Nigerian fashion designer Ugochi Iwuaba is a force to be reckoned with.
In less than five years, the mother-of-three has gone from designing clothes in her spare time to creating couture gowns for the Met Gala red carpet, opening a flagship store, and showcasing her work at Fashion Weeks in London, New York, and California.
All of which seems too good to be true—and it is, without context.
Born and raised in Nigeria, Iwuaba never dreamt she would reach such heights. “My parents were very traditional and strict,” she tells me. “They wanted me to go into a more prestigious career like a doctor or a lawyer but, as a young girl, my dream was to become one of the best fashion designers in Africa.
“It did not feel attainable because no-one supported it, and there were no fashion schools to go to in Nigeria, so I wasn’t able to start my fashion journey until I came to the US ten years ago.”
Still, she didn’t have the luxury of diving in the deep end when she arrived. With a husband and two children in tow, Iwuaba had to rely on the security of a 9-to-5 job, meaning she was only able to design and make clothes in her spare time.
When she did, however, she’d upload photos of them to social media. By 2016, she’d built a small but passionate following of potential customers and began thinking about how she might be able to achieve her childhood dreams.
Then tragedy struck. In a matter of months, Iwuaba lost her job, found out she was pregnant, and was told that her baby would be diagnosed with Down Syndrome.
“Nobody knows how much that affected me, with doctors trying to get me to get an abortion and telling me all these sad stories about babies with Down Syndrome,” she said. “With no job and soon-to-be three kids, it was a really bad year for me.”
Iwuaba knew she would need to be able to work from home while she cared for her child, but had limited options on the table. “I took what I had left within me and decided to pour my energy into fashion and starting my business. I knew that it was a sign for me to start.”
While pregnant, Iwuaba enrolled in a local small business program and began putting her next steps together.
“I come from a background in Nigeria where people don’t normally get big bank loans to start their businesses—you start by making money yourself, and then you reinvest.
“I was always told that I couldn’t open a business in America. Everyone told me that. But I started my luxury fashion business without capital and without knowing anyone who bought luxury fashion. My finances came from me building something out of nothing.”
On New Year’s Day 2017, just one month after giving birth to her son, she officially registered the business.
From there, juggling business-building and family-managing has not been easy, but she’s learned to rely on strict scheduling and the support of her extended family to do both to the best of her ability.
Iwuaba’s eye-catching designs are earning her a growing bridal and formalwear fanbase
“Of course, there was no way I could run a home business during COVID,” she admits. “I believe in custom-made clothing.”
As it was not feasible for her clients to come to her home during the pandemic, Iwuaba figured it was time to open up a physical store.
“Even though the fashion industry is becoming more digital, we cannot take out the human factor in fashion. Clothes are made for people. People need to get their measurements and their clothes fit. If you’re going to fit people into a custom-made outfit, you need a showroom.”
In an increasingly digital marketplace, the San Diego-based store may not have been an obvious move for an emerging designer—but it’s paid off in spades.
The showroom gave her an additional access point to new clients, when lockdown-ed pickings were slim, and piqued the interest of stylists near and far.
One stylist, in particular, who contacted Iwuaba on the hunt for the perfect Met Gala dress.
“When I got the DM, I didn’t take it seriously,” she admits, “but like every good business person, I responded and did a little bit of research.”
When she found out the stylist, Ashley Loewen, worked with E!’s Nina Parker, she realized it might be real.
Iwuaba’s designs are typically bright, bold, and tip-toe right on the edge of avant-garde, weaving West African aesthetics into beautifully structured gowns, suits and more. Parker’s being no exception. The goddess-inspired, embellished (and caped!) gown the host wore to the Met Gala marked her as one of the best dressed of the night, and marked Iwuaba as a red carpet heavy-hitter.
And it’s only the beginning.
As well as selling her clothing in stores and malls across the US, Iwuaba’s long-term goal is to go back to Nigeria to help talented young designers find their own path to success.
“I want to help them expose their talents to the Western world,” she says. “It was hard for me when I first started, but if we can all reach back and help people, then it may not be as hard for the next designer to come out of nowhere.”
A sapphire blue Ugochi Iwuaba gown with cut-outs and a sheer cape