Mr. Evans Akere trained as a lawyer at Ambrose Alli University, but attained national prominence making beautiful clothes for the fashion savvy. The front man of Vans Kere, one of the wave making fashion outfits in the country, VK is in charge of many of our leading lights’ wardrobes and smart appearances. A proud Niger Deltan, he’s married to the love of his life and they are blessed with three children. At his corporate headquarters on Osho Street, along Opebi-Link Bridge in Ikeja, Lagos, on Friday, August 8, 2014, the dark dude narrated the story of his incursion into the fashion business to YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE. Plus the secret of his staying power, why he abandoned Law for fashion designing, his family and more. Enjoy…
What makes a good designer?
First of all, to be a very good designer, you have to be very creative. Creativity plays an important role and also you have to be hard-working as well and be very innovative. If you are not creative, then you don’t have any business in the fashion industry. Creativity is the most important aspect of being a fashion designer.
What is the costliest mistake that any designer can make?
I guess that would be making clothes to suit their own style. I used to make that mistake; making clothes that suit me or fit my style. At a point, I discovered that I wasn’t selling these clothes to myself. Even though I like them, not everybody would. So, at a certain point, I decided to start designing for everybody. Right now, when I’m designing, I put everybody into consideration, knowing that everybody have their individual style.
What do you like most about being a fashion designer?
I guess the freedom to express myself. There’s really no boundary. I can express myself in any way that I like. I express myself with my designs. I can decide to take my creativity to another level, depending on the inspiration. I allow it to flow. Inspiration determines the design. There’s no limit to what you can do as a designer in terms of creativity.
What don’t you like about being a designer?
I don’t think there’s anything I don’t like about being a designer. Although the business is very challenging and puts you under a lot of pressure, I still find it interesting. Most people that come to us usually come because they have heard about us or based on recommendations. So, a lot is usually expected from us. Therefore we have to deliver and be prompt with our services.
What is the greatest thing that being a designer has done for you?
I think the greatest thing has been that it has connected me with certain high personalities in the society. I’ve been able to cut across and establish relationships with these people. Ordinarily, these are people that I don’t think I would have known, but the fashion industry has been able to expose me to these people and connect me to these people and we have been able to establish a good relationship. Some have even become my friends along the line.
What has being a fashion designer not done for you?
I really don’t know because I didn’t come into the business with great expectation, I came in because of the passion. So, I can’t actually evaluate and say the fashion industry hasn’t done certain things for me. It wasn’t about the money, if it was, I would have probably pursued Law, because I was already called to the Nigerian Bar Association before I made up my mind to be a designer. So, I can’t really say fashion hasn’t done some certain things for me. I’m grateful for what I have achieved.
Already, you design for a lot of people. Who would you really like to design for and hasn’t been able to?
Who would I like to see wear my clothes? I will like the President of Nigeria to wear my clothes and also the Presidents of other top nations as well. Not just African countries alone, but also the European nations. There’s nothing wrong in us taking our fashion or our African attires to the western world or western society. The Indians have done it, so it’s up to us to try and do it as well. There’s nothing wrong if a President of a top European nation is wearing my attire. It’s achievable. The ankara fabric is trending all over the world right now. Top foreign brands are using it to make clothes and accessories. Why the sudden crave for ankara? Simple. We have fully embraced ankara as our own and we are using it to make beautiful attires. The foreign brand sees these attires and they are well informed that so much can be made from it, so they want a piece of the pie.
I had a meeting not too long ago with the Brand Innovation Director of Vlisco and their Consumer Insight Manager. They came from the Netherlands to consult with some Nigeria designers. I happen to be one of the designers. Although I don’t make ankara attires ready to wear, I only make them on request. They consulted me because they saw some of the ankara attires I made for the manager of Vlisco Nigeria. Why the consultation with us? Apart from the manufacturing of Ankara fabrics, they are now interested in having ankara attires made with Vlisco fabrics, as ready to wear that can bought off Vlisco shelves. All these are happening because we are now making beautiful attires with ankara and we are exporting them as well. The western world is falling in love with the attires, so the western brands don’t want to be left out. So, we can make them wear our clothes if we wear them regulary and continue to come up with beautiful designs.
