When the news broke a few weeks back that popular Lagos society woman, Hajia Abah Folawiyo was going to clock 75 this month, it came as pleasant news to many of her admirers. But City People can confirm to you that it is true this lovely woman, who is the doyen of the fashion industry is that far gone in age. She turned 75 last weekend, Saturday 22nd of July 2017. And she celebrated it with prayers.
For those who still don’t know who Sisi Abah is lets quickly rejig your memory because this woman is a leading fashion designer in Nigeria who has dominated the fashion scene since the late 70s with her Labanella fashion label. She is also one great designer who all the younger ones look up to, as role model. She is the widow of late industrialist, Alhaji Wahab Iyanda Folawiyo.
Despite her hubbys death years ago, she has coped with the lonely life of a widow. That she chose not to have big party came to many as a big surprise. Many would have expected her to throw a big and elaborate party. Infact a lot of her close associates had offered to have for her really big Owambe gigs. Her son, Segun had even suggested to her, for him to host a big party, but she said No.
All she wanted to mark her birthday was prayers.
At 75, she has become a lot more religious.
Though she is 75, she does not look it. She is trim. She has lost so much weight. She is now so slim and agile. Nothing about her has changed. She is still the same old jovial Sisi Abah who is friends with generations of women. She has a long list of friends made up of women her age, who she’s been friends with for the past 4 decades. She is friends with those younger than her like Senator Ita Giwas and Erelu Dosunmu, who are in their 70s. Then comes those in their late 50s and 60s like Hajia Bola Sagaya, and then the 40s and above like the Funmi Ladipos, and then the generation of her grand daughters, who, though she is many years older than, see grandma Abah Folawiyo as the their friend. How has this woman been able to make and sustain her friendship with all these generations of women?
These and many of such questions agitated the mind of City People, SEYE KEHINDE when he kept a date with this grand dame of fashion last week at her sprawling Ikoyi home in Lagos, where she has lived like a Queen, which she is, for over 2 decades.
Below are excerpts from her interview.
Congratulations on your 75th birthday. How do you feel?
Thanks so much. Well, I feel the same. I am still the same Abah you’ve known for decades from the 70s up till now, nothing has changed life goes on. Life continues.
How come Sisi Abah has dominated the social scene for the past 5 decades and you have remained relevant till today?
It is the grace of God. I am a very happy person, no dull moment. I have been a very calm person, a very happy person. Maybe that is why God has been able to sustain and keep me the way I am.
What has been the difference when you were 50, 60, 70 and now 75?
No difference at all. I have always been the same Abah everybody knows. No changes at all. I have kept myself to remain the same.
What sort of a person is Sisi Abah?
What kind of person are you?
No. I don’t have any view about my self. I have not changed at all.
At 75, what are the lessons you’ve learned?
A lot. To be a good person. To be very accommodating and take people as they are. I have a lot of friends, a lot and I have been able to keep all of them intact as friends. I don’t fight with my friends. I keep them as friends. I study them and I keep them the way they are and I interact with all my friends the way each one is. That is why we are still friends till today.
Whats the secret behind your long standing relationship with different sets of friends, both young and old and even with the difficult ones? How does your relationship with one not affect the other?
By accepting each one of them the way they are, and whatever they do. The old and young love me and I love them. I relate very, very, well with all of them.
What lessons did you pick up from your mum that has kept you going?
My mum is just like me. She is a very nice woman. She interacts with everybody, old and small. I look up to her. I am just like her.
Can you tell us about your past? Where were you born? And you growing up years?
I was born in Ilorin. My grandfather was working there. That is where my father met my mother and they had me there.
And from when I was a baby they moved me to Accra. That is where I lived till I grew up to be myself. My mother is from Ghana. My dad is Nigerian from Ijebu-Ode. Most people don’t know that I am from Ijebu-Ode. In Ghana, it is the woman who owns the child.
That is why I am more close to Ghana than to Nigeria.
What are the tips you picked up from Ghana that has worked for you?
You know it is very quiet there. It is not a fast life like we have in Nigeria.
They are not the go, go, go, type like us in Nigeria.
How did your going into fashion start?
From my mum. All my family members are dressmakers, they are all designers some of the men are even dress makers, I got it from my mum. It was in-born in me. I met her as a dress maker. I grew up seeing her sew and design. I grew up seeing her working on fabrics. I used to help her. That is how I developed the passion. She wanted me to do something else. She wanted me to be a lawyer. I told her No mummy, Law is too much book. It is too much. Let me face this my cut and sew business that I met you doing. I am glad I made it and I love it.
Apart from training under her, did you also go for training else where?
