A Fashion Vanguard!
Decades before the Deola Sagoes and the Ituen Basi’s of the Nigerian fashion industry hit the scene, there was Shade Thomas Fahm, one of Nigeria’s first modern fashion designers. In her time, she was one of Africa’s most influential designers and a pioneering figure in the Nigerian fashion industry.
Shade’s love for fashion started when she was a child. She would pick bits and pieces from neighbours tailoring stores to make dresses. Not long after, she moved to London with the hope of starting a nursing career, but her passion thought otherwise and led her to the world of modelling and Fashion.
In 1960, Shade returned to Lagos, Nigeria, armed with a degree in Fashion from the prestigious St Martins College of Art & Design and a desire to put the Nigerian Local fabric on the global map. This desire gave birth to her first fashion shop called “Maison Shadé”, which later became “Shadé’s Boutique.”. It stocked Nigerian designs and was the first in Lagos to use mannequins just like she had seen in the UK.
In the beginning, she had a hard time convincing Nigerians to buy local fabrics and designs, but she won them over and became an influential designer and dressmaker in the Lagos fashion scene.
Shadé’s influence and contribution to the fashion industry cannot be undermined as her use of the local fabric has influenced her contemporaries and designers from younger generations to date. This same influence is behind her being celebrated by the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, as a ‘Fashion Vanguard’ years after the Shade boutique era. Konye Chelsea Nwabogor and Azuka Ogujuiba spent an afternoon with the fashion pioneer, as she gives a peek into the Nigerian fashion scene of the 60s.
You are being celebrated by The Victoria & Albert Museum, London as a ‘Fashion Vanguard’ in an exhibition titled ‘Africa Fashion’. How do you feel about this ?
I am overwhelmed with gratitude. It was unexpected that I was chosen as one designer with other designers from other countries to be recognized, I appreciate it and I thank God for it. The message was sent to the FADAN association and the secretary got in touch with me to say they have asked about me and they wanted to feature me, so I passed the whole thing to Fauzi (my son) to deal with. Honestly it came as a surprise just like most the things in my life have come.
Is this one of the greatest recognition of your work ?
I have also been recognized as the first fashion designer in Nigeria and that’s because my work was aimed at improving on what we wore in fashion at the time I started out. I wanted to put Nigerian fashion and fabric on the world map.
How did you get into the fashion world ?
Growing up, we were brought up to use our sisters’ cast downs – that’s how you got clothes. Both of my sisters went to Queens College Lagos School for Girls, but at age 12, I went to Baptists Academy Lagos. So naturally I couldn’t use the same school uniforms that my sisters had used. I remember on the way to school was “Sisi Sewing Shop” which was a local dressmaker. I started stopping at Sisi’s for my school uniform. One day I cut and sewed a baby dress out of the “teru” (the Nigerian word for calico) that they had lying around. I was about 12 years old and made it from start to finish.
Also, I remember that at Baptists Academy there was a technical class called “Domestic Science”. As well as teaching you about how to become a “lady”, which, ofcourse, meant making meals, and taking care of a home, etc. – it also taught basic dressmaking and sewing. At that age I picked up knowledge wherever I could through just having a keen eye. Anything I could do to freshen up my look, especially as my clothes were cast downs, was what I wanted.
Before the Shade Botique era, you had worked and studied in England, how did that influence your creativity?
Studying and working? Or was it really working and studying! It was a remarkable time! We Nigerian girls were eager for opportunities – and we were told that opportunities abounded abroad. But the courage to take the leap was not for everyone. The courage to face even the cold weather!
At that time, I was extremely focused. If I set my mind on something it would be done, no if’s, and’s, or but’s! The drive to succeed, to earn, and come back home with the ‘golden cup’ – it drove my appetite.
Being away from home was always a temporary situation from me. I tell my son that I never even fully unpacked my suitcases the entire eight years that I was in England. From the day I arrived, I started preparing for my return back home, whether it was in paying for sewing machines that I wanted to ship back home, or whatever.
Fashion wise, I was always putting one style up against the other style. For instance, I would look at the European skirt and then I would put it up against, in my mind, the Yoruba Iro – and in similar ways, but with distinct differences. Both styles had something to learn from the other.
I loved beautiful shop windows. I couldn’t just walk past them. It always made me feel that we, as human beings, were actually on our way somewhere, that we were achieving something – my imagination just from seeing the scene in a fashion shop window.
How did you start off with Shade boutique?
I started my factory with about 10 different machines in Yaba Industrial Estate, Lagos. I modeled my factories in Yaba, Broad Street,
Sandgross and Simpson Street, after the factories I worked in, in London’s West End. The layout of any garment factory I had worked in was two rows of machines, side by side, facing each other, with a long well in the middle for finished garments.
At some point, I had over 40 men and women working in my factory doing various roles like sewing, finishing, embroidery, pressing, dying and weaving. I even had a “clock in” machine for when workers came in and you’d clock out at closing time.
I set up a room for threads and accessories. A room with a long table for cutting. A room for ironing, and a space for dining and lunch breaks, and of course, toilets.
At the time, why was it so important for you to use traditional Nigerian textiles, such as aso oke, adire, akwete and okene, in your collections?
I felt the need to promote fabrics and styles from my part of the world because I loved the way they looked and how they made women look. I still feel that the way Adire or Aso Oke makes a woman look is like nothing else in the world. Nigeria fashion has taken its place in the world. Aso Oke, Akwete and Adire as jackets, tops, trousers, what have you, is everywhere now.
On my label was “Made in Nigeria”. That was really important to me, especially when I would sell clothes to my American friends. They seemed to believe so much in themselves so it was important for me to show that I believed in my culture too. We had something good here too.
Tell us more about Shade’s Boutique – the atmosphere and the customers.
