playing field in terms of fabric choices and availability of what it is that satisfies them.
HON style is very simple, classy, edgy, almost at the same time. But the main thing would be, regardless of what it is do I make a statement? Yes we do. So I think the statement making will probably be one of our strongest points. Even if it is a simple dress, even if it is a heavily embellished dress, the driving point of the piece is to make a statement.
Where do you see the Nigerian fashion industry in the next 5 years?
Oh wow! 5 years is a long time and a lot of things will happen in that time. A lot of things have happened in the last 2, 3 years that we didn’t even see coming so 5 years will probably be bigger than whatever is going on now. Because we didn’t think that Nigerian fashion was going to grow this quick and become this big but it is now – so what is next? It has to get bigger, it has to get better. It has to become a global thing and it is on its way there already.
I work with different fabrics. A lot of people don’t think I do Ankara dresses but we do. Of course I would always have my fabrics of choice that I would rather work with – a lot of silks and I love prints. Print for me is always an addition if I find a fabric. So I love a lot of print, silk, satins. We’ve played with damasks before. What I do is I always try to push myself so I try not to stay in between any boundaries. I always try new things and every collection is always something I’ve never done before.
What is your most expensive fashion item?
That will be…*laughs* …I hate saying things like this because I am promoting a label that is not mine. It’s a Louis Vuitton bag, and it is a limited edition bag.
Interesting. Well thank you very much for chatting with us at FAB, it’s been FAB.
Thank you too.
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