We head to Lagos to spend time with models and agencies, to see how the country’s fashion identity is entering a bold, exciting new era
“I’m not from a worldly background,” says Ruth. When she first started modelling there was a lot she didn’t know – “I’d never heard of Naomi Campbell, I didn’t know who Kendall or Gigi Hadid were. My booker sent me home and made me google people like Tyra Banks,” she says, laughing.
She learned fast – “I used to like Kendall’s walk, but I’m not that into it anymore. I love Gigi’s walk. It is so powerful. I want to walk like that one day.”
After placing second in Nigeria’s Elite Model Look competition, Ruth has fast become one of the top models in Nigeria. She has done campaigns for leading African brand Jewel By Lisa and Maybelline, walked for almost every designer showing during Lagos Fashion and Design week, and opened and closed a number of major shows. She is now prepping to go global, and has garnered significant interest from international agencies.
Ruth almost missed her chance to get into modelling. When Ruth saw the modelling scout, she nearly sent her away. But there was something different about her. In Warri, Delta State, where Ruth grew up, people didn’t dress the way she did. Ruth sensed that the scout was a big name. Someone from another city. Still, Ruth had been asked to model so many times, by so many of the wrong people, that by now she was exhausted and convinced that anyone who talked to her about modelling was to be avoided. When the scout spotted her at the bank, and walked over and asked for her contact details, Ruth’s first thought was, “Oh my god – they have come again.”
Ruth, who stands at just under 6ft, is ethereal, with a figure that was crafted for the runway. She is striking, and so obviously perfect for modelling that it seems predestined that she would up in Lagos, pipped as a rising star with an international future. “Coming to Lagos was my only hope,” she says.
The scout took her details and a few days later messaged her over Facebook, telling her about two modelling competitions that she might want to enter. The first was Pearl Look, and the second was Elite Model Look, the international scouting competition that discovered Cindy Crawford, Gisele Bündchen and Lara Stone, and launched the careers of Nigeria’s three biggest international models, Victor Ndigwe, Mayowa Nicholas, and Davidson Obennobo – who won the competition worldwide in 2016. In Nigeria, Elite Model Look is exclusively run by Beth Models, Lagos’ oldest and most established modelling agency.
“I was a model in the UK,” says Elizabeth Elohor, the founder of the eponymous agency. “When I came back to Nigeria in 2001 I thought I might keep up modelling. I’d won Miss Nigeria UK, a beauty pageant, and a lot of people would say to me in Lagos that I should definitely model, but I couldn’t find any proper agencies. In the end, in 2004 I finally decided that I would start my own.”
In the 13 years since she made that decision, Elohor has built what is comfortably Africa’s top agency, starting the careers of models who have fronted international campaigns for the likes of H&M, Missoni, Calvin Klein and Versace Jeans, and who have walked in a dizzying array of shows, including Hermès, Zegna, Givenchy, DSquared2, Sandro, Moschino, Loewe, Balmain, and Ferragamo.
“I’d never heard of Naomi Campbell, I didn’t know who Kendall or Gigi Hadid were. My booker sent me home and made me google people like Tyra Banks” – Ruth Akele
It isn’t by chance that three successful black models have come from a single powerhouse agency based out of Lagos. While the mysterious alchemy that makes or breaks models is hard to divine, there are three elements that have fused here to make Beth such a competitive agency.
The first is that Beth was the earliest professional modelling agency in Nigeria. This allowed the agency to build up its reputation, not just in Lagos, but globally. It also enabled them to set up an efficient scouting operation throughout the country. Elohor tells me that the other day she was driving in Lekki, a modern city to the East of Lagos, when she saw a girl she thought had real potential. “I slammed on the brakes, pulled over, and I chased her, shouting “no no wait wait!” I said I’m a model agent – I didn’t say I own the agency – and got her to give me her number. When I said come to the office tomorrow I found out she already had an appointment! So clearly I have a good team out there,” she says, flicking her hair slightly.
Second, Nigeria is a country of 191 million people, it’s on track to be the fourth largest country on Earth. The average age, according to Statista, is 18. As such, it seems almost inevitable that if you were looking for the next crop of internationally successful black models that they would be Nigerian.