Our shop window was like a sight-seeing spot. People would come just to look at the windows! Even taxi drivers would stop to gaze at the window, so we tried to decorate it to make people stop to look. Every shop I had, had one side for fittings, another side for ready-to-wear, and a side where to pick fabrics for custom clients.
Many friends would come down to spend time at the shop with no idea that they were going to buy anything. But then they would leave with an item from the shop!
The shop was running at a very high standard, and the people even gave the Falomo shop a title. They said, “Shade’s boutique is the “O ni Falomo of Falomo” which is like saying that Shade’s Boutique owns Falomo area. It was used as a landmark for directions.
How would you describe a typical Shade Boutique customer at the time?
I would describe a typical Shade’s Boutique customer as highly cultured and affluent. It was a place for women on the go. I had a special design for lady diplomats that got to be called “Coffee morning”. I actually became quite popular amongst the diplomatic set. They would come into my shop and tell me that they had an upcoming occasion which they had to look great for. It got to the point that if a woman was looking particularly put together people might say – “Oh, I see she’s been to Shade’s Boutique!” If I remember correctly, two ladies visited the queen to receive their M.B.E’s in my designs.
What was Nigerian fashion scene like during the 1960s/1970s, when the boutique was in its heyday.
It was the time of Fela, and Wole Soyinka’s plays. It was a time of Nigeria evolving. We were bringing in new ideas. Arts and culture were very rich. The Biafran War happened in the early 70’s and that changed things.
Lagos was swinging. I just remember that every woman wanted to open a boutique! The boutique craze was on at that time. They would use garages, any space available and call it a boutique!
When I first opened my shop and called it a “boutique” people couldn’t pronounce it and called it “Bou–tee–qeh!”. That was funny!
There was a thing that happened. It was between 1963 -1965. It was to do with someone who claimed they were “Balmain” from Paris. He came to Nigeria to be part of a charity show. It was like a presentation that he came to Nigeria to do – a sale show.
He made a big mistake actually, because upon his arrival in Lagos and in talking with reporters, he made some comment about how there was no designer in Nigeria. I think he was at the airport when he made the comment. My friends heard about this and they rushed to tell me. I remember my particular friend Barbie, was upset! She said; “Shade, if you allow it, when he leaves, they will never accept you as a proper designer. They will say there is no designer in this country!”
So I spoke to the newspapers and we did an interview. And the newspapers just took it up and ran headlines. “They flashed it”, as we used to say at that time. You see, many people were also against what I was doing. The upper class wanted everything foreign. Not everybody wanted this African thing l was doing! But I did show at the Charity event. I showed first and he showed his pieces later on. No other designers showed but us. I showed first.
When did the brand close and why?
The brand came to a close for various reasons – as anyone who has begun and run a brand for many years will understand. Changes in the country. Changes in the people of the country. What was important to them, as opposed to what they had lived by before? A new generation will always define itself, as it should – but there should always be the incorporation of one’s heritage. The influx of very cheap, and in my view, quite substandard and poorly produced clothing through the Nigerian ports was a factor depressing indigenous production. Nigeria, like many African countries, became a dumping ground for clothing and fabrics that would never pass the quality standards enforced abroad. But our population was growing very fast and so demand was high.
Also, I had been on my feet in my cutting room for a very long time by the late 80’s. I must point out that I had little in the way of business support – the many institutions that support businesses abroad were not available in Nigeria then – in fact we still have quite a way to go to make them available even today. Then there was also an occurrence that happened, which I think began to make me feel a different way. That was the time my shop at Falomo was closed down by the government. It was a strange time. They claimed that they closed the shop because of the Law on Indigenization of Nigerian businesses. The law said that no foreigner could have interests or funds in any Nigerian business.
At the time there was an American couple- the Marshalls – that had expressed interest in entering into a contract with Shade’s Boutique to be their supplier. Their shop was to be on 5th Avenue in New York.
They believed in me, and wanted to promote my fashion, but with the new law, they gave up the idea. Even still, the Nigerian government closed down my shop in Falomo Shopping Centre. No law had been broken, but with the way fame works, it tends to leave one open to attacks from people hiding in the shadows. Years later I learned some powerful people – and I must say the wives of these powerful people – had felt it was time to shut up that Shade woman!
Imagine the force of a military government coming down on you. I had escaped and traveled on a previously planned trip with my sons. Then the government occupied my shop and can you believe they were even selling my items off – like they way they do with seized items or contraband! But the Press took up the matter. And I must thank people like Sam Amuka of the Vanguard newspaper for standing with me. Also I cannot fail to remember eminent ladies of Nigeria like Lady Abayomi, and Lady Ademola. They stood by me and raised their voices! They demanded that my shop be returned to me otherwise they were going to organize a protest. They said that no market women would open up for market the forthcoming Tuesday. Can you believe it? A stand off (between the people and the government).
In the end, thanks to the Press, my lawyers, those Ladies, Papa Ademola and the local market women who supported me, I got my shop back. The whole struggle took about a month. I never paid anyone a penny to fight for me.
But, the event kind of shook me. I was getting weary – I was not as young as I used to be. Security was also becoming an issue. I decided to move things around so I built a smaller factory in the leftover portion of the plot of land on which I had built my house. That way I would be more in control of things. I closed the shops and did more and more private commissions.
And then less and less.
Looking at the younger ones now do you have any favourites who you feel are on the right fashion path?
Well yes I can tell you a few, but you know it may not be fair. But there are those working with the locally made fabrics like Deola Sagoe, Ituen Basi, Lisa Folawiyo, Odion Mimonet, Fumi Ajila and Funmi Ladipo, the past president of FADAN. A lot of FADAN members are good designers, creative designers and are working on the locally made fabrics.