« Luxury is not new in Nigeria; what is new is the new world model of the exchange of luxury goods for money from a structured business point of view. And yes we are very much part of that world. »
– Reni Folawiyo
It was a funny experience to interview my mother, the woman whose vision I have been breathing my entire life, first through living with her and then through working for her. It is a hard task to try and quantify Alara, to put into words what it means to have this symbol of contemporary African grandeur in Lagos. I imagine it is even harder for her to do so, when Alara is the literal embodiment of her ideas, the culmination of her life’s work and her interest in the arts, African arts, in the idea that we must elevate our own to the same level that we elevate the others. Maybe even higher. A lot of people have tried to write the story of Alara and have gotten it so wrong that my mother now has an innate distrust of journalists and their convenient narrative construction, their inability to understand the complexity and innovation of what she’s doing. So this reads more like a conversation, in which I try to get her to speak freely about her vision (and her brilliance). But in a way, Alara can’t really be explained. Once you walk in, you feel everything that you’re supposed to–awe, intimidation, overwhelm, familiarity, surprise, love, YES. It’s what we’ve been waiting for.
Where did the idea for Alara come from? I know you have always had deep interests in and relationships with fashion, art, design and food, but when did you decide you could and should put it all together? Everything I have ever done has literally led me to Alara. As you have mentioned, I have always had an interest in fashion, art design and food. In the early years before Alara, I also had a collective of young creatives hanging together on weekends. However, I believe it was after my first trip to Senegal to meet Aissa Dione that the idea finally seemed like it could become a reality. I had just come back from a trip to Johannesburg and saw her work with a friend and collector and had never seen anything that resonated with me more. Meeting her, her weavers and other makers in Senegal made me realize that what I had been doing in Lagos could be done all around Africa, that it could actually be quite iconic and that everything could fit under one roof.
Could you explain a bit more what work you did together with these young artists? We were a collective of sculptors, painters, fashion designers and anyone who felt like dropping in. We used materials found around us to create contemporary objects for the home. We used raffia from Akwa Ibom, leather from Kano, fabric from Abeokuta, timber logs from Ijebu. We would create seats from logs of mahogany that were pieces of art but also functional, leather objects from bowls, table top boxes, trunks that were embossed, beaded or embroidered, hand made greeting cards, and clothing. It was important that we made contemporary pieces that derived from age-old traditions and infused our version of modernity onto them. I loved that time in my life. It was kind of poignant because that’s what persuaded me to move from law into doing things like this, even though I didn’t know exactly what it would become.
Was the idea of a concept store well received? Did people appreciate the complexity of having everything under one roof? I know it was completely novel at the time. No! Actually, a few people did. I think it was a bit of a shock and rather confusing for many people, especially since the concept was African. I was living in my head and creating this idea of celebration of the various aspects of our lifestyle, knowing how beautiful that could look and mean. But not many people could see it. Carved wooden furniture, bright woven fabrics, basketry, all standing next to a Valentino dress. Ankara dresses from Stella Jean on a mannequin sitting atop a cabinet from Hamed Ouattara made from tin drums! Magical but crazy! People were confused by the Africanness of a luxury store and didn’t find it believable. But of course we had people who were super excited and supportive and helped galvanize the idea as one that should be respected, celebrated and patronized. I’m very grateful for our early adopters. I have to admit, looking back, how manic I must have sounded when I would tell people, « Oh Alara is not just selling shoes; this is a revolution! »
The building is iconic, not many people know that when Adjaye Associates first presented you with options, it could have been green or red- how and why did you choose the red? Well, I would have loved a green building because green is my favorite color. I believe David and his team considered green while designing but went for red to mimic the red dust found in parts of Africa. I walked into their office wearing green and they were all like, « It could have been green too! » But I loved the red, it felt right, bold, engaging and daring, just as I felt.
What do you think red represents? For me it feels so rebellious, so pioneering in a way that really fits into the Alara ethos. Red represents the soul of Alara, the familiar and yet the rebellious, all at once. The return to the earth to move into the future—can anyone really believe these words are real and not fancy speak? That we landed a dust red building in the middle of VI to bravely propel us into the future?
We often have this conversation about Alara and the role of luxury in Nigeria. I also think this idea that Africans can’t have luxury is one that is a little bit problematic—at the end of the day, we were colonized, our mindset for a long time was that we were inferior to our colonizers, so a natural result of that is that we aspire to their symbols of wealth. However, I do think that what Alara does really well is not necessarily challenge that, but accept it and say, « But you know what, we also have our own symbols of wealth here that are equally important; why can’t they coexist?« I know you’re tired of being asked this question, but I do think that you have a great way of articulating it: essentially, where does luxury fit in, in a place like Nigeria? Yes, you do know that I don’t like to talk about this because this question assumes there are some parts of the world where luxury shouldn’t have a place. Luxury is not new in Nigeria; what is new is the new world model of the exchange of luxury goods for money from a structured business point of view. And yes, we are very much part of that world.
