Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Sofisticat @ 30, Warming up to a Grand party

PERHAPS, Lagos-based pioneer fashion company, Sofisticat, may not only represent a rallying point for Nigerian politicians, company executives, and trendy men, who wish to satisfy their ‘fashionable’ tastes; it is also a place where men, deemed ‘sophisticated,’ converge to express deep dress sense.
Inside any of the showrooms, the compelling impulse for a first-timer will be to, first, relish the aesthetic beauty, which variety of garments and other accessories confer on it, before taking a decision on what to pick. In case he has a camera, it will be ‘no-holds-barred’ as to the number of clicks.
Some of the fabrics now on display at some of the centres are imported, but the enterprise, which Lanre Ogunlesi the managing director co-founded with his younger brother in the 70s, goes down in history as one of the first ventures that pioneered the business of garment making in the country.
Of course, price tags on the items look deterring to people in certain rungs of the social ladder. But, with the exotic array of garments –– suits of all kinds –– shoes, ties and other fashion accessories with palatial picture of nobility, the customers need no doubts.
At the Bank Anthony, Maryland, office of Sofisticat, youthful Ogunlesi, explains: “We attain great quality, but also attain price that is not crazy. Now, if the normal street price for sewing is N8, 000, we cannot sew for N20, 000. We only review our prices by 10 per cent once a year to cover inflation”.
Indeed, there is every sign that, the current global economic meltdown, notwithstanding, the business outfit is having a good outing.
“The depreciation of the Naira will have automatic impact on telecom companies, car dealers and generator sellers, who place orders, but for us, it will take a while before we get the impact”, he says.
As the company counts down to the grand finale of its 30 years anniversary, later next month, there is no doubt that the Ogunlesis and the Sofisticat brands have been successful in their rights.
The CEO would boast to any one that cares to listen that the men’s fashion house is probably bigger than some companies, which stocks are today traded on the floor of the Nigerian Stock Exchange. “We are bigger than some of the people who are listed, but we don’t really want to go that way.”
Why not? “That will be a discussion for another day.”
How the personality of this Ijebu-born dressmaker has helped to drive the Sofisticat brand, and vice versa, has remained unclear. Before delving into the then murky waters of fashion business, Ogunlesi only had a stint with an advertising agency, a development that highlights the role of determination and entrepreneurial drive in the celebrated success of the venture. Ironically, he now preaches the sermon of, “one must be a tailor to go into tailoring.”
He, therefore, thinks beyond the business of garment making, exploring opportunities in training graduates on how to use sophisticated equipment, an idea, he says will help the country compete favourably in the international market.
“We are looking at setting up a graduate training school to mature people, who have had the basic education and want to go into clothes making with sophisticated machines,” he says.
“We hope that someday, Nigeria will compete with the West in the industry. We have the infrastructure and the population –– we only need to teach people the skills.
“We plan to establish a grooming centre for men upstairs. We are also planning a mass revolution of this premises, because we are going to have a lounge and a real massive redevelopment and designing,” he reveals.
Ogunlesi’s personality underscores the brand name, which is a smart coinage to express the target market — the very sophisticated. Looking elegant in his tight-fitting suit and tie to match, the exuberant proprietor of says there’s no limit to elegance at Sofisticat.
“I’m sophisticated; and I dress very well. Sofisticat is derived from the word, sophisticated,” he owns up.
“Traditional wears for different tribes — Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa — it is the men’s shop. We have everything for men — shirts, ties, traditional wears, and shoes.
Sofisticat’s clientele profile? Almost intimidating — “politicians, presidents, business men, civil servants, governors” — boasts, the proud CEO.
“ In fact our clientele is very wide. It is for the man, who is conscious of what he wears.”

Abinitio, the outfit as a business had ambitiously set out to carve a niche: “We have three different shops with three different qualities catering for three different categories of the market.
“We are also in cosmetics and many of our products are copied in Europe, especially skin beauty. We didn’t register that brand in the UK. So, they copy the product and even use the brand. It is incredible”
Tracing the origin of the outfit, Ogunlesi says Sofisticat started business over 30 years ago, when the art of garment making was not a fashionable business. At that time, 100 per cent of the clothes that gentlemen wear were imported.
“All you had then were boutiques importing ready-made garments from Europe. Nobody thought that garments could be made in Nigeria.
“Maybe the military government felt it was a drain on foreign exchange and decided to put a ban on the importation of ready-made garments around 1978. With that, we saw a business opportunity; and we set out for it very quickly. Within six months, we were able to get our factory running, on July 1, 1976.”
He says securing the initial capital was relatively easy, as he and his younger brother had set out with N13, 000, which probably would amount to one million Naira, today.
“We had premises we could use then. We bought new singer essential equipment that were required to start the business.”

Ogunlesi informs that the vocation is good, once you get the right skills and loyal workers, as well as being able to cope with the general infrastructure problems which are the major obstacles to sustaining profitability.
“There is production problem, because we have shortage of manpower. I talked about not having skilled manpower and people not having the patience to serve a master for three years –– they rather prefer selling recharge cards by the roadside –– because they and their parents need money”.
Perhaps, Ogunlesi’s worry at moment has to do with the dwindling profit margins. Of course, he had relished the boom of the late 80s and early 90s, when tailoring, as a business, was substantially profitable.
“Now, you have to spend money on generators and diesel. He, however, believes that should the government lift the ban on textiles, foreign investors would be attracted into the fashion industry.”

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