Princess Folaji Fasanya-Omoyeni is an IT consultant, creative entrepreneur and social entrepreneur. She is many things rolled into one and a multiple award-winning fashion designer. Not only is she the Chief Executive Officer and Creative Director of her UK-based clothing line, Ffolaji London, Fasanya-Omoyeni is also the founder of the non-profit organisation, Women In Creative Enterprise (WICE), which promotes creativity, digital skills and leadership in young women and girls. Fasanya-Omoyeni is also the convener of the African Wonder Women Organisation (AWWOrg), a non-profit initiative she launched in June 2021, following the loss of her dear husband at the onset of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Through AWW, she aims to redefine widowhood and encourage women to speak up against the stigma, stereotypes and biases experienced by African widows both in Africa and in the Diaspora. Her IT career spans many public and private establishments. In this interview with The Nigerian Xpress, Fasanya-Omoyeni opens up on her brand, ‘FFOLAJI’ and her passion for empowering women and girls.
You run initiatives that are female-based. What’s the driving force behind the organisations and why do you focus so much on women?
First and foremost, I am a woman. Secondly, I recognise that there are so many disadvantages around issues on women and girls globally. As a result of this, the United Nations have identified women as being at a lesser advantage, which is why they have focus on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that benefit the female gender. These sustainable development goals form the basis of our vision for both of my initiatives. We want equality for women. So, we are speaking and advocating for financial freedom for women. Being a woman, I have experienced a lot of biases in my time on earth. So, my business, Ffolaji London, is one that I set up to make women feel stylish and more confident , so they present themselves in a way that they look good and stand out. I’ve had a lot of feedback from my clients about how confident they feel when they wear my clothes, which has encouraged me to do more. On the back of my business, I also started Women in Creative Enterprise, an initiative that encourages women and girls to explore their creativity and support the development of digital and leadership skills. This initiative focuses on women for the same reasons as I mentioned before. We are making sure that women are not left out, because women are natural leaders and are naturally creative human beings. Also, as an IT consultant, I have always operated in an environment dominated by men, but with Women in Creative Enterprise, we are changing the narrative, one awareness at a time by encouraging women to include digital skills in their creativity. I aim to encourage women to feel connected, supported, courageous, fulfilled and inspired. I strongly believe that we are all born with unique talents and creative gifts that creativity is everywhere, is linked to everything we do and is the power that lies within. Through creativity, arts and culture, I hope that women can be dedicated to a continuous journey of self-confidence, personal growth and success. Also, we encourage women to take their creativity to the next level and make it an enterprise if they so desire. By so doing, we are helping them attain independence and financial freedom. I believe that by attaining financial freedom, women begin to have a voice and they are able to contribute to the development of their community, they are able to contribute to the family financially also it gives them the confidence to contribute to decisions, concerning themselves and their children. Furthermore, they are able to support their husbands, cater for themselves, and look after extended families where necessary. We recognise that when women are creative, it transcends income; it affects all of their existence positively and improves work and relationships. Creativity is not only about having products it’s about the whole mindset, it is about being creative in your thinking. All of these and more have been the basis for starting Women in Creative Enterprise.
As for African Wonder Women, again, that was on the back of my personal experience as a woman. It is an initiative that I formed while grieving the loss of my husband during the pandemic. On the back of that experience, the biases, the stigmas, the stereotypes that I personally went through, I realised that being able to express myself and my feelings empowered me. While grieving the loss of my husband, I connected with other widows, who also talked about their own losses and how my ability to express myself had inspired them. So, it occurred to me that we need to do more of this talking; we need to encourage African widows to express our feelings and let the world know the treatment African widows face because what we experience, following the loss of our husbands and partners is totally different to what other widows around the world experience. I am based in the UK, but I still experienced stigma and biases even whilst living in the Diaspora. Growing up in Africa, I know from what I read and from what people talk about that widows living in Africa experience these biases but I never actually imagined that residing in the Diaspora, widows would also experience this degrading treatment. I formed African Wonder Women, with the aim of redefining widowhood and giving African widows a voice all over the world, not just in Africa but also in the Diaspora and our focus is on African widows because what we experience is highly degrading and needs to stop.
The experiences widows face around the world, do think you it is based on social status?
Well, every widow’s experience is different but the bottom line is we experience biases in one form or another regardless of our status, education, or whether we’re in the Diaspora or Africa. The biases we experience vary, but they are still degrading, they are still an infringement on our rights, beliefs, persons and finances. The little distinction might be that there are laws in the Diaspora that prevent your deceased spouse’s relatives from coveting what you both worked for. The legal system in the Diaspora even goes further to state clearly the percentage of any estate left behind that goes to the living spouse. As an African widow, your social status means nothing to those who are out to deprive you of your rights. They look past your status and still believe you deserve nothing. The injustice they perpetrate puts every widow in a box of, you are a widow and as such, when it comes to ‘inheritance’, you are not worthy of consideration, regardless.
