We had a chat with Victor Nja about his journey, styling some of Nigeria’s biggest celebrities, the present and future of African fashion and how his brand Tuff World is contributing to its growth.
Something that struck me while preparing for this interview was your age, I mean you’re quite young for the long roll of credits in your career, So tell me, how did you get here?
Victor Nja: I’d say me trying to discover myself as a child. My parents and family in general loved music and fashion. We used to look forward to Christmas, you know…the new clothes and shoes, parties and all of that. We had our church clothes, house clothes, and party clothes. Big thanks to my mum for being a strong influence.
Being born and bred in Lagos didn’t quite equate to having much, but there was love. This gave me the strength to be independent; I started to look cool from my high school days. I remember always saving money to shop for clothes and shades. I wanted to do Art in secondary school but I ended up being pushed to science; eventually, I studied History at the University of Calabar. Didn’t think about doing fashion full-time until I was graduating, I also made the decision to move to Ghana to focus on my trade and then moved back home in 2017. Started styling from there and it’s been a long long journey to where we are now. And I’m still headed to the destination.
We can all agree Nigeria is fast becoming a top player in the global fashion industry. Over a couple of years, we’ve seen homegrown fashion brands rise to become very influential locally and internationally. Why do you think or believe it’s important for a brand like TUFF World to be birthed in this time capsule?
Victor Nja: Everything takes time, when I made the decision to move back to Lagos, the plan was to start my brand but I also realized I had to work as an assistant or a stylist for some time. At that time there was little or no structure in the local ecosystem compared to now, just a few players. I later got introduced ta few people I worked with, and that just gave me most of the experience and exposure I needed. I found the drive and a purpose to create. TUFF isn’t just out there to produce our own merch, we’re also trying to fix problems in the industry; building the bridge between homegrown brands and international customers is another priority for us. The whole new wave around Afrobeats is glaring, from Burnaboy, Wizkid, Tems to Rema, just look. We’re trying to leverage this momentum to build something inclusive for the space.
How did you come about the name ‘TUFF’
Victor Nja: Literally, that’s the life of every black man. I studied History so I’m well-versed on how far we’ve come. It’s a tough world out there, rich or poor.
Which designers/fashion houses have influenced your love for this career as well as your fashion choices? Local and International brands.
Victor Nja: Someone I really looked up to in the early days is Pyer Moss. It was incredible to see a black man create best-selling products in a global market. I’m influenced by shows and expressions too. Like J. Cole, his expressions inspired me to pursue my dreams.
You’re one of the most notable fashion stylists in the Nigerian Entertainment space, your portfolio is really impressive. Do you mind taking us on a journey on how that started and how you hacked your way through?
Victor Nja: I struggled. It was never easy for real. I don’t come from a privileged background but we were well equipped. I had better-off friends. But I kept my head up and strived. I work like a crazy man. From way back my friends and I have always been fly. I always knew so I worked the time, was patient and eventually everything aligned. Before I started my brand, I chose to work and learn, but today that’s not the case with others, they don’t believe in the experience. The people I worked with back then were really helpful for my growth. I was here alone because my family moved back to Calabar, but it didn’t feel like because I enjoyed working and learning under their tutelage. Before i forget, my friends and I used to style Asake too.
What was your most interesting as well as your most challenging styling work so far?
Victor Nja: Every gig is a challenge. Every gig is interesting. You know fashion is diplomacy. I’m always excited to create, excited about the next job too. I’m never happy being idle. I started styling at 15k and I watched my price go up without any investments or proper structure. I see myself as the T.G Omori of styling, the only way is up from here.
Let’s dive more into TUFF, at first glance it appeals to me as high street fashion/luxury brand that’s come to disrupt the booming streetwear scene out of Lagos, Nigeria right now, but a deeper glance presents a fashion-tech solution that’s actually solving a real problem. Could you tell us more about that?
Victor Nja: TUFF is a creative community cantered around fashion, but we will eventually expand into other industries in the near future. We’re building a bridge between international and local brands. I strongly believe that fashion discovery today is still a difficult task. Most people only shop when they travel because of quality and reputation. Brands like Ashluxe have changed the narrative for homegrown fashion houses, just like how Tems, Asake and the likes are doing with our music. On TUFF, you will shop quality items from your favourite brands. Also, we want to solve the issue of production for our vendors. A lot of them have the ideas but no capacity to bring to reality. We want to change that. The amount of talented folks in our society is enormous, so big that it’s hard to confidently tell where the dope stuff is. We have a product that will allow fashion lovers and creators express themselves however they choose to through clothes and other forms. Think of a photographer or painter having this very nice piece of art, we could collaborate and create merch, roll out in an aesthetically pleasing way and also help them make money.
Which demographics are building TUFF for?
Victor Nja: If you see an exceptional design, you’d easily want to own it. TUFF is for anyone who loves good fashion.
Do you see any competitors right now, especially in this market?
Victor Nja: At home, honestly can’t think of any. But on the international stage, I’ll say ASOS.
What are your favourite African fashion brands?
Victor Nja: T.I Nathan, Ted Universe, La Pin, Thirsty, PITH, Severe Nature, WDF, King Davies, Rogue, Rager, 520 fts, PYE Fashion, Banke Kuku and Wafflesncream.
Your favourite African stylists?
Victor Nja: For icons I will say Luka Sabbat, ASAP Nast, Virgil Abloh, Yoon Ambush, Pharrell, Yaga Moto, Wizkid, I could go on and on
Your cofounder Duke Ekezie is popularly known as a successful fintech founder, your pair is quite strange, would you like to explain the relationship there?
Victor Nja: It’s the vison. The future is Tech but we will all still need to wear clothes so Duke and I are on a mission to pull our strongholds. Look what he’s doing at Kippa, they’re already helping thousands of small businesses grow so it made sense to me. His Dad used to be my lecturer so we already had a bond, years later we met again and it just felt like the right time. We still plan to innovate more in the future, build gears and products at the intersection of fashion and technology, most investors industry shapers are still trying to see how this goes but Tuff will make it easy. I remember Duke placed an order and was so impressed about customer service, delivery time and the quality of the pieces, that just got him interested in the business ASAP.
If I met you out on a buzzy Saturday evening in Lagos, what will you most likely be wearing?
Victor Nja: It depends on my mood honestly. If I’m out for fun I just want to be comfortable, So shorts or crazy or baggy jeans with art, a really nice T-shirt, mules or flurry slides and shades. I love AIR FORCE 1s too.
Your favourite fashion quotes
Victor Nja: Two actually.
May we never be fashion rich and cash broke, that’s from Rahman Jago
Tough times never last, only tough people to. Very pun intended.