Saturday, 9 March 2019
FASHION ICON, SISI ABAH AGEING GRACEFULLY @ 77
Hajia Abah Folawiyo is 77, but you won’t believe it when you see her physically. She looks
good. She is also called Sisi Abah because of her good looks. She has been looking good for
decades. Don’t forget she is a leading fashion designer who has dominated the fashion scene
since the 80’s 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
Despite her hubbys death years ago, she has coped with the life of a widow.
At 77, she has become a lot more religious.
She has lost so much weight. She now looks trendy and slim. Nothing about her really has
changed. She is still the same old jovial Sisi Abah who is friends with several 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 also friends with those younger than her, like the Ita Giwas,
Erelu Dosunmu’s, who are in their 70s. Then comes those in their late 59s and 60s like the
Bola Sagayas, 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 them, they see Grandma Abah
Folawiyo as the their friend. How has this woman been able to make and sustain her
friendship with all these generation of women?
These and many of such questions agitated the mind of City People when we kept a date with
the grand dame of fashion at her sprawling Ikoyi home in Lagos a while back. Below are
excerpts of her interview.
How do you feel being in your 70s.
I feel the same. I am still the same Sisi Abah you’ve known for decades from the 70s, up till
now, nothing has changed life goes on. Life continues.
How come Sisi Abah was able to dominate the social scene for the past 5 decades and she is
still relevant today?
It is the Grace of God. I am a very happy person. There is no dull moment with me. 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 77?
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?
No. I don’t have any view about my self. I have not changed at all.
What are the lessons you’ve learnt at 77?
A lot. Been a good person. Been 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 one?
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 on 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 you were 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
live 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
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 a 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, that was the big business then, in Nigeria
everybody was into it then, and nobody appreciated dress making or what the few designer were
doing then. Nobody.
You keep talking of dress making. Is if the same as designing or tailoring? What’s the
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 is 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 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 show. 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 do in Nigeria. It was Obasanjo
that helped us when he became head of state and banned all these imported and ready make
clothes and dresses and fabrics.
And that was when my factory started booming and people realized what we were doing then.
People buy my design then and they 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 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 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 design, the look I want people to have of me. I have not changed my looks for