By Jemi EKUNKUNBOR
When Data Okorodudu made an entrance into the fashion scene five years ago, it was like a storm. When it cleared, theÂ revelation was JD7 Couture, a label bent on transforming the in-expensive ankara and other local fabrics into highÂ fashion couture.Â Extremely creative, her designs can be described as delightful glamorous works of art. TheseÂ designs have drawn international attention, taking her to several countries in Africa, Europe and the USA. HerÂ evening dresses are a hot number for beauty queens and movie celebrities.
As she marks five years next Sunday, the mother of three and graduate of mass communication from the university ofÂ Lagos, rolls out the drum to celebrate a milestone in an event tagged â€œSpectrum Extremeâ€. Next sundayâ€™s event billedÂ for the ball room of the Crown plaza and sponsored by Da Viva and ABC Wax, will unveil the first set of her ready toÂ wear collection.
In this encounter at her Ikoyi home, she talks passionately about fashion designing, a profession that has broughtÂ her fame and fortune. We began from how it all started.
You went from monogramming to designing. What made you make that change?
Well, it was the circumstancesÂ I found myself in that madeÂ me make that change. I was into corporate gifts and promotional gift items. After we acquired monogramming machines,Â the Federal Government banned theÂ importation of leather goods and corporate gift items. So most of my clients thenÂ started to look inwards because the expatriate community that they were giving a lot of the gifts to preferred thingsÂ that are typically African or Nigerian. And we could only find them in fabrics. We found ourselves looking at akwete,Â aso-oke, tie and die. So we asked ourselves, what can we do with fabrics even at this time? I had not thought ofÂ making clothes yet. What came to mind was a set of table linen, bed linen, jute bags, things that were African butÂ which you could use as corporate gifts. So I found out that I need tailors so apart from the monogramers, I had toÂ employ tailors and naturally, Iâ€™ve always designed my clothes so when I got my tailors I just felt, what is the pointÂ going to designers to sew for me when I have tailors. I made a few things for myself and friends liked it. And fromÂ there, women would see me in the super market and stop me and ask me to make things for them. So I said, let me do aÂ bit of marketing. I did some fliers and within a space of a few weeks, I couldnâ€™t cope with the clientele.
So I tookÂ all the fliers and hid them andÂ ran into Hong Kong and ordered different kinds of machines. I spent about two weeksÂ studying machines. That was when I realised that you cannot take one machine and use it to finish everything. It wasÂ an enlightening period for me and I took my time and got industrial machine for straight sew, for fabric that stretchÂ east and west and the one that can do with wiring and without wiring. The first public appearance I made with myÂ designs were for Genevieve Magazine. I was given very short notice to do it. So here was I, what could I use that wasÂ not so expensive that I could get passed and do what I had to do? Only the African print-Ankara. So I questionedÂ myself that why is it that because ankara is inexpensive and African, it is regarded as something that only the poorÂ should use? So, I decided that I was going to take it as inexpensive as it is and make something high fashion out ofÂ it. When I told the publisher that I was going to use ankara, she didnâ€™t feel too good about it but I said watch me.Â I did very high fashion with it and that was where it started. They were very happy and I got a lot of applauds fromÂ it and I got a lot of client from that as well.
What were the initial challenges?
Just the typical environmental factors; power cut, transportation, personnel. The tailors are a special breed. YouÂ really have to learn to manage them and they donâ€™t teach you that in any management school. Its something you reallyÂ have to learn on the job. There is also the challenge of getting raw materials. We have very limited varieties of rawÂ materials in terms of accessory, in terms of fabric types. The ankara fabric I love very much-itâ€™s good for theÂ weather but lets face it, you really have to sit down and select painfully because some of them come in colours thatÂ are annoyingly too brash. Yes we are Africans, but are we really that brash? Again, the texture is just one type.Â Sometimes, a designer wants something that flows like silk, stiff like organza or one that stretches that you can useÂ to do different things. But ankara is cotton and itâ€™s colourful. So sometimes, for you to get what you really want,Â you find yourself cutting and throwing away a large portion. Itâ€™s so annoying. I thank God that it is not tooÂ expensive. Then for tie and dye, itâ€™s difficult to get one that does not fade. For aso oke, by the time you get aÂ beautifully coloured one it takes months to order.