So it is also a fact that Nigerians are some of the biggest spenders in the great fashion cities of the world and of course, with the growing middle class comes the desire for and accumulation of luxury goods and lifestyle. This is all important business speak for the growth of luxury in Africa that we have to use in our analytics.
But let’s go back in time for a minute. Historically, Nigeria has a huge culture of traditional leaders who have been the patrons of artists and makers for years. Their opulence, lavishness and grandeur mark the beginnings of luxury appreciation and exchange in our country. For me, considering this background, luxury fits right into our lives and has been thriving for generations. Given our background and our concept, in Africa today, luxury must benefit both the maker and the consumer, it has to have a heart and soul and must involve the uplifting of the maker in the manner of the old day patron kings, but even better. It must also involve the uplifting of lives and the preservation of our history and culture. This is the Alara way and the ethos of new African Luxury.
I think the relationship that Nigerians have with clothes is very interesting, with putting outfits together and feeling proud. How would you say that has changed over the years? We do love to dress up; our dress code is derived from each region’s specific culture and again as represented by our kings, queens and their chiefs. So it has always been an expression of where you’re from and then an indication of your status. With the Yorubas for example, the blouse and wrapper, « buba and iro », is pretty standard for the women but in those days, the richer were able to distinguish themselves by buying the most exquisite Swiss lace for their blouses. The idea of pride, beauty and grandeur that emanates from our culture and kings has not changed and people who can afford the best now still aspire to look like modern day kings and queens.
More than most people, you have a very strong appreciation of not only Nigerian, but also African heritage. How and when did this start?I’m not sure actually, possibly from my dad who was a total traditionalist.
I saw so much from his passion for the structure of our state as well as having a strong identity as a person from a village, a state and a country. On my part, I have always felt strongly about who I really am and have never been seduced into thinking there was anything out there that I wanted to aspire to. Perhaps self-pride and assuredness. As Africans, apart from being a continent geographically, we all share a unique history that has created a bond that I feel we can all benefit from.
You have this way of merging tradition and contemporariness, African and Western, in this very seamless way. How do you think this duality? Is it something that is unconscious to you? Well, I do live both lives or I have lived in both regions and their influences have formed who I am today. I am by nature quite eclectic, and a believer of tradition as a great propeller for the future. I am sure that without a great understanding and appreciation of our past, we cannot have a new and important influence on the future. I feel very much like the connector of the past and the future. I love to teach young people that the future really is about using influences from all cultures to learn about how to be great as an African in today’s world. I also love to teach them about the past to elevate and educate them, to prepare them for the future.
I think it’s really interesting, this idea that especially in Nigeria, the creative process often comes out of necessity. Creatives working in Nigeria can’t really be idealistic about their process or their product—there is a certain utility that comes into play. Do you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing? Can you talk about the ways in which Alara as a concept changed once you actually started, and had to exist practically as well? Firstly, I think although we exist in a global world and will be judged by global standards, it can be quite a debilitating burden to expect design in our part of Africa to be assessed with the same parameters as those of many more advanced nations.
So yes, creatives cannot be too idealistic about their process and product. However, in concept, if the designer has the talent, the purity and uniqueness of concept and an honest approach to the making, and then produces an object of high quality and beauty, then it becomes a covetable piece. Look at the rest of Western Africa for example, Babacar Niang, Cheick Diallo, Hamed Ouattara, Aissa Dione, this is what they have done and it’s uniquely African and beautiful.
In fashion, Kenneth Ize is creative and innovative in using what he finds around us and that’s quite magical and beautiful both in the process and as a product.
Secondly, in regard to Alara, I believe we have evolved; we were a lot more idealistic and have had to balance our goals with the commercial aspect of our concept. We also have a better understanding of the African designers and what they require to succeed. So at the moment, we do realize that the market has a hunger for bigger established brands and while we continue to try to bring this to their doorstep, we also see that we have to make a huge effort to break their habits of travelling abroad to get that. We also better understand the challenges and requirements of the African brands and have launched the Emerge Alara to support them better.
We are obviously in a place where African appreciation is at its highest (at least in my lifetime), almost to the point of it being fetishistic. How do you feel about that? And how do you think it will continue? This is a dream. To have young people feel so strongly about their own heritage is so important and exciting and I can see how empowering it is for them and how it will change the unjustified feelings of inferiority in past generations. Brands with an African ethos will grow into global brands in different areas of the creative industries; commerce and business will be geared towards making African excellent. On a world scale, African fetishism will be for a moment and may not necessarily benefit us here. But what is most important is for our own to believe in the promise of each nation and therefore the continent.
What role do you want Alara to play, both in Nigeria and in Africa?
I want Alara to elevate us, to beautify, to showcase, to be a platform of excellence and self-determination, to be a place of learning and congregation of the best talents.
In something we Africans got issue 5 Faridah Folawiyo