Uche Nnaji is the Creative Director of OUCH, a fashion and lifestyle brand. Creative design is a passion he has nurtured and turned into the creation of fashion brand that is well regarded. His simple philosophy, which has driven the growth of his business enterprise, is that a good suit aids one’s style. Proof of his creative design prowess is the fact that his creations have adorned President Muhammadu Buhari and former President Goodluck Jonathan at different times. In this interview, Nnaji who is also fashion influencer talks about his growing up and what he expects of youths who look up to him.
As the Creative Director of OUCH, what are the specific things you did that took the brand to where it is today?
On a daily basis, understand that each day comes with an opportunity that affords one to learn and keep learning; you study human behavior of the people you work with and the clients you manage. Understanding the behavioral pattern of clients, which keep changing based on lifestyle. This has been an area I have seen myself improve in knowledge and this has helped me to succeed. In terms of the business itself, re-focusing processes was not left out of the question. In response to developments in the operating environment, we had to make some fundamental changes. We started the process last year. Part of what of that was that we shrank down a bit because if the revenue is not meeting up with the expenditure, the next option is to revamp, re-evaluate your processes. Well, we cannot blame the economy but at the same time, we cannot exonerate the economy. From my days at the University of Lagos, I pledged to myself that I would focus on creating employment by charting a new course and blazing a trail, doing things that other people and brands are not doing. I have done most of these things from the little resources that come and in the process give hope to other young people that find fashion very attractive. We have not slowed than on this, rather we keep learning and evolving by the day.
How did you overcome recession, which led to the failure of some businesses?
At that time, we were like the typical Nigerian because almost 80 per cent of what we had in OUCH were produced overseas. I must acknowledge that we still get production materials like fabrics and buttons from Europe and Asia. These production materials are still being taxed and I wonder why this is so, given that we do not have good textile companies that can produce good cotton materials to make good shirts for Nigerians. Most textile companies have become moribund and no longer functioning. Now that the fashion brand has become global, we are not making use of our Ankara to attract foreign business and improve on our revenue as a country. We are looking at ourselves as the Ankara Market just like Nigerian music without realising the need to sell ourselves to the outside world. This kind of business can’t be done by only us. The government has a role to play by going into bilateral trade agreements that will help medium, small and micro enterprises (MSMEs) in the country to grow. For instance, whenever I am in Times Square, I feel a Nigerian store should be opened and seen there. Many brands can come together from Nigeria and will be known as a Nigerian Market there. These are the kind of things the Ministry of Tourism, Trade and Industry should look into and bring the effect back home. Designers in Nigeria would be supplying clothes there while the government logistics would be selling, At least, MSMEs could partner at that level.
What have been the challenges since you went into fashion business? In what specific ways do you want the government to help MSMEs like yours?
The government should make the laws on taxation and importation friendly to fashion designers. The biggest headache is power supply. I run a factory here in Lagos and I know what I go through. The government should expedite efforts to ameliorate or even end the public power supply deficits. We want to see stable, reliable power supply, no more promises. Again, the government should be the chief promoter of Nigerian products overseas. Let there be Nigerian stores in foreign countries, which must be funded by the government. Such departmental
stores could have sections for Nigerian music, garments, foods, etc. It is not rocket science; it is doable. For now, all we get are taxes, taxes and more taxes. Let them allow the business to survive first and create gainful employment before unleashing taxation. Government should get involved with commercial structures like the malls, which should create soft landings for us.
How did you start your brand?
I am proud to tell you that I grew up in Olodi Apapa, which is a neighbourhood close to Ajegunle. I studied Political Science at the University of Lagos. For me, where you come does not have much to do with where you are going. The primary purpose is to remain focused and be encouraged. Back then in Olodi, we used to board molue (big intra-city bus) where all manner of trading and preaching went on.
After my university education, I discovered my passion for making men look good coming from the fact that I also like to dress well, a habit I picked from my father. I had already started styling from my room in school. My other roommates were all musicians like myself; we had a drummer, two pianists, violin person and we all came together and took a particular room for the four years we were in school. At the end of every year, we looked out for new students allocated to our room and swapped with them and maintained our room for four years. When I go on speaking engagements, I tell the young ones, do not be deceived, I did not just emerge, I studied and I am still studying. It took me time to get to where you think I am today. When you see what our young ones term as luxury goods in my store, know that I denied myself something before I got to where I am today. If I have money to buy a big car, I would rather buy a small one and use the money to open other stores and create employment. But I have a strong belief that one day, I will drive a Rolls Royce. I admonish the young ones who live their life on social media to tread with caution and learn the real thing. Instead of spending time, every minute of the day, on social media, they should also read newspapers. Do not just because one person has made it through blogging, then all of you toe that line. There is a call on parents and religious leaders today to constantly stand for the truth.
I understand that you have designed oufits for two Nigerian presidents – President Muhammadu Buhari and former president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan. How did you come about the opportunity to do creative design for the two presidents?
I was in far away in Milan, Italy, when I got a call to make suits for the then presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2015, for his campaign. I have always believed that a good suit aids your style. I studied his frame because nobody gave me his statistics but my online fashion training assisted me. While in Europe with that call in mind (because we do not buy suits, we make them) I walked into some factories in Europe to produce the bespoke suits and then flew into Abuja upon my return. Armed with three suits, I stood before the then presidential candidate and asked, “Are you the person that will dress me? Let me see the miracle you will perform.” Of the three suites I took along with me, one was simply perfect because he needed a dapper look. His image was key to the success of the campaign and it required a professional touch. After trying out the suits, he asked, “how did you do it?” What I made for President Jonathan when he was in office was one of those independence shirts for celebrations.
How was growing up like?
I grew up in a family of seven. My mother’s trade grew and we assisted her in the market. Church was key in my family. If we dressed late for church, a backhand slap would land on our faces. I grew from up in that generation. We had the basic things of life especially with my father who taught us not to take what does not belong to us. So when I was growing up, I would go to Yaba or Lagos Island to buy second hand British shirts, the types my dad also wore, like ‘Thomas Pink, TM Lewin and Austin Rees etc. My interest was that those shirts had different cottons and lasted. When my father saw them on me, he would call me with a gentle voice and say, ‘Uchechukwu, come here, where did you get these shirts?’ As he was asking that question, he was looking at you from the corner of his eye, and at the same time feeling the fabric. I would respond, Daddy I got them from Okirika Boutique. Then he would ask, ‘This little money you are getting from music, will spend it all on fashion?’ He blurted out without realizing what he said, “You dress like a King and Prince when your father is not.”
Source: Sun News