Did you have fears getting into the fashion industry?
For me it wasnâ€™t fears because that was not the only thing I was doing. I had other jobs I was doing. As a businessÂ person, I was into promotional gift items. So if fashion does not work well,Â the other businesses can take meÂ through.
But you wanted to do this?
Yes. For me, Iâ€™ve always known that I was a very creative person but I never thought that Iâ€™d be able to make aÂ living out of it or make a business out of it. I think it came at a time when the fashion just boomed in Lagos. IÂ think it was the right time and a lot of women started just not being satisfied with the typical way of using ourÂ traditional fabrics for iro and buba or tying too wrapper. They started becoming very stylish and that alsoÂ encouraged me to just go and take things up from there.
So how did you go to prove we could do high end with ankara?
Well, Iâ€™ve always been a very proudÂ Nigerian, a very proud African especially when I travel abroad. It pains me the kinds of images that people have ofÂ Africans and Nigerians. There is a lot of ignorant things being perpetuated by the international media. And a lot ofÂ them are beginning to affect even the Nigerian high fashion woman. They always think that if itâ€™s not made byÂ Christian Dior or Valentino or any international high brand, they donâ€™t feel very classy about it. That mentality hasÂ to stop and that is what I came to change. We should be proud of what we have. The truth is, when we wear certainÂ things abroad, people really laud it. The funny thing is thatÂ if somebody like Valentino comes to buy our ankara andÂ puts it up in the shop, theyâ€™ll go â€œwowâ€. So why do we have this low mentality about what we have? Itâ€™s anÂ inferiority complex but all that is being wiped away now because even the rich now use ankara for marriages andÂ burial ceremonies.
From the shows abroad, what is the response of international community to your ankara high end?
My last show in Paris, one of the super stars insisted that she must wear my outfit for the cover of one of theÂ international magazine in Paris. For me, that is more than enough endorsement. And when Iâ€™m, talking designers, Iâ€™mÂ talking about internationally acclaimed designers. So for her to choose my outfit, it shows that yes, this isÂ creativity. So, Iâ€™m very happy. Iâ€™ve been invited to fashion shows in countries I havenâ€™t been to before even inÂ Africa especially the French speaking countries. I think they tend to appreciate fashion really more than the EnglishÂ speaking. There are people who just go on the internet and ask and they would send me a mail and ask me to come. AndÂ they pay your flight and pay your accommodation and take good care of you. So the response has been good.
Itâ€™s been five years, how has it been like?
Just like anything, you have good times, sometimes bad times, but the good times have been much more. But what makesÂ me fulfilled is the fact that Iâ€™m doing something I love and Iâ€™m making a lot of people happy in the process and Iâ€™mÂ also earning an income. For me that is fulfilling. Doors have opened to me because of the kinds of designs I put onÂ the catwalk.
On reflection now, would you have done something else?
I think I really got into what I love to do. But is it something Iâ€™m going to do until the day I die? Absolutely not!Â Iâ€™d love to establish a business that would eventually run itself so that at the end of the day, I can now sit backÂ and watch the empire grow. Iâ€™m not going to work from morning till 10pm every day for the rest of my life. Iâ€™d breakÂ down some day. But there is a way youâ€™d gradually establish the kind of system that would work itself.
So for this anniversary, you are having a show today. What exactly do you want to celebrate?
Iâ€™m going to celebrate the milestones of JD7 since 2005.
