Body & Soul

Nigerians’re extraordinary in fashion –Joy Kelecha Abuda


Speaking with Joy Kelecha Abuda, the brain behind fast rising fashion brand, J’apparels, was like walking through mini tutorials on how running a ‘Ready To Wear’ fashion line is. According to her, studying Human Anatomy formed her sense of style. In this interview with IFEOMA ONONYE, she talks about growing the brand from next to nothing, running a business and working full time, work-life balance and fashion trends in Nigeria amongst other issues



Everybody has a dream of what they want to be in their life but when you graduate from university, especially in Nigeria, the reality changes you. How did you find yourself in fashion?


Was it a talent or you went into it just to make ends meet? Primarily, I am an IT consultant. I work with an IT firm, a Microsoft partner.


My passion for fashion has been there since I was child. I have been interested in fashion since I was 10 years old. Back then, I couldn’t sew but my mum used to sew. She makes clothes for us. When I was about 15, my elder sister was the one sewing.


We used to queue and wait for her to make clothes for us. I, like my other siblings, used to wait for her to make clothes for us while she was making for her friends. One day, I asked her to make a trouser for me and she was taking forever. Out of impatience, I took the cloth, cut it myself and I made it.


That was how I started sewing. From then onwards, even till I entered the university, I started making clothes for my close friends. I make party dresses, cute tops and trousers and gowns. It wasn’t on a large scale.


It was on a personal scale. I collect change here and there. At some point in my university days, I became busy and could not make clothes as often. And of course, I graduated and came out of school and started working full time.


At what point did you decide to make a business of it?


My fashion business started off in August 2018. I needed something other than my 9 to 5 job. Something I can retire to. Something I can call my own. I decided to go into ‘Ready To Wear’. I didn’t want to take fabric from people to sew.


I want to sew and display. I wanted to have my own brand. I wanted a fashion shop, where you can come into my shop and everything you are seeing there is J’apparels. My brand name is J’apparels.


When you started, how easy would you say it was?


I won’t say it has been easy. When I started, I didn’t rush to get a physical store. I started online. I showcased my works online for almost two years. It was late last year that I got a physical shop. A place, where you can walk in and see my designs.


What does walking into a ‘Ready To Wear’ store like yours feels like?


It’s just like you are walking into one of those popular global shops to pick out clothes. At J’apparels, we make different sizes. We have an A10, 14, 16 and other sizes you wish to buy.


Considering that African women are said to have very complex body shapes, don’t you think Ready to Wear will not be a walk in the park with these cumbersome details to maintain?


That was one of the major challenges that made me delve into standardization in terms of having a fixed size.


We have very awkward shapes. You may find someone who is a size 14 up and size 10 down. When you compare a UK or US size 10 with Nigerian size 10, it’s not the same. In Nigeria, we are fuller in terms of our waist fitting.


Where you have a standard size 10 to be, Bust 38, Waist 28 and hip 40, a standard size 10 here in Nigeria is, Bust 38, Waist 30, not 28 and then Hip 40/41. So my size 10 is different from the US size 10.


This is why my measurement can fit the majority. Even if I get someone who is a size 28 at the waist size, it won’t look so big because it would just be an inch bigger. I have adapted our size to my market. My standard 10 is to fit the Nigerian shape and sizes.


So someone into the fashion business has to be accurate in mathematics to get the cutting and sewing perfect?


Absolutely! Fashion is not that simple. This is why when people make clothes and it is worn, it sometimes fits awkwardly. When I am making my designs, I have a standard chart that I have drafted. My tailors know this.


They know the standard size for arm, thighs, waist and hips. We have fuller thighs in Africa and in Nigeria compared to the UK and USA. You can buy a UK size 10 trouser; the waist will fit you but your thighs will struggle to enter.


The adjustments I made was to add an inch to their size on the thighs and hips, so that someone who is fuller can wear it. While someone who is slimmer can also wear it. I pulled up different size charts from different countries and compared it with sizes of people that are size 10 that I have made clothes for.


I even included my own body size because I am a size 10 too. The sizes are different but I blended it in such a way that even if you are a size 27, or 28, 29 at the waist, you can blend into the size category I created.


It will fit almost four categories of people. You will get snugly fit, exact size and slightly bigger but not obvious.


Does this mean that ‘Ready To Wear’ fashion is more technical than couture tailoring?


Of course, it is more technical than sewing for a particular person. In a way, it’s easier for me. Sewing someone’s personal fabric takes more time but if I am sewing my ‘Ready To Wear’, I cut about five dresses in one go.


The time I use on cutting one dress, I can use that same time to cut five size 10 dresses because I lay up to five fabrics and cut. I save more time and I produce more items with my standardization. Couture is also not simple.


When you take a fabric from a customer and you have two weeks to sew, when the customer picks it up, there is likelihood it may be tight because the person must have added weight within that two weeks.


So, I prefer to do my ‘Ready To Wear’. I design, sew and display. If you like it, you buy it.


So far, are you enjoying what you are doing?


Sewing is my passion. I am not making money from it right now because the business is just picking up. When I make a design, put it on the mannequin and look at it, I am like “wow! Am I the one that made this cloth?”


That is the satisfaction I get. Another satisfaction is the feedback I get when people wear my designs. I like when people ask me if my designs are ‘Ready Made’. My target is to make clothes that people would look at and doubt they’re made in Nigeria.


The challenge many tailors have in Nigeria is finishing. They are in a hurry to just churn out. I am very finicky about finishing both inside and outside. When my tailors make silly mistakes or they are negligent, I push it back to them to redo. I tell my tailors to rate their work. If you pick the dress you made in a boutique, would you buy it for N6,000 or N8,000 ? You should be able to compare it to what you are buying in the UK.


