Over a decade after taking the Nigerian fashion scene by storm, foremost Nigerian designer Zizi Cardow is still as fearless and confident as her designs.
Walking into Zizi Cardow's Raymond Njoku, Ikoyi store, the first thing that catches my attention is the row of awards that occupy the walls. Even more interesting for me is the doctorate degree that has been conferred on her by an American university and I ask her about this.
"I'm quite grateful and humbled by the awards and as many as you see, so also have been turned down. This year alone I've turned down about 6 awards but this weekend I'm receiving one in Port-Harcourt. The doctorate degree is a doctorate of philosophy in business and it was given to me by a university in America and the convocation ceremony was done in UNILAG. I was awarded on the same day as the late Christy Essien-Igbokwe."
In the year 2000, the Nigerian fashion scene comprised of very few individuals who believed in their craft and fought tirelessly to make it work. One of such people was Zizi Cardow. From designing clothes for herself, Zizi gradually branched out into designing for others and finally set up her fashion label, Zizi Cardow. 14 years on, Zizi still remains relevant in the fashion industry as can be attested by her numerous awards.
So what gave her the conviction to go into fashion at a time when it wasn't 'fashionable' to be in that industry?
I had a vision, I strongly believed in myself and I stuck it out. I started when people didn't understand what I was aiming at and I think I got labelled quite a few times because of it. I saw that opening that as Nigerians we needed an identity. Back then people would buy ready-made clothes and if you made clothes people would think you're nothing. But they failed to realise that countries like Italy and France have fashion as their biggest export. Now fashion has created a lot of jobs and people have seen the value in it. So for me back then I believed we could create an identity and showcase our vast potential. I also wanted to change the mindset that nothing good could come of here and also project my cultural heritage.
Back in the day, Zizi was quite famous for her super short skirts and she admits that she enjoyed stirring the controversy that her designs caused.
"I was younger and just designed out of passion. I designed with what came from within and I think I just derived more pleasure from rocking the boat and playing on the sensibilities of people. Our society is very fickle and I would even go as far as saying myopic. So it gave me the kicks to just throw things out there and see people rattled" she admits gleefully.
Having grown up in the midst of expatriates who would sometimes sun bathe topless, Zizi admits that her early influences contributed to her "wacky, eccentric and avant garde" sense of style and her free, somewhat radical spirit.
What has been the biggest difference from the time she first came on the scene to now?
The horizon has gotten more broadened. People are beginning to understand what fashion is about and the interpretation of what the designer is trying to put out. Designers are also beginning to learn to develop their own signature as opposed to just going with what seems to be working. There's also a lot more freedom of expression. I'm also happy with the fact that models are treated with much more respect and they're value in the scheme of things is better appreciated.
On how she's been able to stay relevant 14 years after, Zizi attributes this to hardwork and passion. "Designing doesn't run itself, its not just about the glamour. I'm also very hands on, I do all the cutting and if need be, I'll do the sewing as well so I know everything about my craft" she says.
Noticing the photo of herself and her gorgeous daughter on her desk, I'm curious to know if she's towing the fashion line like her mother.
"Naa. She's not in fashion, she's quite reserved actually. We are polar opposites, she's quiet while I'm the extrovert. She has no interest in fashion but she has a great sense of style. Whenever we go shopping she picks amazing pieces and I've said she could be a stylist, but she's studying criminal law"
Finally we want to know how she unwinds when she's not designing or piecing clothes together.
"A few years ago I would have said clubbing for sure but now its in church. I'm very involved in church activities now, not like I wasn't before but now I'm just more involved."
In her words, Zizi's latest collection is about romance and love. Not unlike her previous collections which have always represented self-love, confidence and embracing your silhoute. Over a decade of 'disturbing the peace' in the fashion world, there's no slowing down for the ageless beauty as she continues to encourage women to be fearless and confdent.