However, this demographic dividend would be irrelevant if it wasn’t for the fact that the Nigerian fashion industry has made huge strides in recent years, such that there is enough domestic demand to actually sustain a fully professionalised modelling industry. Young, forward-thinking Nigerian brands are doing incredibly well Orange Culture has shown at Pitti in Florence and was a finalist for LVMH in Paris. Tokyo James, Style Temple, and Meena are all brands defining the country’s rising fashion identity. Lagos now hosts two international standard fashion weeks, GTV and Lagos Fashion and Design Week. Fashion publications like A Nasty Boy are championing the local scene and slowly getting noticed across the world.
Beth is also not the only agency in Lagos. FEW, an agency that opened in 2015, has placed 9 models in international agencies, including IMG, Marilyn Paris and Elite. They also represent Elizabeth Ayodele who recently walked for Fendi, Miu Miu and Saint Laurent in her breakout first season in Milan. Increased competition is obviously a net positive for the wider industry. “I’m trying to add value to the domestic market,” says Elohor, “I can’t do that if I send all my models abroad.” As Laura the Head Booker notes, there are jobs in Lagos that can earn a model 1mn Naira (£2,267), though she admits they aren’t the majority.
There is a difference between models who work well internationally and those who work well domestically in Nigeria. For the international market they are looking for tall, skinny models, who can fit the strict requirements of the sample sizes, and typically look for darker skinned models. The domestic market prefers light skinned models, isn’t bothered by height, and wants more flesh. “For example, Victor, who has worked so well internationally, hasn’t really booked anything here, he’s too skinny,” Elohor says.
Interested to see what the domestic market actually looks like, I ask if I can go with Ruth to some of her castings. We meet at the agency and she is dressed in the international models uniform: black skinny jeans, a black crop top which shows off her flat stomach, and light, barely perceptible makeup. Her hair is slicked back tightly. She has a slight scar on her cheek, the equivalent of Claudia Schiffer’s mole.
We drive through the early morning traffic to Polo Avenue, an upscale multi-brand boutique that stocks luxury brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton. When we arrive another Beth model Onyinye is already there. She is booked for a job and is there for the fitting. Ruth is made to put on some high heels, a green hat, and to carry a red Gucci bag that says Real on the side. She walks the length of the store, as if on the runway. If she gets the job she will be this season’s #polomuse.
“Internationally, they look for tall, skinny, typically darker skinned models. The domestic market prefers light skinned models, isn’t bothered by height, and wants more flesh” – Elizabeth Elohor
Next, we stop by Jewel by Lisa, headed by the celebrated local designer Lisa Folawiyo. They’ve already used Ruth for three campaigns. “Everyone is crazy about her,” says Zara Okpara the PR Manager who was overseeing the fitting. Ruth tried on some items from Jewel by Lisa’s diffusion line, which sells for around £50-£150, while their main line, which features intricate traditional embroidery can sell for anywhere up to £1,000.
As we drive back to the agency Ruth looks out of the window. “The hustle and bustle of this city is so serious,” she says. When I ask Ruth if her family have been supportive of her modelling career she shakes her head.
As Elohor notes there are still misperceptions about the modelling industry in some quarters. Some of her models, like Ruth, are not from cosmopolitan places like Lagos, and their families don’t necessarily understand what it means to become a model. Nigeria is a conservative country and it can sometimes take convincing. “Even Mayowa. She was scouted in 2013, but her family wouldn’t let her come. It was only in 2014 that we managed to get her to be allowed to compete in Model Look,” says Laura Okah, who acts as her manager in Nigeria.
“It was really hard to convince them. I had to walk out on my dad. Sometimes they would call me and say they are coming to get me and take me back. Things are getting better now that they see I’m doing well,” says Ruth.
“At first, I wasn’t even sure about modelling,” she admits. When she attended Elite Model Look, it was her first time ever in Lagos, and she’d only been in the city for three days by the time of the competition. “On the first day, the head of Elite Look was like, Ruth, if only you can walk well, you will win this competition,” Ruth says, “and I was like, ok, I will try. But whatever I did, I couldn’t get it.” She had never worn heels before, which didn't help.
“The organisers would say competition day is coming! In my head I was just like, days come and go, please, just let me go back to Warri. But I didn’t want to embarrass myself, so I gave it my best shot,” she says.
The hard work paid off, and she’s excited for her next step she is travelling to the US at the end of the summer to meet with agencies. It will be her first trip outside of Nigeria.
In the meantime though, she has come to enjoy modelling. “When you’re on the runway, you're so focused, you can’t see the crowd along the sides, or anything else. It’s dark – all the light is on you,” she says.