What distinguishes Vans Kere from the other designers?
You see, the Vans Kere brand is a fusion of the African and western style, to produce a coordinated unique collection of stylish clothes with a contemporary edge. What we try to do is combine the two cultures; because we realized that we were colonized by the westerners. So, we still retain some of their cultures, we cannot totally eradicate them. At the same time, we are Africans. So, the two cultures kind of conflict at times. So, what we do at Vans Kere is to harmonise these two cultures with our designs. Also, we are known for our unique embroideries, which are of high quality. I don’t think that any brand has been able to match up to us in terms of these embroideries. Also we pay attention to details. Our finishing is second to none, while our customer service is very efficient.
Now, what made you abandon your Law certificate and being addressed as Barrister Evans Akere to embrace fashion designing?
It’s the passion! The passion for fashion. I think the passion I have for fashion supersedes that of Law. The legal profession, with all due respect, is a very conservative profession and I happen to be a very colourful and flamboyant person. I like to express myself. So, I’ve always had difficulty fitting into the legal profession, right from my days in school. I remember in Law School when I was having my compulsory Court Attachment programme, I was walked out of court by a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) because of my dressing. Although I was corporately dressed, he felt it was too elaborate. So, I’ve always been trying to fit in. At a certain point, I knew there was something else for me, which definitely wasn’t Law. Being that person that likes to complete what he starts, I decided to complete my Law programme, so it wouldn’t be seen that it’s because I dropped out of school or didn’t complete my Law programme, that’s why I’m into something else. At least, to silence my critics.
You’ve been around for about 10 years now, what would you say has kept you going?
It has been God, I won’t lie to you. He has been behind my success; my inspiration comes from Him. The vision for the brand came from Him. I’m very grateful for all that my God has done for me. He has been behind my success so far.
A lot of people attain success, but find it difficult to sustain it. Where do you think that they normally get it wrong?
I think as humans we get to a certain stage when we become complacent, we become very relaxed, we no longer possess the same passion and zeal for what we do. That is the time or period when we need a new challenge; try something new or reinvent ourselves. If we fail to do so, we might experience a decline or fail to sustain our success.
What’s your dream for Vans Kere?
My dream is the same with every entrepreneur – try to make the brand relevant, try to be the best I can be, try to expand the business and also have continuity.
Running a business in Nigeria is very difficult. How have you been able to maneuver the terrain in the last 10 years?
Like I always tell people, you need to figure out where your passion lies, because where your passion lies is where you’ll find fulfillment. There will always be challenges. It’s very tough doing business in Nigeria, but if you are passionate about what you do, you’ll keep going despite the challenges. I personally don’t see myself doing any other thing. Therefore I cannot fail. If I fail, that means I’ve stopped living. Fashion is all I know, all I enjoy doing. It’s the only place where I find fulfillment. So, I need to keep doing it.
What’s the greatest challenge that you’ve faced since you started and how were you able to overcome it?
The greatest challenge? (Thinks) What’s my greatest challenge? I don’t think I’ve had any major challenge. I had several challenges when I started, but I’ve been able to manage them. Right now, I don’t think I have any major challanges, except the usual ones associated with businesses in Nigeria.
In your line of business, what is the best way to deal with a difficult customer?
Hmmm! You know what they say about customers? They are always right. But we are all humans; we have our limits; only God doesn’t have a limit. It gets to a certain stage at times we might want to lose our cool, but it’s imperative we maintain our composure. So, the way I handle them is with the grace of God. Although some can be very, very difficult. I have learnt to be patient with a difficult customer. I try as much as possible to be careful with my choice of words. I don’t know if it’s an African thing or a Nigerian thing, some people feel they are doing you a favour when they patronize you, forgeting that you are rendering them a service. So, you need patience and the grace of God to handle a difficult client.
When you make clothes for a customer and the person is dissatisfied with it, how does that make you feel?
