House of Borah CEO, Mrs. Ifiokobong Akan
This week on our Spotlight series, we took a dive into the vastly expanding ocean of the fashion industry in Akwa Ibom State and we connected with a quintessential fashion designing icon within the state who has become a veteran in the industry – Mrs. Ifiokobong Anthony Akan. She is a multi-award-winning fashion entrepreneur, writer, humanitarian, mentor and the founder of renowned fashion brand, HOUSE OF BORAH Fashion label.
In this interview with Emmanuel Harrison, she spoke to us about her childhood fashion memories, growth in the industry, her label, failures and successes. She also shared insights into the newly formed Fashion 87th brand and its plans for the future.
Tell us, what is fashion for you?
Fashion for me is an expression, though a lot of people like to say that fashion is the accepted day to day way of dressing at a given point in time, right? So, fashion is behavior, how you see yourself, what you want to put out. Basically fashion for me is an expression of who you are and how you want to be perceived and seen.
What made you take fashion more seriously and make a career out of it?
Well, fashion has always been a part of me from cradle. I remember when I was 19, I started loving fashion so much, I would stitch my own clothes, then I went to train with one of my uncles who was a tailor then, he used to sew school uniforms. After my JAMB lessons I would go to his shop to help him cut materials and put together the buttons and all that. So, it has always been in me. What made me take it more seriously was because I think to a certain level, I actually saw more in fashion when everyone else thought of fashion as just tailoring. When House of Borah was birthed 8 years ago, I remember in this city people did not take fashion as serious as they do today.
I saw the future of fashion so I wasn’t operating based on that time-frame, I was operating based on the future I foresaw. I knew that fashion was going to be the next oil and gas, it is the next oil and gas now. I saw what a lot of people didn’t see, I saw the creativity, and also it is one of the basic necessities of life (which is clothing, shelter and food). I knew that there’s no way people won’t take fashion seriously because we all wear clothes on a day-to-day basis and even when we don’t have money, we still want to dress nicely.
Creative expression can take many forms, what prompted you into starting HOUSE OF BORAH label and what were you doing before then?
Before starting HOUSE OF BORAH, I was just a house-wife, I won’t say that basically but I wasn’t really doing anything. I used to help people to write, create business, personal and brand content. I did that for fun and I still do it till today. I stayed at home more so I loved to read, sketch designs, and listen to jazz music often. I just did that to while-away time until I could start up a business. My husband was also a big source of encouragement to me then. He suggested I put my sketches into actual work believing that I could earn a living out of it. I saw the potentials in my work and also made the decision to follow it through and it has actually lived up to its expectations.
We love the stunning photographic prints in your collections; tell us about the inspiration behind them and your design process for HOUSE OF BORAH clothing? Also, how do you stay updated with the trends in the fashion industry?
Well, I’m an amazing student. You know the popular saying that when the student is ready, the teacher will always appear, so I’m always open to learning. That’s how I stay updated with trends, because for you to be a voice in the fashion industry you need to be open to learning. Fashion evolves every day and if you don’t evolve with it, you’re going to be obsolete and keep creating old designs. I see what the newbies, new fashion designers are doing and I try to understand the pattern then I try to create them myself and merge my uniqueness into it to birth my own desires. For the photographic prints on my page, funny enough someone asked me about them few days ago, I do them myself. I’m very particular about branding, it is everything to me. For HOUSE OF BORAH brand, everything we put out there is a perception. So how do you want your brand to be seen? How do you want to be perceived? I have always been intentional about building a brand that can stand side by side with global brands. My photographic prints are my special secret, so anyone who wants to learn more can reach out to me for a masterclass (laughs).
According to you, what do you believe are the essential elements and skills needed to be successful as a fashion designer?
First, you must be willing! You must be willing! Secondly, have to be passionate about what you’re coming into. Thirdly, you need to understand that you must have the required skill-set, I’m not saying you should be the tailor, the fashion designer, stylist, illustrator and everything all at once, you’re going to burn-out. Try to understand what you want; do you want to be the tailor who works in the backend to sew for the designer? Or you want to be the one who designs more or less can own a fashion house like I am the creative director, designer and sometimes illustrator for HOUSE OF BORAH. So, you need to understand that learning the skill-set is imperative because that’s the only way you can run the brand. You don’t want to get tailors that see you as someone who knows nothing about what you’re bringing them to help you build, so you need to first gather the knowledge. For you to be successful in the fashion business, you need to know how the system works, the hierarchy from the tailor at the back-end to the designer at the front-end, and the stylist. As a stylist, you should understand how to do finishing and make proper styling decisions based on what you envision.
Beyond the fabulous and amazing outfits, how challenging is it to run a fashion business, especially one that has roots in Akwa Ibom?
It is not easy! It’s been crazy for 8 years, but the truth is when you believe in yourself there is nothing you cannot become. So, I don’t look at all the negativity around, all I see are the positive energies. People who love and support the brand, those who see the passion, zeal and value that I bring to the table. I don’t put emotions in business, I am someone that is very serious with my craft. The truth is, when people see that you can bring value, they will naturally align with you. So, beyond all the glamour and amazing outfits there is a woman who has a burning desire to always become and be more. Like I always tell people, I’ve grown myself mentally to a point where I feel I cannot be ignored. I put in the work every day, to go for training, see what is new and try to bring them to birth and try to bring excellence to the table. So it’s difficult for a person like me to be ignored. In the city of Akwa Ibom, you need to put in more work, more than what a lot of people do in other cities because it’s very hard for people to really embrace fashion here, but I’m happy there’s a gradual mind-shift. People are getting to understand fashion and embrace it day to day, so I believe that as we’re moving forward it’s going to be better.