Iâ€™m now going to start rethinking the way we do fashion shows here. Fashion show is strictly business notÂ entertainment. Itâ€™s not where you call people to come and give jokes, or musicians to play. Itâ€™s about getting buyersÂ who are interested in stocking your collections for sale. Itâ€™s about getting your prospective and your existingÂ clientele to come in and see what you have to offer and for them to buy. Itâ€™s an avenue for prospective sponsors,Â people who are major players in the fashion and lifestyle industry to see how they can partner with you for strategicÂ purposes. Itâ€™s business and that is the way I want my show to be. When I started, the Nigerian environment had notÂ really taken that in. Everything you wanted to do, you needed to entertain people. It was a typical Nigerian thing.Â Yes, but they say when you go to Rome, behave like the Romans. You did that for a while but people are beginning toÂ grow away from that as well. You know itâ€™s a gradual thing. I think the time is right now for us to do it the way itÂ ought to be done.
Would you say that is the lesson you got in the last five years?
Well, Iâ€™m sure Iâ€™m going to learn much more in the years ahead. If tomorrow changes, you change with the environment.Â So we would look at what is suitable at a given time in the environment and culture that you are and operate thatÂ way.
What is your perception of the Nigerian Fashion industry?
In terms of individual effort, I think weâ€™ve grown in leaps and bounds. There are a lot of fantastic, talentedÂ designers in Nigeria. Unfortunately, the environment hasnâ€™t really supported them. Itâ€™s like the individuals areÂ growing faster than the environment. It is a shame that for the population that we have and for the talented NigerianÂ designers in this country, we still do not have a Nigerian Fashion Week that can get the government involved that isÂ serious and of international standard and repute that will bring in the international fashion council to participate.Â I donâ€™t even think we have a Nigerian Fashion Council yet. We have lots of individual efforts so why is it that theÂ individual efforts surpasses that which should be the collective effort. There is also the fact that we still do notÂ have a wide variety of fashion fabrics and accessories here and thirdly, we do not have boutique chains that canÂ market the products. Most of the designers get their own house, own boutique and all that costs a lot of money andÂ all these are set backs. But I believe that if we are patient, with time, these things will improve. But weâ€™ve doneÂ well individually.
At five, what do you look forward to?
This 5th year, I am establishing my ready to wear collection. I amÂ ready to take them to Paris. In fact, I have orders right now. I am establishing a chain, where I can produce someÂ from outside the country in other to be able to meet up in terms of quality, standard as well as quantity. I amÂ establishing a lounge which I call, the first African 7 seasons lounge. This lounge will take care of a lot of eventsÂ and lifestyle issues not just fashion-well being, health, sports etc. Like FIFA is coming soon that lounge will doÂ something for football fans. When there is a new premier for movies, Iâ€™m going to just capitalise on that and doÂ something for the movie lovers. When there is a break through in any womenâ€™s product, the lounge will promote it. IÂ already have some that Iâ€™m going to introduce to women. So Iâ€™m going to be really active and because fashion is aÂ lifestyle thing, itâ€™s not just about what you put on, Iâ€™m going to use the lounge to really express lifestyle issuesÂ as well as fashion issues.
Does that mean we would have people come in from time to time to give a talks?
Yes. I have a lot lined up for fashion reporters because the truth is, these are people who have contributed to theÂ growth of my own career. They have done me a lot of good. Some of them have done very well, some are strugglingÂ because they didnâ€™t really start out as fashion reporters. So once in a while, we bring in people to come give a talkÂ all to improve them and learn how their jobs as fashion reporters can interplay with other aspects and other playersÂ in the fashion industry.
What is the best thing that fashion has done for you?
It has done a lot for me. Apart from tapping into me, a level of creativity I never thought existed, it has opened myÂ eyes to a lot of other things and a lot of other places in the world. Iâ€™ve met a lot of wonderful people that IÂ wouldnâ€™t have ever met.
What inspires you?
My inspiration comes from God, the environment, fabrics. Sometimes, event the peacock. When I get the inspiration, IÂ quickly sketch it so that I donâ€™t forget and it makes me happy when I see those inspirations transform into designs.