Lande Atere, Group Head, Branch Operations and Services at First Bank of Nigeria Limited, in an article, Nigeria: A Budding World Couture Capital?, commented on how Nigerians are now making clothes of a quality usually seen on international celebrities and the reverse trend of Nigerians living abroad avidly shopping for work wears at Nigerian fashion shows. There is no doubt about it, Nigerian fashion is punching far above the weight of the nation’s economic and even cultural might. The creations of Nigerian fashion designers stand in stark contrast to the country’s poverty and the chaos and dirt of our environment. This is a testimony to Nigerian creativity and resilience amidst so many crippling physical and institutional barriers. Imagine the boost to the nation’s fashion industry if the creations of Nigerian tailors and fashion brands were allowed as office wear? We made our calculations. And we spoke to an economist, Dr. Nonso Obikili of the Turgot Centre for Economics and Policy Research, Abuja. Our findings are an unpleasant surprise.
First, Dr. Obikili cautioned that consumer tastes do not change very quickly. Even if employees in formal sector jobs are suddenly allowed to wear more traditional dress, they may or may not opt out of western wear. Studies from all around the world demonstrate that consumer tastes change relatively slowly and tend to be driven by other salient factors like urbanization or generational preferences. We cannot assume that everyone or even most people would readily switch to Nigerian designs even if they were allowed at work. The Federal Civil Service is a case in point. Nobody really seems to care if you are dressed in suits or Osinbajo-style South South, but you would have noticed that while you see senior civil servants from the north in their embroidered starched Guinea attires and woven traditional caps, southern bureaucrats have resolutely stuck to their shirts, ties and suits.
Even if we are to assume that people do automatically change their preferences as a result of the national dress code change, and that local wear is completely locally sourced while western wear is imported, the effects are likely to be small simply because of the relatively small size of Nigeria’s formal sector employment. For instance, based on the latest data by the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics, the banking sector employed only 104,364 people. As at 2017, the total number of people in the finance industry was just over one million or roughly 1.3 percent of total employment. This is a largely insignificant number. For context, if you assume that everyone in the banking sector switched to traditional wear and purchased 10 new 100 percent locally sourced clothes at 15,000 naira per piece in the year, you would end up with roughly 15.6 billion naira in extra sales. This is less that 0.5 percent of the total value created in the textiles, apparel, and footwear industry in 2018, which produced almost three trillion naira in value. A largely insignificant impact.
Yet, the policy would stimulate creativity as Nigerian designers try to fulfill the demand from even 30% of Nigerian professionals and office workers who decide to enjoy the new found freedom to dress Nigerian to work. The world would start to pay more attention to Nigerian design if 50,000 of the nation’s best-paid people started to dress Nigerian to work. The impact may be less in the addition of this demand to the GDP but rather in stimulating the creation and projection of a Nigerian work wear style. It may help push Nigerian design beyond a tipping point over which many Nigerian designers would cross to become international brands.
Nigeria film and music industries have captured international attention partly because of our population and the increasing number of Nigerians in the west and other African countries. Nigerian fashion is of far better quality and could just take off miraculously with a little quantity-visibility boost. There are stories of visiting diaspora Nigerians carting off the ankara suit pants and skirts that their Nigerian friends can only wear during the weekend and wearing them to the office. A Nigerian lady who went to see off her friend had to go to the airport toilet to exchange her ankara shirt with her visiting Londoner friend’s tee-shirt. If Nigerians wore Nigerian design to work, not only would fashion designers and tailors (for modest budgets) respond by creating even more office wear styles, the styles would become another facet, and a very powerful one, of Nigeria’s international brand.
The wonderful thing about a dress Nigerian policy is that it is a policy with zero economic cost. It doesn’t require a subsidy. People don’t have to be forced; compliance would be entirely voluntary. No border has to be closed. It doesn’t require special dollar allocation. If all it ends up doing is to make a few tailors richer, and doesn’t help Nigerian designers crack the fabulously rich foreign fashion markets, it wouldn’t have made anyone poorer. Bring it on!