What can you say was the biggest rookie mistake you made when just starting out?
Well, trying to always impose designs on my customers and they get upset and rebel. Then once, I entrusted my supplier to send me fabrics for a bride who was a very paramount client, and I ended up getting fabrics that wasn’t worth the huge amount of money I had paid, so I just went ahead with the production because we were behind schedule and at the end the bride didn’t like the outfit. I think that has to be my biggest mistake ever and it was really hurtful.
What has been your greatest career achievement? Also, what are some of your biggest dreams that you are yet to fulfill?
I think my greatest career achievement has been staying consistent. The fact that HOUSE OF BORAH brand is still in the hearts and minds of people after 8 years. We are still delivering value to as many customers and more since inception, and that they are still believing in us, it means that the future is looking bright. Definitely, that is my greatest achievement. My dreams are actually really big, for me I might picture 5 years as a year and 10 years as 2 years. I’m looking at owning one of the biggest fashion hubs in Africa, where a lot of things will be segmented and we’ll have different people performing different tasks. This is on my vision board and I know that dream will come true.
What can you say are some of the issues limiting fashion and beauty creatives in Akwa Ibom State, and how do you believe we can solve or overcome them?
I think the problem is lack of collaborations, that’s why the fashion the Fashion 87th brand was birthed. When people don’t collaborate, they compete, and when you compete you end up limiting yourself and your potentials.
Who are your style icons and why? Can you list some of your design influences, both past and present?
I love-love-love Lanre Dasilva, I love JB Living – he’s my mentor and my coach. Then for the 21st century designers, I also love Style Temple – I love her brand contemporariness and how it depicts luxury, I love luxury a lot. I also love Ejiro Amos. Then for the foreign brands I love me some Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Prada. Those are brands I use frequently because I love their style preference.
Now talking about Fashion 87th, how did this collaboration of fashion, lifestyle and beauty creatives come about?
Fashion 87th was a dream that was given to me 2 years ago. I discussed it with my best friend Aniferaz and he aligned with me because he saw the vision. The we decided to come together to run the vision. The fashion 87th vision is a collaboration of people coming together to network, partner and collaborate to become their best version of themselves and give their best to the society. The whole was to bring creatives together and share value because we all have different potentials. You know how they say that 2 heads are better than one; one person can kill 1,000 but when two come together they can kill 10,000. The FASHION 87TH brand is co-owned by both HOUSE OF BORAH and ANIFERAZ brands. We’re looking at a collaborative brand that we can use to launch one of the biggest fashion events that will happen in South-South Nigeria. I’m happy we already recorded FASHION 87TH High Fashion Party as the biggest Fashion event in the South; Uti said it, Ini Edo said, Vanguard said it and a lot of people are also talking about it. So, the goal is, bring what you have to the table, I’ll bring what I have to the table and let’s see how we can help ourselves. Sometimes a lot of people go through multiple struggles in their businesses and they don’t know who to share their experiences with, but when you have a community of like-minded people who are with you, you can always share your issues and receive support. Another thing is, you cannot say you’re impacting a sector without knowing the people who are also within that sector. So, in the creative industry, a lot of people come and handle events without knowing the key people within the industry.
What does Fashion 87th hope to achieve in the Fashion and Creative Industry across the South-South? And how does Fashion 87th plan to achieve showcasing Akwa Ibom’s and South South’s amazing fashion, lifestyle and beauty industries to the other parts of the country and the world at large?
The idea of the High Fashion Party was to get to know and network with the key players in these industries so that when the time comes to launch an actual Fashion Show, it will be easy for everyone to come together and align with the vision. For the Fashion 87th brand, next year we’re looking at launching a Fashion 87th weekend. The Fashion 87th weekend will embody a fashion show, high fashion party to network, a masterclass and so much more. This is why we had the High Fashion Party to connect us all together, we will be having it every year under the Fashion 87th weekend. We’re also planning to have an industry round-table where we’ll have the industry’s best to come lecture the younger and upcoming fashion entrepreneurs/enthusiasts, to teach them what they know and what they’ve learnt over the years. So, our plans are very big and we will actualize them.
On a final note, what advice would you give to young designers in Akwa Ibom and across the South just starting out and hoping to make it in the industry?
Please, please, please, believe in yourself. Also, I love to say that there is always a design and a style for everyone. It’s okay for you to copy sometimes, modify and paste, but don’t make it look like that particular design is what you should do for every body type. There is a design for every body and like I’d always say, people love what they love. So, a design a customer gives that doesn’t look fine or flashy to you shouldn’t entirely be a problem to you because the person who owns that design might be the person paying you a large percentage of the money you make from your customers. Believe in your craft, believe in your creativity and give what you have out there, there is always someone somewhere watching and ready to take you to the next level if they see that you’re passionate about what you’re doing.