By Agatha Emeadi
Folake Magin is the creative Director of Shon Afrique, ae fashion brand that has A-List celebrities and top class personalities, which include current and former first ladies among its select clientele. Magin pays close attention to details while creating designs that appeal to its clientele and often surpasses their expectation. In this interview, she gives a snapshot of her 30-year creative journey of helping women enhance their beauty with elegant and iconic fashion items. She also talks about the industry and her personal relationship with Mrs. Maryam Babangida, who brought a touch of class to the position of First Lady in Nigeria.
How did you sustain your fashion business during last year when parties, celebrations and other events were suspended because of COVID-19 and the lockdown that followed?
The COVID-19 pandemic created seasonal opportunities. Some businesses were affected negatively while some even thrived. The health and food industries as well as other industries, such as logistics services which are associated with these two witnessed a boom. As an old couture designer, it would have made had major effect on my business, but God is a great provider. During that time, I was able to focus on doing all it took to pull through my veil collections which I call all-occasions veils. They are for everyday use, weddings, parties and all occasional wears. Then again, the Lord allowed me to focus on my church activities at Ikoyi Baptist Church. Even with the risk involved, we all worked together to ensure that every distribution was done correctly.
Again, I closed my shop entirely because it was a bit risky. Some of my workers come from a distance by public bus. But surprisingly, even in that COVID era, I did a couple of wedding dresses for couples that had virtual wedding and those that had their weddings already pre-planned went ahead with their nuptial plans.
You are not just a designer. What stands your brand out?
I pay comprehensive attention to details because I do not want my clothes to wear me or the wearer. When a client comes to me, I envisage her total beauty and package as a woman and give her what suits her body type. It has been my passion to make things differently. The main reason my clients still stick to me is that one hardly finds two of my clients wearing the same outfit. Again, I do not make ready-to-wear outfits. I do different things for different people. Even if 20 women attend the same occasion, dressed by Shon Afrique they will all appear in different apparels from the same designer. I have a friend that I have clothed over the years, but somehow, her businesses nosedived and I saw her one of the days wearing what I made for her. I screamed out wow! She said: “Thank God, the things you made for me then have been covering me up.” That was quite satisfying.
How did the fashion journey start?
It was God and still God because I did not plan it. I have six children and started out as a full-time housewife after completing the NYSC national youths service. I studied Languages at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria; though I worked for just a year before I got married and became a housewife, which I enjoyed doing. My duty then was to cook, sweep, clean, wash and run around with my children. After sometime, my husband and I relocated to Lagos from the North and I felt the need to do something more because I have always liked to do my things. When I go to tailors for my clothes, I go with my styles already in my hand with a ‘caveat emptor’ to the tailor not repeat the style for another person.
Then, we had to attend a naming ceremony at Ikoyi; I took my time to make what I wore to the party and a lot of people greatly admired what I wore. A particular friend troubled me so much for the same design. We agreed and I took her to my tailor and sketched out another design for her. On our way home, she said, ‘Folake, don’t you want to give designing a chance, I think you should because you have the talent.’ I said, ‘No, I can’t do it and asked, have you seen where people abused tailors?’ On another day while we were having lunch, my sister-in-law raised it again and advised that I should give it trial. With the same coming more and more, I went out and bought 10 different fabrics and made them in different styles with various measurements. Between my friends and wives of my late husband’s friends, everything sold out. Note that at this point, I had no sewing machine or any tailoring equipment or even a tailor. I tried with another 20 and they all sold out. That was how I started and after a while, my husband agreed that I already had the business in my blood. For almost 30 years, we have been around. With the development,I went to a fashion school later to position myself and the business well.
Was there a role model in the family with the same bug?
My mother went to a missionary school which was more of a finishing school. They were taught how to do things, how to sew with patterns, not hand cut, so my mum made almost all my dresses. Once in a while when she was very busy, she would take me to a seamstress to make my dress. But along the line, something happened sometime with that arrangement.
When I was between seven and eight years, there was this annual thanksgiving in church where all of us needed to dress up so well. I had looked forward to my usual Victoria dress that my mum would make for me; so, between my mum and the seamstress, I had no dress for the occasion. Guess what? My mum ended up making ‘Iro and Buba’ for me for the big occasion. I wore the cloth but refused to go church because I was not going to be found in Iro and Buba. I had dreamt of a beautiful Victorian dress for the function, only to end up with Iro and Buba.
Did this attract some flogging for not attending church service?
No, she did not notice. Then again, I got into secondary school at Queen Amina Girl’s College in Kaduna, now Queen of Apostles Girl’s School. In the first year, we had a choice between cloth making and cookery. I opted for cloth making. In our school then, we were trained not to touch the wall, do not cross the lawns, sit and walk like a lady and the greatest was that we had time for everything. As a needle work student, I was attracted to cookery as well based on the quality of cakes and desserts that were churned out from the kitchen. Secondary school was one of the memorable times of my life. We would wake up with prayers; we had our food times, midday prayers and night prayers. We had a teacher that was fantastic, she was just everything. All of us that attended Queen Amina can never forget that Irish lady, who was the music, singing, cookery and drama teacher, all rolled into one lady.
I heard about your relationship with the late former First Lady, Mrs. Maryam Babangida. Please tell me a bit about it.
Apart from the fact that she was personally interested in my creative craft, she was a woman larger than life. She was an ebony black stylish fashion enthusiast. She was one of those rare women Nigeria had because of what she believed in. Do you remember her programme – Better Life for Rural Women? That was who she was. Don’t forget that she was a very elegant woman; anything she wore stood out and fitted her gracefully. She was also a designer of a sort, and we got on so well. Mrs. Maryam Babangida was one of those that patronized and supported me heavily. She encouraged me. I had a couple of my friends, so many of them walk into my shop to see things for themselves; and to see the ones I wore because we used to have a lot of state functions then. Each person would be very happy that we attended the same function in different outfits from the same designer.
You just said that Mrs Babangida patronized, supported and encouraged you. Talk about the relationship.
When my late husband and I came to Lagos to work, my friend took me to Mrs. Maryam Babangida of blessed memory. She took me around to interesting places for my day to day running around like the family doctor, who became the paediatrician for my children, Dr. Bolaji Ajenifuja, whose clinic was a walking distance to my house in Victoria Island then. She also introduced me to Sandgross and Balogun markets because there were no big shops like the Shoprite of today, though there were other shops. Although, I was in the same secondary school with her sisters, her elder sister was my teacher while her younger sister was one year my senior; but we had our relationship.
Have you had situations with unprofessional designers in the Industry?
For me, I have had two occasions where I was a bit embarrassed by some unprofessional designers that plagiarized my work. They gave the erroneous impression that they were the owners of the design. In Abuja, I had an occasion where somebody scanned a cover picture of me, wearing my design in a leading magazine and printed it as a huge signboard in her boutique. Everything was what I wore in the photo, my wrist watch, my necklace, the dress except the head which was replaced by another younger head. My attention was drawn to it by my friend who said to me, you need to come and look at this and do something about it. I flew into Abuja and saw it and decided to let go. I knew also that they did the same thing with the fliers which they distributed all over Abuja with a lot of my designs. I couldn’t waste my energy to fight over such. Even more recently, there was something I made for the current First Lady for an empowerment programme where Michelle Obama invited African First Ladies. This llady put the same picture of that outfit on her Instagram and soaked in all the compliments even though she did not claim she made it. These are some of the things that unprofessionalism could bring, but I chose to let it go. Such does not disturb me because my designs come from my brain through the mercy of God.