From Pirate Radio to Runway Shows: The Evolution of Nigerian Fashion

Sola Adeboye of Mahogany Models


Back in the 1990s, advertising your next fashion show meant sticking flyers on car windshields at 4 a.m. or buying pricey print ads months in advance without any guarantee people would see them. Sola Oyebade lived this reality when he started his pioneering African fashion and modeling agencies in the UK.

More than 20 years later, Sola has built a thriving international business spanning fashion events, talent management, and creative education. His journey mirrors the growth of African fashion itself – from fledgling designers selling sketches at trade shows to global powerhouses landing covers of Vogue.

Sola’s Early Days in Fashion

Sola’s passion for fashion took root in an unexpected place – debating societies in secondary school. Organizing fashion shows for these events sparked his interest in creative direction and model management. He later funded his college education in Nigeria by modeling before returning to establish the UK’s first mainstream African fashion show, Mahogany Bridal.

Despite early skepticism that black-owned brands could succeed, Sola persevered. He recalls caterers and wedding planners having to “sneak in” to major London venues or face exclusion simply due to their skin color.

> “It took that sort of time of build up the capital, build up the business, and help other people grow their businesses…eventually it did get there.”

True to his ethos of giving back, Sola shared his knowledge freely so others could thrive too.

The Rise of African Models

Sola witnessed firsthand the barriers facing models of color seeking work in the 90s. He founded Mahogany Models in response, to provide training and representation specifically for black models sidelined by mainstream agencies.

When Italian Vogue featured only black models in its 2008 “Black Issue,” many branded it “the worst selling Vogue ever.” Sola galvanized supporters worldwide through social media to make it the highest selling issue ever printed – a landmark moment for recognizing African beauty.

> “I know the kind of hassle I went through getting approval…their first reaction was, oh my God, he’s black. Can you afford it?”

Ever the pioneer, Sola has since brought dozens of African creatives to global stages – though recognition remains a gradual process.

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Bridging UK and Nigerian Fashion Industries

After years building his UK business, Sola began working between London and Lagos from 2009 onward. He became a mentor to Nigerian designers seeking international growth.

Sola credits consistency and persistence above all for his success. Quick wins from viral moments are great, but easily lost without the skills and work ethic to back them up. He believes creativity for its own sake sustains impact long-term versus chasing trends solely for profit.

While social media accelerates trend cycles today, good business fundamentals remain essential. For Sola:

> “Learn your trade. Stop trying to get to the top without paying the price.”

Evolution from Print to Digital Marketing

As an event organizer from the pre-Internet age, Sola is hugely optimistic about the visibility young creatives can build instantly today. He admits if digital tools existed earlier, he may have become a billionaire!

However, while social platforms offer quick wins, longevity still depends on delivering excellence offline too. Great customer experiences drive the word-of-mouth marketing so vital in Nigeria especially.

Overall Sola embraces how technology has removed barriers for African creativity to influence global culture. He cautions against getting distracted by hype though – stay focused on mastering your craft above all.

Defining Success Beyond Money

For Sola, success means leaving a legacy where others feel empowered by his contributions. He judges his events a success when industry newcomers appreciate the foundations he helped lay for them.

He measures the success of Mahogany Models by its talent becoming more successful than him. Seeing his designs at international fashion weeks also reassures him staying creative is the right path.

Most of all, Sola defines success by the joy he gets from giving back knowledge freely to newcomers. He never forgets the years spent driving taxis between building what people see today.

Advice to Aspiring Fashion Entrepreneurs

Sola believes ideas mean little without execution – get the fundamentals right before chasing explosive growth.

Learn from industry pioneers who faced real-world business challenges. Sola’s door remains open decades later for those needing a wise word from an elder statesman of African fashion.

He also stresses collaboration with aligned brands to gain trust and funding for bigger projects.

Learn more from our interview with him here.

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