Nigerian Italian-based founder of Modaf Designs, Ijeoma Meribe-Nnorom, is currently heating up the international fashion landscape with her very cosmopolitan creations with afro-centric themes. She tells The Interview team how it all began…
At what point did you realise you wanted to pursue a career as a designer that owns a fashion and style outfit?
It was after my master’s degree programme when I found myself in between jobs. I started a blog about African fashion and African Designers. I was posting pictures of those designs and readers started asking me whether those garments were for sale and how they could purchase them.
That gave me a business idea. Initially I handled the business end but being someone who has always had an eye for details, I always noticed mistakes here and there, but I didn’t know how to correct those mistakes.
After a lot of back and forth with the tailors, I decided to go to fashion school here in Italy to learn the manual and creative part of fashion.
All your designs I have seen have Igbo names; how has that impacted people’s acceptability and sales?
I wanted to stand out and be unique and part of that was the infusion of my African identity into my designs. This is the first time I gave individual names to my designs, so I thought ‘why not give them the names of all the women and girls in my family? People just like that I’m staying true to who I am, and they are accepting the collection whole-heartedly.
How is your brand fairing in the Italian market and other parts of the world since you started in 2017?
It’s really fairing well. Fashionistas all over the world have ‘seen it all. They are looking for something different and the more unique your designs are, the more it is accepted.
All over the world, startups are faced with different challenges, what are the challenges peculiar to your kind of business in Italy and how are you coping with them?
The main challenges are finance, brand awareness and validation. Most startups these days prefer lean production. This means that you have to produce your samples at least 6-7 months prior to the season so you have enough time to present your seasonal collection to buyers and store owners for orders.
That way you can produce on order. This way you can also control the quantity of your inventory.Personally, I’m coping by not churning out collection after collection different times a year. I prefer to stick to capsule collections for now.
Many now appear to be confused with fashion and promoting nudity, what’s your take on this?
I always say that I’m in fashion to clothe women and not to unclothe them! I try as much as possible to stay true to what I believe in. Even during my photo shoots, I insist on not posing in such a way that some body parts are exposed. I always want my designs to stay classy.
In the article you published in June, titled “Being a feminist…and owning it!”, you said, “feminism isn’t anti-men, what is it? Could you further explain your stance to educate those who perceive feminists as anti-men?
These days a lot of people associate feminism with bad behavior and some try to project it as something negative. Feminists demand equality of the sexes. Men and women are made in different ways, we can never be the same, but we are equal.
A lot of us women are voting, driving cars, studying etc. because of the commitment and protests of feminists of the past.Even as a Christian who wants to submit to her husband, that doesn’t mean he is superior.
There are things he does better than me and there are things I do better than him! It’s like appointing someone a class prefect. Are they in the same class with the rest? Yes! Are they superior to the rest of the class? No! It’s just for organisational purposes.
Even talking of submission, I will submit to my own husband and not all men! Outside my home, at the work place and in everything, no man should see the need earn more than me on the same job just ‘because he’s a man. We are all individuals and should respect each other reciprocatively.
I also want to add that feminism is not an excuse for bad behavior. A bad attitude is what it is and not feminism. I love the men in my life and I wouldn’t want anyone to belittle them or antagonize them for being men.
In the same article you spoke emotionally about your dad. How he said he wouldn’t mind selling his clothes to help you realize your dream, were you indulged?
Yes, I was! Not just me but my siblings. When other parents who were apparently more financially buoyant than them were paying a certain amount in states schools for their children, my parents paid about five to six times more to send us to private secondary schools.
Our education morally and formally was paramount to them and we saw our parents bend themselves backwards to give us qualitative education.
Are there things in your background that influence your designs?
My African background. It’s hard for me to complete a collection without the wax print fabric. I always find a way to include it in my designs.
"I try as much as possible to stay true to what I believe in. Even during my photo shoots, I insist on not posing in such a way that some body parts are exposed. I always want my designs to stay classy."
The craze for Italian fashion and style brands is still high in our Nigeria, what are those things that makes their brand highly reputed?
‘Made in Italy’ is synonymous with high quality. It’s not just a hype, it’s the truth but at what price? A lot of people, not just Nigerians like the validity that comes with wearing big labels. That’s why a lot of these labels spend millions of dollars on outrageous marketing campaigns to create brand awareness.
Who pays for all those costs? The consumers. There are so many indie designers who provide the same high-quality designs at cheaper prices. The only difference is that they cut some costs that don’t affect the quality of their products.
What keeps you awake as an entrepreneur?
The passion I have for doing what I love and the desire for continuous improvement.
What the three biggest challenges you have encountered in the Fashion industry?
There are so many challenges in the fashion industry, but I will speak only of my own challenges and they are: funds; high cost of production in Italy which makes the competition very fierce with Chinese manufacturers and brand recognition as an upcoming independent designer
What was the biggest mistake you made when just starting out as a rookie fashion and style entrepreneur?
Spending so much on production without setting apart an adequate budget for marketing. No matter how good the product is, you must put in place an adequate communication and advertising strategy.
"I will submit to my own husband and not all men! Outside my home, at the work place and in everything, no man should see the need earn more than me on the same job just ‘because he’s a man."
For the benefit of readers in your industry who look up to you for tutelage, if you could go back and tell yourself one thing before beginning your career what would it be?
Study for a career you love early on in life instead of what you think other people expect from you. Working on something you are passionate about makes your job seem effortless and brings out the best in you.
The Nigeria fashion and style industry is growing faster; do you have plans to return home someday to establish Modaf Designs, Nigeria?
Truth is that for now I don’t know but I have the desire to collaborate someday with other Nigerian designers.
Do you think you would have made this much progress if you were still residing in Nigeria?
I don’t know but I see a lot of other Nigerian designers doing great things in Nigeria, so I would like to believe that it’s possible to make progress in Nigeria.
Who are your role models in the fashion industry?
There are so many of them but especially all the Nigerian fashion designers who trudged on long when a career in fashion wasn’t so glamorous and they ended up making names for themselves internationally.