No. I didn’t go for any other training anywhere. Many years ago, I went to England and I went to a fashion school and I wanted to start learning. I saw what they were doing and me I had already known beyond that. I thought it would be a waste of time, so I kept to myself. I didn’t go for training any where else unless from my mum.
What was the fashion industry like at the time you went into it at that time?
The fashion industry was zero, nobody appreciated dress making then. We used to call it dress making. Ready made clothes was the in thing then. It was the big business then, in Nigeria. Everybody was into it then, and nobody appreciated dress making or what the few designers were doing then. Nobody.
You keep talking about dress making. Is it the same as designing or tailoring? What’s the difference?
They are all one and the same. If you are a designer, you design it and make dresses.
I design my clothes and I make them. I join the 2 together.
I don’t draw. My designs are in my brain, I put it down on the table and the tailors follow it.
At the time you were setting up your fashion business called LABANELLA what did you have in mind at that time? And have you been able to achieve it?
Yes. I started with Cotton and Linen. I particularly love working with Cotton. I love prints too. I started using prints. And nobody was buying them from my factory. I kept to it and I continued using it. But now, the whole world has gone into prints, even in. Europe, they now do African prints. When I started off, business was very slow. The kind of money they make now I never made such. I never charged as exorbitantly as they charge now. Even if you hard charged such people wouldn’t even buy it. People didn’t appreciate what we were doing in Nigeria. It was Obasanjo that helped us when he became head of state and banned all these imported and ready made clothes and dresses and fabrics.
And that was when my factory started booming and people realized what we were doing then. People will buy my designs then and they will take it abroad to China to go and copy and they now bring them back and sell them in Nigeria. Thanks to President Obasanjo.
When you started Labanella how small was it at the beginning?
It was not small when I started LABANELLA.
My husband then, put the factory together for me. It was a surprise for me. It was in a whole building with factory at the back and showroom in front. Then, I was doing business, flying to England, flying abroad to get pieces to bring back here to come and sell. He wanted me to do what I know how best to do. He said No. Abah, you must do what you know how best to do and that is Fashion Designer. So, he began to do this place slowly, I never knew of it.
So, one day, I just woke up, he got the building for me on Adeniran Ogunsanya in Surulere. He put all the machines there.
He bought them from Adebowale Stores. They were about 50 machines, plus cutting table. He put everything I will need to make a dress. He called me one day and said follow me. I have a surprise for you, come. I followed him. When I got there, I was shocked. The factory was already opened. It was a big factory with a boutique in front, with nothing inside, so I started producing clothes and I began to put it inside the boutique. That was how I started in the late 70s.
Over the years, you’ve built a big name, a solid name in fashion. How do you feel each time you look back at the evolution of the industry and what you have been able to do with fashion?
I will say I am fulfilled, very very happy. And that is why I appreciate all the dress designers, Tailors and everybody in the industry. They appreciate me and I appreciate them as well. Then, it was just few of us. Shade Thomas, late Joyce Obong and myself we were into that business of Dressmaking.
Years back, our mothers used to call themselves seamstress. These days the younger ones call themselves Fashion designers. Is it all the same thing?
We all do the same thing. It’s all the same thing. You can be a Tailor, a Seamstress, a Designer, you know, we are all into dress making. We all belong to one group, surrounded with different names. Its depends on what you want to call yourself. But its all about clothes. Its all about wearing clothes for people. Its all about making clothes for people to wear.
How have you been able to sustain your LABANELLA brand over the years. Many of us grew up to know Labanella and the name Sisi Abah. You have been there and you are still there. What’s the secret?
I stick with my designs, the look I want people to have of me. I have not changed my looks for years. People know I wear long dresses. I stick to my design. People copy my designs. They still wear it.
How do you feel celebrating your 75th birthday without your husband been around and your mum?
I feel sad. They are two important people I love so much. Don’t just so there. You want me to start crying now. I wish my husband was around to celebrate with me. That would have been it. The sky would not have been the limit. He always celebrated my birthday for me, when I was 40, 50, 60 I miss him dearly. I truly wish he was here.
And my mum too. I miss her. But my husband’s children have taken over as if he is the one. They know how their father loved me. We are all one family. We thank God for that. We have remained one. The family has never broken up. God has been with this family.
How do you plan to celebrate your 7th birthday?
In a quiet way, with prayers. I am very particular about having prayers and I have told my friends. I was thinking of having a large huge party which my son, Segun wants to have for me. I said cool it. I want to have prayers first. After this, if anybody wants to have anything for me, they are welcome. But the prayer is very very important to me. God has kept me all there years till I turned 75. To God be the glory.