Her models are taking the ever rising African fashion industry by storm, and she has made it her mission to put her native Nigeria on the international fashion map. “We may not become a fashion capital like Milan or Paris, but if Africans take the time to sit down for a minute, we can make a New York out of the Nigerian fashion industry, as there are flourishing companies based here worth billions,” she says in our interview. She, the 54-year-old model agency owner, designer and Boston University alumnus, Joan Okorodudu.
It all started back in 2007, when the now notorious Nigerian fashion entrepreneur created a modelling competition in search of Nigerian modelling talent with the potential to make it on a global level. The winner was promised a contract with an international modelling agency, nonetheless Okorodudu wasn’t getting any response from the agencies once the winner was announced. “I was fed up with people giving me the runaround.” As a result, she decided to take control of her destiny, by establishing the ISIS modelling agency, which today boasts some of the most sought-after faces in the African modelling business. Her 2008 debut as a modelling agent didn’t go by unnoticed, flying ten of her models into South Africa for castings of the Johannesburg Fashion Week. “I took ten of my models with me, seven of them ended up walking the shows.”
Today her Nigeria’s Next Super Model contest is the main point of reference for Nigerian girls trying to break into the industry, in addition to having grabbed the attention of Fashion TV which now broadcasts the annual contest – as well as other Nigeria-related content thanks to Okorodudu’s efforts – to a global audience.
“I flew to Paris a couple of years ago and told the Fashion TV people that the market in Nigeria is vibrant.” A well-grounded claim that is, considering the fact that Nigeria is home ground to Africa’s wealthiest man, in addition to a significant amount of Africa’s estimated two hundred hidden billionaires. With luxury brand Zegna its recent opening of its first African mono-brand store in the Nigerian city of Lagos, all eyes seem to be on the West African hub, where according to many predictions the next great luxury boom will happen.
According to Okorodudu however, many Nigerians don’t quite seem to understand the potential their respective country has in terms of fashion. “I’m sick and tired of Africans wanting to go to Europe or America. We can do shows there and then come back to Africa. We have companies here that can put the local fashion and modelling industry on the map, but they still don’t get that fashion can bring in as much money as oil when done right.”
Though some may link the name of her Nigeria’s Next Super Model contest to Tyra Banks’ Top Model franchise – which recently announced the birth of an African variant hosted by Nigerian model Oluchi Onweagba – Joan underlines that she is not trying to build on anyone’s success. “I’ve created a successful modelling competition from scratch out of Africa, which is doing very well for itself.” The contest its current title-holder is the 15-year-old Favour Lucky, who in a short time managed to create a buzz in the African modelling industry, most recently wrapping up a shoot for an international edition of Glamour magazine.
Nigeria as a fashion powerhouse could very well happen in the future, in the present day and age however, it still requires an African model to make it in one of the western fashion capitals, so that once she’s made it there, she can make it anywhere. A harsh reality, that doesn’t come without obstacles down the road. “I have girls working in New York, London and Paris, but the modelling industry is not fair to young girls from Africa. In the West, if they don’t look like Alek Wek, it’s difficult to break into the industry. Then, they also tend to hold on to just one black girl – if it’s not Chanel Iman, it’ll be the next.” She goes on saying “Designers love to turn to black Hollywood to promote their gowns on the red carpet, but once they become popular, you’ll rarely see a black girl on their runway. Think of what Halle Berry has done for Elie Saab for example.”
The model agent keeps insisting however that it is not the West to blame for Africa getting the shorter end of the stick in the fashion industry – it’s the fault of Africans she says. “Nigerians are shopaholics, but they’ll always go abroad, instead of keeping the money in our own economy.”
Okorodudu’s most recent involvement is that of Nigeria’s first Ecowas Fashion Week – named after the Economic Community Of West African States – which will take place in October this year. “Nigeria has never made use of the AGOA. It pains me that we can put a lot of youth to work in this country, yet we don’t. The tools are staring us in the face. Nobody is looking at it though, we’re just looking at oil,” the political science graduate concludes.
The ISIS agency founder remains ever motivated in her pursuit to propel Nigeria to fashion prosperity, armed with her pack of top models that will serve as the faces of it. “I’m not going to give up on this dream of mine. Change has come, and the fashion industry should be part of that change.”
“Interview originally conducted by vogue.it”