Was this the kind of fashion your mum did back then?


Not at all! My mum did fashion as a hobby. It was something she enjoyed doing in her spare time. She was a teacher. It was a home thing for her. She makes clothes for us and for herself. It was not something she went into as a business.


I think it’s just me and my elder sister that made a business out of our passion for fashion. My elder sister used to take fabrics from people and sew once in a while


Tell us about your personal style. What’s your opinion about the fashion rave presently, especially regarding revealing clothes?


I am a bit conservative when it comes to my body. I studied Human Anatomy in Medical School at the University of Port Harcourt. So, they always teach us to dress appropriately.


You must be covered or you would be sent out of class. Our dressing was corporate and decent. That, over the years, built my sense of style. I am trying to create a balance in meeting the needs of the corporate market, the casual market and of course, the party market. I am not against showing some skin but I believe in showing a little and leaving the rest to the imagination.


This is why the highest revealing clothes you would see in my wardrobe are low necklines or a peeking opening by the waistline. For my personal style, I am conservative and flashy. I love bright colours that are attractive. It’s attractive to you, not because my body is exposed but because the colour is beautiful and blends well. That is the kind of fashion I like.

What is your definition of sexy?


My definition of sexy comes from ‘You’ as an individual. You know what makes you feel sexy. Everybody knows what makes them feel sexy. Someone can wear a trouser and jacket and feel very sexy.


Another person can feel that if she is not wearing a bum short or micro mini skirt, she does not feel sexy. Feeling sexy is an individual ideology. I can feel sexy just by wearing shorts and my upper body is covered.


You studied Human Anatomy, work in an IT firm and presently run a fashion business. Why the contrast?


I studied Human Anatomy at the University of Port Harcourt. After I finished the course, I was supposed to go ahead and study medicine and I asked some doctor friends I had that I want to make money in life, hoping being a doctor would pay. They told me that if I was going into medicine just because I want to make money, then I am going into the wrong career.


They said I have to work like two or three shifts to make ends meet. I told them that I am a homely person. I would love to have time for my children and family. So, I would not want a job that would make me work two shifts, three shifts, just to make ends meet. That was how I decided that I don’t want to be a doctor.


My mum pushed but I didn’t budge. Fortunately, when I went for my NYSC, I got into a Human Resources consulting firm and I realized I am good at it.


That was what spun my desire to go and do my Masters in International Human Resources Management at Greenwich in the UK. I came back and got the job where I am working right now. I have been with this IT firm since 2013.


It seems like a flexible job, especially as we are having this interview at home?


It’s a very demanding job but I have the determination to do my business. I create time for my business on the weekends when I do all the cuttings. On weekdays, I cut and vet after I come back from work at about five or six pm. I do more cuttings on the weekends, so that the tailors will have what to work on during the week. So, I have two jobs.


The down side of it is that I don’t have time to take the kids out or relax and rest. It’s been stressful but I am not complaining. I am making conscious efforts to make time for family and to relax.


You said earlier that the beauty of a dress or an outfit is in the cutting. Explain that…


Yes, it definitely has a lot to do with the cutting. There are dynamics of fabrics and most tailors make the mistake of not knowing those. There are fabrics that stretch either one way to the sides or one way to the top and down.


There are fabrics that stretch sideways and not up or down. If you don’t know how to place and cut it, the dress may end up not fitting well and there is nothing you can do. It becomes a waste. This is why I cannot allow them to cut yet.


Did you regret not studying Medicine as a course in school?


No regrets at all! Instead, for the past year, I have been going online to get some finishing courses on fashion. I read about cutting and how to make some difficult wears like suits.


I make suits but the finishing, the cutting, the layering just have to be perfect. I have been thinking of doing a full-time course but it will not be easy with a full-time job and the business and family. YouTube and online courses help me remain updated on the latest.


What do you think about the kind of fashion trends that are the rave in Nigeria?


I will describe Nigerian fashion as ‘Daring’. Nigerians don’t like ordinary fashion. They want something unique. They want something unique. That is why I said ‘daring’. The feeling they want when they step into an event is for all eyes to be on them.


That is why Nigerian fashion designers are creative; they think out of the box. It may be an outfit that is simple but they will want it to stand out. Every designer guns for what is unique about their brand. Nigerians are extraordinary, dynamic when it comes to fashion.


Do you think this is why Nigerian fashion designers are doing well in their business?


Not that people don’t patronize Gucci or Dolce & Gabana still but you must understand that there was a time in this same Nigeria that if you are not wearing these brands then, you are not there. Do you believe that the insatiable thirst to stand out is bringing this boom in Nigerian fashion industry?


It is absolutely the reason there is a boom. Everybody wants to create a masterpiece. There are designers who make dresses that go for N20,000, N30,000 and even N100,000 because Nigerians believe that if it’s not expensive, then what they are wearing is not good. That is the ideology that made them go for Gucci, Prada and all those international brands.


Even if it’s ugly, so far its expensive then, it’s okay. That ideology is coming into Nigerian made designs. Nigerians make beautiful clothes but if they put a cheap prize on it, like N5,000 or N6,000, Nigerians won’t buy. If the same dress has a tag of N55,000, many will want it. Nigerians are showoffs.


We want people to know we don’t wear cheap clothes. It’s the trend out there, making Nigerian designers to worth being looked at. It can be unnecessarily pricey.


. I am not about making my brand that pricey even if the fabric is expensive.


My goal is to target the average to those who can afford my brand. I am targeting generally, office personnel, young people who want classy, comfortable and decent clothes. I am not about the influential people. The average constitutes a larger percentage of people. I have considered my bands prices.


May be 5 years down the line, I may have pieces worth N50,000 but for now, I am all about young classy fashionistas, who need affordable classy fashion.




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