‘Buy a Piece, Change a Life’ | Prima Rouge Making a Social Impact

I am here to design change. . .every person is designed specifically with a set of abilities in order to be successful in a designated field.

– Tobi Martins

Oluwatobi [Tobi] Abisola Martins, based in Lagos, Nigeria, has a love for fine art and poetry and is a speaker, writer, poet, and agriculturist.  If you think that long list of talent is enough for anyone to manage, she is also the Creative Director/Designer for Prima Rouge.

Her website clearly states the mission of her brand – to promote a positive change in Africa, together with humanitarian partners aligned with her network in the creative and fashion community.  In this interview, you will understand the depth behind Tobi Martins and how she uses her fashion business as a platform, her multi creative talents, and vision to make a positive social impact.

Here is what Tobi had to say in an interview with EDGE. . .

Tobi, as a graduate in the field of Bio sciences, how did you get started in the fashion business and how do your other creative talents – writer, poet – interconnect with fashion?

I started by designing a haphazard collection as an amateur designer sometime in 2008/2009.  As it is done in Africa, we buy fabrics then give to tailors to sew for us and so I had shopped for some fabrics in Ghana when I went to visit my brother with the intention of using them for myself.  However, I used them with my sister acting as a co-designer to create this haphazard collection that was not cohesive in any manner but was a huge success.  The photo shoot location was my parents’ house; the models were I, my sister  and her friends.  I will also add that there were several things that I could naturally do and that is to combine colors and sketch; it was my natural abilities that led me in creating a collection in the first place.

©Prima Rouge | Courtesy of Tobi Martins 384(5)
[c] Tobi Martins, ©Prima Rouge | Courtesy of Tobi Martins
As a creative person, naturally, I love literature in school and I tried as much as possible to keep it as a subject even with my science class.  The use of word and language is why I became a poet and it flows naturally. Creative writing stems from this ability. I write fashion columns and blogs but my main interest is motivational writing and storytelling.  I am inspired to write by my personal challenges and it is usually driven by depth of emotion.

Who are your consumers, what is their profile?  Are they local, international, or both? 

Prima Rouge interestingly has always drawn an international audience from the get go.  When we started, we put our collection on Facebook and immediately started receiving orders from the US and UK.  That trend has always been with us, from bridal trains to embroidered men’s tunic.  We have a good Diaspora including non-Nigerian client base. That said, our male clients are usually young professionals with an African edge to their personal style while for females we cater to a wider age group mainly here in Lagos.  At home, we are focusing more on our bridal couture services.

If it is important to reach an international fashion consumer, how do your collections maintain its cultural heritage while adapting western influences?  

Prima Rouge has always always had an African contemporary aesthetic.  Even when I tried to move out of that appeal; I still find myself designing and being inspired by fabric fusions between African and Western; pushing their interpretations.  Our collections usually have that structured geometric detailing going on.  It’s something I have come to accept and love and, I suppose, it does give us a signature on collections over the years.  We have launched two collections on international platforms – one on Africa Fashion Week London’s runway and the other on Washington DC’s fashion week in junction with Kemris Collection.  We usually get good reviews and referrals.

How available and competitive are textiles and manufacturing in your local market and in Africa as a whole?   

Very available and very competitive.  So much so that it is very tempting going into the big fabric markets such as Lagos Island’s Balogun Market without spending more than you bargained for.  Our locally made indigenous fabrics in Yoruba land such as Adire (Tie Dye) are not as popular as the Ankara Wax prints and therefore not as competitive but very beautiful and unique none the less.

How important and how much of your collections are sourced and produced locally?   The saying goes, ‘it takes a village to. . .’  How involved and supportive is the government and community in fueling the growth, developing the infrastructure, etc.?   

It is important for aspects of our clothing to be sourced locally especially because we are an African contemporary brand and we do draw inspiration from our local fabrics.  That said, not all the fabrics can be used across board on our collections like the bridal couture dresses use imported laces, silks, and tulles for them. Regarding government support, there are resources available however, those resources are not easily accessible for all types of businesses.  There is also the constant need to generate power and find skilled manpower.  These factors hinder the growth of any small business and sharply affect turnover.

What about training and education, did you receive formal education for fashion design?  Are there fashion programs in the universities or accredited fashion schools?

In Nigeria, there are programs in polytechnics for fashion design.  I am not sure about universities. As a designer, I don’t have any formal education.  I am a scientist by study.  I learned on the job as I started as an amateur.  Formal fashion courses are definitely a route I would pursue, however, for now, I am more focused on growing the business with clear marketing strategies and improving my production and supply chain.

Exposure is the key in building brand awareness.  A fashion business has many options of exposure.  What are some of the platforms to showcase your work – fashion shows; trade shows; or local markets?   

Social media is and remains one of the most cost effective and viable ways to promote awareness in this age. We use this as a major push tool and we also do TV features as well as magazine features in order to promote our designs. Another aspect we are currently exploring is the pop-up shop route where we stock our pieces across small and medium stores in the country.  Lastly, we use eCommerce platforms to sell our pieces.  Fashion shows and exhibitions are good but they are very expensive and may not make financial sense for an upcoming fashion label.

What drives your passion for this fashion business?  What makes you feel celebratory?  

Even though the fashion industry is usually seen through a plastic lens, my aim and goal is to promote depth and I believe that depth and beauty/fashion are not mutually exclusive.  I have used our pieces to clothe survivors of domestic abuse in partnership with a charity organization and our platform TAS [The Alpha Series] uses a two-tiered approach to bring service partners of  the creative industry together with humanitarian organizations at the same time to drive profit for its member partners.


Image | nigerianculturaltradeshow.com

Tobi, I commend you in your mission and drive to empower women and the social impact that you make.  You meet the EDGE philosophy by leveraging your work in the context of today’s fashion industry and communicating how a fashion business can have a cultural impact.

Thank you, Tobi Martins!  EDGE wishes you continued success.

Feature Image:  German Nigerian Cultural Trade Show | tobimartins.wordpress.com


Rhonda P. Hill

Founder, Publishing Editor

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