By Tope Templer Olaiya, Assistant Lagos City Editor
American fashion icon, Ralph Lauren, who built a global multi-billion dollar enterprise, when asked the secret of his fame, once responded with a quip: “I don’t design clothes; I design dreams.” This is the statement Patience Torlowei, an artist from Nigeria and a specialist in the textile sector, has brought to life with her stunning dress, Esther.
Simply known among friends and associates as Patience, the founder of Patience Please, the first registered lingerie manufacturer in Nigeria, has caught global attention with Esther, her rave-making special piece of art that has berthed at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.
Esther is an encapsulated story of the struggles and pain of the Niger Delta; and more importantly, illustrates the power of hope and of one person to change the world by giving people hope.
The dress itself, is a stunning silk ball gown designed and hand painted by Ms. Torlowei. History was made when Esther became the first item of high fashion to be ever requested by the Smithsonian as a permanent exhibit.
However, before making its final journey to Smithsonian, Esther was hosted to a send-off cocktail party in Lagos and unveiled at the weekend before a select distinguished audience at the Metropolitan Club.
Before unveiling the spectacle that has launched Nigeria at the biggest home for arts collection, distinguished nonagenarian, Mr. Akintola Williams, was full of praise for Esther. To him, there could be no better way to remold Nigeria’s battered image.
“This special piece of art making deserves our support. On August 3, she will be leaving our dear country to become a part of the Smithsonian Institute’s permanent collection as the first piece of high fashion ever to have been accepted by the Museum of African Art,” Mr. Williams explained.
“In light of Nigeria’s current image on the world stage, it is clear to me that such high and unique achievement as Esther deserve our support and our acknowledgement of this feat by a Nigerian designer and artist, who has made a mark in a significant moment of our country’s history,” he added to a rousing cheer.
Like all of life’s greatest stories, which would always be incomplete without the tinge of pain and sadness, the story of Esther, was narrated by her designer, Patience, in a stirring address that moved the audience almost to tears.
All men who have achieved great things have been great dreamers and it was this special dream that Patience rescued from the brink of botch, which has now deservedly earned her an international acclaim.
“We all go through life looking for a way to leave our own personal mark on the world. Some live their lives never discovering how they can do this, but I was, however, lucky enough to find my tools to leave my mark in the world of art and fashion,” Patience said to a stilled audience, which was already hanging on to her words.
“When things want to happen in life you have to prepare for them, you must go through the required fire. I came to Nigeria in 2009 with a heavy heart, a heart to change my country, to make a mark and Nigeria a hub for under-garment manufacturing, the first in Africa. I know I have to be refined, but I am grateful I met a few people who pulled me through that difficult moment of my life.
“One of the people I met that dusted me up and led me the distance is Ms. Evelyn Oputu. I remember what Oputu once said to me, ‘Patience, why are you so much talented; you are the best designer I can think of, how come it is not putting food on the table for you?’ It got me thinking hard and long on why I returned to Nigeria. I cried my eyes out and asked myself why did I come to Nigeria to be wretched. I was doing well in Europe.”
Unknown to Patience, her name turned out to be a virtue, a bitter pill she had to chew. With such encouragement from the former Bank of Industry Managing Director, Patience picked herself up and once again dusted the tatters of her dream.
“I did a work for Oputu. She called me and told me I have to make her a dress for an event the next day in Abuja. So, I stayed up all through the night to get the dress ready and deliver it in the morning. Later the next day, she called me to say, ‘Patience, expect some calls.’ I didn’t worry about that any more, I was prepared to move back to Europe.
“I had started packing my bag when I got a call to be at a place where an event was being held for children. Incidentally, the jacket I wore resembled the one I made for Oputu, which according to her, caused a distraction while she was delivering her speech. Apparently, this dress was that good and they wanted to know who made it.
“One of the people I made it for went back to America and I got a call few weeks later, ‘Patience, what did you do to this dress you sewed? People have not stopped talking about it and even children are acknowledging me. I have never worn any thing in my entire life that has got me so noticed and it fits me like glove.’ That made my day, but there was more to come.
“She wore the dress to New York, it was to the Smithsonian Institute conference and everyone wanted to know where she got it from. Coincidentally, they were marking a fashion show for an ongoing exhibition and I was selected. I was given a date for this event in August shortly after my mum had passed away in July.
“Eventually the exhibition with the theme ‘Earth Matters’ was held in February and there were eight exhibitors from Africa; I was the only one from Nigeria. The other designers had sponsorships from their countries, four were presidential sponsorships, I had no one to sponsor me. I had to go with my meager sum but I love what I was doing.
“I chose to do something about Africa, with stories covering Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo, South Africa and Nigeria. When I came up on stage, there was silence in the hall, followed by uproar and a standing ovation. Others were bidden goodbye from the exhibition, I was asked to stay back.” And that began Patience’s journey to stardom.
“I started to get media interviews because of this dress; they wanted to know the value of the dress so they could buy it; but instead I offered to donate it to the museum. I named her Esther, because of my mother. All this happened to me just after she died.”
The Smithsonian Institute, established in 1846 is a group of museums and research centers administered by the United States government. It has an eclectic holding of 137 million items, a nucleus of 19 museums, nine research centers and a zoo.
Esther’s designer, Patience has a factory based in Lagos and her design label produces quality lingerie to compliment a woman’s inner beauty and self-respect. She launched her first line in 2006 with Patience Torlowei BVBA, a bridal wear company.
Within two years, the brand has supplied wedding and cocktail dresses to over six countries in Europe alone. In 2008, the company added lingerie to its offerings because of the lack of wedding lingerie available to budding brides. This was further pushed by Patience’s personal love for exquisite underwear.
With a high demand coming from all over Europe for Patience Torlowei designs, she looked to Nigeria, her home country, for production, giving back to a country fighting to join the first world. By educating young unemployed people and giving consideration to the environmental, social and corporate governance issues, she has helped create a sustainable and responsible business that yields returns to a lot of young people.
Among the audience that saw off Esther to the Smithsonian included such fashion afficonado as Abba Folawiyo, Maiden Alex-Ibru, Lilian Unachukwu, Seni Williams, among many others.
Bidding Esther goodbye and ending the night of glitz, Prof. Pat Utomi, thanked the designer, for her masterpiece and wished her well in her future endeavours.