The launch of her fashion brand House of SOTA, about six years ago, saw Folashade Balogun boldly stamp her arrival on the Nigerian and international fashion scene.
Discovering her creative flair earlier in life, Shade as she’s simply called did not follow her gift, until, after a stint in the oil and gas sector. Launched with the aim to promote African clothing globally, House of SOTA designs depicts a rich African cultural heritage, influenced by African and western fashion. With stores in the US and different cities across Nigeria, she services a diverse range of clients addressing their needs both domestically and internationally, while feeding the diaspora market with the much sought-after African wears.
She shares with Allure her passion and love for the African brand, her very humble background, and breaking new grounds.
You recently celebrated; Black History Month with the launch of your spring collection. Does it have any correlation with Black History Month in the US and the UK? What does it mean to you?
Yes, it does. Actually, Black History Month is celebrated in America, Canada, and the UK in October. It is all about celebrating us, our historical background, and a more formal time, to remember and honour those who came before us. It is a very significant event for me because; I believe we should celebrate ourselves as Africans. If we don’t celebrate ourselves nobody will.
I have been in this business for the past six years. We have a store in America, and over the years, I found out that white Americans love our brands, what we do, and what we wear. As a matter of fact, the Kaftans that our men wear here are called African suits, and I have white clients who come to my shop to buy them.
As blacks, we do not appreciate what we have. I took it upon myself to always rock African attire whenever I am travelling, and whenever these people see me in my Ankara, they are like, “oh wow, this is so beautiful”. Two years ago, I was wearing one of my designs made with adire and aso oke, I was on a flight from Orlando to Las Vegas when I stood up to use the toilet, the air hostess followed me to the toilet, just to appreciate what I was wearing. She asked where I got it from, I told her it was from me, she went on-site and bought it. If these people want to be us, and we are trying to be like them, then I think something is wrong somewhere. So Black History month for me is so significant. I love what we have and I have to celebrate Africa proudly. I do not believe that any other foreign brand is better.
So what is it like running a business in Nigeria and the US, how would you compare both, market-wise?
Lots of bills, believe me, we are really enjoying in Nigeria. In America, you have to pay your tax, you have to pay your rent, you have to pay lots of bills but, guess what; the market is there. That is what has kept us going. People love what they see, they love what we are selling. However, it has not been easy, especially with the exchange rate.
So how do you deal with the exchange rate issue?
As I said, it is not easy but we try to strike a balance.
Where do you get inspiration for your designs?
Sometimes, it could be around me, when I see someone, for instance, what you are wearing is a beautiful style, and it could be nice in Ankara or Aso-Ebi, then I could twist it a bit. Sometimes I could be watching a movie and I get an idea. My inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere. So it is just a gift from God.
What do you love about being a designer?
I love the fact that I make people happy, and comfortable with what they wear. Most of our designs are casuals, but even in our casuals, you look chic and trendy. Anywhere I walk into, even if it is a birthday, or a wedding, party there is always a wow factor. Again when people say they love what I am are wearing, that makes me happy. I love putting smiles on people’s faces.
What could be the most uncomfortable about the job?
I don’t like it when I am trying to make a client happy and the client would not have it or just refuses to be happy. You know that there are some clients that are like that. They complain about everything. That is why most of the time, we don’t do bespoke. I only make bespoke for people very close to me, people who understand what we do. I prefer you to go to our store to pick what you want, with that; we don’t get to have problems.
Before fashion you were into oil and gas, why did you leave oil and gas for fashion?
I am still into oil and gas. I have a filling station. The oil and gas industry is not really as lucrative as when I started. When I started oil and gas, it was very profitable. But right now, a lot has changed. Again, it is about following my passion. I have a strong passion for fashion and decided to fulfill my dream.
What was growing up like for you, especially coming from two different ethnic groups?
I speak Yoruba and Igbo very well. My mother is from Ondo State, while my father was from Imo state. He died during the war. He was a naval officer. My mother single-handedly trained all of us.
And what in your upbringing informed the woman you are today?
Growing up was very tough, it wasn’t easy because I lost my father early. And in those days, the Igbos were very strict with their widows. When a husband dies, they strip the woman naked, they take everything away from her and she is left alone. That was the same thing that happened to my mother. So my childhood wasn’t really interesting, we were all living in a one-room apartment and she had to do so many things, just so she could take care of us. She used to sew. She has a chemist, she is still alive. My mom is very creative too, and she loves fashion too. I can say I got that from her, looking at her then as a teenager, inspired me a lot. I grew up in Mushin, and I must say that the Mushin in me is really helping me. It is good to be street-wise. When you are streetwise even when you are facing any challenge you look at it as one of those things. My upbringing has really impacted my life greatly.
