This is a personal story.
The man stopped me outside the church. He sauntered in my direction, straight backed, squared shoulders, wearing his plush navy-blue senator suit with aplomb. A gold watch peeked from the left cuff.
“Excuse me,” he said, pointing. “Your jacket.”
“Sir?” I replied, with one arched eyebrow. My eyes were saying, What about my jacket?
“Please, where did you get it?”
“Oh wow,” I made a light, rolling caress of the left lapel with my right hand’s thump and first finger. “Wow… wow, it’s been a while.”
“Cool colour. My favourite.”
“Yes, I can see that,” I smiled. “You’re wearing it right now.”
“It’s beautiful. Where can I get it?” the man said.
“I doubt if they’d still have it. Got it from Ouch.” I pointed to the beaded crest.
“Interesting. It’s very nice. When did you get it?”
“Wait,” I cocked my head, eyes narrowed to remember. “Ten years ago.”
That’s right. Jesus is right. And I get that reaction all the time for this blazer I’ve owned for a decade.
In that period, Ouch Couture (stylised as Ouch!), which Uche Nnaji founded in Lagos 2006, has fully come into its own as the modern man’s homegrown yet world class label. Once, during the remarkable image relaunch of the then presidential candidate, General Muhammadu Buhari (GMB), Mr Nnaji even received a call to clothe the former military head of state. This was in 2015. The politician, previously preserved in the public’s memory as a stern-mugged, agbada wearing, iron-fisted ruler from the dark 80’s, needed to temper his appearance for the social media generation. He required a “dapper look,” Uche said.
However, the first time Uche’s phone rang on this matter, he was away in Milan. Of course, he did relish the opportunity and promptly accepted the challenge—for what could be more daunting and possibly name-making than having to rush three bespoke suits for your country’s future president, especially when you both had never met face to face?
Because Uche’s brand is to make his own suits from scratch, he wouldn’t take the easy route of collecting Mr Buhari’s stats, stroll into some of the big shops in Italy and pick a few white label suits. Instead, said Uche, “I studied [General Buhari’s] frame… my online fashion training assisted me.” And by the time Uche delivered those suits for the president, all doubts quickly vanished.
When Uche, 41, later told this story to The Sun newspaper, he was, understandably, quite proud. “Armed with three suits,” he said, “I stood before the then presidential candidate and he asked, ‘Are you the person that will dress me? Let me see the miracle you will perform.’ Of the three suites I took along with me, one was simply perfect.”
This has been one of the proudest moments of his career, he said, although he’d earlier made some casualwear for President Goodluck Jonathan, who would eventually lose that election to Buhari.
If you operate at the highest levels of the economy as Uche and Ouch do, you too might command connoisseurial clientele as they do. Aside from politicians in high office, actors, musicians, and senior businesspeople have been photographed in Ouch!, conferring on Uche some peerless social cred.
Barring the few off-target shots, Ouch, over time, has mastered the image of success for itself and those who drape the label over their shoulders. “I have always believed that a good suit aids your style,” Uche said. Oh yes, it does.
But you could tell that as he’s grown, so have a gaggle of Ouch-lites. This is because the market demands it. In a drastically economically segmented system such as Nigeria’s, the label would naturally inspire copies whose use is to service the customer for whom Ouch may be out of reach.
With the business model now studied and made public, more young Nigerians with gumption could find their way to Turkey, Italy, Paris, or London to source the fabrics and tailors for their own line of workwear, athleisure, European-African hybrid designs, or partywear. Or they could straightforward reverse-engineer the pieces that catch their fancy, right here at home. It wouldn’t matter to their customers that these new labels may not have the distinguished character you find in, say, an Ouch/Uche Nnaji blazer.
What you see is a certain predictable cut and fit, a shouty monogram on the left, and, more often than not, an overload of several style elements that, put together, might not only feel like sartorial pornography but also make one lose individuality as if one just rolled off an assembly line of generic gentlemen and ladies.
But, as already observed, there’s a market for that, and there isn’t a law broken by learning the tricks of the trade from the giants who’d come before. Even Ouch himself might have borrowed a thing from its forerunners—Sophisticat, Bevista, Frank Oshodi, Deola Sagoe, Mudi. They might have made their names between the 80s and early 2000s but they are also evidence that the high-street perfectionism which draws in presidents didn’t begin with Ouch.
Uche, a political science graduate of the University of Lagos and an alumnus of the Fashion Institute of Technology New York, is now an esteemed member of Nigeria’s new generation of fearless designers, with Lisa Folawiyo, Mai Atafo, David Wej, and a few others. Uche’s identity is that he straddles opulence and accessibility quite distinctly. Online or offline, within the middle to upper class market, he’s built a reputation for offering prestige in quick time.
This, it appears, is due to good taste. “Good taste is a skill,” according to bestselling marketing coach Seth Godin. “Good taste is knowing what your audience will like just before they do.” So, like GTBank, which created a system of slip-less banking and plays Asa’s music in its access control vestibules, or Apple or Mercedes Benz or Porsche or Ralph Lauren, Ouch has something that simply connects.
The story of good taste may not begin with how one is born but can it be completely told without where and how one is raised? Probably not. For instance, before he dressed the American dream, Lauren grew up a son of middle-class immigrants in New York who dreamt of passing off as a preppy young man from one of those established British families. Lauren began with ties such a person would wear and then expanded into suits.
It has been said that without Ralph Lauren, there wouldn’t be Tommy Hilfiger. Now, does anyone remember that Ralph Lauren wasn’t even his real name? (It’s Ralph Lifshitz.) But does it even matter?
Before he launched Ouch, Uche Nnaji too was drawn to British fashion. “When I was growing up, I would go to Yaba or Lagos Island to buy second-hand British shirts, the types my dad also wore, like Thomas Pink, TM Lewin and Austin Rees,” he said. His dad, even with the knowledge that those shirts came from thrift stores, worried that they might still be too costly for the boy. He said to his son, “You dress like a king and prince when your father is not.”
This was way before the younger Mr Nnaji grew his good taste into a business, beginning by making shirts for fellow undergrads in his university, then four years later opening his first store—the Maryland, Lagos flagship “Ouchlet”—one year after he graduated. He’s staunchly pursued the expansion of that business since. These days, Uche might not be king himself but dressing kings certainly looks good on him.
This feature was first published in The Guardian (Nigeria) on January 23 2021
All pictures, except the crest, adapted from Uche Nnaji/Ouch Couture.