Jewel By Lisa | Issue One
Paper Trail is a new monthly feature, profiling a story originally published in Issue One of MAGNIFY. You can order the print issue in our online shop.
Lisa Folawiyo grew up dreaming of law courts and barristers’ silk gowns. Yet a career change and a love of traditional West African fabrics have pushed her to the forefront of fashion. She shares her journey from lawyer to internationally renowned designer.
‘I never thought I’d be a designer. In fact I grew up believing I’d be a barrister. But when I began practising law something just didn’t click.’
In 2005, Lisa Folawiyo gave birth to her daughter and Jewel by Lisa , her now internationally renowned fashion label – now known as Lisa Folawiyo Studio. Fusing Dutch wax print, known in West Africa as Ankara, with European couture and ornate embellishments, Lisa’s designs have caught the eyes of major fashion houses, been worn by the likes of Thandie Newton and Solange Knowles, and featured in The New York Times and the Financial Times. Adorning the catwalks of Paris, London and Johannesburg, as well as New York Fashion Week (SS10 and SS12). In September 2014, Lisa presented her Spring/Summer 2015 collection in New York City with an intimate show at Ladurée in Soho.
‘If you’re going to do anything, it either has to be brand new, or you have to refashion something that’s old,’ Lisa says.
Based in Lagos, Nigeria, the financial and cultural heart of West Africa, Lisa creates designs with a cosmopolitan air grounded in a rich West African fashion heritage. ‘[When I began designing] I wanted to work with print, therefore Ankara was an obvious choice. It’s our traditional cloth, it’s something I grew up with, knew and loved; but I wanted to make it fresh and relevant for the younger generations.’ Retexturing the material by embellishing the designs with jewels and beads was the catalyst for Folawiyo’s label name – Lisa Folawiyo Studio. Yet while Ankara provided the ‘perfect canvas’ for her creations, the act of refashioning wasn’t limited to the studio, but stretched further, re-shaping the relationship between fashion and society.
‘In Nigeria, Ankara, especially the local prints, are seen as cheap, something that your house-help would wear. I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to take it and change the face of it? To change people’s mindsets, to make us see the fabric differently. This is our cloth,’ Folawiyo continues, with a fervency that matches her artistic passion, ‘our mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers have worn this cloth for too many years for it not to be ours.’
Defining fashion as perpetually experimental, Folawiyo’s entire journey into the industry is described by the designer as ‘organic’. Charged with a witty sense of humour, a sharp vision and a grounded perspective, Lisa comes across as the type of formidable woman you want to be friends with, not least because she’ll tell you the truth about your wardrobe before effortlessly transforming it. In less than a decade her label has grown from a passing thought into a brand at the vanguard of globalised and hybrid-centred fashion. Yet with so much under her belt, made more impressive by the fact that the Lagosian designer has never been formally trained, Lisa is under no illusion about where the praise really lies.
‘I firmly believe that without God none of this would have been possible. At Lisa Folawiyo Studio, we’re a praying label because we know who has brought us here!’
Presenting her faith as more than just a personal belief, Folawiyo says that God is the very reason her label exists. In the interim between giving birth and deciding whether or not to return to work, Folawiyo discovered a prayer list that she made years earlier demonstrating that God really does answer prayers.
‘At the start of my marriage and my career as a lawyer, I made a list of prayer points: things I was hoping for and things I needed God’s help with. I also listed 20 things I hoped to achieve within a certain time frame.’ Four or five years down the line, as Lisa and her husband were preparing to move homes, the list (which she had completely forgotten about) was rediscovered by her husband.‘The first prayer point was to be a good wife, the second was to be the best mother I could be (I hadn’t had my kids yet) and then the third was to make a mark in the Nigerian fashion industry, and the fashion industry at large. Isn’t that the strangest thing? Although I think a lot of people (especially women) do move from more conservative jobs such as law or banking into fashion, I never thought I’d be a designer, because if I did I would’ve gone to fashion school. But I guess the desire to create was always there.’ Laughing at the incongruity of the situation, Lisa is adamant that God isn’t only involved in the big things of life, such as an abrupt change in career, but believes He dabbles in the small things too.
During the showcase of her Spring/Summer collection in 2013, Folawiyo recounts she had asked her seamstresses to make her a pair of trousers for her entrance. ‘I was so concerned about the show I hadn’t had time to create an outfit!’ Half way through the preparations, as Lisa was praying, she felt as though she should change the design into a skirt. ‘I didn’t know why, but I just felt we should change the design.’ The reason was soon to be revealed. As she waited backstage for the finale, Folawiyo noted that the collection had a similar skirt to the one she was wearing, yet the skirt designed for the model didn’t fit. ‘I tell you, when that happened, something said, “This is why you made the skirt.” I took my skirt, exchanged it for the model’s and it was a perfect fit – in fact it was better than the original!’
Drawing on Proverbs 3:5-6, which talks about trusting in God and letting Him direct your paths, Lisa Folawiyo is adamant that when we tell God our desires and invite him into our lives, things begin to line up and make sense. ‘Whatever I do, I talk with God first! I believe He has led me on the right path and will continue doing so.’
From a lawyer, to a mother, to a fashion designer, Lisa Folawiyo is rebranding African fashion not just for those on the continent but for the international market too. Yet, while Ankara might be the cloth upon which her designs are created, her faith in God is the cornerstone upon which her work is founded.
WORDS BY Justina Kehinde Ogunseitan