What is the most memorable thing that comes to mind anytime you remember growing up in Mushin?
Hmm… we lived in a one-room apartment where we didn’t have access to a proper toilet, and those were very interesting times. I tell my children that when we send them abroad to school, it’s a privilege, it’s not as if they are entitled to it. So, I let my children know all these. I tell them, to go out there and work hard like their lives depend on it. And that has really paid off, because all my children made first class, and are doing well today, thanks to God. My upbringing really gave me a different view of life.
How do you cope with work and family?
When I first started my business, it was a bit challenging because I had to do school runs, go to the depot, then; my filling station was in Seme, before I had one in GRA. Now my kids are all grown up. I am a grandmother of two. All my kids are graduates, my first son is happily married with two daughters, my second son is here with me, my third son is a pilot in the US, and he is flying already. My only daughter graduated in 2020, she is a psychologist working in the US. I have four children, three males, and a female.
What is your perception of the fashion industry in Nigeria today?
I must say we are doing very well.
What, in your opinion, are some of the ways African fashion designers can be supported so that they can become global businesses?
The government needs to support us financially. African fashion is really out there, and globally people love what we are doing. We are very creative in Nigeria, but we need the government’s support in every way. Apart from finance, they should put the right structures in place, so we can have ease of doing business like our counterparts in other countries, and be able to mass-produce. When this is done, a time will come when you can walk into a shop and buy a Nigerian-made dress off the rack like in western countries. It is achievable.
What is your eventual dream for House of Sota?
My dream for House of Sota is for the brand to become like Zara. That is why we are opening outlets in different parts of the continent.
I want the House of Sota to live after me. When I am gone, there will still be House of Sota, just like some of the popular international brands that we don’t know who owns them.
When you are not working, how do you relax?
When I am flying, I relax on the flight, I love travelling a lot. If I am not in Lagos, I am in Abuja, if I am not in Abuja, I am in Owerri, or in the US. I love travelling a lot.
Where in the world is your favourite holiday destination?
I do not really go on holiday. I can’t remember the last time I went on vacation, maybe on a business trip because even when I am in the US, it is not a vacation. Throughout the Christmas and New Year holidays, I was working, setting up the second store. On Christmas day, in the US, we went to the motherless babies’ home and gave out blankets and food. In Lagos, we normally do orphanages. So I can’t remember the last time I went on vacation.
So what lessons have you learned about life?
A lot; don’t look down on people, be friendly, be nice. When my children were young, I trained them not to look down on people, but to be nice. Even if that person is a beggar, be nice, because that beggar might be a billionaire tomorrow. You never can tell.
Elizabeth Isiorho, Founder of Beth Model Management Africa, with more than 50 models placed with top international agencies from around the world, is yet again; set to make aspiring models’ dreams come true, with the launch of her latest project ‘Future Face Africa’ model contest. Future Face Africa which would be Africa’s largest model search will focus on emerging female and male talents, attracting thousands of applicants from Africa to compete in the competition.
According to Isiorho, who is also the organizer of the Elite Model Look Nigeria contest, this new project is a celebration of Africa and African models. “It is a contest for aspiring models from all African countries. We will scout for models from across the African continent, beginning from this weekend.”
Selected models will compete for a chance to win a 2-year international modeling contract with a Top International Modeling agency, as well as a $5,000 (five thousand dollars) cash reward, providing aspirants with not just a start in modeling but also a career on the global stage.
She tells us more.
What is the difference between Elite Model Look and Future face Africa?
The difference with the elite model look was that we were working with one agency, but Future face Africa is working with about thirty agencies around the world.
Is it a winner takes it all competition?
No not for one person, I can have twenty models and an agency decides to take 15 they will be taken.
They will be signed to Beth and we are hoping that we will get them signed to international agencies.
Why do the names change?
I worked with Elite Model look for thirteen years and then last year, COVID happened and everyone had to rebrand, but I have always wanted to do this for years, so for me, it is a good opportunity and an opportunity to expand what I really wanted to do which is working and signing models with bigger and more agencies as well as scouting more around the world. Before now I was limited to Nigeria or West Africa, but now I can go all around Africa for models. The good thing, however, is I still work with Elite, they are still my partners.
What to expect with Future Face Africa?
This time an amazing show, amazing models from all over the world, it all about celebrating Africa and Africa models, putting them on the map. We believe this is a good opportunity especially now that Africa is recognized all over the world especially in fashion. . The show will be amazing, we are going to about 10 countries back to back to look for the boys and girls.
What do you look out for in aspiring models?
The height is very important, facial structure and also personality because we do not want a girl that is dull or can’t express herself properly, same for the boys as well.
So it doesn’t matter the part of Africa they are from?
No, it doesn’t
How would you describe the modeling industry in Nigeria now, even in the face of covid?