Tell us about your journey into the fashion world?
I have always loved fashion and have always been interested in looking good. Even as a child, I would choose my own clothes and style myself. Growing up, my mother had a hand-operated sewing machine, which I explored so much so that I ended up inheriting it. I used to make all sorts of things. My earliest memory is of me making chair backs to put on our sofas; the ones you decorate with lace and trimmings. I would sew them as a 13-year-old and adorn our sofas and guests, who came to the house, became interested. So, I started selling them. Family friends would pay me to make chair backs for them and consequently, I started learning to make outfits. I started with the Iro and Buba, which is very simple to make, then I learnt sewing and needlework in school. At one point, my friend’s mum taught my friend and I how to use dress patterns and to alter them to suit simple designs, which opened up a whole new world that got me so excited. I used to spend my pocket money on fashion magazines, which offered free patterns and that were how I started making outfits for myself and my siblings and even carried some of the outfits I made at home to sell at the university. It grew so much that I started making good money, enough to travel abroad at times and that was how my journey into the business side of fashion began. When I graduated, I set up a small fashion business, making bespoke outfits. Then I travelled abroad and soon started making simple ready-to-wear pieces. One day, in the late 90s or early 2000s, I walked into a high street shop and saw something that looked like ankara fabric (also known as African print or wax prints) and it had been designed into a nice, well-tailored, corporate outfit. I thought to myself, ‘this is my vision for my African inspired business and I am going to do this’ and that was the birth of Ffolaji London.
How would you say your brand has evolved over the years?
My brand has evolved in the way I do my business. When I started, social media was not widely used and the Internet wasn’t used the way it is now. I do not despise the days of small beginnings. I started my brand in our family dining room and although it is not where I would want it yet, it has grown from a dining room business and is still growing. My focus as well has grown from simple pieces like shawls, wraps and tops into elaborate pieces like formal and corporate wears, red carpet and party outfits and so on. I’ve been able to collaborate with other brands to empower artisans, widows, young women and girls in Nigeria. A few years ago, I was selected to showcase my collection on a platform for up-and-coming fashion brands during London Fashion Week and the feedback I received was very encouraging. This also opened up a lot of opportunities and my confidence grew. Women in Creative Enterprise where I support, mentor, train and teach others what I have learnt, one of my major achievements and this is on the back of the exposure I received on this platform and there is more to come. Today, I am honoured to have received 14 awards and recognitions for my contributions to African fashion and culture in the Diaspora and I am grateful.
What can we expect from you this year?
Due to the double bereavement I have suffered, I had to take time out to look after myself, but I am beginning to engage again. I am looking to launch my new pieces. My fashion brand is in collaboration with a Nigerian organisation that supports local artisans in Nigeria by empowering widows in creative skills. We will be using their amazing products in our new collection and I am so excited about this. The world is adapting to emerging global challenges and we are adopting new ways of working. I have started writing my book. I am in the process of launching Ffolaji, my personal brand to connect deeply and emotionally while sharing my thoughts, skills and experiences with others. I am going to be holding podcasts and talks starting in February where I plan to create space for women to have discussions, talk about what nobody is talking about and begin to transform mindsets in a safe, non-judgmental space. I plan to share what others and I learnt in our darkest moments to support, educate and give others, especially widows, hope. To equip that widow, who is going through that significant, emotional event and whose heart is heavy, the tools and knowledge they may require to begin expressing themselves, learn skills of self-rediscovery and understand that there is nothing wrong with them. To begin to speak up about the stereotypes, stigmas, biases and injustices that widows experience. To help women begin to gain awareness of and protect their mental wellbeing, in a support capacity, so they begin to feel encouraged to live a fulfilling life independently. To share through real-life stories that there is life after the loss of a husband. A lot is starting to unfold and I am excited.
What advice do you have for women generally?
My advice to women, especially widows would be, people are not always who you think they are. Go into relationships with your eyes wide open. You matter; you’re relevant regardless of your status and or situation. Know yourself, and be absolutely clear about who you are as an individual. When you know that, you will have the inner confidence that will help you realise that widowhood does not define you; you were made for more, you are powerful, you can start again and achieve whatever you set out to achieve. However, in order to do that, make sure that you are independent, have your own financial independence and put your finances in order. Get creative today. Creativity frees the mind, connects people and boosts mental wellbeing. Be kind, pay kindness forward, make positive contributions to society and be relevant wherever you find yourself. Stand out, be known, be counted, have a voice, speak up, let people know that you are not on this earth to be a spectator.