Her utmost passion, through her foundation, is to empower commercial sex workers and other underprivileged women to thrive in fashion designing and be independent. Oreva Okowa, Creative Director, Signature Secrets Africa, at a first glance looks very much like an entertainer, but her creativity and dexterity have paid off for her. Based in Asaba, Delta State, the fair complexioned designer is the Founder and National President of Fashion Designers and Exhibitors Association International, a platform that brings together fashion designers and exhibitors under one umbrella. At present, they have branches in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, USA, UK and Kenya. She spoke with Sunday Sun about her life as a designer and other issues she’s passionate about.
By Christy Anyanwu
With what you do, how come you stay in Delta State and not in Lagos and Abuja?
I was born and brought up in Delta State. I don’t want to leave Delta State to reside anywhere else. I’m representing Delta State; I’m representing Nigeria as a fashion designer anywhere I go. I want to be here (Asaba) so that I can inspire those who are coming up because everybody cannot be in Lagos. Lagos is already congested for me. People have this mindset that you can only succeed when your business is in Lagos. That’s why I insisted on staying in Delta State. In 2006,I started with cutting and in 2007, I got a machine and today, I can boast of almost 60 machines in my factory with staff and students. I’m the Founder and National President of Fashion Designers and Exhibitors Association International. It’s an association that brings together fashion designers and exhibitors under one umbrella and we are located in different countries including Ghana, South Africa, USA, UK and Kenya. All we need is to look for markets where we can sell our stuffs. I’m very sure production is not a problem anymore. We know how to sew, we know how to make creations, produce them into garments and stuffs like that; but the major challenge of designers is a ready market. That’s what the association is all about and it’s been working for everybody.
The name Okowa is a big name in Delta State now. Does it open doors for you?
I would say it’s a plus. But for me, I’m known for what I do and that’s Signature Secrets Africa. I’m known for what I represent in the fashion industry. The name Okowa also opens doors as well. Most people that know me don’t even know I’m Okowa.They know me with my business name.
What was your childhood like?
Growing up wasn’t very smooth. I’m from an average family. My mum was not in the house when I was age seven. I grew up with my father and you know the way it can be growing up with a single parent (my dad). He was not always there to tell me what I should do and all that. I grew up in an environment where I picked up one or two things from people. Then, my father was a Jehovah’s Witness and very disciplined and he tried to put us on the path of straightforward and principled life but it wasn’t easy growing up with a single parent.
What lessons have you learnt about life?
Whatever one is committed to, works, no matter how small it is. Commitment and consistency pays off. From experience, a lot of people give up easily on whatever they are doing, because they think the business or whatever it is, aren’t growing quickly. The thing is that one needs to be patient. It’s like a seed, it takes time to germinate, grow and produce seeds. One good lesson I have learnt in life is that when you are committed to something, it works and you need to be patient with it.
You look more like an entertainer/actress, how do people relate with you?
That’s one impression I really love. When people see me the first time, they are like who is this? What does this one have to offer? But in the long run, when they find out who I am and the impact I have made in peoples lives, especially commercial sex workers and the under privileged; through my foundation they come to appreciate me more. That is the way I like it anyway.
Can you tell us about your journey into fashion designing?
The whole journey started the day I followed someone to the market to buy fabric and I got five yards of Chiffon. I wondered what to do with the fabric but funny enough, I had not learnt tailoring nor attended any fashion school, but I picked up the scissors and started cutting a top and it came out really nice. I was able to create a blouse. I got two pieces of tops from the five yards and I took them to school. Then, I was at Delta State University, Onwa Campus. A few classmates really loved my designs and bought them. Subsequently, I went back to the market to get more fabrics and kept cutting but didn’t have the professional touch and I had to go to a tailor to sew for me. That was how it all started.
Was your mum a seamstress too?
Funny enough, she was; my grandma was and even my grand aunties were seamstresses.
What did you study in school?
Well, I obtained a diploma in Accounting at the University of Benin and later I obtained a Bsc in Business Administration at Delta State University. After my education, I didn’t bother to get job, I just tried to hone my sewing skills.
You started with one machine, how many do you have now?
It took me a year to get that one machine but today, we can boast of more than 55 machines. We also have a fashion school. Signature Secrets Africa is a wardrobe and a fashion institute and we have trained over 300 designers around the globe. The school has a foundation that mainly empowers street boys and girls to acquire skills, because we have come to see that the trend has changed from the normal white-collar jobs. These days, it’s what you can do with your hands that can fetch you good money. We have even decided to train commercial sex workers and we visit brothels, pick a few that are interested in getting more money with what they can do with their hands and not with their body. When we see those that are serious, we bring them to the school and give them scholarship for six months and internship for three months and set them up with a sewing machine and little start-up capital.
You are showcasing your designs in the forthcoming Africa Fashion Week London between August 11 and 12. What should we expect from you?
We are showcasing a very new collection; we are looking at Signature Secrets Kimono on the runway alongside every other collection. But we will have a unique and distinct version for AFWL this year. The Kimono is an Asian kind of outfit and we are trying to make it African attire. For the Kimono outfit, even if you are wearing your normal jeans and top, you wear a Kimono jacket and you look African. Even when you are wearing a dress; even when you are looking corporate, you wear the jacket to look African. Even if you are wearing a dinner dress, with the Kimono dress you look African. I’m still using African prints all through for my designs.
What’s style for you?
I like anything that’s unique and elegant. I don’t like cheap and substandard stuffs. That’s not the kind of combination I do on my designs. For instance, when 60 women come together, you can easily identify the work of my hands as Signature Secrets.
What’s your advice for young ladies out there?
There’s no excuse for failure. When we fail, let’s blame ourselves first for failing and not the situation or circumstances around us. As a matter of fact, when I think about my upbringing, I could have been pregnant out of wedlock and not even go to school but I was determined very early in life that no matter how difficult life was or challenging, I wanted to make it. I resolved that I wouldn’t disappoint myself or people looking up to me. Like you said, I look like an entertainer.
I think it started from my youth. When people looked at me, they quickly condemned me that “She won’t go too far before she’ll be impregnated and that ends her case.”
But I had lofty goals about my future. Most girls of today whose uncles and aunties condemn, what are they saying about themselves? If you have made up your mind to succeed, you will succeed. That’s what I mean about commitment. I was committed to what I told myself and I needed to make sure I got results.
Is your husband also into fashion designing? How did you meet him?
No, he is a businessman. I was at the University of Benin when I met him in 2004, but when we went to Anambra State for an event, I met him again in a taxi on my way to somewhere. Funny enough, he named the business Signature Secrets and he has been quite encouraging and supportive. If not, I don’t think I would come this far. I’m always busy and always traveling but he’s always there for me.