I feel very, very bad! Those are my sad days. It’s not about the money. I’m not motivated by money at all! I’ve never been motivated by it. So, it has always been about satisfaction; trying to satisfy my clients. I get satisfied when my clients come back to me and tell me you know what? Those clothes look nice on me; I went out in them, had several commendations, people liked it, I gave several people your number. I’m happy. It’s not about the money. So, I feel very sad when a client or customer tells me there’s an issue. I feel really, really bad. But it happens. Different strokes for different folks. What Mr. A likes might not be what Mr. B would like, so you need to be able to balance it. When designing for an old client, know you are designing for an old client and vice versa.
Besides your clothes which you wear, who are the other designers that you adorn their designs?
Well, apart from my clothes, the only clothes I wear are jeans and T-shirts. I wear them usually on Sunday evenings after church, or that same evening when I’m going out with my family and want to feel a bit relaxed. So, usually I wear my clothes from Monday to Sunday. I make all sorts of clothes, shirts, regular shirts, corporate pants, the typical Vans Kere, so whatever I feel like wearing, there’s always a Vans Kere attire for the mood.
Are there colours that men must not wear?
Well, men used to shy away from bright colours, but you know how fashion is. It keeps revolving and like I always tell people, there are usually no rules in fashion. But some people feel fashion has rules. It doesn’t! If you can pull it off, then, go ahead. As long as you don’t reveal too much, as long as your dressing is not too repulsive, you don’t overdo it and show off those parts that you are not supposed to show off. But if you feel you can wear a pink shirt and a lemon pants and you know it looks good; then go ahead. That’s fashion for you. But you see, what’s happening now is that Nigerian men are becoming very fashionable. I think it’s all over the world. The men are competing with women now in terms of colours. I have several clients that used to like conservative colours; they come now and they want bright colours. I don’t know what’s happening, but I think it’s the trend.
You’ve been running this business now for about 10 years. What’s the greatest lesson that you have learnt about business?
Greatest lesson that I’ve learnt about business? There are several lessons o! (Laughing) Em…never to be too confident. No matter what people say about you and no matter what people say about your business, don’t get carried away with the praises. You need to remain focused. No matter the level you have attained, you can still go higher and no matter the knowledge you have, you can still acquire more. I remember when I just started, I felt I knew it all until when I met some certain clients and I discovered I still have a lot to learn. Some clients are very creative, they know what they want, they know about clothes as you do, so never think all your clients are not creative because they are not designers or else you’ll be shocked the day you’ll meet the one that might even be more creative than you. I have realized that it is not every creative person that is in the fashion business; some have channeled their creativity into other areas. So, never think you know it all or you are the most creative person. You need to be receptive. There are certain things you can learn from your clients. Knowledge is a continuous thing. So, keep learning.
Who was the first client that you had and is the person still with you?
My brother, Emmanuel was my very first client. He’s in the U.S now. He was the one that actually kick-started the Vans Kere brand. After I made up my mind to pursue fashion, I didn’t know how to commence or go about it. But I kept sketching designs. He got tired of me sketching designs everyday and nothing is happening. So, one day, he said guy, sketch, sketch, sketch…Ah-ah! When are you going to launch this thing? Okay, make something for me. How much will it cost? I told him and he said okay, take! That was how I started. I made a nice attire for him, he wore it to church, several people liked it and they wanted to know who made it. He told them it’s my brother o! Ehen! Please, can we have his contact? That was how the brand actually started.
How do you relax when you are not working?
I stay indoors and watch good movies. I’m not a very social person, so I don’t attend lots of events. I go occasionally to the beach with my family and I also visit the gym on weekends. I work really hard, so I don’t joke with my vacations. I take 2 weeks out to relax and forget about the job. I go to a different place, meet different people, do some shopping, come back refreshed.
Can we meet your family? You seem to love your family so much…
Yeah! I’m happily married. I have a lovely wife. Her name is Abies; we have been married for 9 years. We have 3 lovely kids, a boy and 2 girls. Shawn is 9 years; Pearl is 7 years, while Samara is 2 years.
What would you say has kept your marriage going in the last 9 years?
It has been God. He has kept my marriage intact. I constantly commit my work and family to Him. Only the fear of God can make a man humble and respect his wife. Also only the fear of God can make a woman respect her husband and be submissive. If you commit your marriage and your home to God, you are going to have a happy home.
NB: First published August 2014