The industry now is changing, thanks to all the fashion shows, things are different now and I can say we are actually on the right track, though with COVID a lot of things are on hold, I am sure from next year things will pick up.
Vision for FFA?
My dream is to be the biggest in the world, not just in Africa, to be recognized everywhere. Our aim is to change lives and be bigger than where we were before. African models and African fashion have seen rapid growth in popularity and acceptance throughout the world over the last decade. However, there is still a lot of untapped potentials to be explored and Future Face Africa is set to provide the desired platform for the models to excel.
For one who discovered her creative flair and strong drive for business early in life, daughter of Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, Yeside Laguda’s passion over the the years has metamorphosed into a thriving enterprise with different outlets across the State. The young entrepreneur who added another feather to her growing business with the launch of her GRA Ikeja, MyQ and Blush by MyQ store, tells us the journey from the beginning.
At what point in life did you discover your creative flair?
I have always loved to draw. I started sketching right from childhood and later, I became a buyer even when I was in university in England. What I used to do then was that I would go to different towns and trade fairs and then to every company that has a factory store. I had to register to be in the trade so that I could buy things for cheap prices. So I would buy products from foreign companies at cheap prices and send them to Nigeria for people who own boutiques atother times, I come to Nigeria, take my goods to University of Lagos and other places for buyers.
So how did that business sense come in?
Business is a second nature for me, because even as a child, I used to buy lollypops and sell in class at higher prices than I bought them. It has always been my nature, to seize every opportunity that came my way. Even though I would sell my lollypops and spend the whole money that same day except for a token I will leave to buy another pack for sale the next day, there was always this satisfaction in me of being able to do something, to multiply my money and also knowing that I could stand on my own.
At what point did you decide to go into business fully?
When I graduated, I wanted to go into the workforce but, when I did my NYSC, I still was buying shirts to sell at the camp. But there were buyers who always asked for skirts. Then, I had one tailor at Iponri and another at Akerele and I used to jump gutters to Akerele to go look for these tailors so they can sew for me after which I will pay them #2,000 from the #5,000 I had charged my clients. That was how my journey into full time business started. But then, I started in the kitchen because I realized that one person will not finish everything at the time they were needed. So I got one tailor who worked with me in my mother’s kitchen. and so I started from mother’s kitchen and then moved into a canopy and gradually it grew.
What exactly is MyQ all about?
It is called MyQ Lifestyle Concept. MyQ Lifestyle Concept, is made up of two arms: One arm is called Blush By MyQ. Blush By MyQ represents most of the European and Middle Eastern luxury designers for bridal and occasional dresses. So we have full licenses to bring their products into Nigeria and also represent them. And then there is MyQ. MyQ is an indigenous Nigerian company where we produce Nigerian products like dresses with Ankara, Batik, Linen, Laces and so on and then we have another arm that produces garment steamers and so on.
When did you start your first shop?
I stated my first shop in 2007 at Victoria Island. That is over 10 years now. And it has been a journey because I have left some things along the line, like I used to sew for people but I don’t do that any more. I only design now. It has been a learning process and I have tried to work a balance between my job and my family.
Do you design?
Yes, I design all of MyQ but Blush By MyQ is just a representative of foreign designers.
What inspires your designs?
Once you have a passion for something, you live and breathe it and then it comes naturally to you and every thing around you inspires you. And I think that is the only thing I know how to do – design. That is my bread and butter.
How do you source for materials for the indigenous ready to wear clothes you do?
A lot of materials are imported but for my Adire, Batik and Ankara, I buy some raw materials in Nigeria and I also have somebody buy them for me. Sometimes I go to Oshogbo and other places, where I could get the indigenous Nigerian materials. And as regards the foreign collections and designs, I can go to anywhere in the world to get the designs and collections that suit my clients.
What did you study at school?
I read Environmental Chemistry for my BSc at the University of Reading, England and then got an MBA in Advanced Strategic Management from the University of Wales, also in the United Kingdom.
Your field of study does no tally with what you are doing now, so how do you marry both?
There are no connections at all but like I said, designing comes naturally to me.
So how did your parents take this sudden diversion of interest?
My daddy was cool with it but my mummy was troubled. But after a while, everybody got used to it.
How do you overcome challenges you face in running your business?
We need God! Because some days things would be rosy but on other days, things would be totally down, and if you don’t have God, your business may not survive and you may even die. So we really need God.
You have been marketing products from foreign companies for over a decade now; do you also have intention of promoting indigenous companies?
Definitely! We have a huge population, so even if we do not go outside Nigeria, we can do sustainable production and then, there would be no need for importation or second hand cloths. I mean, if we can do this and then employ global best standard in production, then, we can take our products abroad for people to buy.