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Founder Of Alara, Reni Folawiyo Is Taking African Luxury To The World!

And redefining the business of African fashion

The last time I met Reni Folawiyo was in mid-2015 when I interviewed her for the October issue of Elle South Africa, not long after the opening of Alara. Alara, owned by Folawiyo, is one of Africa’s most prominent luxury concept stores in Lagos, Nigeria - designed by famed architect, David Adjaye. 

Three years later, a day after Lagos Fashion Week, I meet Folawiyo at her home in Lagos. It’s been quite a busy week for the CEO and founder as Alara hosted numerous fashion week events. “It’s been hectic as we’ve had so many things planned.” She says almost immediately. “And I didn’t make too many of the shows as we were so busy with our events, but I did find some time in between to see a couple of shows.”

In just a few days Alara will be hosting more events as part of the ArtXLagos offsite schedule, a West African international art fair, designed to showcase innovative contemporary art from the African continent and its diaspora. Folawiyo only has a few days to catch her breath. “We barely have any break in between,” she says, and she’s right. First, there’s the Stevenson Gallery‘s first Group exhibition which will feature artists such as Zanele Muholi and Dada Khanyisa, and scheduled to run all through November. This will be followed by a talk by Kemang Wa Lehulere who will be speaking on the fragility of history, indigenous African astronomy, and other research interests. “He is one of the most prominent young artists working in South Africa today,” she explains. “He just had a solo show at Marian Goodman Gallery in London, and is working on a new commission for the forthcoming Sharjah Biennial.” Alara will also be hosting the official after party at NOK, a contemporary African restaurant, and a culinary extension of Folawiyo’s concept to celebrate and elevate all aspects of African lifestyle.

Looking very relaxed, Folawiyo is wearing a print dress from Duro Olowu’s Autumn Winter 2019 collection, “I always wear Duro Olowu” she says laughing, and a pair of slippers by Moroccan designer, Zyne, which she bought during a buying trip to Paris earlier this year. In this exclusive interview with ELLE’s fashion director, Dimeji Alara, Reni Folawiyo talks about her journey so far, her new project Alara Emerge, her restaurant NOK, and her quest for world domination!

How has the journey been since the opening of Alara?
Hectic! But super interesting and fun. We have a very big vision and we do realise it’s going to take a long time to materialise but I’ve always known that. We have a lot of people in the space. With NOK and a lot of these events, we’ve been able to bring different generations of people into the space. 

What have been some of your biggest challenges?
I think the first most important thing is for people to understand what we are trying to do because experiential retail is new to us here, so there is that challenge because people don’t actually realise that we are a shop that needs to be commercially viable. African luxury is also new to most people here so getting people to buy into that has been a little challenging as well. Apart from that, it’s just been up and down in that way but I knew it would be.

Are there certain things you wish you’d done differently?
I wish we didn’t start so big. I wish we’d grown a little bit more organically. And also maybe because expectations were so high when we started, we came on with a really big vision and ideas. So that meant looking at the market to see what was really wanted. We’ve changed a lot especially with fashion, we are a lot less high fashion and a bit more commercial because we need that in this market.

And is that working?
It’s working. Once you get what people want it’s easier, but we’ve also tried to balance it out. Also, we always want more African designers but we also have really high standards as we have to put them besides some of the best brands in the world. So it makes us appear strict and sometimes a little distant, but we believe it’s a process and we have a long way to go, so we’re taking it slow and trying to nurture brands into what we think they should be. Another big challenge for these brands is that most of them don’t understand the business of fashion and if you come with this whole retail thing people don’t get it. The designers are facing a lot of challenges, they’re trying to produce at a certain price, there are infrastructure issues, there are sourcing issues, and then you get them to come into the store retail idea where they have to sell at a certain price to you and the price you sell it has to match the price they’re selling it too. That’s been a turmoil for a lot of the designers.

And there’s also the issue of finishing.
The finishing is always an issue because we don’t have proper production facilities and technical know-how. So sometimes people can be a bit unfair to African designers. We don’t have technical schools here in Nigeria for example, so how do you get someone to finish your garment to a level of perfection? It’s so difficult. So sometimes as much as we are critical of our designers, we must also understand where they’re coming from and the challenges they face.

Now let’s move on to your restaurant, NOK. Which has been getting rave reviews internationally? How’s that been?
It’s been fantastic. NOK has brought some sort of accessibility to our brand because everybody wants to eat, which means you have more people coming into the space. The traffic at NOK has been tremendous and it has softened the look of ALARA. So this imposing building that scares people off has become a bit more accessible. We first started with the main restaurant and then a year later we opened the grill, which is a younger approach in terms of food and pricing, so it’s been able to bring more people into the space. Challenging as usual but that’s fine, I don’t mind a challenge.

Tell us about ALARA Emerge 
As I said yesterday, we’ve always wanted to do something with young designers. I’ve always had this idea that there’s so much that could be done when it comes to helping upcoming designers. I do understand what the challenges are for a many of these designers so I’ve always wanted to do something like ALARA Emerge. Having had some young designers at ALARA we understood some of their challenges. So we decided we wanted to do something to improve the fashion industry in Africa and see how we could support the brightest creative talents on the continent. We had a lot of entries from across Africa and the diaspora. ALARA Emerge is for the creative talent which includes all areas like design etc, but this one was the fashion edition. So we were looking for someone in fashion as well as media. Somehow, the six finalists were Nigerians, and we really tried to make sure we get someone from another country to balance it out but there was no one we thought was strong enough for media, so hopefully the next time, but we intend to do it in all areas starting with fashion.

So what happens when you get these six finalists?
We have a judging panel comprised of people in business, media, fashion, banking and myself. It was quite a wide range as we wanted to touch on all the areas we thought were important. Everyone was strongly involved and interested. We’ve had a couple of events at ALARA to brainstorm and we have this thing called the ALARA table, which involves about six people. We brainstorm and find different issues to talk about, bringing different people together and had one with all the young designers that we have in store and also got people in finance and different industry, which was a really good dynamic. So this conversation is something that we will keep having, as this enables each person to know the challenges the other person is facing. And it’s great to see that these exchanges are happening, which is why I’m so confident that the fashion business in Africa is going to strive.

So now you selected your final three?
There was supposed to be one winner, but we struggled a lot as they were really strong, and now we have one main winner and two runners-up.

And what happens from here?
We will decide the exact dynamics. What we had planned for the winner was a cash grant, the production of a collection for ALARA, stocking at ALARA and support in all areas as well for as long as we can. 

What’s going to be the next focus for ALARA Emerge?
I’m not too sure, but what we’ve realised here is that there are deeper issues of fashion schools in Nigeria, and so we are finding a way to raise awareness and funds to invest in schools. We noticed that a lot of the designers who entered this competition were either self-taught or schooled abroad, and it was very interesting to see that. So those are the things we want to look at and let people know what they can do to help. Because at the moment we throw money at some weird things and I think it’s because people don’t understand the depth of the issues and how far back these problems go. 

What’s the future for ALARA?
World domination! You know I do mean that when I say world domination. I wasn’t joking. I say that because I think that we literally can take over everything. Having said that, I also think we still have to get into the minds of every African and create a sort of rebranding of Africa. We want to be that main vehicle for the rebranding of Africa to the world. It’s about imposing who we are and what we can do and the fact that Africa can be excellent.

ArtXLagos takes place in Lagos, Nigeria from the 2nd to 4th of November.

Photographs by Lakin Ogunbanwo

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