My 2010 Profile of fashion designer, Ade Bakare, for NEXT

By Tolu Ogunlesi | January 25, 2010

Ade Bakare always knew he was going to be a fashion designer. “I used to draw a lot. I started with cartoons. I remember doing cartoons and then there was more emphasis on the clothes. And then I remember my mum saying that these are like fashion drawings. [She] started buying me fashion magazines, and I could then read about other fashion designers, and see their drawings, quite similar to mine, and that gave me confidence. This was from the age of eight or nine.”

But certain ‘dues’ had to be paid first. One of these was a more conventional first degree, a quest that took him to the University of Lagos, where he studied History. After graduation, he relocated to England. Now the life he had always wanted to live could begin.

He studied fashion at Salford University College in Manchester, graduating in 1990. Looking back, he realizes that being a “mature student” had its benefits. “I was more than ready when I started fashion college, so everything that I learnt I took in very quickly and with great relish because I had waited for almost four years before I went to study fashion which I wanted to do from secondary school. So to have waited that long I basically absorbed everything.”

Today he’s clear in his belief that fashion designers ought to study fashion design, and not attempt to ride on talent or genius alone. “I totally believe that you have to study it, if not you have to study under someone. I believe when you look at designers you can tell those who have training and those who don’t.” When I repeat his statement, he is emphatic. “I can, because I have the benefit of the education, so I can definitely tell. Because you’re taught on how to design a collection for the public or your target audience and how you should have a style, a signature. A lot of designers in Nigeria, its slightly difficult to tell in what direction they’re going, or what’s their style or what new are they bringing to the fold.”

Here come the brides

While at Salford Bakare won a number of student competitions, which were early confidence boosters. One of these was a bridal wear competition. After graduation, his friend, Dolapo Oki, who had accompanied him to receive the bridal wear award, asked him to design her wedding gown. She wanted a dress she could wear again and again. Other than the student award, Bakare had no experience in bridal wear, having restricted himself to day and evening wear. But with encouragement from one of his outworkers he went ahead and made a ball gown dress (with a detachable part) for Miss Oki. That successful venture turned out to be “the first of many to come.” The bridal range launched in 1993, and since then the brides have not stopped trooping in.

The homecoming

Studying and working in England obviously meant his was a very Western style and outlook. But that changed when he started coming back to Nigeria frequently, about five years ago. “Because I’ve now got a shop here I’ve taken a lot of African and Nigerian inspiration and taken those influences and translated them into my collection.”

In 2004 Bakare travelled to Asaba to judge Ecofest, a contest for West African fashion designers, organized by Chief Sunny Odogwu. There he met the then First Lady, Stella Obasanjo, who was the Special Guest of Honour at the event. Eventually he would design clothes for her. “[Stella Obasanjo] was instrumental to my coming constantly,” he tells me. He adds that that trip “introduced me to another market, other people, and through that I started building up a steady clientele of people.”

A fashion formula

For a fashion designer, I am curious to know how much of a fashionista he is. “Initially, when I was much younger I was very fashion conscious, dressing in the latest styles.” he says. “When I went to study fashion design in England (in Manchester) I think I toned it down a bit.”

He attributes the toning down to the fact that his youthful exuberance had been totally spent by the time he graduated from Unilag. Fashion College therefore had the somberness of a postgraduate degree. Not much has changed since then. He still avoids flamboyance and goes for “beautiful clothes that are well made and that have little details.” “Maybe by world standards or Nigerian standards I might not be seen as very fashionable,” he tells me. “But maybe to the trained eye, the connoisseur, they can then appreciate the little details of the clothes that I have.”

But personal fashion choices aside, Bakare believes that no designer can afford to be safe or mundane. “When people want to come to look at fashion shows, or if the press are looking to photograph, they’re looking for things that are slightly eccentric, that have anarchy, that are very extreme, because those make fantastic photographic images for the newspapers.”

A formula (that all designers would do well to pay attention to) soon emerges from our brief discourse on the place of the Art in the Fashion: That high art (eccentricity, anarchy) is necessary to run the publicity machine (which “translates into people recognizing [a] brand, which could then also translate back into sales”), while wearability is important to get the clothes into — and out of — the stores. “Human beings are very safe when they actually put their money down to buy clothes, they want things that they can use for a few seasons or months, and not necessarily something that is going to make them stand out in public,” Bakare says. The key, he says, is to learn to negotiate the two extremes, and aim at achieving a fusion.

From London to Lagos

In 1997, by which time his Ready-to-Wear collection was in stores across England, Bakare opened his first showroom, in Mayfair, London, to cater for private clients. His first client was the wife of the late Chief F.R.A Williams. In 2006, he opened a second showroom, this time in Lagos. This decision was an inevitable one, in the face of a steadily growing clientele in Nigeria. Bakare says that his wedding dresses played a significant role in expanding his Nigerian business. Brides regularly flew from Lagos to London for fitting, and on their return home (with their gowns) became evangelist of sorts of the Bakare fashion gospel. Now business is good enough to justify his coming to Nigeria “every other month” to keep appointments booked by his Lagos-based Personal Assistant while he is away.

The Bakare brand has since branched out into perfumes, candles and scented soaps. Bakare has also designed a jewellery collection for a Paris fashion house, and currently produces bridal jewellery. He says he is now a “one stop destination” for brides, designing their dresses (he tells me there’s an emphasis on fit, beautiful fabrics, and a modern style), jewellery, shoes, headgear and other accessories. “Even for the underwear we recommend them to houses that we work with in England, who do corsetry and lingerie,” he adds.

A home for everyone

Bakare’s list of Nigerian clients is a who’s who of rich, powerful and fashionable women. They include Mrs. Opral Benson, Hajia Abba Folawiyo, The Lagos State First Lady, Mrs. Bimbola Fashola, Mrs. Kay Ovia (who’s the patron for the Young Designers Creative Competition), Mrs. Dangote, Erelu Dosunmu, and Senator Florence Ita-Giwa. But he’s also quick to point out that “we’re not just aimed at the mature lady, we do have the diffusion range heavily patronized by the younger set, girls from their twenties to their forties.” The diffusion range is called Bakare Breeze, and employs a great deal of African fabrics, like adire.

Building the future

Coming home regularly opened his eyes to the abundance of talent in Nigeria, and inspired him to ask the question: “How best can we then give them a platform for them to show their abilities?” Thus the Young Designers competition was born, for entrants between eighteen and twenty-five. “I had seen the benefits of it in England and how it was instrumental in my career. It’s totally merit-based, nothing to do with who you know or who your family is or that sort of thing.”

The first edition held in 2007 at the Civic Center, Lagos. The response was overwhelming, and the shortlist had to be expanded to ten, from the three originally planned. The 2008 edition held at the Federal Palace Hotel. The winner of 2nd edition was a finalist in the first, and has now gone on to Holland to study fashion. And in March of this year, the 3rd edition (there was no 2009 competition) will hold. It is now arguably the most prestigious fashion competition in the country. And this time around the first prize will be an opportunity to train at the London College of Fashion.

From creating eye-catching fashion, Mr. Bakare is now in the business of creating the fashion-designers who will rule over tomorrow’s runways.

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